By Rima Shenoy

Men can co-exist on the condition that they recognise each other as being all equally, though differently, human – but they can also co-exist by denying each other a comparable degree of humanity and thus establishing a system of subordination.

– Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [1]

For decades the most effective weapon of war and conflict has been rape. The strategic use of female sexual violation has manifested itself into sex trafficking and sex slavery in the 21st century. This terrible outcome of war has affected many groups around the world, but few as severely as the Yazidi people. Chiefly the Daesh (ISIS) has carried out this type of violence. The sex trafficking of Yazidi women and girls has not only become entrenched but also justified in ISIS’ radical theology, and thus is of vital importance to the global community.

In 2016 Nadia Murad was named as a Goodwill Ambassador by the UN in order to raise awareness of this human rights violation.[2] Ms. Murad was an escapee of ISIS’ sex trafficking syndicate. This event has thrust the issue of sex trafficking into the media spotlight. Following from this, the prominent human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, took on Ms. Murad’s case in order to prosecute ISIS for its war crimes. This further illuminated the issue of sex trafficking to the public.

However what is not talked about is the root of this horror. How did it come about? Why does it still exist? Who is responsible? And how is it sustained?

In ‘Sexual Violence and the Making of ISIS’, Ariel I. Ahram makes compelling arguments as to why ISIS employs sex trafficking and rape as a tool of violence and asserting their power, but also points out this is a tactic used by state governments. Ahram attributes this to the hyper-masculine straits that war brings out in both organised rebel groups and nation states.

Ahram criticises past analysis of ISIS as too narrow, focusing only on ‘the group’s prurient unleashing of male sexual pleasure’ or ‘ISIS’ selective readings of Islamic law that justifies sexual violence’.[3] Ahram argues that this analysis needs to focus more on how to mitigate or blunt the spread of the notion that sexual violence can be a tool for furthering ISIS’ cause.[4] She argues that instead of ‘raw disgust’ confronting ISIS, there needs to be a more ‘systematic examination of the roots and impact’ of the violent strategies they use especially when targeting women.[5]

In periods of war and crisis, states tend to adopt hyper-masculine characteristics such as violence to defend their territory, lives and honour, according to Ahram.[6] She argues that men revert to toxically masculine tropes of warrior and protector of women and children, however, as with any gender stereotype, it can turn harmful very quickly. Perversely, these gender norms work to create stronger incentives to target women as receptors of sexual violence. As Alison Miranda writes in her book Wartime sexual violence: women’s human rights and question of masculinity, ‘Violating the sanctity of females is deemed as demonstrating an enemy’s disempowerment and emasculation’.[7] This type of violence is in some respects the ultimate act of humiliation.

This has implications on state-to-state relations and non-state actors in civil wars and insurgencies. Times of conflict produce ideational components of hyper-masculinity in rebel groups as we can see through the example of ISIS.[8]  ISIS’ sexual violence emulates practices that have been endemic for decades in Iraq and Syria.[9] The rebel group have emerged from a socio-political environment deeply imbued with violence, especially sexual violence against women.[10] Under Saddam Hussein and the Assad dynasty each state used sexual violence respectively to sustain ethno-sectarian hierarchies with hyper-masculinity coming out on top. Threats of violence, rape and intimidation have been used by both regimes to keep sectarian groups at bay.[11] Thus ISIS deploys sexual-violence the same way as states did and still do. Ahram argues that in a way ISIS uses sexual violence as a way of constructing an alternative institution, state structure, and protection of public services.[12]

While taking a leaf from past states’ actions, ISIS’ use of sexual violence can also be intertwined with Sunni-fundamentalist, supremacist ideology and the long embedded notion of ethno-sectarianism. Thus when placed in the context of the Yazidi people, sexual violence helps to subordinate and degrade any group that does not adhere to the values and beliefs of ISIS.

What distinguishes Ahram from other writers are the suggestions she gives to mitigating the extent of this kind of sexual violence.

