I can’t get them out of my mind. Can’t stop wondering what has become of them? Can’t stop trying to imagine how they face day after day after day in captivity? I’m talking about the 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the countless women and girls in Syria and Iraq subjected by ISIS to circumstances unbearable to contemplate, let alone endure.
The hope in October that the Nigerian girls might be freed was dashed when a Boko Haram leader declared triumphantly that the girls had been converted to Islam and married off soon after an announced ceasefire collapsed. “The issue of the girls is long forgotten because I have long ago married them off,” he laughed in a video message.
According to Human Rights Watch as reported in USA TODAY recently, about 500 young women have been abducted in the past five years. In December over 100 more were taken from their village. Some kidnapped girls have managed to escape, but the majority of them remain in captivity. Victims and witnesses to the abductions report physical and sexual abuse, rape, forced labor and beatings. We are talking about teenagers.
To make matters worse, the Nigerian government, headed by a president with a big black hat who goes by the name Goodluck Johnathan, has done little if anything to find out where the girls are. According to Human Rights Watch, escaped girls have never been interviewed by government officials nor has any kind of rigorous government investigation taken place. Meanwhile the president in the silly black hat hopes to be re-elected.
In Iraq and Syria the situation for women and girls is even more desperate. Thousands of Yazidi women have been abducted and subjected to unspeakable physical and sexual violence. According to Nazand Begikhani, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s Center for Gender and Violence Research in England, the horrific treatment of women by ISIS must be treated as genocide.
Here is just one 19-year old woman’s account as reported by CNN. “They put us in trucks and drove us away. … They separated me along with other young ones and ordered us to stay while taking away the elderly women. The man I was given to raped me several times and left me in the room on my on. I was shaking from pain and fear…Suddenly another man came and did what he wanted to do despite me crying and begging him, kissing his foot to leave me alone…”
Women like this are systematically separated by age and appearance, forced to convert to Islam, and subjected to various forms of physical and sexual violence, including sexual slavery. They are sold like cattle, complete with price tags, in markets in Iraq and Syria. Their price ranges between $25 and $1,000. If they resist they are killed. Some become pregnant pariahs, open to honor killings. Many are subjected to genital mutilation. Some commit suicide.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, (whom I had the privilege of interviewing after her 2007 release for solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison) has asked why ISIS’s cruelty toward women gets such scant attention in the world’s media while beheadings and executions of captured men are front and center in the news. “Why,” she asks, “are there no demonstrations in Western and Muslim societies against this barbaric onslaught on women and girls?”
Once again when it comes to resisting, exposing and ending violations of women and their human rights, women are taking the lead. In both Iraq and Syria they have taken up arms, organized civil protests, and tried to warn the world about ISIS. According to Frida Ghitis, a columnist writing for CNN, a woman is leading Kurdish forces in Kobani and more than a third of Kurdish troops in Syria are women. They do it, she says, “because women have more to lose than anyone else.”
They do it because of reports like this from a Kurdish woman who got hold of a cell phone. “Please bomb us,” she begged. “There is no life after this. I’m going to kill myself anyway. …I’ve been raped 30 times and it’s not even lunchtime. I can’t go to the toilet. Please bomb us.”
Brutality such as the beheading of westerners needs to be reported, of course. But where is this woman’s story being told? Why do she, and multitudes more women like her, remain invisible in the story, and the stopping of unimaginable terrorism on a medieval scale? As Haleh Esfandiari asks, “how much longer will the world watch these horrors against women and children before speaking out and acting forcefully to protect them and rid the [world] of such calamity?”