On the 24th of June 2014 an All Party meeting was held in Parliament to discuss the rising sectarian violence and recent threats from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I was asked to speak, and this is a summary of what I said, with a few additions for clarification.
So what is ‘sexual jihad’? Some have described it as when young women are radicalised and lured into ‘fixed term marriage’ or ‘nikah’ in order to act as comfort women for those men fighting with ISIS and other extremist groups. There have been reports from Tunisia and from within Syria itself of girls either enticed willingly or kidnapped against their will in order to have serial sexual intercourse with men. There have even been reports of young European women being influenced to do the same.
And then there have been counter claims that all of this has been an attempt to discredit ISIS and their like.
Those working in the areas of development and human rights have acknowledged it does their cause no good to either falsify reports or to exaggerate. So at this point, until there is further well-documented evidence I reserve judgement on the validity of these stories. It is important at this stage to not deny what could turn out to be based in real experience, nor to go along with something that may in fact turn out to be an untruth.
What cannot be denied however is the suffering of women and girls in war zones, as we heard so clearly during the recent Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict (https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/sexual-violence-in-conflict) and especially in current events in Syria and Iraq. ISIS (sometimes called ‘Da’ash’ in the Arabic) have their origins within the umbrella of al-Qaeda, and are associated through al-Qaeda, even if somewhat loosely, with groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and others. These groups have a proven track record of kidnapping young women and girls for the purposes of sexual and domestic slavery. They are also sold as a means of financial gain. And now we are given to understand women and girls are used for sexual acts as payment of jizyah tax.
Human trafficking is the second largest source of illegal income second only to drugs, and exceeding illegal arms sales (http://www.stopthetraffik.org/the-scale-of-human-traffiking) During the height of the global slave trade going into the antebellum South (of the United States), 80,000 people were trafficked across international borders per year. Currently that number stands at 600,000-800,000 per year (from the book ‘Half the Sky’, more information at: http://www.halftheskymovement.org/). Of those trafficked, 80% are women and girls. This means every year a possible 640,000 women and girls are sold into slavery, and the majority of those are used as sexual slaves. This is a criminal practice having nothing to do with faith.
There are currently more refugees out of Syria and Iraq than from WWII. The majority of those, again, are women and children. It is well documented that women living in refugee camps live in fear for their safety and the safety of their daughters especially. As a result, they tend to push their daughters into early marriage believing this will protect them.
And women have been enticed by wealthy Arab men, predominantly from the Gulf countries, into promises of security through marriage. These women are used, abused and then discarded – leaving them even more vulnerable than before.
If there is such a thing as this sexual jihad, of young radicalised women willingly providing sexual comfort for extremist groups – and I am not saying there is or isn’t – it is something the current Prevent agenda in the UK is not addressing, nor are our political, community or religious leaders.
It is known that a British woman holding extremist views was at the heart of the attacks on the shopping centre in Nairobi. I have known young teenage women in Iran who were part of the MKO at the time of terrorist bombings in Tehran, Qum and across the country. I managed to talk them out of the organisation, without having committed anything serious – but I can easily picture them as being susceptible to this type of ‘jihad’. They were wanting to be a part of a radical movement, and would have done anything for it.
Current endeavours for building peace in the region, for prevention of radicalisation and growth of extremist ideas both in the UK and abroad tend to exclude women, when UN and wider academic studies have demonstrated not only the effectiveness but also the vital necessity of inclusion of women at all levels of negotiations. Women have been very much the victims of these events and must be included in finding solutions.