How Stereotypes Help ISIS Women Evade Justice

Preconceived ideas about women, conflict, and mass atrocities have obscured the role ISIS women played in maintaining a social system based on slavery and genocide. Historical precedent shows that this view is dangerous— but not inevitable.

Women leaving Baghouz, Syria after its liberation (Photo: YPG Press Office).

When the Syrian Democratic Forces forces liberated the final stronghold of ISIS in Baghouz, eastern Syria, the world celebrated the territorial defeat of a group that had once held an area the size of the United Kingdom under brutal fundamentalist rule. Though well worth such celebration, the operation — a final campaign in a conflict that had been ongoing since 2014 — had been delayed several times, and had taken months longer than expected. Fighting paused on multiple occasions as large groups of civilians, former fighters, and their families fled and surrendered. As the identities of individuals leaving the territory was determined, the international community faced a new question: What was to be done with the women who, while not combatants, had joined the group from around the world, supported their combatant husbands, and took part in all of the crimes that such activity entailed?

Initially, these women were sensationalized— they are commonly referred to as “ISIS brides,” as though the most important aspect of their role in the Syrian conflict was their marital status. Some governments tried to strip women who had joined ISIS from their countries of their citizenships so they could not return; activists responded by arguing that these women were not truly responsible for their actions, and therefore not deserving of such punishment. Media outlets interviewed several of the most prominent of these women, allowing them to present their unmediated narratives on their own terms. Discussion of the issue rarely focused on the facts of the conflict itself — and the ways in which these women had contributed to atrocities.

This framing presents a problem for the broader project of transitional justice in the aftermath of this particular conflict. All mainstream narratives surrounding these women were based more on stereotypes about women and war than on the reality of these women’s actions or relevant international legal precedents. Such narratives are antithetical to comprehensive accountability for the full range of atrocities ISIS committed, as they help women who participated in such atrocities evade responsibility. The wider historical and theoretical background on how women are understood, or not understood, as perpetrators of violence in war shows how these narratives came about, and establish both international legal precedents from other conflicts and historical facts about ISIS atrocities to suggest how their actions might be better understood.

The role of women in conflict has historically been understood in a reductive manner. Women have been considered to be categorically noncombatants and categorically victims. Cynthia Enloe describes how, in traditional understandings of international affairs, “women are usually portrayed as the objects, even victims, of the international political system.” Rather than recognize women’s agency, mainstream analysis of international issues has assumed that “women are forever being acted upon.” In this kind of framework, women are not seen as able to act of their own accord in any way — let alone commit acts of violence.

When women are given agency, it is often assumed that their presence in decision-making roles during conflict will act as a moderating influence or a force for peace. This is based in traditional stereotypes about women’s roles as caregivers — but is held up by liberal institutions. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, considered a foundational document for international acknowledgement of the role of women in conflict, is an example of this. The resolution includes language to note “concern that civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict” and “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building.” In its policy recommendations, it calls on states to “ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict;” five of its eighteen recommendations involve increased representation as a goal in and of itself. While advancing women’s empowerment is certainly admirable, the idea that women’s influence on global conflict can only be positive suggests a view of women’s agency still constrained by patriarchal assumptions.

Viewing women as either victims who must either be protected or as a group whose simple representation contributes to peace ignores how women can be, and have been, perpetrators of mass atrocities. Recently, there has been more research on how women participate in conflict in these ways, and how stereotypes and assumptions about gender still shape how these women are understood.

Women who do participate in atrocities are seen as exceptional in two ways — they are not typical women, and not typical perpetrators. This is largely because, in using such violence, they have transgressed the boundaries of what women’s roles are seen to be. In Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics, Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry explain this phenomenon as follows:

“Women who commit acts of violence in defiance of national or international law are not seen as criminals, warriors, or terrorists, but as women criminals, women warriors, or women terrorists. The operative element of this characterization is that these narratives include a group that is ‘suicide bombers’ or ‘war criminals’ or ‘perpetrators of genocide’ and a separate group that is women who would otherwise be members of those groups but for their femininity. Because women who commit these violences have acted outside of a prescribed gender role, they have to be separated from the main/malestream discourse of their particular behavior.”

One might add that women perpetrators of atrocities are not only separated out from the category of (male) perpetrators, but from the category of (peaceful) women in international politics. In both of these ways, they are assumed to be anomalies, rather than viewed as reflective of the human capability to commit such crimes or of the oppressive political structures they occupied in the way that male perpetrators of atrocities are.

This has important implications for justice. When women are accused of having committed mass atrocities during justice processes, they appeal to their gender to suggest that they are in fact incapable of such actions, attempting to return to the group of (peaceful) women from which their actions removed them. In seeking to evade accountability, these women benefit from both the traditional denial of women’s agency and from stereotypes that shape understanding of women who did exercise agency as perpetrators.

