Bought and sold using official ledgers, the majority of the women and girls held as sex slaves are from the Yazidi minority and were captured in the summer of 2014, Callimachi reports. But, as she spoke with survivors, one element of the story had continued to elude her: Why, with so many rapes, were more of the victims not becoming pregnant?
Callimachi set out to answer that question in her latest article for the Times. Through interviews with dozens of women, she found that ISIS fighters were administering oral contraceptives and Depo-Provera injections as well as testing the women and girls they enslaved for pregnancy. Their motivation stems from an interpretation of Islamic law that states a man may not have sex with a slave if she is pregnant. The group has used this archaic mandate to justify keeping women and girls enslaved.
Callimachi spoke to Refinery29 in New York.
[ISIS] had a plan in place to kill the men and seize the women for this horrific project that they later put into play.
"On August 3, 2014, ISIS invaded an area of Northern Iraq called Sinjar Mountain. That is one of the traditional homelands of the Yazidi minority. They are a very small ethnic group in Iraq who practice their own religion; it is neither Christianity nor Islam. Initially, when ISIS invaded that area, reporters, myself included, thought that this was just another territorial advance by a group that had very recently taken Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.
"In fact, we learned later that their reason for taking Sinjar was as much for sexual conquest as for territorial gain. Unanimously, the women we interviewed...said at the moment of their capture, the very first thing that happened was the men were separated from the women. The men were then rounded up, taken away, and executed on the spot. The women were then herded into fleets of waiting buses or open-bed trucks, or the fighters used the cars that they were trying to escape in, just commandeered their cars...
"They said to me that they came prepared to take the women. They had a plan in place to kill the men and seize the women for this horrific project that they later put into play. We then know from the testimonies of the women that they were taken to a series of very specific locations. Women said that in certain towns, it was the schoolhouse, then from there, they were herded to Mosul. In Mosul, they were held in the Galaxy Wedding Hall and in about two or three other buildings.
"It’s very clear to me that this was something that was premeditated and it was a systematic program of enslaving these women for the purpose of raping them."
How did you first become aware of the fact that ISIS was giving, oftentimes without their consent, birth control to the women and girls who they were using as sex slaves?
"I first went to Iraq to start reporting this story in July of 2015. In the first wave of interviews, it was there in my notes. Looking back through it, women would talk about the blood tests they were forced to take, the urine tests they had to give, and sometimes, the pills they were forced to take. But I didn’t understand what was happening, so it wasn’t something I was asking questions about, it didn’t figure prominently in my reporting at that point.
"When I was then getting ready to start writing the story, I began reaching out to experts on Islamic law who could talk to me about the role of slavery in Islam. Among them was Kecia Ali, a professor at Boston University who has written several books and chapters on the role of slavery in the early years of Islam. And she is the one who asked me, ‘Are they checking for pregnancy?’ Then, she explained to me that in Islamic jurisprudence, one of the hard-and-fast rules is that a slave who is pregnant cannot have sexual intercourse with anyone other than the person who impregnated her, meaning she cannot be sold. If she is sold, the person who buys her needs to wait at least one month, one menstrual cycle, to determine whether she is pregnant or not. She said that to me, and the sort of lightbulbs went off in my head and I went, Oh my God, maybe that’s why I was hearing these different things about testing for pregnancy and about pills.
This was the one rule where [women's] wishes lined up with their captors’ intent. They feared, more than anything, falling pregnant with their rapist’s child.
"The main doctor who is in charge of the center that is treating the majority of these women said to me that for months, he has been trying to figure out why the [pregnancy] rate is so much lower than it would be for just a woman having a normal sexual lifestyle with her partner...These are women who have had multiple partners, who were forced to have far more than the normal rate of sexual activity, and yet the reported [pregnancy] rate is less than 5%.
"Then, around the same time, the slavery manual that ISIS put out surfaced. It was a scholar at Princeton University, Cole Bunzel, who first identified it online and sent it to me. And in that manual, it very clearly states that this is just about the only prohibition to raping the slave, whether or not she is pregnant."
One thing that sticks out in your reporting is the fact that on the one hand, these women and girls are forced to take pills or injections without their consent. On the other hand, they are not being forced to bear their captor or attacker’s children. What are the feelings people have about this?
"The Shariah rules that ISIS was imposing on these slaves, which they were pointing to to justify their enslavement and their abuse, were obviously a source of great torment for these women — with the exception of this rule. This was the one rule where their wishes lined up with their captors’ intent. They feared, more than anything, falling pregnant with their rapist’s child. I think this would be the case for any women who is being held there, but in the Yazidi community, it’s even worse than I think it would be, certainly in our society, but even in the more conservative societies we know of. The Yazidis have a very strong code of sexual purity. The child that is born from the union of a Yazidi and a non-Yazidi is not considered to be part of their community. They are essentially non-Yazidi."
