ISIS’ use of women as human shields typifies gender violence

The recent video footage of caged civilian captives in Damascus highlights two key aspects of modern warfare: the targeting of civilians and within that, the specific victimisation of women. The insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam or ‘Army of Islam’ captured around 400 civilians last week with the aim of using them as a human shield against airstrikes from Russian and Syrian military forces. Although the cages contained loyalist soldiers, the most remarkable sight was a cage full entirely of Alawite women, whose minority division of Shia Islam is that practised by President Bashar al-Assad and promoted by his regime.

As war is typically depicted as male-on-male, be it in the conflict of its political orchestrators or its physical manifestation of land combatants, there is a general reluctance to acknowledge that violence against women has come to characterise warfare since the latter half of the 20th century. Since 1945, 90 per cent of war victims have been civilians, with three in every four of these being women or children. While Jaysh al-Islam’s recent action is an abhorrent breach of international law, it ludicrously appears innocuous relative to the systematic perpetration of gendered violence in recent wars such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994. While the conflict’s death toll of around 800,000 people in 100 days is in itself historically unprecedented, the accompaniment of this massacre with the rape of around 500,000 women demonstrates the inextricably linked nature of brutality in war and violence against women.

Islamic State exemplifies this tragic synonymy. Last year their targeting of the Yazidi population of Iraq resulted in the torture, rape and sale into slavery of over 3,500 women and girls. Rape is another brutal weapon of war; it is a means of destroying communities by targeting their weakest element, and its effects, whether it be psychological trauma or pregnancy, invariably outlive the conflict which precipitated it.

Although largely absent from public knowledge, organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme are acting both to prevent such action in the first instance and to improve the lives of victims. Their official project to enhance the protection of female Syrian refugees has had success in providing victims of violence with counselling services and legal representation. Yet such organisations can only do so much to assuage the impact of violent behaviour. Despite a resolution by the UN Security Council in 2008 on ‘Women and Peace and Security’ – an explicit condemnation of violence against women and an assertion of its potential to constitute a war crime, violence against women still prevails in conflict. What is necessary is a fundamental metamorphosis of entrenched ideas about the position of women in society, but this proves impossible in places with such fervent and divergent extremist ideologies.

When advocating action for and awareness of violence precipitated against civilians in war, violence against men – especially that of a sexual nature, must be considered. As the majority of instances of sexual violence affect women, the notion of male perpetrator and female victim perpetuates.

Similarly, in societies where stereotypical ideas of masculinity abound and the stigma against sexual violence against men prevails, most male victims are self-silencing. This makes the task of supporting male victims a difficult one, but one which should be pursued more urgently and attentively than before. 

The casual use of women as shields by Jaysh al-Islam serves as a harsh reminder of the centrality of gender-based violence in modern warfare, and begs the wider question surrounding the targeting of civilians: why must perpetrators of military conflicts invoke brutality against the blameless and most vulnerable?

Image Credit: Jan Sefti

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