There is a scene early in Rukmini Callimachi's deeply reported New York Times story on ISIS's "theology of rape" in which an ISIS fighter binds, gags, and violently rapes a sobbing 12-year-old child. Even after a year of reading about one ISIS atrocity after another, this was a special kind of horror that left my palms clammy and my stomach lurching. I suspect I was not alone.
What Callimachi describes is a vast infrastructure of sexual violence and slavery. Victim after victim told her of being kidnapped, enslaved, and sold by ISIS, always for the express purpose of religiously sanctioned rape:
"Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray," said F, a 15-year-old girl who was captured on the shoulder of Mount Sinjar one year ago and was sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s. Like some others interviewed by The New York Times, she wanted to be identified only by her first initial because of the shame associated with rape.
"He kept telling me this is ibadah," she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship.
ISIS's systematic enslavement and rape of Yazidi women, Callimachi reports, now has not just a theological justification but "a persistent infrastructure," as well. That includes "a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them."
There is more than just ISIS's specific evil — its hatred of Yazidis, its moral nihilism — at play here. Rape is a strategy for them, a means by which it recruits young men and terrifies targeted communities. And it's an ideology: one that is preoccupied not just with twisted interpretations of religion, but also with gender and sexuality. That is not something we discuss as often as the group's religious component, but it comes through in disturbing clarity when you look at Callimachi's story alongside other research on ISIS's use of sexual violence.
ISIS's enslavement and rape of Yazidi women and girls is part of a much bigger, and somehow even uglier, ideology of sexual violence. It is an ideology in which the group sees rape as a way of measuring men’s honor, both by committing rape against outsiders and by purporting to defend "their" women against it.
In that system, women aren't people, or even just a means for sexual gratification: They're a way for men to measure their own victory or defeat.
Rape as an appeal to honor
It seems revealing, in this context, that ISIS, as the Brookings Institution's Will McCants told me several months ago, actually considers itself a defender of its "own" women against rape by others.
Arab jihadist groups have often appealed to the senses of honor of potential male recruits, McCants explained, by claiming that Muslim women had been raped and that joining the jihad was a way to avenge their mistreatment. When ISIS launched its fight against other Sunni groups in Syria, for instance, it expressly couched their campaign as a battle to protect women's virtue.
"They believed that ISIS women had been raped by other Sunni rebels, so they framed their whole counter-offensive against other Sunni rebels as a retribution for this," McCants said.
It seems jarring for ISIS, with its systems of rape, to try to brand itself as anti-rape. And indeed, ISIS's attitude does not makes sense if you see rape as a crime committed against individual women, or even as an act of lust by an individual perpetrator. But it makes perfect sense if you see rape as a crime against the honor and integrity of a community. It makes sense if you believe that rape principally matters not for what it does to the rape victim, but for what it does to the victim's community.
By that logic, raping Yazidi women is a way for ISIS to demonstrate its complete and utter victory over the Yazidi population — a victory that is both military and theological, due to the religious arguments they use to justify their enslavement of "unbelievers."
But just as raping Yazidi women is a signifier of victory for ISIS, so too can it be a signifier of defeat. The fear that outsiders could rape women associated with ISIS is thus seen as the ultimate dishonor, not because of the pain it will cause those women, but because of the slight to the honor of ISIS's men.
That helps to explain why ISIS has devoted so many resources to its horrifying infrastructure of sexual abuse: Rape is not merely a recruiting tool designed to appeal to frustrated men in a sexually conservative society, it's a way to continually demonstrate the group's power, and a conspicuous symbol of its victories in battle.
Though that logic is couched in terms of "honor," it is actually far more horrifying than mere individual evil. When women are treated as a way for different sides to keep score in a time of conflict, their bodies become a field of battle.
That was also true for women in Rwanda, and in the former Yugoslavia, and in countless conflicts before that. ISIS may be especially horrific in its obsession with sexual violence as a means to demonstrate its superiority. But, as with so many of its tactics, it is unusually brutal, yet sadly not unusual.