By Matthew Barber
NPR recently aired an important and heart-wrenching story from Jane Arraf about Yazidi mothers now freed from IS captivity who are forced to abandon their young jihadist-fathered children. I recommend listening (see below) to the entire audio of the segment and not merely reading its transcript.
This story raises a number of important issues that deserve additional discussion.
Due to certain religious positions and social norms, Yazidi mothers are being made to choose between remaining in captivity or returning to their families in Iraq while leaving their new children behind. As the Genocide began in Aug. 2014, Yazidi women who were enslaved were able to begin giving birth as early as April 2015 to children fathered by jihadist captors or civilian Arab “owners” who had purchased them. (“Fathered” is a strange word to use since the men who initiated these pregnancies—many of whom are now dead—generally gave little thought to serving as fathers.) This means that the children whom Yazidi mothers must choose to remain with or abandon are now up to four years old.
This is not a new phenomenon in this Genocide, though it is recently becoming more visible. As early as 2015-2016 when I was working in Iraq, I was aware of cases where contact was being successfully maintained between Yazidi rescuers and certain enslaved girls in Mosul, the location of the girls was known, and rescue plans were in place. However, the girls (in the occasional cases I am referring to—not the majority of viable rescues) were refusing to be rescued because they had already given birth to children and did not want to be separated from them. They knew that it would not be possible to return to Yazidi society and keep their children.
The woman interviewed by Arraf in the NPR piece states: “If I wanted to stay with my son, I would have had to stay with ISIS. I was told they take the children away from their mothers.” Her understanding is correct and her fears justified—many Yazidi mothers have been forced to give up the children they have borne as a result of their enslavement. The numbers of these are more likely around several hundred, however, rather than the thousands proposed by one of the women Arraf interviewed. Additionally, many women have been forced by their families to undergo abortions after being rescued. Rescues began almost as early as the enslavement began, so these abortions have been taking place since the first year of the Genocide. Some women who were pregnant when rescued but too far along in their pregnancy to have safe abortions were made to give up their children after carrying them full term.
Not All Mothers Want the Same Thing
In 2016, the Independent reported on the case of a girl who was made to give up her newborn boy after having been rescued. The article did not provide many details as to what happened to the infant, but it gave the sense that the girl viewed the infant as a member of IS and not as her own child.
This raises another important point: the attitudes and experiences of Yazidi women who have mothered children of jihadists vary. Though more attention is understandably being given to the cases where women do not want to give up their children, it is also the case that some women have not wanted to keep the children that they bore due to rape and enslavement. These women have willingly given the children up when prompted to, have themselves sought out the means by which they could give them up, or have willingly undergone abortions. On the other hand are the women whose experiences parallel those of the woman interviewed by Arraf who was absolutely devastated to abandon her son Ibrahim. Mothers wanting to keep their children have sometimes fought tenaciously to do so, resisting their families and the norms of the Yazidi community; this effort, however, is usually unsuccessful.
The family is typically the agent of coercion in cases where women who prefer to keep their children are forced to give them up. Children left in Syria are cared for by the PYD. Those given up in Iraq wind up in orphanages administered by the central government in Mosul or Baghdad (see this article and this article).
The problems facing children fathered by jihadists in Iraq extend far beyond the Yazidi community and the orphanages mentioned above contain children from Sunni mothers and those of other communities. In addition to the dozen or so journalistic articles that have been published on this issue (see examples here and here), a master’s thesis has also been written on children born of rape in Iraq. However, it is important to understand that many aspects of this problem as faced by the Yazidi community are unique and not shared by other communities. This means that calls for the children to simply be accepted into the Yazidi community overlook the range of complexities that belie any straightforward solution.
Avoidance of the Problem
This is an issue that the Yazidi community has largely avoided discussing or bringing attention to. Some Yazidis worry that giving attention to the children produced through enslavement will distract from the much larger number of Yazidi children who were kidnapped in 2014 and who remain missing today.