Research on women who participated in atrocities during the Rwandan Genocide shows this pattern in action. In Erin Jessee’s study of convicted women perpetrators, she describes how one woman who had murdered other women and children with kitchen implements “consistently described herself as a ‘just a normal person’ who, as a woman, was in no way capable of the crimes of which she had been accused,” and how another, who had incited violence through media and public appearances “thought that, as a woman, the only weapon she had to help win the war was her radio show.” These women perpetrators also expressed sentiments suggesting they believed they were being punished not only for participation in atrocities, as men were, but also unfairly punished for “having violated taboos related to women’s conduct.” All of these defenses are appeals to women’s supposedly “natural” lack of agency and inherent victimhood: the logic appears to be that women could not have committed serious crimes, but if they did, they were being punished because the crimes broke norms about women, and not because of their gravity, and the punishment was therefore unfair.

The cases of the two women to have ever been convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by international tribunals — Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Rwandan Minister for Family and Women’s Development, and Biljana Plavsic, former president of the Republika Srpska — also show elements of these dynamics. That these trials were so unusual in this regard shows, once again, a literal separation of women from the general category of perpetrators — especially as determined through international justice mechanisms. It is not the case that only one woman in Bosnia and one woman in Rwanda was responsible for war crimes and genocide. It is also not the case that no women in previous conflicts had taken part in atrocities that spurred efforts for international justice: for example, historians have many accounts of women who worked in concentration camps in Nazi Germany and took part in the atrocities committed against Jews, but none were tried at Nuremberg. Plavsic and Nyiramasuhuko were in no way the first or only women to be responsible for the mass atrocities that they were convicted for — yet they were the first and only to be convicted at all.

Despite this, these two cases also set essential precedents for challenging these assumptions. Both cases held these women responsible for crimes against entire groups of women — particularly sexual violence — that formed a tactic of broader mass atrocities and genocide. The final judgement in the Plavsic case includes several references to gender-based violence that took place during the conflict as examples of the gravity of war crimes that she oversaw. In the section on legal practices in Yugoslavia, which the court was required to consult as part of its sentencing determination, “compulsion to prostitution or rape” is included as one of the offenses cited. Nyiramasuhuko was found guilty of a “crime against humanity (rape) and a serious violation of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and of Additional Protocol II (outrages upon personal dignity)” for “failing to prevent and punish rapes.” The ICTR judgement noted that she also ordered others to commit acts of sexual violence. She is the only woman to have ever been convicted of rape as a weapon of war.

In the framework of challenges to holding women perpetrators accountable, these decisions are groundbreaking. By trying and convicting women perpetrators at all, they acknowledge that women have agency in conflict and that they can employ that agency to commit atrocities, rather than serving as inherent peacemakers or mediators. By specifically noting that these women were responsible for systemic violence against women, and that that responsibility constituted an important component of their broader charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, these decisions showed that women are capable of furthering gender injustice in conflict to the highest possible degree. This is a powerful statement that gender of a perpetrator of atrocities cannot shield them from accountability — even in the case of crimes that, in traditional frameworks of understanding women’s roles in conflict, are “impossible” for a woman to be responsible for.

With this theoretical and historical background, observers are better equipped to understand the case of so-called ‘ISIS brides,’ the ways in which they perpetrated systemic violence against women as a tactic of genocide, and the ways in which they use stereotypes about women’s roles in conflict in order to evade legal accountability for these crimes.

In 2014, ISIS attacked Sinjar, a region of northwestern Iraq populated mostly by the Yezidi people: a religious minority that has faced persecution and discrimination under both the Ba’athist dictatorship and the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Governments that followed it. The area was left relatively undefended, despite local fears that they would be targeted for their faith. ISIS had repeatedly promised to exterminate non-Muslims in regions they occupied.

When ISIS reached Sinjar, the worst fears of locals were confirmed. Thousands of men and boys were immediately executed, and as many as 6,000 women and girls were abducted and forced into sexual slavery. The United Nations has extensively documented these crimes and determined that the atrocities committed against the Yezidis by ISIS amount to genocide. Several national parliaments have recognized these atrocities as a genocide as well.

There are three key findings from U.N. documents that illustrate how women who joined ISIS could hold responsibility for gender-based violence. First, there is the essential fact that the mass rape and enslavement of women and girls was officially recognized as a component of the genocide in the relevant United Nations documents, which built off of prosecutions in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Actively citing these precedents, the U.N. found that:

“ISIS’s sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls is an act of sexual violence, first recognised in Akayesu and later followed in a myriad of ICTY and ICTR Judgments as constituting serious bodily and mental harm within the meaning of Article II of the Genocide Convention. Further it is evident from the facts as described above that serious physical and mental harm has been, and is being, sustained by Yazidi women and girls as a result of their sexual enslavement by ISIS.”