Firstly the international community must make clear its commitment to hold accountable perpetrator of sexual violence among all the parties in the conflict.[13] ISIS has proven deaf to all forms of international entreaties. However the Damascus, Baghdad and Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil may be pressured to stop sexual violence as a means of interrogation and punishment.[14] Ahram points out that these governments have been too slow to disrupt the human trafficking networks, which operate within their own constituency. Economic flow of human capital to ISIS is just as important as weaponry.[15] Furthermore neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states must take further steps to clamp down on all forms of human trafficking.

In crude terms, if you stop the demand for sex slavery from neighbouring nations of ISIS, you may be able to stop the supply of it. Various scholars are investigating the workings of the sex trafficking industry to see how and why it has not been demolished as yet.

This is an industry that makes billion dollar profits each year, at a profit margin greater than almost any industry in the world.[16] All sex trafficking crimes have two components: slave trading and slavery.[17] Slave trading represents the supply side of the industry.[18] Slavery represents the demand side.[19] Cross-border human trafficking demonstrates clear essential criteria: that human beings are goods (specifically women), and that prostitution is a service/need, thus the market should reflect it as such. [20]

The market for human trafficking, in sex, labour, service and even body parts, is believed to be as extensive and complex as the world economic trading market – with its own pricing systems, and market functions.[21] In many cases cross border human trafficking is a more serious problem than what is visible to governments.

Experienced traffickers are skilled marketers. They know how to find, bait and trick their victims; they know the value of each victim in the marketplace, how to transport them under the noses of (or by bribing) government officials, and where to sell them.[22] Siddharth places the process of sex trafficking into a distinct flow pattern; acquisition (through deceit, sale by family, abduction, seduction/romance, or recruitment by former slaves), followed by movement (transportation across borders), and finally exploitation (violent coercion and rape).[23]

An example of this happening outside of Middle Eastern countries was during the Bosnian war. Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police investigator, was working as a UN International Police Force monitor. She exposed officers working for the UN who were paying for prostitutes and participating in the transportation of trafficked young girls. This is an example of how the sex trafficking process occurs through acquisition, movement and exploitation.

Ultimately the roots of the ISIS campaign come from the same neo-patriarchal origins as their regime antagonists.[24] Although confronting, it is clear that this well-oiled industry needs to be understood anatomically. If we pictured this industry as a disease, in order to eradicate it we need a broader knowledge of the disease’s functions and vulnerable points. Understanding the structures, functions and implications of this system are vital to its potential downfall. International organisations such as the UN and targeted NGOs such as the Umbrella organisation of the Yazidis Women’s Council [25] and Yazda – The Global Yazidi Organization – need to use their expertise to be able to gain a holistic picture of this puzzle in order to be able to disassemble the inner workings of the trafficking market.


[1] Kara, Siddharth. Sex trafficking: Inside the business of modern slavery. Columbia University Press, 2009.
[2] “Yazidi survivor of ISIL’s human trafficking appointed UN Goodwill Envoy for victim” UN News Centre Accessed March. 10, 2017. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54939#.WMHzeGR96VF
[3] Ahram, Ariel I. "Sexual Violence and the Making of ISIS." Survival 57, no. 3 (2015): 57-78.
[4] Ibid. 72
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Alison, Miranda. "Wartime sexual violence: women’s human rights and questions of masculinity." Review of International Studies 33, no. 01 (2007): 75-90.
[8] Ahram, Ariel I. "Sexual Violence and the Making of ISIS."
[9] Ibid. 76
[10] Ahram, Ariel I. "Sexual Violence and the Making of ISIS." 75.
[11] Ibid 76.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid 77.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Pennington, Julia R., A. Dwayne Ball, Ronald D. Hampton, and Julia N. Soulakova. "The cross-national market in human beings." Journal of Macromarketing 29, no. 2 (2009): 119-134.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Kara, Siddharth. Sex trafficking: Inside the business of modern slavery. 2009.
[24] Ibid 78
[25] Yazidis Women's Council e.V. Cenî - Kurdish Women's Office for Peace “Genocidal Attacks Against Yazidi Women and The Means of Resistance and Struggle.” International Yazidi Women’s Conference, Bielefeld, Germany, March 11-12, 2017, 7. Na: 2017. http://www.uikionlus.com/wp-content/uploads/Conferenza-Yezidi-11-12-Marzo-2017-Bilefelt-Germania.pdf

Rima Shenoy is doing her Masters in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.