Iraqi Women Confronting ISIL: Protecting Women’s Rights in the Context of Conflict

Southwestern Journal of International Law, 22 Sw. J. Int'l L. 27

53 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2016

See all articles by Lisa Davis

Lisa Davis

CUNY School of Law; Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic

Date Written: April 26, 2016


In 2014, as Iraq was undergoing a steady rise in sectarian violence, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of several major cities. As militants moved into the country’s second largest city, Mosul, they immediately imposed their extremist agenda directly on the bodies of women, ordering them to fully cover themselves and stay at home. Within days, credible reports began emerging of ISIL fighters abducting and raping women.

ISIL militants have carried out grave human rights violations including execution, dismemberment, rape, sexual slavery, and flogging. Clerics affiliated with ISIL have issued fatwas calling for the “gifting” of women to the new Caliphate fighters, under the ISIL decree imposing “Jihad al-Nikah”. If the occupiers’ mission succeeds, a large part of Iraq and Syria would be ruled by a brutal militia that uses murder, torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment against those it deems as not adhering to its extremist interpretation of religion.

ISIL’s rise comes against a backdrop of long-running armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria where gender-based violence has been continuously present. Threats posed by ISIL and other militia groups should be understood as part of a continuum of violence and discrimination, in which gender rights suffer before, during, and after armed conflicts. These conflicts have not only increased the vulnerability of thousands of displaced persons to gender-based violence, they have also further entrenched structural and cultural violence against women and other marginalized persons. While all Iraqis face insecurity caused by terrorism and civil strife, women and girls experience additional, targeted abuse because of their gender.

Comprehensively addressing the rights and humanitarian needs of women and girls fleeing ISIL-controlled territories requires addressing pre-existing threats embedded in laws and social norms. Such a contextual analysis enables us to understand the ways that armed actors manipulate vulnerabilities created by prevailing gender-based discrimination to achieve their strategic ends. It also sheds light on sustainable solutions to long-standing human rights violations that have been exacerbated by conflict.

This article is based on extensive conversations and interviews with local Iraqi women’s rights activists, who are working to address and prevent gender-based violence and discrimination within the context of the conflict and in greater Iraq. It reflects their perspectives and strategies for addressing both immediate needs and long-term systemic change to enhance gender rights and protections. Local women’s rights organizations commonly work on critical issues in times of conflict, forging practical solutions, from law reform and implementation to changing societal norms and rebuilding a more just and sustainable society. They are comprised of women’s rights activists; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activists; journalists; service providers; lawyers; judges; academics; and human rights advocates. The women and men who come together through these organizations have survived war, political repression, and systemic discrimination. They possess unique expertise that allows them to best identify, meet the needs of, and to advocate for women, LGBT persons, and members of other marginalized communities they serve. They recognize that women are critical as civil society representatives and their work is often based on an analysis that bridges solutions for immediate violations with systemic root causes, producing a more lasting outcome. Yet, women throughout the world are rarely included in either formal conflict resolution or reconstruction processes facilitated by the international community. Iraq is no exception.

Keywords: ISIL, women, conflict, LGBT, Iraq, human rights law, international law, gender

JEL Classification: K33, N45, D74, D78

Suggested Citation

Davis, Lisa, Iraqi Women Confronting ISIL: Protecting Women’s Rights in the Context of Conflict (April 26, 2016). Southwestern Journal of International Law, 22 Sw. J. Int'l L. 27 , Available at SSRN:

Lisa Davis (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

Court Square Law Project
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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