Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Beyond the “Genderization” of War: Women, Religion, and the Future of Iraq

Christy Vines


By Christy Vines

September 22, 2015


The “genderization” of war is not a new phenomenon. Yet the rise of religiously motivated conflict has greatly exacerbated problems that women experience within the boundaries of war and conflict, and the Iraq crisis is exposing yet again the international community’s failure to fully understand and adequately respond to these realities.

In her poignant and highly charged article on the Islamic State’s persecution and murder of Iraq’s religious minorities, Mariz Tadros, author and fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, draws attention to the absence of a gendered framework within the growing conversations on Iraq’s religious and sectarian conflict. Over the last several months, the world has witnessed an almost unprecedented attack on the lives and bodies of thousands of Iraq’s women—in particular those of the Yazidi and Christian faiths—by the Islamic State, with little in place to ensure a swift end. 

Tadros’s cries for action and justice highlight the vulnerability of women in war and the influence of religion on both the nature of violent conflict and its outcomes. For religious minority women in Iraq, the Islamic State metes out special tortures in a strategic pursuit of an Islamic caliphate. Among them is jihad al nikah, the controversial practice of sexual intercourse with religious fighters for the establishment of Islamic rule. In this case, however, women are being forced into sexual acts rather than volunteering themselves to further the caliphate.[1]

This crisis involves complex issues at the intersection of religion and gender—issues that, as Tadros rightly notes, have been conspicuously absent from the agendas of most mainstream women’s empowerment and rights groups, and to an even greater extent from foreign policy and security strategy conversations:

“The case being made here is not one of who is a greater victim or who is worthy of more limelight, nor is the intention behind examining the predicament of women belonging to religious minorities to drive greater divisiveness and sectarianism, rather it is one of recognition.”

However, as the Islamic State continues its advance across large swathes of Iraqi territory, leaving in its wake a path of destruction, violence, and despair for the country’s religious minority women, “recognition” is not enough, nor can it become an end in itself. Rather it must be the beginning of a broader conversation about how to empower these very women to act and to build preemptive capacity against the Islamic State and its ilk.

This will require an immediate response and the development of a global framework that moves us beyond the status quo.

Concerted and coordinated multi-faith, multi-sector, and cross-gender action is needed. Governments, international agencies, women’s and human rights organizations must establish mechanisms to ensure the security and safety of Iraq’s minority women. Stakeholders must develop a comprehensive strategy with a clearly identified end state that includes the interests of all Iraqi people, with particular emphasis on the needs of women who will serve as the architects of Iraq’s cultural and religious future.

This strategic course can no longer depend on the siloed work of government engagement, nor rest within grassroots efforts. A secure and stable Iraqi future will require an approach where all stakeholders—government and grassroots, inside and outside Iraq—come together in a safe space to discuss the means to the ends they seek. And if government is unable or unwilling to initiate the creation of this safe space, civil society must be prepared to take the lead.

Though leadership is requisite for Iraq’s future stability, it cannot rest within the existing patriarchal power structures alone. Lasting stability will be incumbent upon the leadership of women, and it will require resources and trainings such that Iraqi women are equipped to serve as leaders within and outside their homes, neighborhoods, and religious communities.

However, the religious aspect of Iraqi women’s identities cannot be overlooked. The future resiliency of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi state will depend on the strength of women across the faith dimension and must be a part of policymakers’ prescriptions for stopping violence. Iraq’s religious women have born the greatest weight of the conflict and must be provided platforms for leadership within religious contexts such that their voices resonate more deeply across Iraq’s badly divided society.

The spotlight today is on Iraq, but policymakers need to initiate a broader, global conversation on the issues of religion, conflict, and women’s rights. The plight of Christian and Yazidi women in Iraq is a glaring example of the issues that religious minority women face around the world. This global phenomenon necessitates a renewed global dialogue—one that recognizes the role of religion in the rights and security of women. Therein, policymakers can truly make a difference, ensuring that dialogue is not an end in itself, but an immediate prelude to action.


- Christy Vines is Executive Director of the Center for Women, Faith & Leadership and the Global Center of Excellence on Religion & Gender at the Institute for Global Engagement in Washington, DC.

[1] The Clarion Project. "ISIS Issues Orders in Mosul: Give Over Girls for 'Sex Jihad'". 2014-06-29. Retrieved 2014-09-02


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”