Half the Sky is Falling: theology or conquest

Heather Greene —  August 30, 2015 — 18 Comments

[Warning: This article deals with a topic that may be upsetting for some of our readers.]

On Aug. 26, 1920, American women were granted the right to vote when the Secretary of State certified the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ninety five years later, the day is acknowledged as “Women’s Equality Day.” While the Utopian ideal of gender equality in the U.S. is far from realized, long term statistics do suggest significant improvements for American women.

Political and cultural shifts have opened doorways, allowing for opportunities that were not available to the many brave women who walked in those early protests nearly a century ago. American women are also increasingly finding the voice to continue the work needed to improve their lives, to confront issues still lurking in the corners of American society and to empower the next generation of girls by reminding them each and every day, “We are half the sky!”[i]

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

But as we pause for a moment to acknowledge, reassess, plan or celebrate, the following creeps across our digital desks…

The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. (From “Isis Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2015)

To fully comprehend the quote above, one must read the entire New York Times report. A summary will not capture the sheer horror embedded in that story as relayed by 21 survivors. Briefly, Yazidi women and girls are being sold to Daesh soldiers as sex slaves and systematically raped in prison structures as part of the conquest of war. These violent acts are being justified by Daesh’s developing theological legal system for the caliphate. The social boundaries that once may have prevented such attacks are now lying in ruins alongside the shattered remains of the Mosul museum, Palmyra and other similar ancient sites.

Daesh is attempting to rebuild a society based on its own extremist interpretation of Sharia law, and sex slavery has become a legitimate part of that construction. The organization has even created a functioning infrastructure specifically to uphold the practice. As The Times article reports, “The Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales and contracts notarized by ISIS-run Islamic courts.” And within that theologically-based legal structure, rape is considered a form of worship.

This new slavery system was institutionalized when Daesh first invaded the Yazidi region. They killed both men and older boys. Then, they transported the women and girls and the remaining young boys to prisons and camps. Professor Matthew Barber, a expert on the Yazidi, told The New York Times, this “offensive” was not at all a land invasion, but a calculated “sexual conquest.”

As we reported last September, the Yazidi people are a small, often misunderstood religious minority living in northern Iraq. Many news outlets have defined their religious practice as polytheist and, periodically throughout history, they have been labeled “devil worshippers.” However, neither is correct. The Yazidi tradition is a closely held belief system that, by design, remains a mystery to outsiders. While their religion may be kept hidden, what is clearly known about the Yazidi is that they are currently the direct targets of a modern genocide.

Last October, Daesh’s online magazine Dabiq published an article explaining the organization’s actions. The text reads, “The Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in regions of Iraq and Shām … Their creed is so deviant from the truth that even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists … ” The article goes on to justify not only slavery as a whole, but specifically sex slavery and the taking of women as concubines. The writer explains how slavery was once openly practiced, and Daesh seeks to return to that time.

While Daesh is openly enslaving the Yazidi women, it has not yet demonstrated a large-scale offensive against the area’s Islamic, Christian or Jewish women. Islamic women are considered believers, and have a designated role in the caliphate as dictated by a March 2015 piece of propaganda, titled, “Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-khanssaa Brigade.”  Interestingly, this manifesto is being used to recruit young Muslim women from around the world.

Christian and Jewish women, on the other hand, have a special non-believer status because of their theological link to “the Book.” As explained in October’s Dabiq article, Christians and Jews have the option of making ” jizyah payments,” which is a tax for non-Muslims living in the caliphate.

However, the Yazidi are considered, as noted earlier, pagans and devil-worshipping polytheists or mushrikun (shrik is defined as the sinful practice of idolatry or polytheism; mushrikun are those that commit this sin against Islam). The mushrikun can either be converted, killed or enslaved.

The bartering for and enslavement of women as a war conquest is sadly not a new practice. For centuries, the female body has been treated like the hidden valuables of a conquered region. Women exist for the taking; a spoil of war and a right of victory, as demonstrated by the phrase to “plunder, pillage, rape.” In May, when Nigerian troops freed 234 women and girls from the terrorist group Boko Haram, many returned pregnant. Boko Haram treated these women and girls in very much the same way that Daesh is treating the Yazidi women.

