Iraq: International Religious Freedom and Women's Experiences on the Extremist Battlefield

Religious communities in Iraq, especially religious minorities, have suffered enormously over the past year. Longstanding sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis deepen the crisis in Iraq, which is disrupting the entire Middle East. This week contributors are asked to evaluate this situation as a crisis of religious freedom. They address the following questions: What explains the success of ISIS in Iraq? Why do sectarian tensions exist? What can be done to resolve this conflict and prevent similar ones in the future? What role might US or international religious freedom diplomacy play?

By: Engy Abdelkader

From parts of Europe to Nigeria to Myanmar to Iraq, women and girls often experience religious freedom violations in ways that are similar to as well as distinct from male co-religionists. Still, while protecting international religious freedom and advancing women’s rights globally represent core US foreign policy objectives, respectively, their inter-relationship remains a generally under-explored area of inquiry meriting attention. 

This article glimpses that intersection in the Iraqi context, where freedom of religion or belief and women’s human rights are in peril.

ISIS atrocities—from beheadings of Coptic Christians to the immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot and devout Muslim, from the murders of journalists and humanitarian aid workers to the destruction of religious shrines and cultural artifacts—have dominated news headlines and rightfully earned the violent extremist group almost universal condemnation from around the world.

In its political bid for power and territory, ISIS has visited acts of brutality and violence on Shi’a Muslims (who constitute the majority of the Iraqi population), Christians, and Yazidis, as well as Sunni Muslims who oppose their ideology. Such acts include desecrations, suicide and other bombings, kidnappings, and massacres.

Significantly, ISIS’s actions violate both international law and Islamic legal tradition.

According to ISIS’s political ideology, no group or place is exempt from its horrors. Indeed, they have targeted places of worship, religious pilgrims, schools, public spaces, and economic infrastructure. And, its extremist violence has impacted men, women, and children.

In this respect, women and girls suffer religious persecution in ways similar to their male counterparts.

Still, female members of the Shi’a, Christian, Yazidi, and even Sunni religious communities have also endured myriad acts of ISIS depravity due to their gender and in violation of their human right to freedom of religion or belief. ISIS attempts to legitimize and justify its conduct with rights-restrictive religious narratives that are ostensibly rooted in Islamic law, but that in fact pervert the Islamic religious tradition.

Indeed, here, we begin to glimpse the intersection of international religious freedom and global women’s rights.

Illustrative is ISIS’s religious persecution of Yazidi women and girls. Last August, ISIS’s violent campaign to overtake the Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq resulted in hundreds of Yazidi deaths. ISIS fighters coerced those who survived, men and women alike, into unlawful religious conversions in violation of international law (as well as Islamic precepts protecting one’s human right to freedom of religion or belief).

Tragically, ISIS subjected the female members of the minority faith group to forced marriages, rape, and enslavement—forms of violence motivated by their status as women. Unlike their male co-religionists, Yazidi women and girls were rendered “property.” As such, they were “sold” and “gifted” to ISIS members and supporters. ISIS perpetrates these human rights violations due to their victims’ religious and gender identities.

The extremist group falsely attributes its depravity to Sunni Islamic theology. Late last year, for instance, they printed and distributed a perverse pamphlet titled, “Questions and Answers on Female Slaves and their Freedom,” in which they used rights-restrictive religious narratives, ostensibly rooted in Islam, in order to promote and legitimize otherwise abhorrent practices.

As legal scholars have correctly stated, Islam prohibits slavery or human trafficking. Similarly, forced marriages also run afoul of the Abrahamic faith, where it is regarded as a contractual relationship requiring an offer/proposal and acceptance. Indeed, coercion or force renders the marriage invalid.(1)

Notably, ISIS not only violates the human right to religious freedom vis-à-vis the Yazidis, (Christians and Shi’a) but Sunni Muslims with different beliefs, too. For instance, according to one award-winning news report, an ISIS member who murdered his wife, a physician, explained that she was allegedly an apostate for working alongside a male doctor, thereby justifying her untimely demise.

Clearly, the victim’s religious beliefs surrounding gender relations in the workplace were distinct from those of her husband. In still another perversion of Islamic law and tradition, the ISIS member unilaterally rendered his wife an apostate on account of that belief, and thereafter unlawfully took her life. As such, he violated her human right to freedom of religion or belief (among other rights).

Significantly, international religious freedom encompasses the right to freedom of religion or belief. Universal and inalienable in nature, this human right protects againstintra-group religious persecution on account of divergent beliefs among co-religionists.

Specifically, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides in relevant part:  

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief…” (emphasis added).

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1981 and one of the most important international documents advancing religious freedom, sets forth the same principle.

Arguably, in the case of the slain female physician, her circumstances were further compounded by her status as a woman. Consider, for instance, that ISIS did not murder the male physician or declare him an apostate for working alongside a female colleague in contravention of its ideology.(2)

In conclusion, understanding religious or belief communities’ experiences with multiple forms of discrimination—on account of gender, race, class, ethnicity, age—around the world may help US policy makers devise more effective remedies addressing, and preventive strategies averting, the types of communal violence and religious persecution referenced above. 

1. Notably, forced marriages and human trafficking occur in a variety of contexts around the world. The practices not only violate women’s human rights but the Islamic jurisprudence referenced above. Alas, religious illiteracy is not a problem that is exclusive to ISIS.  

2. 
Pursuant to Islamic legal tradition, neither physician is guilty of apostasy and/or subject to a death sentence for the actions described here.

Engy Abdelkader is faculty at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she teaches courses on international terrorism and human rights as well as civil liberties and national security. 

This piece was originally authored on March 16, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/12/iraq-international-religious-freedom-and-womens-experiences-on-the-extremist-battlefield