Over the past several weeks, there seems to have been a flood of news stories about sexual violence perpetrated by members of the Islamic State. Academic colleagues on Twitter and Facebook have bemoaned what they call the ‘oversight’ of the issue of conflict-related sexual violence in Iraq and Syria, questioning why it is receiving so little attention.
I disagree. It seems to me to be receiving unprecedented attention. Media reports call the scale of sexual violence “industrial” and point to reports that:
the United Nations last month estimated that IS has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls, and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that IS abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse. Even in the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of IS fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping Mosul’s women.
In an interview last month with the Huffington Post, Director of the Wilson Centre’s Middle East Program, Haleh Esfandiari outlined a modus operandi of IS attacks on villages, that included the systematic segregation of men from women, and then the distribution of women by ages into varying types of sexual servitude and violence:
“They usually take the older women to a makeshift slave market and try and sell them. The younger girls, basically they … are raped or married off to fighters.”
While no doubt such reports of sexual violence (particularly widespread and systematic reports) are horrifying and compelling, I’m concerned with how these reports are playing out in the media and increasingly in policy. Increasingly, we’re seeing the homogenization of sexual violence perpetrated in conflicts under the banner “rape as a weapon of war”. Little distinction is made between perpetrators, their objectives, or the types of conflicts in which such violence occurs, nor between victims or the way that various forms of sexual violence may serve different purposes in different conflicts depending on the aims of the perpetrators.
At the same time, the violence perpetrated by IS is being represented as especially barbaric and especially brutal, and is increasingly being used to justify the need for Western intervention. On the 10th of September, US President Barack Obama argued for military intervention to fight IS on the basis that “They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage.” Similarly, two weeks ago, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was interviewed regarding Australia’s decision to send troops to Iraq to fight IS, at which time she claimed:
This is a particularly barbaric form of terrorism, the likes of which we have never seen before. It specifically targets women and girls and minorities.
Firstly, this is not unprecedented. Not by a long shot. Women and girls have been subjected to rape, enslavement, forced marriage, and sexual torture both in and out of the context of war since the beginning of recorded history. On a numerical basis alone, sexual violence in Iraq and Syria does not even represent the most egregious abuses of women and girls in a current conflict.
But even more problematically, sexual violence is being fetishized in media and policy, obscuring the political, social, and economic insecurities produced by underlying gender inequalities and that make women vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence both in times of war and in times of peace. Rather than representing genuine concern for women’s vulnerabilities and experiences of violence, this focus exploits the political value of “rape as a weapon of war” for the purpose of advancing state security interests, making it “an object of conflicting parties/states rather than a subject of human relations.”
Such presentations of sexual violence in media and policy separate this violence from its contextual determinants and embues it with particular intrinsic value that becomes commodified and tradeable in political spheres. Sexual violence in war now has a “use value” capable of increasing symbolic and political capital to be exploited by politicians, aid organizations, media outlets, and even academics like myself.
I propose cynicism with regards to the seeming commitment on the part of governments like Australia, the UK, or the US to systematically address such threats to women’s security on the basis that, at the same time these governments espouse political commitments to ending sexual violence in war, these same governments in their domestic policies have been systematically slashing funding to women’s shelters, domestic violence refuges, and women’s health programs.
And none of this is yet to mention the problematic discourse of ‘barbarism’ employed to describe the actions of our enemies, when these same actions are common practice by members of Western armed forces as well as in Western domestic ‘peace time’ contexts. Far from ‘barbaric,’ the Islamic State operates complex infrastructure and administration programs for the purpose of properly governing the areas under their control.
Obviously, as with the value of sexual violence, the representation of Islamic State as “barbaric” is also politically expedient and valuable in positioning the West as “good” against the backward, uncivilized, barbarian “other,” which is uncomplicatedly “evil.” These distinctions come with real, material value in international relations, enabling particular actions and responses while discrediting alternatives. Such narratives, too, have been so widely used that they are almost cliché, conjuring flashbacks of George W. Bush’s justification for the ‘War on Terror’ as necessary to liberate the poor, oppressed women of Afghanistan from their barbarian, male oppressors.
So I urge caution in accepting the dominant narratives currently circulating in media and policy regarding both the employment of sexual violence as a “weapon of war” in Iraq and Syria as well as its basis as justification for Western intervention. I am skeptical that states ever operate out of solely humanitarian or moral concerns, and thus the question must be asked: who benefits from “rape as a weapon of war” in the Middle East?
Arguably, the answer is not just the immediate perpetrators.