ISIS Relies on Birth Control

ISIS fighters rape thousands of girls and women every day. A barbaric sex trade is not only legal under the Islamic State, but also “integral” to their operations.[1] In March, the New York Times published an article exploring the role birth control plays in this horrific system. The title pretty much sums up the situation: “To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control.”[2]

Although there are almost no other limitations on sex slavery (e.g. there are no prohibitions against raping children), an obscure Islamic code prohibits these rapists from having intercourse with a slave who is pregnant.[3] Before raping his sex slave, a man must perform an “istibra,” which is the process of “making sure the womb is empty.”[4]  These days, members of ISIS most commonly accomplish this by forcing the enslaved girls and women to take pregnancy tests, one or more forms of birth control, and possibly even to have abortions. The author of this NYT article, Rukmini Callimachi, writes, “[t]he prohibition surrounding pregnancy is perhaps the only instance when the codes that the jihadists were applying lined up with the concerns of their victims, who dreaded carrying their rapists’ children.”[5] Reading Callimachi’s use of the word “perhaps” as an invitation, I would like to propose that this prohibition does not, in fact, “line up” with the victims’ interest in avoiding pregnancy.

This code has nothing to do with pregnancy prevention, or any of the victims’ other interests for that matter. According to Islamic law experts, this prohibition was simply instituted to prevent questions about a child’s paternity.[6] Think about it: according to the code, the only women who cannot be raped have, by definition, already been raped. Furthermore, rapists’ interest in attacking is so deep that some often disregard the code and rape women even if they are pregnant or might be pregnant. [7]   All too often, a rapist’s desire to rape is stronger than a rapist’s interest in whether or not their victim becomes pregnant.

Just as the rapists’ interest is so deep that some are willing to break the code, the victims’ interest in self-defense is so deep that some prefer to carry their rapists’ babies. As one woman who escaped from slavery explained, some feel “lucky” to be pregnant because sometimes their owners will refrain from raping them during those nine months.[8] That said, I do not mean to suggest that women who are relieved when they find out they are not pregnant have any less of a desire for self-defense.   Avoiding pregnancy is just one of a sex slave’s innumerable concerns. As Callimachi summarizes, “a positive test [means] they were carrying their abuser’s child; a negative result would allow Islamic State fighters to continue raping them.”[9] One situation is hardly less of a human rights violation than the other, and under no circumstances is it fair to ask a woman which of these nightmares she would prefer.

Nothing in ISIS’ system alleviates any of their victims’ fears. Not even birth control. Callimachi stated that becoming pregnant with her rapist’s child was “the one thing [an ISIS sex slave] needn’t have worried about.”[10] It’s absurd to think that women on birth control don’t have to worry about pregnancy. Let us not forget that birth control fails, and, no matter how badly you may desire it otherwise, there’s no way to guarantee that it won’t fail. Although doctors report that the pregnancy rates of these sex slaves are surprisingly low, they are not—and cannot be—zero.[11]

A system that allows people to be purchased like property and used like objects cannot have any legitimate claim to any interest “in common” with the interests of those people being purchased and used. Birth control cannot be the solution. Rapists want to rape and slaves want to be free. Nothing can serve both purposes. Not even birth control. These precious girls and women need to be freed from slavery, not merely to be given substances that empower their rapists to attack them.

Click here to access the original NYT article.


[2] This is the title of the online version of the article. The print version was titled, “ISIS’ System of Rape Relies on Birth Control.”


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Callimachi reports that junior ISIS fighters are more likely to break this code than senior ISIS commanders are.


[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The pregnancy rate of the enslaved Yazidi is about 5%. Ibid.

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