"One of the ongoing challenges of it is that I am almost constantly dealing with these pseudo-threats from the group. I don’t think any of them are serious, but they are annoying. For example, I just got a series of them yesterday from this guy whose handle is called 'Constance of Jihad.' He was basically saying that I would be best suited to become a slave myself, that I deserve to be a slave for all the lies I was printing, that my aim in all of these stories was to tarnish Islam. So, that’s one iteration.
"The other iteration is what’s difficult about the story is you’re dealing with rape victims. Sometimes, you are dealing with underage rape victims. And as a woman myself, it was very, very important to me that I very clearly explained to the young women that I was interviewing what my intent was, and what I was going to do with the information they shared with me.
"I interviewed three dozen women are so, and all of those were women who were happy to be interviewed and understood what I was doing. There were a couple who I noticed right away were not well, they were not comfortable. In one case, I actually got up in the middle of the interview and said, 'This is not a positive thing.' And we later learned a community leader, a senior leader, had asked her to speak to me, but she didn’t disclose that at the beginning...So, 20 minutes in, I just said: ‘I thank you very much, but I think you’re not comfortable with this. I think you would rather not talk about this, which is fine.’
"The reporter in me — it’s very hard to walk away from that, because it’s not easy to find these people. You go through a lot of effort to find them. So, in those moments, you just have to be a better human being and say, 'The aggressive reporter in me just has to step to the side now and her needs as a woman who has been violated need to go first.'"
I have refused to veil myself or do anything in that direction, because I don’t want to be untruthful in who I am. I am an American feminist. I don’t cover myself.
"At the New York Times, I feel that we walk that line really well. I am more concerned about the tabloid publications that are completely happy to publish a grisly photograph of a beheading or something of that nature. I think the New York Times has been quite conservative in that regard. Sometimes, I wonder if we have been too conservative, because I think that if you look at the comments on our ISIS stories, I think sometimes, our readers have not completely grasped the danger that this group poses, the threat that they pose to Europe and to the Middle East in general."
How big is that threat, in your opinion, based on the reporting you have done and your time in the region?
"I agree with the [Obama] administration that ISIS is not an existential threat for America, but nor was al-Qaida. ‘Existential threat’ means that this is a group that threatens our existence. Al-Qaida never threatened our existence. The worst they were able to do was to take down the World Trade Center, which caused thousands of deaths. That does not threaten the existence of a country such as America, that has hundreds of millions of people.
"But as far as this ideology, it is just as potent as al-Qaida was, and possibly more so, because ISIS has managed to so intelligently use mediums such as Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and all of the other social media platforms. So, I think the problem is that by putting the bar so high, by saying it’s not an existential threat to America and therefore, it does not justify our further involvement, I think we are somehow missing the point.
"This ideology is like a poison in the groundwater. It’s entered the groundwater of these regions, it’s seeping into the groundwater even here. It seems like every week, we are seeing a young American being put in handcuffs and thrown behind bars for allegedly having tried to travel to join ISIS or having been in touch with suspected ISIS recruiters. So, it’s that element of it — the danger of the ideology, the fact that it continues to spread, that worries me."
I've mostly talked to al-Qaida fighters...And then, occasionally, I will have a quick exchange with an ISIS fighter. They are much, much harder to get to.
"Number one, dealing with the jihadists themselves, I think the initial approach to them is often more difficult. I run into jihadists that won’t speak to me, because I am a woman. Beyond that, because I am not a veiled woman. I have refused to veil myself or do anything in that direction, because I don’t want to be untruthful in who I am.
"I am an American feminist and I don’t cover myself. Dealing with them, that’s the first issue. But then, I feel there’s actually an advantage of speaking to them, because if you’re able to pierce through that first set of barriers, there is then a soft spot, where they start looking at you as an older sister, they see you as softer than the men. And then, they open up to me.
"It happens incredibly rarely, I am never talking to more than one or two of these people at a time. I’ve mostly talked to al-Qaida fighters...And then, occasionally, I will have a quick exchange with an ISIS fighter. They are much, much harder to get to."
It’s not as if you go from bikini to burka-clad morality police enforcer. So, that’s another example of a story that benefitted from a female point of view.
"I would love that, I would really love that. Because I think the terror beat is a little boy-heavy.
"I think that women just bring a different point of view. It’s not to say it’s a better point of view, but it’s a different sensibility. For example, I don’t think most editors would have thought of the first story of the Yazidi women that I did last year as a terror story. But it is a terror story, it’s about how they use sexual slavery as one of the most important parts of the operation that they are running. Yes, a man could have written that. But it just so happens that it took a woman to see that story.
"Another story that I thought was fabulous was the story my colleague Azadeh [Moaveni] did on the Khansaa brigade in ISIS, these are the women are dressed all in black and they go around punishing other women: the female morality police. And I thought that story was so sensitive and it showed just the complexity of the situation they were in and compromises that they made to get there. You make one decision, then you make another one, and another one; that’s the way that life is. It's not as if you go from bikini to burka-clad morality police enforcer. So, that’s another example of a story that benefitted from a female point of view."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.