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Einstein once asked Freud, “Why war?” Freud replied, “Because man is what he is.”



Women: the spoils of a man’s conquest and a man’s war. 

Recently, news outlets, like Time Magazine, have uncovered the “culture of rape and sex slavery” amongst the Islamic State (ISIS). Due to this recent mass coverage, it would seem that ISIS’ use of rape and sexual slavery to consolidate power, as well as maintain and gain followers, is new. Something no other group, military, or state has ever done before.

In fact, however, it’s not.

I can personally think of several conflicts that are infamous for the sexual atrocities committed against women. During the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 women were raped. During the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), an estimated 60,000 women were raped: 40,000 during the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003): 60,000 in former Yugoslavia (1992-1995): and 200,000 in the Congo since conflict broke out in 1994. Unfortunately, I could go on.

History teaches us that sexual violence against women has long been a part of organized war, and occurred in every corner of the globe.


The Atlantic published a piece in 2014 that discussed rape during the United States Civil War in the late 1860s, suggesting that among Union military reports, an estimated 450 women brought cases to the military courts claiming they were raped by Union forces. A number that should be taken with a grain of salt, considering the taboo surrounding sexual assault at the time and the fact that U.S. laws regarding rape often made it socially difficult for women to come forward. The infamous “Rape of Nanjing” which occurred between December 1937 and March 1938, witnessed widespread murder and sexual assault of over 200,000 Chinese women and children by Japanese troops. Even during Biblical times, women of foreign enemies did not escape sexual assault. In the Old Testament, verses in the Book of Lamentations refer to rape as routine during war. In Lamentations 5:11 it states,“They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah,” following the siege of Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II.

 Einstein once asked Freud, “Why war?” Frued replied, “Because man is what he is.”

 In his book The Psychology of War, Lawrence L. LeShan writes:

“Psychological theories concerning man’s readiness to go to war are very old. In the classical world it was widely believed that all men desired power; that no matter how much power men had, they wanted more; and that this desire must inevitably lead to war.”

He also suggests there are economic theories of war, as leaders historically claimed the need for money and capital however, since the atrocities of World War II, war appears to cost more than the victor can hope to make in return. LeShan writes that even religion was unsuccessful in restricting war completely: “Not only has organized religion been unable to prevent war, it has been unable to control it or to prevent any sort of military action once a war has started.”
085007_1.tif. ** FILE **Legendary silent film actor/director Charlie Chaplin is shown in a scene from the 1940 film "The Great Dictator," his first film with dialogue, in this promotional photo. Chaplin plays the dual roles of a sweet-natured Jewish barber and a murderous Hitler-type dictator. Four of Chaplin's films "The Gold Rush," "The Great Dictator," "Modern Times," and "Limelight," are being released on DVD July 1, 2003, from Warner Home Video, as the first in a series of ten titles included in "The Chaplin Collection." (AP Photo/The Roy Export Company Establishment, HO)

He concludes:

“It is clear that war promises something to human beings, promises to fulfill some need or combination of needs that are at least close to universal.”

It seems to quell the human tension of “how to be both an individual and a part of something larger than oneself.” The psychology of war corresponds somewhat to the psychology of rape during war. In essence, a man who commits rape does so for several reasons, including the desire to feel powerful or “masculine,” and pressure stemming from a group or a superior, as well as biological superiority. As it’s a way, albeit horrendously, to reproduce.

What is perhaps so striking to us about ISIS is the way the group utilizes rape as a means to attract followers, and twists the religion it claims to follow to condone such actions.

The New York Times published an article on August 13, 2015, discussing this very topic. Yazidi women, in particular, have been raped and enslaved systematically by ISIS, codified by a religious fatwa issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department, that celebrates these acts as forms of ibadah or worship. “Non-believers,” like the Yazidi women, are considered almost sub-human, a spoil the ISIS fighters may enjoy for their efforts. The religious scriptures used to justify such acts are taken from antiquity; a world in which slavery was normal and women were considered, largely, the property of men. Similar religious and cultural practices can be found across the world. ISIS, however, interprets these as justifications for slavery and sexual assault in a modern world that has long attempted to shut out these actions, and define them as crimes against humanity.