However, Daesh has added a new spin to this entire horrific engagement. It is brandishing these attacks and promoting these laws as a way to encourage young men to join its ranks. Sex slavery and rape have become the proverbial carrot before the horse; a prize for signing up or reward for a job well-done. And, the entire process is wrapped up in a guise of religious clothing. In a March 2015 Dabiq article, writers attempt to justify their institutionalization of slavery by criticizing the world for even calling a sexual act with a slave girl “a rape.” [ii]

A prostitute in your lands comes and goes, openly committing sin. She lives by selling her honor, within the sight and hearing of the deviant scholars from whom we don’t hear even a faint sound. As for the slave-girl that was taken by the swords of men following the cheerful warrior … then her enslavement is in opposition to human rights and copulation with her is rape?! What is wrong with you? How do you make such a judgment? What is your religion? What is your law?

That very comment in the April issue of Dabiq invites a broader discussion on basic human morality. Is there an intrinsic morality embedded within humanity, or even a socially-constructed baseline that defines which acts should never be considered acceptable regardless of religious belief? That discussion goes well-beyond this article. But it does lead back to the original New York Times headline, “Isis Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” Is the institutionalization of rape through religious doctrine truly a mark of “theology?” Or is a religion simply being used – victimized itself – as an excuse to commit violent sexual acts against women, to perpetrate a genocide against a perceived enemy and to strengthen a propaganda campaign to recruit new young male followers?

The world’s Islamic leaders are decrying these atrocities and publicly discussing the secondhand destruction being caused to their faith practice and belief system. There is a distinction being made between Islam and Islamism; between Muslims and Islamists. In a recent CNN report, Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed wrote:

 I am an observant Muslim. And because I am a Muslim, I believe in pluralism. I believe in tolerance. These are the beliefs that Islamist totalitarians are determined to extinguish in the world as they oppress and brutalize those they deem to be ‘the other.’ … Because of their abuses in the name of Islam, Islamists smear each and every Muslim, tarring us all with the same brush.

As the world has became increasingly aware of Daesh’s slavery practices, some people are asking why the world’s governments don’t appear to be focusing more on this particular horror. “Do they believe it is just a women’s issue?” In a 2014 article published at Foreign Policy, Aki Peritz and Tara Maller, former CIA analysts ask that very question. They observe, “Rarely do [sexual attacks] seem to be the focal point of politicians’ remarks, intelligence assessments, or justification for counter-terrorism actions against the group.” Peritz and Maller conclude, “Sexual violence carried out by terrorist groups should be catalogued as ‘terrorist attacks.”

Before Daesh’s 2014 Yazidi offensive, there were already reports of rapes and kidnappings in the general Iraqi region. Where once the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) was steadily working to improve Iraqi women’s legal rights, it now, as reported Foreign Policy in Focus, “takes everything the organization has just to keep their shelters open and women safe.” The article explains how, in war-torn Iraq, all men have guns and can do whatever they want. Women live in fear.

Along with OWFI, human-rights organizations around the world are joining the struggle to help the region’s women. Yazda is an Iraqi-based international Yazidi organization that is sponsoring relief efforts. YezidiTruth is a U.S.-based organization that educates and collects donations. In Israel, The Combat Genocide Association is also working to educate, raise money and find ways of actively assist the many refugees from the affected areas. These are only four examples.

While grass-roots efforts and government action may end the nightmare and alleviate some of the trauma. None of those actions can fully root-out a more deeply embedded problem – one of indoctrination found within the pages of Daesh’s manifesto and the writings by the organization’s supporters. All of these works continue to teach boys and men that it is culturally acceptable and even their right to objectify women’s bodies.

