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The Islamic State Is Waging a Campaign of Executions Against Educated Iraqi Women

Islamic State militants are specifically targeting educated and politically active women, killing them for being secular or for alleged crimes like adultery or lack of modesty.
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In late July last summer, gunmen entered a home in the Iraqi town of Sderat belonging to a woman who had run for provincial office in the last election. They killed the one-time political candidate and kidnapped her husband.

On the same day in the nearby city of Mosul, which the Islamic State (IS) terror group seized in June, armed men raided the home of another female politician who had run in the general election, kidnapping her. She has not been seen since.


This pair of incidents followed the murder just a day earlier of another female candidate in Sderat — an act that the United Nations says was carried out by IS or an affiliated group — and preceded the September assassination of Iraqi human rights lawyer Sameera Salih Ali Al-Nuaimy, who was taken from her home in front of her husband and three children and later executed outside of Mosul's Governorate building by a masked firing squad.

As this pattern of attacks against politically active Iraqi women suggests, such incidents are not isolated occurrences in areas under IS control. The UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) acknowledged last week that professional women are at particular risk of being targeted by the radical Islamists — especially those who have run for office.

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According to a press briefing delivered by OHCHR spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, the agency has received word of numerous women being executed by IS in Mosul and other areas of its stronghold in Iraq. She said that reports indicated that three female lawyers had been executed in just the first two weeks of 2015.

"ISIL has been characterized by the sheer brutality of its attacks on the most vulnerable sectors of society, including women, children, and ethnic and religious communities," Shamdasani said in a statement to VICE News, referring to IS by an alternate name.


She added that in many cases the executions take place immediately after sentences are handed down in hastily conducted trials.

"ISIL has established unlawful, so-called 'sharia courts' in the territory under its control that have been meting out cruel and inhuman punishments to men, women, and children accused of violating the group's extremist interpretations of Islamic sharia law, or for suspected disloyalty," said Shamdasani.

These episodes have prompted reports in local and international media outlets since the militant group moved in and took over large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq last summer. Beyond executions, the OHCHR says that more than 2,200 women and children are being held in various prisons throughout IS territory, including one in Mosul and another in the nearby town of Tal Afar.

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Amber Khan, the senior communications director at Women for Women International, told VICE News that the UN statement highlights "how women in war can be targeted in a variety of ways."

"We're talking about women who are exercising their rights and their voice," she said, adding that the focus on politically active women underscores the threat that exists for educated women around the world.

According to Khan, information from colleagues and partners on the ground indicates that attacks against women by IS have increased, and specifically target those who are young and educated.


What they are hearing from women who have fled from Mosul, which Khan said was a relatively conservative area prior to IS invasion, is that "the level of restrictions and segregation that women are facing have escalated to a level that have placed hardships on women of all ages."

In Mosul, an IS announcement in August demanded that all women cover themselves from head-to-toe, threatening severe punishment for those who do not abide by the directive. It was a restriction much stricter than the cultural norm in the city before the IS ascendance.

"It's not a concept or practice that existed in the city prior," Khan said.

The militant group has also barred women from being in public without a male guardian. Middle East national security expert Sherifa Zuhur told VICE News that the regulation essentially allows IS to persecute any woman who is unaccompanied by a man, treating them as though they were a suspect or target. Many women are of course being left alone and widowed because men and husbands are fighting and dying in battles in Iraq and Syria.

Khan said that one of the major challenges field workers with her organization are hearing from the ground and from women who have escaped is that widows are unable to carry out everyday tasks like going to the market. Women are restricted to their homes in many cases, otherwise they risk being attacked. For women who have continued to work, workplaces are now segregated.


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Zuhur suggested that IS is strategically targeting professional women in its territory. She explained that it does not necessarily want to be known as a group that is randomly cruel to women. Instead, the militants base the killing of a professional or educated woman on charges of her being secular, or focusing on alleged crimes like adultery or lack of modesty, instead of solely on the fact that she is politically involved or has a college degree.

"It's been a somewhat delicate game for them in Syria, of not going so far as to spark local protests," she said.

While the level of violence is considered extreme, the actions have roots in earlier Islamic extremist groups like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda branch in Iraq.

"This is a really dangerous situation for professional women, one that goes far back," Zuhur explained, adding that these precedents contributed to the fact that executions against both men and women have been carried out since the early days of the IS power grab.

Women apparently take advantage of the chaos of airstrikes and other flare-ups to escape while militants are distracted. But the challenges continue even after the women flee — once they arrive at refugee camps, those who have experienced extreme violence and in many cases have been raped are in need of treatment. Khan's group has focused on creating safe spaces for psychosocial support.

"The culture of shame and the culture of trauma that exists, not only in Iraq, but everywhere, is a global challenge for any women who are victims of violence," Khan said.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB