How One Woman Exposed The Way ISIS Uses Rape As a Weapon

Photo: Mauricio Lima/ The New York Times/ Redux.
New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi has exposed the horrifying network of sexual slavery built and run by terrorists from the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Reporting from Iraq and Syria, Callimachi, an award-winning journalist, detailed the ways in which women and children are systematically bought, sold, and used as a recruiting tool for the terrorist group.

Callimachi's groundbreaking reporting, which includes the first-person accounts of women who escaped sexual slavery and barbaric rape at the hands of ISIS fighters, was published on Thursday in the Times.

Callimachi spoke with Refinery29 from an undisclosed location inside Iraq.

How did you first become aware of the fact that ISIS was trafficking women and children into sexual slavery?
"We first became aware of it last August, when ISIS took Sinjar Mountain. That was August 3, 2014. And very soon after, there were reports that they were raping the women and enslaving them. And it sounded so crazy at the time that many reporters, myself included, thought it must to be an exaggeration, that it couldn’t be true.

"Reports started trickling out as women were escaping. But the thing that sealed it was in October of last year, ISIS published an article essentially admitting it in their flagship English-language magazine, Dabiq. It was called 'The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,' and they explained their justification for slavery as theological, based on the fact that it is mentioned in the Quran, and that it was practiced, allegedly, by the Prophet Mohammed and his closest companions.
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The phrase they used over and over again was: 'I am drawing closer to God by raping you.' There is something so unbelievably twisted about that.

Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times Foreign Correspondent
"That was just this kind of watershed moment for me, where you just went, 'Oh my God.' I couldn’t believe that was the case. I have covered rape in numerous war settings before, I have interviewed rape victims in the Congo, in Guinea, in Mali, in Senegal, and rape has been used as an instrument of war in all of these places, but the difference is that the perpetrations never admit it. It’s always something hidden, something shameful. When there is a trial, if there is a trial, the perpetrators deny that they ever did the said crime.

"Here, the Islamic State was publicly advertising it. Of course, they don’t use the word 'rape.' They don’t consider what they are doing to these women to be rape, they just call it sexual intercourse. We know better, so we will call it what it is, but I just was dumbfounded that a group would admit to such a horrible, horrible practice."

How did you find the women who had escaped and what was it like to speak to them about what they had experienced?
"The first thing I did was I reached out to an academic at the University of Chicago, his name is Matthew Barber, who, at least in the U.S., is the leading expert on the Yazidi minority. [Barber] is an academic, but he also became very active in the effort to help save and treat these women after they arrived back with their families. And he, as well as Human Rights Watch, gave me a lot of important pointers. They both advised me to not go into these interviews without a Yazidi translator.

"[My translator] led me to the various camps where these women are staying, and in each case, we asked to see a community elder and they identified the women and the households where these women were. We would first speak to the family, the elders, the mother, the father if they were there, uncles, aunts, and we explained to them our mission. That was the procedure that we went through in every single case.

"It was very important to me to be absolutely clear with them and say I am a journalist, and I am trying to tell your story to the world, but I actually have no power to help you financially or in other ways. And once that was out there, you would think that kind of conversation could turn people off, but it made people open up, because they felt I was being straight with them.

"At that point, I asked the elders if I could be alone with the young women, because they usually are young, and in every case, they agreed. I told them if she wants, I am happy to tell you what we talked about afterwards, but I want her to feel that this is something that is being held in confidence if she so wishes.
Photo: Mauricio Lima/ The New York Times/ Redux.
A 15-year-old girl who wished to be identified only as F, right, with her father and 4-year-old brother. “Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray,” said F, who was captured by the Islamic State on Mount Sinjar one year ago and sold to an Iraqi fighter.
"Then it was just my translator, her, and me inside the tent. And they are all living in tents in refugee camps. Then, the interviews would proceed, and they would be, at minimum, an hour — sometimes significantly longer — some of them were like three hours and we just started chronologically.

"I said to them, because every single one was taken around August 3, 2014, ‘Where were you? What were you doing when ISIS came, how were you fleeing?’ And then we just went through the chronology of what happened to her. And when we got to the more sensitive parts, I also was very clear with them that I was going to ask them sensitive questions and that they should feel free to not answer me, if they felt it was going too far. And there were a few that early on in these discussions, just said to me, ‘Look, I have spoken to other reporters and I have had enough,’ and so we just thanked them and moved on. But in the majority of cases, they were incredibly open with me and that was very touching."

What were you hearing these women talk about? What had happened to them?
"When I went in to do this story, I thought we were looking at a system of repetitive rape. In fact, what shocked me and gutted me is that it is absolutely a system of organized rape. But in addition to that, it’s very intentionally and deliberately cloaked in a theological justification. And that’s what makes it just so cruel.

"These young women who tell you that they would have these exchanges of these fighters who are about to rape them and say to them, ‘Why are you doing this? What have I done to you to deserve this?’ And they would say to them, ‘You’re a disbeliever, you’re an infidel, and what I am about to you is good for you and it’s good for Islam. What I am about to do to you, God will smile down on me for doing what I am doing to you.'

This is very much a case of giving voice to the voiceless. These women feel forgotten.

Rukmini Callamachi, New York Times Foreign Correspondent
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"The phrase they used over and over again was: 'I am drawing closer to God by raping you.' Of course they didn’t use the word 'rape,' but by having sex with you. And the other word they used in describing the rape was ibadah, it’s a word that means “worship.” So to them, this was a part of worship. There is something so unbelievably twisted about that.