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In the magazine, Dabiq, ISIS leaders have outlined “best practices” for slavery, written pages of commentary to justify it’s actions and even called on fighters to come and have their “spoils of war.” For men who feel powerless, live in sexually oppressed societies, desire property, etc. – the call is almost too irresistible. ISIS uses these women as means of payment and reward for its fighters. It has become a religiously sanctioned, bureaucratic system that appears different from anything witnessed in recent history.

However, as examined earlier, ISIS’ actions, no less terrifying, are not necessarily the exception, but the rule of war. UN Peacekeepers, as recently as this year, have been marred by allegations of supporting sex rings and widespread assault among the women they were meant to protect. Perhaps, the Bosnian War (1992-1995) offers us the most recent glimpse into sexual slavery as a means of control and genocide that mirrors ISIS’ actions. As Chris Hedges, a survivor from Sarajevo, wrote in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, “The Balkans saw the rise of rape camps, places where women were kept under guard and abused by Serbian paramilitary forces.” In fact, Bosnian Serb authorities officially encouraged rape.

Although this realization makes ISIS’ actions today, no less horrifying, it does make them easier to understand, and should evoke empathy and action for its victims.

In the past, rape and sexual assault against women during war was dismissed as something that was just a part of war. Today, we routinely dismiss the atrocities our forefathers committed during times of war, but become furious at the atrocities others committed. If we are to effectively combat ISIS’ rhetoric regarding slavery and rape, we have to come to terms with our own history and ask ourselves, “How could this madness still be happening?”

During the war in Iraq, reports of U.S. soldiers raping and abusing prisoners, including women, have come to light in recent years. Although not officially condoned and widely disapproved of, one cannot help but wonder, why did that even happen? What part of human psychology (or society), when it comes to war and conflict, encourages or at least ignores rape, and sexual assault?

War isn’t the only time rape occurs however, and it’s not isolated to just one region. The map below indicates police-reported rape cases from 2012. Taken simply, this map shows that rape essentially happens everywhere, even in countries without conflict. It is important to keep in mind however, that the statistics may be skewed in countries where the legal and social protections for women who report rape, are not as prevalent.


We are indeed hypocrites. Standing from afar, and condemning the atrocities, yet blissfully ignoring our domestic issues with rape and sexual assault. We’ve also failed to open our doors to its foreign victims. So far, most Iraqis uprooted due to the recent conflict remain internally displaced within Iraq, and therefore more likely to become victims once again. Most Syrian refugees have yet to be resettled, with Germany and Sweden notably accepting the most out of the European Union, the United States, and Canada combined.

The war against ISIS does not end once they are defeated militarily. The sexual assault and slavery it currently condones will affect hundreds of thousands of women, men and children for decades, and essentially, scar a generation. Today, victims of rape, and even former soldiers from the Bosnian war, are still reeling from its effects. Leaving a whole society that deals daily with suicide, depression, emotional recluse and mistrust.

The fact that rape is still prevalent today, as it was thousands of years ago, begs the questions: What’s wrong with us? Is sexual violence really a natural part of conflict?

Olof Palme, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, argued, “gender roles are the deepest cause of violence on earth.” Conflict is not the “primary normalizer of the extremes of masculine and feminine,” those roles bleed from the home into conflict, and help justify the objectification and subjection of women during conflict.

So, what’s wrong with us? Everything. Unless sexual violence, particularly against women, is seen as “political and public,” something that concerns all of society and is perpetuated by the “cult of masculinity,” it will never be eradicated. “Because man is what he is” should no longer be an excuse.

No. 914


Victoria Heath
Victoria is a former Program Editor for Women in Security at the NATO Association of Canada. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2013 with a BA, honours degree in History and Political Science with a focus on the Middle East and women's rights. She was a member of AmeriCorps from 2013-2014 working at Great Oaks Charter School in Newark, NJ as a tutor and advisor for high-risk students. Her interests in security, women's rights and defense issues originate from her family's background in the U.S. military and growing up abroad in the Middle East. She has done previous research in U.S. Foreign Policy and Congressional affairs at Project Vote Smart, as well as research in women's health and refugee issues for the Lutheran World Federation in Kakuma, Kenya. She is also the creator of the Migration and Policy Coalition at the University of Toronto and the Co-Chair of the MGA Crisis Simulation 2016. She is currently pursuing her MGA at the Munk School of Global Affairs and is expected to graduate in 2016. You can connect with her @victoria_heath7 on Twitter or send her an email at