KIRKUK, IRAQ: A handcuffed man sits on a dirty couch in a small room. The walls are painted a sickly, pale yellow that is even less appealing in the harsh fluorescent lighting. Two fighters and an officer clad in green camouflage stand by, watching. The prisoner is in his mid- to late 30s, relatively fair-skinned for an Iraqi, with curly auburn hair and light brown eyes. According to the Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), he was the leader of an Islamic State intelligence unit. His jailers explain that the prisoner was responsible for interrogating people in Islamic State-held territory, trying to gather information and root out any internal dissent. I purposefully twirl a piece of my hair around my index finger. I am aware that the prisoner, as a member of an organization that insists on the complete submission of women, is likely fighting back fury at the sight of an unveiled woman looking at him without fear.
“Tell me about your wife” . “How did you treat her?”
“My wife completely covered her body and face and never left the house without me,” he replies sullenly. I don’t know how much encouragement he received from his captors before speaking with me, but he seems healthy and uninjured. “She is forbidden from going anywhere without me.” The Islamic State prisoner says he left his wife in the town of Hawija when he was sent to set up a sleeper cell in Kirkuk, which is held by the Peshmerga. She was going to follow after him, but he was arrested while trying to enter Kurdish territory with a group of refugees. Now, he says, he’s been gone for more than four months – which, under the Islamic State’s understanding of sharia, means she is probably married to someone else.
“How do you think she feels about that?”
“[My wife] is just a woman, like every other woman,” he says coldly. “Women exist to be married and have children. In jihad, feelings do not matter. Women survive; they do not live.” The brutal treatment of women living under Islamic State rule is no secret. Horrific accounts of rape, torture, and murder against women of all religious and ethnic backgrounds have been proliferating since the fundamentalist group emerged as a significant power in the region. But if the evidence for these crimes is unimpeachable, the motives for them are much hazier. Why exactly do Islamic State members commit such vile atrocities against women? What mental processes do they go through that lead them to a place where women can be bought and sold like sheep? That is what I hoped to discover by interviewing imprisoned Islamic State members, as well as women who have fallen victim to their merciless ideology. Through my interviews, it became clear to me that the Islamic State has perfected a process of dehumanization that allows its members to indulge their misogyny, aggressive sexual tendencies, and need for power – all in the name of Islam.
Outside a house in Duhok, a predominantly Yazidi city in northern Iraq, Adiba Qasem gestures for me to lean in close. Qasem works with Yazda, an international humanitarian organization dedicated to helping women enslaved by the Islamic State. We are about to enter the home of a 23-year-old Yazidi woman who was liberated two months ago, and Qasem wants to give me some background information. “Her family was from Sinjar; they lived inside the city,” she whispers to me. “They were a big, wealthy family with many beautiful daughters. This woman married one of my friends just before ISIS came. I was at her wedding; we were all dancing. There were more than 2,000 people there. Then ISIS came and took everything away.” The Yazidis are a religious minority despised by the Islamic State and seen as unbelievers and Satan worshippers, whose women have paid the highest price for the rise of the extremist group. Following the militant group’s assault on the Sinjar district of Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2014, thousands of Yazidi women were sold into temporary “marriages” with multiple men. While Sunni women in Islamic State territory are forced into marriages as well, the Islamic State considers Yazidis to be little more than animals, fit only for bondage and exploitation. Though Islamic State clerics bless short-term “marriages” with Yazidi women, these one-sided arrangements are nothing more than a pretense to justify rape and sexual slavery. Some Yazidi women say they were bought for as little as $10 or a carton of cigarettes; others recall gang rapes and acts of sexual violence in accounts so disturbing they are difficult to read. Inside the house, the woman, whom I’ll call Farida, ushers us into a room away from her uncle and male cousin. Cultural and religious restrictions in this part of the world often prevent sexually abused women from speaking freely about their experiences in front of men. Farida is indeed beautiful, with flawless skin and shapely curves – but it is her eyes that immediately strike me. Though she is a perfect hostess, I can see the grief and rage roiling in them, barely restrained by her good manners.
“My sister is 16 years old,” she begins bitterly. “They married her to seven men. She is still in Syria. . . . I saw a man rape four women in a row. I saw them rip a baby from his mother’s breast as he was drinking milk. One man would marry me, then one of his friends would see me and like me, so he would marry me. I was sold to five men.” Five of Farida’s brothers were killed by the Islamic State, and their deaths still haunt her. “My husband is still alive, but even if 100 years go by, I will never stop grieving for my brothers and family,” she says. “I am always sad and crying. My spirit is tired. I will never be able to make him happy. How can I look my husband in the face? He sees a stranger looking back at him.” I try to maintain my composure as I ask how she believes the Islamic State justifies such abhorrent behavior. Many people have suggested that Islamic State members are on drugs, Farida says, but she doesn’t believe that explanation. She never saw her captors take any such substances during her imprisonment. “They are doing this freely and from their hearts. They eat, sleep, and breathe Islam. They are high on it. That’s what makes them crazy. It’s a sickness. Even their children are raised to be like that. I didn’t see a single one of them who didn’t have that mentality.” And if she were able to talk to one of the group’s members now, what she would ask them? “I have nothing to say to them,” she finishes with despair in her voice. “Even if you put them here in front of me and tortured them, cut them into pieces like a salad, I would say nothing, because my heart is broken and my life will never go back to the way it was, no matter what I say.” “The way that these women were treated was subhuman,” says Skye Wheeler, researcher for the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Not only were they repeatedly raped and bought and sold numerous times by different fighters, but they were treated like they didn’t matter, like they weren’t people.” I hear a similar account from a 25-year-old woman I’ll refer to as Leila, who lives in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Duhok. If Farida’s eyes were angry, Leila’s are empty and emotionless, as though her soul has been beaten into numbness. “They were saying our religion has to be eliminated, and we all have to convert to Islam by force,” Leila says when I ask why she thinks they treated her and other Yazidi women with such brutality. Then her face lights with a brief flash of triumph. “But even when we were with them, our hearts were the same. We are still Yazidis. They could rape and torture us, but they could not change our hearts.”