NEW DELHI — As ISIS loses the last of the territory under its control, a global debate is raging over whether to strip citizenship from the women who left their homes in the West to join the self-declared caliphate. But that obscures the crimes they committed in Iraq and Syria, including those against other women.
Pari Ibrahim, the executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, a group that was formed to support the vulnerable Yazidi community and create awareness about their political situation, told BuzzFeed News that she rejected the narrative that women who married ISIS soldiers — so-called “ISIS brides” — were innocent bystanders.
This week, Ibrahim and the foundation shared a video on Twitter calling for countries to focus on conducting actual investigations into the crimes of their citizens who had joined ISIS.
“There has been no effort to understand why these ISIS brides are guilty,” she told BuzzFeed News. “In some cases, [the wives] would lock our Yazidi women in the houses so they could not escape. They would force them to do manual labor, humiliate them in captivity; they were beaten and tortured by the ISIS wives.”
Thousands of Yazidi women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by ISIS as part of its genocide against Yazidis in northern Iraq.
As ISIS has lost its grip on its last remaining strongholds in eastern Syria, the families of fighters have fled and been placed into refugee camps by Kurdish-led forces. The discovery of a pregnant British 19-year-old in one such camp has led to intense debate over whether the women who joined ISIS should be prevented from returning home and stopped from becoming a danger to Western society.
President Donald Trump has already rejected the plea of Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old woman from Alabama whose existence was first revealed by BuzzFeed News, to return home. And the UK government said it would strip Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old from London, of her citizenship, preventing her from returning to the country. Both women will be fighting for citizenship rights in court. In an interview with the Guardian, Muthana said she “deeply regrets” joining ISIS, while Begum told the Times of London her life within the caliphate was fairly normal. She had once seen a severed head in a bin in Raqqa, but said it didn’t faze her.
Several of the women who fled the West to join ISIS were teenagers when they did so — Begum was just 15.
But sympathy toward these women on account of their age and the fact many have young children — or, as in Begum’s case, have also lost children — as well as debating whether they should be stopped from going home risks ignoring the greater question of whether they will be held to account for any crimes they committed while part of ISIS.
Even the term “ISIS brides” popularized in the media reduces the women merely to the fact of their marriage. While the women married to ISIS fighters were part of a system that abused all women, evidence suggests they used their relative power over Yazidi women to torture them further.
Ibrahim, 29, fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with her family when she was 3 and now leads the Free Yezidi Foundation, based in the Netherlands.
She said she and her team had heard multiple testimonies from survivors about the role of women in the caliphate.
ISIS began its genocide against the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group in Iraq, in 2014 — killing men, taking women into captivity and forcing them into sexual slavery, and destroying Yazidi pilgrimage sites and houses of worship. In her book, The Last Girl, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who survived the ISIS torture camps, details the horrors faced by women like her who were sold in markets, and even on Facebook, sometimes for as little as $20.
The ISIS pamphlet “Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves” gave a free pass to soldiers for the raping, selling, buying, or gifting of Yazidi women and children, “for they are merely property.”
Ibrahim said the torture of Yazidi women was often psychological, and the “ISIS wives” were “incredibly cruel” in this regard. One of the younger Yazidi survivors told Ibrahim that a woman had “forbidden” her from crying, although the Yazidi woman’s entire family had been massacred by ISIS fighters. Others spoke about how women who were part of ISIS forced them to recite the Qur’an and denounce their own religion.
“In some cases, [the wives] were the ones who made women shower and put on clean clothes and makeup before they were brought to the men to be raped,” Ibrahim said via email from Washington, DC. “They were absolutely complicit, and they knew very well what they were doing.”
Ibrahim agreed that every individual case was unique and needed investigation to show the truth. “But we know how bad the women were, and we have evidence in some cases.”
According to a study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, while ISIS originally restricted roles for women in combat operations, there have been increasing indications in recent years that the position of women has changed. In February 2018, for instance, ISIS also produced and released a video of a woman appearing in combat on the battlefield for the first time alongside male soldiers, signaling that such roles were now permitted and even encouraged by the group.
European nations have been reluctant to bring ISIS fighters home — even though some of them now claim they were innocent, serving only as cooks and cleaners for soldiers. Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas told ARD, a German news channel, this month that court trials would be “extremely difficult” given the absence of judicial information.
But Ibrahim said it was essential for nations to come together and ensure that citizens who were members of terrorist or genocidal organizations face justice.
“Europe has genocide laws, and we are still waiting for the legal machinery in the sophisticated Western countries to wake up and use the laws and conventions they adopted after WWII,” she said. “I do believe that these trials are very difficult, but there is evidence — there is physical evidence, there are testimonies, and there is digital evidence about the crimes [ISIS members] have committed. It is easier to just call it terrorism and put them in jail for a few years. But this problem will not go away. Europe and other countries will not exist comfortably if people can join a group, commit genocide, and then have a few years in jail and move on with their lives.”
Anthony Loyd, the Times of London journalist who interviewed Begum at the refugee camp in Syria, told GQ that Begum was a teen who was radicalized and should “absolutely be taken back” to the UK.
“I don’t understand how people can’t get their head around the fact that this is someone who was a 15-year-old London schoolgirl,” he said. “There is a clear difference between some of the women who went out there as adults making adult choices and this young woman who went out there as a 15-year-old, a minor, and remained a minor until only a year ago, by which time she would have become heavily indoctrinated.”
In this context, the process of radicalization can be compared to grooming young children for sexual abuse. But while Loyd told the British press that Begum could be deradicalized, Ibrahim disagreed.
Ibrahim said it was difficult to attribute calculated decisions like the ones Begum had made “to a lack of maturity.”
“Shamima would continue to be part of ISIS her whole life if they could manage to maintain territory,” Ibrahim said. Women who joined ISIS, Ibrahim said, “are not remorseful, and they do not believe they were wrong. If ISIS had not lost on the battlefield, the ISIS practice of buying, selling, and raping women would never have stopped. If you saw a human head in a garbage bin, slave markets, and the genocide of a people, would you stay with the ISIS caliphate and only leave once they lost the war? It is clear that since the caliphate is not there anymore, she needs a new place.” ●