Back to top

Understanding ISIS: A Women's Rights Perspective

Today, President Obama will announce his plan for military action in Iraq and Syria. His strategy to defeat the ISIS militants who invaded Iraq in June will likely include a call for more airstrikes. After the brutal beheadings of two US journalists by ISIS militants, US support for military intervention is growing. And just last week, President Obama announced the formation of a coalition of nine countries committed to defeating ISIS  through a combination of airstrikes and support funneled to US allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria. However, airstrikes may actually strengthen ISIS and help them attract more fighters.

In the 13 years since the atrocity of 9-11, we've seen how US air raids and drone attacks in the Middle East and North Africa have added to violence and instability in the world, without addressing their underlying causes. Instead, we should prioritize a humanitarian response to deliver food, water, medical care and shelter to besieged communities. We must also stand with local women's organizations, like MADRE's partners, who are the first line of defense for vulnerable communities. We must echo their call for peace by addressing the root causes of the crisis.

What is ISIS?

ISIS is a brutal jihadist group working towards the creation of a Sunni Islamist state that transcends national borders as we know them. ISIS currently controls territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq and has an estimated 10, 000 fighters among its ranks, including foreign fighters from Europe and the US.

The group has gone through several incarnations since its formation in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion created a breeding ground for anti-occupation insurgency militias. Originally linked to al-Qaeda, ISIS shares a similarly reactionary and arbitrary interpretation of Islam. But al-Qaeda has distanced itself from ISIS because of ISIS' brutality against civilians (which al-Qaeda views as counter-productive to building a base of support) and their merciless executions of rivals, including some from al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

What does this crisis mean for women? What does it mean for human rights and peace activists?

ISIS uses violence against women to terrorize communities and impose their agenda for an Islamist state, one in which women would be stripped of basic rights. In areas of Iraq and Syria it controls, ISIS has barred women and girls from going to school, holding jobs or even being in public without male "guardians." MADRE's on-the-ground partners in Iraq and Syria have also shared horrific accounts of mass sexual slavery.

In Iraq, days after taking control of Mosul, ISIS distributed pamphlets declaring "sexual jihad, forcing families to give over their daughters to be raped by ISIS fighters in the name of God's will. Those who refuse are beaten or killed.

Throughout northern Iraq, hundreds of women have been captured by ISIS fighters. After being abducted, some women are stripped and photographed naked, bringing "shame" on their family to ensure that they can never return home. Currently, we know of at least three sites – a school, a movie theater and a sports center – where many women are imprisoned. From there they are taken to a market and literally sold as property to ISIS fighters. Some of these women have been trafficked to Syria as sexual slaves for militants there.

Also at risk are ethnic and religious minorities and the human rights and peace activists who speak out against this violence and advocate for a secular society. ISIS has already shown no hesitation in eliminating anyone they view as a threat to their social vision.

Is this a religious war?

Many media portrayals have defaulted to a facile description of the relationship between Sunni and Shiite people, claiming that these religious groups are locked in an "age-old" conflict. This false claim conveniently conceals the ways in which the US manipulated Iraqis' religious affiliation to consolidate control during its 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq.

Iraq's established history of secular nationalism was upended by the US occupation. Through the policy of "de-Baathification, intended to erase the influence of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, the US gutted Iraq's army and civil service. To fill that vacuum, the US empowered Shiite political parties. It also trained, armed and funded Shiite militias to enforce occupation policies and combat the Sunni-led insurgency. US policies further exacerbated this sectarian divide by creating a governmental system that gave jobs, seats in parliament and other resources according to ethnic and religious divisions.

These practices turned a doctrinal difference between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam into a deadly division. By pitting communities against each other for control of the state and its resources, the US triggered a sectarian civil war (2005-2008) whose resurgence we are now witnessing.

Do Iraqis support ISIS?

Many Iraqis reject ISIS and its brutality. But some, especially Sunnis, are wagering that a temporary alliance with ISIS will help them regain some of the political power they have been denied by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Sunnis have met severe discrimination and violence at the hands of Iraq's government and its army. It is an indictment of outgoing Prime Minister Maliki that people are more willing to tolerate ISIS' presence than that of their own government. As Stephen Zunes points out, in 2007, the Maliki government reneged on an agreement to share more power with Sunni groups. Instead, it turned to torture and violence to solidify its authority.