"At the very least, in other conflicts where rape has also been used as a weapon, there is an element of shame. And when the perpetrators are caught and they are finally called before a tribunal, suddenly, they lie. They say this didn’t happen. The fact that there is no shame, the fact that they are hurting people in the most intimate way possible — and not only is there not any shame, but that they are seeing this as virtuously beneficial — is to me, very dark."
Did you feel that as a female journalist, these women told you about their suffering in a way that they would not feel as comfortable doing with a male journalist?
"To me, this story was incredibly important. And I want to make the parallel to the Chibok girls, these are the girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria. There were around 300 of them that were taken. And I cannot tell you how many page-one stories we had at the New York Times and other publications about their plight.

"As we speak, there are roughly 3,200 Yazidis that are still missing. We have names, their families confirmed that they are being held, they saw them being taken, they know they are still alive. 3,200 of them — that’s 10 times the number of the Chibok girls. And yet, it just seems that somehow, they have faded from view. There is no Yazidi girl hashtag, there is not the same mobilization around their plight.”

"As a woman and as a journalist, I found that gutting, and outrage-causing. I feel that if I can shed light on their plight and do something that makes the world stand up and say, ‘Oh my God,’ that I am doing my job.

In other conflicts where rape has also been used as a weapon, there is an element of shame...that they are seeing this as virtuously beneficial is, to me, very dark.

rukmini callamachi, new york times foreign correspondent
"Rape and sexual slavery has now been codified in law as a war crime — and in some cases, as a crime against humanity — following the awful conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I think there is still this persistent idea that rape is just not that big of a deal. That it’s just sex. And I hate to say it, but I think that that comes from a male point of view.

"And as a woman, I very much disagree. I think when people talk about the worst things that can happen to you, I think people just assume that at least you weren’t killed. I don’t know, but I think I would rather be killed. The emotional scars you must live with for the rest of your life if you go through what these people have gone through are such that it might not be worth living after."

An account claiming to belong to ISIS tweeted to you about your story. Are you ever scared doing this work? How do you overcome that?
"I’m really not scared because I am very mobile, so even though I was in Syria yesterday and I am in Iraq today, I’m going to be moving pretty soon. And I think that this is a state, a wannabe state, that is built on terror. That’s their M.O. They are trying to cow other people and use fear as a tactic.

"Funnily enough, a source of mine told me that the suspected ISIS account that tweeted at me is believed to be the wife of Junaid Hussain, who is a famous British jihadist. Sally Jones was the one who was attacking me on Twitter.

"But there was also a tweet that was attributed to her sometime back where she talked about her husband having sex with a slave and called it ibadah, which is the word for 'worship.' And she is actually one of the primary sources for this reporting I have done and she’s now accusing me of having somehow done something that taints Islam."
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What do you believe your work does to fight this kind of terrorism and extremism? Why is your work so important in the broader sense of showing groups like ISIS for what they are?

"My beat is terrorism and it’s my opinion that on the terror beat, people can write a lot of things that are inaccurate. The reason is terror groups are never going to call you on it, they are never going to pick up the phone and call your editor and demand a correction. So there is a lot of sensationalism and there is a lot of just inaccurate reporting that goes out there.

"I really pride myself on trying to know these groups in a very granular way. I also pride myself on the fact that I actively seek out terrorists and I speak to them and I interview them. Most of them are incredibly unhelpful and rude; a handful have become good sources. Not really within ISIS, I had only one ISIS source that was helpful to me, and that was in early 2014. Most of them have been in other groups.

"You do have to understand that these are groups that are based on human beings. Human beings have opinions and they do have some legitimate grievances. And I do think it is important to seek them out, even though we consider their acts abhorrent. It’s sort of one of the bedrock principles of journalism that you seek out the opinons of all sides.

"We routinely do stories about the abhorrent acts of terrorist groups without ever seeking their side. In this particular story, this is very much a case of giving voice to the voiceless. These women feel forgotten, the have seen a stream of journalists come through their camps asking them incredibly intimate questions, and they have seen very little on-the-ground action. It’s Yazidi families who are cobbling together money to try to buy the girls out of ISIS captivity."

Terror groups are never going to call you on it, they are never going to pick up the phone and call your editor and demand a correction. So there is a lot of sensationalism.

Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times Foreign Correspondent
This isn’t the first time you’ve done incredible reporting on big stories about terrorist groups. What advice do you have for young women who want to do this kind of work?
"I graduated from Dartmouth in 1995 and I graduated from high school four years before that, in 1991. Something that troubles me is that every time I go back for a reunion, for high school or college, every successive one, I notice how many women are dropping off.

"What they are doing is they are getting married and they are having kids, which is fine, and that’s something I also want at some point in my life, but they somehow end up in a situation where for whatever reason, they become the primary caregiver of their child. And even though these are Ivy League-educated women, they somehow end up choosing partners who value their career more than they value theirs.

My advice to young women is...you can go as high as you want and as far as you want, as long as you keep going.

Rukmini Callamachi, New York Times foreign correspondent
"My advice to young women is, the so-called glass ceiling has been pierced and has been shattered. You can go as high as you want and as far as you want, as long as you keep going, as long as you don’t take yourself out of the race.

"The way to do that is just demand equality in your relationship, to demand that your partner is going to do as much of the child-rearing part as you, or alternatively, to sacrifice a good share of your salary in order to have help.

"At every organization, whether it’s in journalism or wherever, women are still a minority in leadership positions, so you will still deal with ingrained beliefs about how you should be in the workplace. But that’s never going to change until we just keep going and put ourselves in situations career-wise where we really go for the long haul and don’t take ourselves out of play."
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Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length.
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