ISIS, rape and birth control: Stunning New York Times feature raises new questions

There are certain stories that, when you see the headline, you drop everything and click until the piece pops up in living color on your screen. Such is Sunday’s New York Times piece on ISIS’ rape culture. “To maintain supply of sex slaves,” the headline reads, “ISIS pushes birth control.”

When it comes to covering ISIS, one thinks things can't get any more horrifying and then more revelations come out about worse atrocities in the sad lands under their sway. Moreover, the story was set in Dohuk, an Iraqi city I visited 11 years ago, where a lot of these poor women who’ve escaped ISIS end up before they’re shipped out of the area for asylum purposes.

DOHUK, Iraq -- Locked inside a room where the only furniture was a bed, the 16-year-old learned to fear the sunset, because nightfall started the countdown to her next rape.
During the year she was held by the Islamic State, she spent her days dreading the smell of the ISIS fighter’s breath, the disgusting sounds he made and the pain he inflicted on her body. More than anything, she was tormented by the thought she might become pregnant with her rapist’s child.
It was the one thing she needn’t have worried about.
Soon after buying her, the fighter brought the teenage girl a round box containing four strips of pills, one of them colored red.
“Every day, I had to swallow one in front of him. He gave me one box per month. When I ran out, he replaced it. When I was sold from one man to another, the box of pills came with me,” explained the girl, who learned only months later that she was being given birth control.

Apparently there is quite the import business in contraceptives going on in eastern Syria and northern Iraq where ISIS has its female Yazidi prisoners. The piece continues:

It is a particularly modern solution to a medieval injunction: According to an obscure ruling in Islamic law cited by the Islamic State, a man must ensure that the woman he enslaves is free of child before having intercourse with her.
Islamic State leaders have made sexual slavery as they believe it was practiced during the Prophet Muhammad’s time integral to the group’s operations, preying on the women and girls the group captured from the Yazidi religious minority almost two years ago. To keep the sex trade running, the fighters have aggressively pushed birth control on their victims so they can continue the abuse unabated while the women are passed among them.

The article goes on to record more than three dozen interviews with freed Yazidi women who’ve been living through this hell for 18 months. The subject came up because someone began asking about the low pregnancy rates (5 percent) among 700 rape victims who’ve come to a particular clinic.

One question led to another and it was learned that ISIS had thought up a way to make their rapes acceptable to their religion.

This same reporter had done an earlier piece on ISIS’ theology of rape which was similarly enlightening and depressing. In Sunday's piece, she provides a link to an ISIS document claiming to find Quranic backing for sex slavery (Sura 23:5-6) as well as sex with children.

That is why the piece doesn’t dwell so much on the religious justification for rape as much as the justification of birth control for purposes of rape.

One of the more interesting comments was from a Jewish reader who referred to verses in the Old Testament (the book of Numbers) that allowed for the rape of female captives. Rabbis from later eras who were horrified at those verses basically declared them as invalid in documents like the Talmud. What Islam needs today, the reader concluded, is for Islamic scholars to do the same thing.

I agree that this article, which has so much good information, would have benefited from quotes from such scholars about whether the Quran sanctions this behavior. The reporter says the use of birth control stems from “an obscure ruling in Islamic law” but doesn’t unpack whether or not many authorities in modern-day Islam would line up with this practice. In fact, some would say that “muta marriage,”  which is essentially sanctified prostitution, is the same thing.

The anecdotes are so heartbreaking, such as the one about the captive mother who was forced to be an interpreter because she spoke Arabic and whose own daughter was raped multiple times.

And here's a question for journalists to investigate. Since ISIS seems to have reams of birth control pills, Depo-Provera and other contraceptives on hand, one wonders where they’re coming from. Who is exporting them into ISIS territory? Yes, that’s another this story does not solve.

Fortunately the article carries two links to aid groups that are out there helping the Yazidi girls who have managed to escape plus links to other articles about the woes of these young women and the Kurds who are helping them. If there are any heroes in this saga, it is activists among the Kurds.

I'm glad the Times gave this story top billing. When hell is in session, reporters need to be on the front lines to bear witness to the truth to the rest of the world.

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