In response to this tendency, it should be emphasized that looking at the problem of children fathered by jihadists does not necessitate turning away from the Yazidi children who remain missing. We can also understand why resentment would manifest within the Yazidi community when concern suddenly mounts over the children of jihadists while so many Yazidi children remain un-searched for after years of pleading with the international community and Iraqi government to locate and rescue them and so many other aspects of the genocide recovery process remain neglected, unaddressed, and unresolved. Still, I think that it is important for Yazidi leaders to recognize that all human beings deserve care and compassion, and concern for children produced through sexual enslavement does not imply a reduction of concern for the welfare of the kidnapped Yazidi children who remain missing.
Why Is It Difficult for the Yazidi Community to Accept These Children?
First of all, Yazidi religious tradition contains doctrinal positions holding that only a person whose parents are both Yazidi can be considered a Yazidi. In other words, if someone has a non-Yazidi parent—whether the father or the mother—they are not a Yazidi.
This precept is related to the fact that Yazidism does not admit converts—no one who was not born a Yazidi can become a Yazidi. Therefore it is impossible (as Yazidi doctrine is currently formulated) for a child with a non-Yazidi parent to be made a Yazidi and brought into the fold.
There is historical evidence that this position was not always a feature of Yazidi religion. Sources point to the conversion of non-Yazidis to Yazidism four centuries ago. This would mean that the proscription against in-conversion evolved later in Yazidi history.
Proscriptions against in-conversion are a trait of a number of religious minorities within Muslim-majority societies. Druze, Alawis, Yazidis, and Iran-based Zoroastrians all developed such positions at some point in their respective histories.
These proscriptions probably developed in response to Islamic doctrinal positions. Islam does not allow out-conversion and even mandates the death penalty for someone who leaves Islam. This can create a significant degree of discomfort, insecurity, and distress among Muslim families and communities when one of their members leaves Islam—no one wants to have to kill their family member. In such instances, therefore, animosity can be directed against a religious community receiving the convert. This has remained an issue primarily for Christians who, technically, have never instituted a proscription on receiving converts (though in practice they have sometimes avoided receiving converts in Middle Eastern countries out of fear). Instituting proscriptions against accepting converts was a way for minority communities to publicly demonstrate to the Muslim majority that they posed no threat to their religious interests. It’s tantamount to saying: “Not only will we not proselytize you, we will not even accept anyone who attempts to convert to our tradition.” By averring that they presented no competition to Islam, a vulnerable minority could further its own security.
In the case of the Yazidis, this position evolved into a doctrine involving conceptions of purity of sacred bloodlines that should not be mixed. (This even involves caste and sub-caste groupings within the Yazidi community that are not allowed to intermarry.) This issue has become a problem for Yazidis in the modern era as diaspora communities have grown. Germany contains the largest Yazidi diaspora and some Yazidi men have begun secret families with German women. These men travel back to Iraq to visit the Yazidi community but never bring their wives/children with them. Reform-minded Yazidi intellectuals have proposed some modifications to Yazidi doctrine on this matter, but so far without success.
Beyond the issue of parentage, a Yazidi—male or female—who has sex with a non-Yazidi is—according to Yazidi doctrine—considered no longer Yazidi. This has to do with the fact that culturally, intercourse and marriage are intertwined in legitimizing each other; a Yazidi who has sex with a non-Yazidi is viewed in the same way as if they had married a non-Yazidi, which, of course, results in their departure from Yazidism.
This is an area of the tradition that the Yazidi religious establishment had to confront after the Genocide began. Yazidi religious authorities issued a public statement that all enslaved women would be welcomed home as Yazidis and were not to be condemned for the rape that they were in no way responsible for. (This has not meant the end of all stigma and some women returning from enslavement have been denigrated; this largely depends on the emotional culture that varies at the level of the individual family.) It was the scope and public nature of the enslavement crisis that prompted this response from the religious authorities; this was not an isolated instance of rape that could have been hushed up, swept under the rug, or dealt with by shunning as typically happens.
Though this was an important step of social progress, receiving the children of jihadists into the Yazidi community has been a problem area that has proven too challenging for Yazidi religious authorities to reform. Such a step would: 1) upset the entire formulation of Yazidi identity; 2) dismantle long-established Yazidi religious doctrine; 3) simultaneously result in the opening of the door to in-converts, in turn creating a case for Yazidis who want to marry outside of the community—something the community has not yet been ready to tackle; and 4) potentially create new tensions with the majority Muslim population.