Living far away from the violence and the realities in Iraq, American women can walk freely, secure enough in their own struggle for equality. But even in the U.S. there are reminders that a very similar problem still lies deep beneath the lands where once the suffragettes marched. This was recently demonstrated by several back-to-school fraternity banners displayed at Old Dominion University. “Freshmen daughter drop off,” one read. While these manifestations and related traumas are not comparable to the open institutionalization of sex slavery and rape in Iraq, a connection remains.

In celebrating the advancements made over the past 95 years, we also acknowledge there is much work to be done. That work includes continuously encouraging our young girls to stand up and speak up because they are half the sky. But at the same time we cannot forget to teach our boys that they are only half the sky.

And, without both, the sky will fall.

*    *    *

[i] The term “Half the Sky” is borrowed from a movement that addresses the worldwide oppression of women. The term originated as the title of a book written by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and then was adopted for a corresponding effort to help women worldwide. The Half the Sky movement is not to be confused with the foundation of the same name, which specifically addresses child welfare in China.

[ii] There are countless published articles and essays by Daesh supporters that demonstrate and theologically justify the promotion of the slavery practice. However, we have made editorial decision to not link to any of these pieces.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • There is an anarcho-marxist, feminist, animist-leaning revolutionary movement responsible for rescuing the Yezidis from Daesh earlier this year, and who’s been fighting Daesh’s thirst for conquest–the PKK.

    Of course, they’re a ‘terrorist group’ according the US government… https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/08/11/a-u-s-designated-terrorist-group-is-saving-yazidis-and-battling-the-islamic-state/

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      The US is working with the PKK in Syria and Iraq resisting Daesh; and regards PKK as a terrorist group because it commits terrorist acts across the border in Turkey, where the government is letting us use its air bases against Daesh. No one-liner can sum up even a corner of the ethnic tangles of the “Middle East.”

      • Rhoanna

        Our ally Turkey, however, is bombing the PKK in Iraq and Syria. And from all reports I’ve seen, our cooperation with the PKK is limited because we consider them a terrorist group (unlike the Peshmerga, and I believe the YPG).

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Turning a blind eye to Turkish bombing is the price we pay for using Turkish air bases, which make the air war an order of magnitude easier than flying stuff up from the Gulf. Welcome to realpolitik.

    • Segomâros Widugeni

      We need to support the PKK or whoever else would fight against the horror that is Daesh. I’ll gladly take the Godwin and suggest that Daesh is every bit as evil as the Nazis of old.

  • Wendy Griffin

    Actually, it was Mao Zedong who first said, “Women hold up half the sky” many years ago. The authors Kristof and WuDunn got it from him.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Thank you, Heather, for laying out this unhappy story for TWH.

  • guest

    Strange priorities you have, there. “They killed both men and older boys,” you say, but from the tone of the article, it is clear that you consider the enslaved women as the *real* victims.

    At least the women are still alive. But then again, in America as well as other countries, men are considered disposable commodities, and that sexism is quite apparent in your article.

    • Sarah

      There are things that are worse than death. Many people would consider being enslaved and repeatedly raped to be one of those things. There’s a reason why killing someone is simply war, but making them your sex slave is a war crime.

      • guest

        I’m certain that, given the opportunity, those murdered boys would choose life — no matter how dire the circumstance — over death.

        If their fate is “worse than death,” why don’t these women kill themselves? Because it isn’t. You are simply using facile phrasing to cover for your sexism.

        “Killing someone is simply war,” is another statement which shows how indifferent you are to men’s lives; men are the primary combatants in warfare, and the ones who are usually killed. And you blithely toss that off as “simply war.”

      • Wolfsbane

        Aren’t you a good little Nazi. It’s always ever so nice to meet a Jungmädelbund graduate. Since it obviously wasn’t part of your training in that august organization, I’ll clarify things for you. It’s a war crime to murder unarmed civilians, no matter their sex. Look forwards to seeing you at the dock in a war crimes trial someday and then at the end of a rope like Margot Dreschel, Irma Grese, Johand Bormann and the rest.