Despite the government repression, grassroots activists in Iraq have been resolute in their peaceful call for true democracy and an end to sectarianism. These activist mobilizations gained momentum throughout the Arab Spring, and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), a MADRE sister organization, led many demonstrations in Baghdad.

But despite growing opposition in recent years, the Iraqi government continued its failed and harsh tactics, rejecting calls for conciliation with Sunni and Kurd communities. When ISIS invaded in the summer of 2014, the government opted to once again rely on resurrecting abusive Shiite militias to target Sunnis. Sunni people who might otherwise recoil from ISIS find themselves with few other places to turn. Just this week, Iraqis approved the formation of a new and more inclusive government. However, the general sectarian dynamic is relatively unchanged, and many Sunni Iraqis remain skeptical.

What does all this have to do with the conflict in Syria?

In 2011, peaceful calls for freedom in Syria were met with brutal violence by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, triggering a mass uprising and civil war. Islamist militant groups, including the then-named Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) took advantage of this turmoil to hijack the protests and assert their own political agenda. Amid the growing violence, ISI sent representatives into Syria to capitalize on Assad's diminishing control over land along the border with Iraq. ISI took control of the Syrian city of Raqqa, morphing the group into its current incarnation of ISIS.

ISIS grew by attracting foreign jihadist fighters and military support from US allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Even the so-called "non-lethal" military aid that the US has sent to support "moderate" rebels in Syria has ended up in the hands of ISIS, who have repeatedly vanquished other rebel groups and seized their military supplies.

The relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime is complex. While ISIS is fighting the regime, their brutal tactics have also served to divide and weaken other opposition forces in Syria. And in some communities, the specter of living under ISIS rule has led people who were opposed to Assad's regime to conclude that he may be the lesser evil. Also boding well for Assad is the fact that ISIS' advance echoes his claim that the uprising is the work of foreign terrorists, a narrative that eclipses the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people.

Further complicating matters is, as Patrick Cockburn points out, the inconsistent and contradictory US policy towards ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the US supports the government against ISIS. Meanwhile, in Syria, the US and ISIS both hope to destroy the Assad government.

Now that President Obama seeks airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, he runs the risk of deepening this contradiction.

As in Iraq, bombing Syria and arming militias that cooperate with the US will result in the killing of civilians. It will also allow ISIS to capture more US weapons and fuel the war without contributing to a political settlement that's needed to end the conflict.

What should the US do?

Instead of further military action, which will only exacerbate the crises in both Iraq and Syria, the US should support calls for peace and a diplomatic response that prioritizes human rights by:

  • Ceasing airstrikes. Already a primary reason that people are fleeing into displacement, airstrikes would only put Iraqi and Syrian civilians at risk and further escalate violence.

  • Terminating weapons transfers to the Free Syrian Army and other allies in Iraq and Syria, which will very likely end up in the hands of ISIS.

  • Supporting progressive Iraqis demanding a genuinely democratic government and an end to sectarian politics.

  • Amplifying the voices of Syrians who are currently marginalized within the opposition but share a peaceful, democratic vision for their country.

  • Sending humanitarian aid and support to women, families and displaced Iraqis and Syrians including food, medical care and shelter.

What is MADRE doing in Iraq?

MADRE and our sister organization, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), are mobilizing an emergency response to protect women and families from violence, enable women to escape sexual slavery and demand a human rights-based response to this crisis. Together, we are:

  • Opening a women's shelter and emergency relocation route in the heart of ISIS-controlled territory, providing refuge, emergency care and counseling to women who have been forced to flee their homes and are escaping sexual slavery.

  • Distributing humanitarian aid, including clothes and food packages of rice, lentils, sugar and milk to displaced women and families in Baghdad, Karbala, Samarra and the ISIS-controlled town of Hawijah.

  • Offering support and protection to progressive human rights activists through OWFI's network of allies.

What is MADRE doing in Syria?

MADRE is partnering with local women's groups in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and inside Syria to provide:

  • Humanitarian aid tailored to women's needs.

  • Reproductive healthcare, including midwifery services and access to contraception and family planning.

  • Trainings so that women can know their human rights and document violations against women in the war to be included in future justice processes.

  • Consultations between Syrian refugee women, local women's organizations and international networks and policymakers, to ensure that women's priorities are integrated into humanitarian and peace-building efforts.