Beyond all of these deeply embedded and practical problems, it would understandably be difficult for children fathered by the same IS jihadists who tried to exterminate the community to grow up within the Yazidi community with acceptance rather than shame, abuse, and insults. However, the fact that this problem poses unique religious and identity challenges for Yazidis makes it even more difficult for them to accommodate these children than would be the case for another community surviving a genocide or a comparable scenario of wartime sexual violence.
Pointing this out is in no way meant to excuse or justify the problem; this is merely the reality as it currently stands, which leads to the impossible choice for the mothers profiled in Jane Arraf’s segment.
Responsibility Does Not Lie Solely With the Yazidis
While holding in mind all of the limitations described above, it is also imperative to recognize that Islamic religious norms and their impact on social custom and the legal system also carry responsibility in this picture. First of all, even if the Yazidi community were willing to raise these children as Yazidis, the doctrinal position of the Muslim majority holds that any person with a Muslim father is automatically a Muslim. It is, therefore, not only the Yazidis who consider these children to be non-Yazidis.
The Iraqi state implements this religious position through a long-established practice of refusing to grant a national ID card displaying affiliation with any non-Muslim religion to a person whose father is a Muslim (or even whose mother converted to Islam during the individual’s childhood). In other words, according to legal practice in Iraq, the Yazidis would likely find it impossible to incorporate these children into the Yazidi community even if their own cultural factors did not present impediments to such an option.
Yazidis speak frequently about women who remain missing even after the liberation of IS-held areas; however, it must be acknowledged that a number of these cases involve women who are choosing the children they have birthed and raised over their own return to Yazidi society.
Some of these mothers—who do not see a viable future within the Yazidi community while keeping their children—will live the rest of their lives as Muslims and will raise their children as Arabs and Muslims.
Remaining in their forced marriages could be considered a “choice,” but it is, of course, due to a lack of alternatives. The choices that people must make after all choice has been stripped from them are indeed unthinkable and we must remember who was responsible for this Genocide. In other words, the dilemmas that the Yazidi community is unprepared to tackle were not brought about by Yazidi actions.
Of course, not all Yazidi women who remain in captivity are doing so by choice and it should be recognized that the end of IS-held territory does not mean the end of Yazidi enslavement. Many women—whether they have given birth to children or not—are kept in situations that still constitute imprisonment, even if they were purchased by ordinary Arab men (i.e. not IS fighters). They can remain trapped in a domestic environment, shielded from knowledge of the outside world, and kept unaware even now that IS rule has been eliminated.
If in the future these women are rescued, those among them who have given birth to children and raised them for several years will also face the same heartbreaking dilemmas being experienced now by those who are reconnecting with the outside world.
A Partial Solution
The result of all of this is the heartbreaking reality that can be heard in the sobs of mothers and children in Arraf’s NPR segment.
But before blaming the Yazidis for callousness, it should be considered how incredibly difficult it is for a traumatized and displaced people—whose access to education and basic resources is now even worse than had already been the case in their highly provincial context—to tackle these reform problems amid their struggle to survive a genocide.
Nevertheless, Yazidi leaders should advocate for women who want to keep their children and facilitate their migration to countries where they can raise their children outside of the Yazidi community.
Western countries can assist in this situation by creating programs to resettle those Yazidi mothers who want to keep their non-Yazidi children, and the Yazidi community should respect the wishes of the women. Whether a woman wants to give up her child for adoption or to keep her child, her decision should be accommodated on an individual basis. The Yazidi Genocide served to rob women of all agency; if their wishes are ignored by their families and community upon their return to so-called “freedom,” the hell of the Genocide merely continues for them. The community must place the welfare of the survivors over its larger concerns regarding its image, norms, and desires to force a return to normalcy.
Amid the impossible choices being faced by these mothers and the lack of clear solutions to the problem, what must be remembered is that many of these children are anything but unwanted.
This article was published by Syria Comment