The report also made the distinction between mass sexual violence and enslavement in and of itself, as yet another atrocity. It cited the fact that Yezidi women were sold, purchased, and completely deprived of liberty and control over their own conditions as a separate crime, stating that:

ISIS and its fighters continue to enslave Yazidi women and girls, a crime distinct to that of sexual slavery. The definition of enslavement, as a crime against humanity, is set out in Article 7(1)(c)of the Rome Statute. It requires the perpetrator to have “exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons, such as by purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty.”

The conclusion of that section found that this enslavement, a crime against humanity in and of itself, constituted part of the genocide case because the actions that victims experienced constituted “serious bodily and mental harm” aimed at “the destruction of the individual, and ultimately the group.”

Thirdly, the same report documented the systematic nature of this crime: that is, the fact that it was considered a legitimate and integral part of the ISIS social system. The U.N. documented the existence of slave markets regulated by ISIS leadership and the fact that enslaved persons who had not been purchased by individuals were considered the property of the group itself. There is extensive evidence of ISIS members, including women, providing religious justification for the practice, tying it to the broader project of the creation of a caliphate under a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law and arguing that rejecting this practice is equivalent to rejecting the group’s broader vision.

Based on this information, one can understand the role of ISIS women in perpetuating gender-based violence as a tactic of genocide. Many Yezidi survivors have said in interviews how the wives of ISIS fighters actively supported the acts of sexual violence that their husbands committed. Pari Ibrahim, a Yezidi human rights activist and director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, described other survivor testimonies, saying in one interview that “when ISIS men left to fight, the [ISIS] women were left in charge. They tortured and psychologically abused our women. Some girls have told me that the ISIS women were the ones that put on their makeup, put them in the shower, and locked them in a room until they were raped constantly by ISIS men.” Such actions are direct support for an internationally recognized element of genocide. While the case of each individual must be judged individually based on facts, the possibility that any woman who was part of a household that enslaved any women and girls may have taken such actions must be taken into account when investigating these women.

These women also benefitted from and perpetuated the general enslavement of women and girls. The United Nations report on the genocide found that “wives and children of ISIS fighters sometimes participate in…beatings” of enslaved Yezidis,” and that “the wives of ISIS fighters…regularly force Yazidi women and girls to work in their houses. Many of those interviewed recounted being forced to be the domestic servant of the fighter and his family. Sometimes, they were also made to look after his children.”

Nadia Murad, a survivor of ISIS atrocities who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize for the work she did to advocate for her community in the aftermath of genocide, said in her book that the women were “often crueler than the men” and that they often beat, starved, and otherwise mistreated enslaved women and girls “out of jealousy or anger or because [they] are easy targets” (155). These actions constitute participation in another tactic of genocide, as recognized by the United Nations, and another form of violence that predominantly targeted women and girls.

Finally, by joining and supporting the group in the first place, these women were showing approval of, or at the very least complicity with, a social and political system that accepted and promoted systemic sexual violence. They did not see anything wrong with the actions that they perpetrated, believing them to be just and legitimate according to the strict religious fundamentalist views they held: in one shocking but demonstrative interview, a woman ISIS member from the Philippines said that Yezidi women could not have been raped, because they were enslaved in accordance with religious principles, and so they were not people whose consent could be violated, but property. This worldview and social system justified violence against women considered to belong to inferior religions as not simply permissible, but correct. This is important because it shows the presence of intent to cause harm not only to the individuals that any one woman may have interacted with, but to an entire group.

This framework should be at the forefront of discussion about the roles that women who traveled to ISIS territory played, and the forms of international accountability that the international community seeks. However, mainstream discourse has cast these women as misunderstood, victimized, and acting as extensions of their husbands. Despite having likely played roles in mass atrocities, these women are assumed to be ‘forever acted upon’ and separate from the general category of ISIS perpetrators. That they are so often referred to as “ISIS brides” — and not members in their own right of a designated terrorist organization that committed genocide — is an indication of both of these dynamics. This framing, adopted easily by mainstream media, is an almost exact example of Sjoberg and Gentry’s understanding of how women perpetrators are not included in the broader category of perpetrators: there is ISIS, and then there are less-culpable “ISIS brides.”

The case of Samantha Elhassani, an American woman who joined ISIS along with her husband in 2014, illustrates this. Elhassani is charged with having “knowingly conspired to provide material support and resources” to ISIS, and with “knowingly [providing] material support and resources… that is, aiding and abetting Individual A and Individual B [her husband and brother-in-law] in providing themselves as personnel to ISIS.” Both of these are crimes related to domestic terrorism law in the United States — not related to war crimes or other breaches of international law. She also openly admits to purchasing multiple enslaved Yezidi children — including a girl who was regularly raped and abused by her husband — with her own savings.