        • guest

          When you demonize, objectify, and devalue people simply because their opinion differs from yours, I think it’s probably a good idea to step back and take a good, hard look in the mirror.

          I was simply pointing out the inherent sexism in this author’s article. It doesn’t lessen the tragedy that she’s reporting on; I’m simply bringing to light the sexist bias inherent in her words.

          That doesn’t make me a Nazi. It does, however, make me a thoughtful and perceptive reader.

          Your venom confirms that I made the right choice in making these posts anonymously.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Please don’t feed the troll.

    • thelettuceman

      “At least the women are still alive. But then again, in America as well as other countries, men are considered disposable commodities, and that sexism is quite apparent in your article.”


      An article focusing on a facet of suffering of a whole people is not sexist, but good job trying to read into that for your own agenda.

      It’s not excluding the issues that face the Yadizi in favor of a particular view. Nothing in the words above are elevating the suffering of these women above their dead and lost kin. It isn’t a zero sum argument. It isn’t pitching women as being more oppressed. It’s pitching women as suffering other horrors in a horrific act. And by framing it in such a way as you have, you only show your limited critical thinking as to this matter.

      What are your goals at erasing the suffering of these women? What are you trying to gain from “bringing to light” the editor’s “sexist” words, other than a feeble attempt to discredit them?

      • guest

        Interesting. I post a comment pointing out the limitations of the author’s article, and how it embedded sexist thought, and the only responses so far have been to call me a Nazi, troll, and an internet meme. Not the best example of critical thinking, here.

        The thing of it is, this is an article with an agenda. The only relationship between this topic and paganism, is that Daesh uses the term pagan as an ethnic slur, despite the fact that the Yazidis are monotheists. Tragic as this might be, this is not a pagan issue.

        Nor is it simply a feminist issue. As I pointed out, the author completely glossed over the horrific deaths of boys and men to point out what she considers the *real* atrocity — that women are being mistreated.

        Imagine that the sexes were reversed; that men were enslaved, the women and girls were slaughtered, and a feature article tossed off the loss of life of the women in a callous phrase, to discuss only the enslavement of the men. Every woman reading it would be offended, and rightfully so.

        However, I point out that the empress wears no clothes, and all you can do is insult me for being observant.

        Perhaps The Wild Hunt could serve its readership better by toning down the policitical rhetoric, especially where there is no legitimate pagan interest.

    • g75401

      The best response I can think of for your inane musing is something I heard yesterday on the radio. It was a commentary on the statement “Black Lives Matter”. For centuries in this country, it was understood that white lives mattered. It was also understood black lives did not. This country was founded with slavery as the economic model for half the country. After slavery was eliminated formally, a slave like economic model persisted with sharecropping, Jim Crow, using the police to protect white held property, etc. To state “all lives matter” or “white lives matter” is moot, it has always been so. To use that phrase in response to “Black Lives Matter” reflects a relative ignorance of history. Your use of a “men’s lives matter” is similar in content. Men’s lives have mattered for millennia, women’s lives have not. Women were considered chattel in this country up until the time they could vote. Women are considered chattel many places in the world now. In our lifetime, women’s lives have gone from “mattering” in the Middle East to “not mattering”. That is the content of this story. Your comment reflects nothing but an ignorance of history so do not be surprised about the criticism. To put it another way if you want to think about it, the procedure called Caesarian section has been in existence for thousands of years. The novel idea of sewing the woman up after the procedure was pioneered in this country in the mid 19th century…..

  • in my opinion the best news source on all contemporary Yezidi issue is the web page ÊzîdîPress http://ezidipress.com/en/ and its facebook page, … the allegation of Yezidis being Satanists was btw. taken up recently by some Turkish mainstream media outlets after the Yezidi MP Feleknas Uca (one of the two first Yezidi MPs ever elected into the parliament of the Turkish republic) was wearing a brooch displaying a peacock: symbolizing the Melek Taus, the most important angel of the Yezidi religion whom not only Islamic fundamentalists perceive as a “fallen angel”