ISIS protesters

Women hold a banner during a demonstration marking the first anniversary of ISIS' surge on Yazidis of the town of Sinjar, in front of the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, August 3, 2015.

Credit:

Denis Balibouse/Reuters

ISIS uses the violation of women as a tool to govern, hold territory and fund its operation. Women are captured by the terror group and auctioned off or promised to upcoming recruits. In some rare cases they are rescued by a heroic group of lawyers and activists, but by and large, this system of sex slavery is a gruesome reality for thousands of young women.

ISIS has implemented a deeply rooted system of sex slavery involving the women of the Yazidi religious minority — many were captured while they were trying to flee Sinjar Mountain last August. After their capture, they were shipped on a fleet of buses to a set of holding pens in the city of Mosul and other areas within Iraq. It was there where many of them heard the word “sabaya” for the first time.

“They all describe this really chilling and horrifying moment when they realize what it means — it means slave,” says Rukmini Callimachi, foreign correspondent for The New York Times who conducted interviews with 21 women and girls who recently escaped ISIS.

Though tens of thousands of Yazidis have been able to find their freedom, community leaders estimate that more than 3,000 Yazidis are still being held captive by ISIS.

“ISIS has essentially created a bureaucracy of slavery,” says Callimachi. “Women who are taken captive are bought and sold by fighters. At the moment of the purchase, there’s a contract, and the contract is in fact notarized by an Islamic State-run court.”

If and when an ISIS militant decides to free a woman from sexual slavery, Callimachi says they’re given an emancipation document from the ISIS "government," authenticating their release.

“It really reminds you of what you used to see in America in the 1800s in the South, where a person could become a freed slave and would essentially have a document stating that,” she says.

ISIS handlers within the self-proclaimed caliphate have spread the word about the prevalence of sex slaves and often use it as a recruiting tool.

“It’s particularly appealing to men, for example, from Gulf countries, who come from a very conservative society where dating is taboo and casual sex is essentially forbidden, and where marriage is off bounds to people who don’t have a lot of means,” says Callimachi. “In order to marry, you have to be able to pay a dowry, provide for your family, and have a house. Within those strictures you can see how this system, where you can come and essentially buy a poor girl for very little, would be a bonus.”

Callimachi says she spoke with one woman who was freed by a Libyan ISIS jihadist because he was heading out to complete a suicide mission.

“There is Islamic scripture that states that is virtuous to free a slave, so knowing that he was about to die, he gave her the certificate,” Callimachi says. “It did allow her to cross almost all of the checkpoints from very deep inside rural Syria and all the way back to Iraq. However, the last checkpoint, which would have taken her to safety, was one that she would not have been able to cross. But at least from there she had enough freedom of movement and was able to go to a shop, buy herself a phone and call her family. They then paid for a smuggler to get her the rest of the way to safety.”

Though some of these women are able to escape the cruel grips of this slavery system, those that do must grapple with a new, brutal reality after their release.

“It’s been a really long time since I’ve done interviews this dark,” says Callimachi. “It’s absolutely crushing what has happened to them. They were treated like — I don’t even want to say animals because animals aren’t treated this way. They were treated like nothing. The fact that there is a theological justification for what was done to them, I think that’s what they and I find most disturbing about this.”

By claiming support from the Koran, ISIS codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria.

“They were told over and over again, ‘What we are doing to you is halal, what we are doing to you is allowed, and is not just allowed, but it is seen as good and virtuous in the eyes of God,’” says Callimachi.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

A previous version of this story misspelled Rukmini Callimachi's first name.

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