Like the cases of Rwandan women perpetrators described earlier, Elhassani — along with her legal team, and many journalists reporting on her case — appeals to her status as a wife and mother to lessen the gravity of her crimes. She argues that she only traveled to Syria in the first place to protect her own family, claiming that her husband forced her to choose to either stay with one of her children while he took the other child to Syria, or to follow him and keep the family together. “To stay there with my son or watch my daughter leave with my husband — I had to make a decision…Maybe I would never have seen my daughter again ever, and how can I live the rest of my life like that,” she said in an interview with CNN. The son she referenced was later forced to appear in the terror group’s propaganda videos. Elhassani also claims that she treated the children enslaved by her family better than other members of the group might have — and that this justifies the reprehensible act of purchasing children as property and bringing them into an abusive environment.

This strategy of appealing to stereotypes of women as essential victims, or as peaceful caregivers, has even benefitted her legal efforts — to the extent that the primary way in which her participation in ISIS’ system of slavery figures into her case is the fact that her defense lawyers are seeking testimony from the children enslaved by her family in an attempt to exonerate her. Her agency as a willing participant in a system of gender-based violence and attempted extermination of a religious community is erased, and she is presented instead as an individualized victim whose personal feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and regret justified her actions. It would be difficult to imagine a man in a modern legal system arguing credibly that his participation in slavery and human trafficking counted in his favor in a terrorism case. To its credit, the U.S. government, in its filings in the case, has rejected this narrative, claiming in a 2018 response to a motion for Elhassani’s release that:

“Defendant [Elhassani] refers to alleged hardships and abuse she endured after she entered Syria. The government does not doubt that there were severe consequences to Defendant and her children for her reckless and dangerous decision to help her husband and brother-in-law become ISIS fighters. However, the government has reason to doubt the accuracy of Defendant’s portrayal of her life and circumstances while living under the ISIS regime. Meanwhile, Defendant herself engaged in horrifying conduct in Syria, including the purchase and supervision of Yazidi slaves.”

A footnote in this portion of the filing noted the U.N. recognition of the Yezidi Genocide, likely to substantiate the scale of said ‘horrifying conduct.’ While this is positive, accountability for participation in these crimes cannot be considered a mere footnote to a terrorism prosecution. This case suggests an approach to retributive justice that does not hold perpetrators accountable for their most grave offenses, but for their most easily prosecutable ones — and that indulges in assumptions and stereotypes about the sort of atrocities women can be prosecuted for.

The prosecutions of two German women who joined ISIS, identified as Jennifer W. and Sarah O., show elements of a path forward for holding women perpetrators accountable for ISIS atrocities that systematically targeted Yezidi women and girls. Jennifer W., a member of the group’s female “morality police,” is charged with murder as a war crime for having chained a five-year-old Yezidi girl outside in scorching temperatures, allowing her to die of thirst. The law firm representing the girl’s mother — who was also abducted by ISIS — alleges that Jennifer W. may also be responsible for “crimes against humanity, including murder, human trafficking, torture and deprivation of physical liberty.” Yezidi advocates consider it to be the first prosecution for ISIS crimes against the Yezidi community anywhere in the world. Sarah O., who traveled to Syria in 2013 and married an ISIS member in 2014, is charged with war crimes, terrorism, human trafficking and deprivation of liberty.

A court press release from the German federal prosecutor’s office notes that Sarah O. and her husband purchased two enslaved Yezidi women and one underage girl, and that they had done so intending to “achieve the goals of the “Islamic State” by forcing the Yazidi population to give up their previous beliefs.” Both of these trials are in their earliest stages, but they are noteworthy in that they hold women perpetrators accountable for their role in systemic gender-based violence as an element of a recognized genocide. They also move beyond earlier precedents, in that the women facing justice are not senior political leaders, but lower-level perpetrators whose crimes were confined to their households, but made up a larger systemic whole. Mass violence is not possible without masses to commit it — and so recognizing the perpetrators who make up the system that creates systemic atrocities is also necessary.

All of these cases are in their earliest stages, and there are thousands of captured former members of ISIS, both men and women, who have yet to face any form of trial. The question of justice for the atrocities committed by ISIS is still being actively debated by genocide survivors, states whose citizens were harmed by the group or joined the group, and a variety of other stakeholders. It is essential that women perpetrators of these atrocities be held to account for all of the forms of violence they took part in, including those that traditional understandings of women’s roles in international affairs and conflict obscure. The legal precedents from the ICTY and ICTR that led to the criminalization of rape in war, and its role as a tactic of genocide, have already been essential for describing the gravity of atrocities that Yezidi women and girls faced in a way that could create legal accountability for the perpetrators. That these tribunals both also found women responsible for these forms of violence is another takeaway that should be remembered when seeking to understand the role of ISIS women and the kinds of crimes they may be responsible for.

News and analysis on Northeast Syria.