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Parents of some of the victims of the 2014 Chibok kidnapping mourn their losses.

Voices / Column

Held captive, invisibly

Why are there no demonstrations in Western and Muslim societies against this barbaric onslaught on women and girls?

Elayne Clift writes monthly about women, politics, and social issues.

Saxtons River

I can’t get them out of my mind. Can’t stop wondering what has become of them. Can’t stop trying to imagine how they face day after day after day in captivity.

I’m talking about the hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the countless women and girls in Syria and Iraq subjected by ISIS to circumstances unbearable to contemplate, let alone endure.

The hope last year that the Nigerian girls might be freed was dashed when a Boko Haram leader declared triumphantly that the girls had been converted to Islam and married off soon after an announced ceasefire collapsed.

“The issue of the girls is long forgotten because I have long ago married them off,” he laughed in a video message.

According to Human Rights Watch as reported in USA Today in late 2014, about 500 young Nigerian women have been abducted since 2009. In December, more than 100 others were taken from their village.

Some kidnapped girls have managed to escape, but the majority of them remain in captivity. Victims and witnesses to the abductions report physical and sexual abuse, rape, forced labor, and beatings.

We are talking about teenagers.

To make matters worse, the Nigerian government, headed by a president with a big black hat who goes by the name Goodluck Jonathan, has done little if anything to find out where the girls are.

According to Human Rights Watch, escaped girls have never been interviewed by government officials, nor has any kind of rigorous government investigation taken place.

Meanwhile, the president in the silly black hat hopes to be re-elected.

* * *

In Iraq and Syria, the situation for women and girls is even more desperate. Thousands of Yazidi women have been abducted and subjected to unspeakable physical and sexual violence.

According to Nazand Begikhani, a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol’s Center for Gender and Violence Research in England, the horrific treatment of women by ISIS must be treated as genocide.

Here is just one woman’s account as reported by CNN:

“They put us in trucks and drove us away,” this 19-year-old woman said. “They separated me along with other young ones and ordered us to stay while taking away the elderly women.”

“The man I was given to raped me several times and left me in the room on my own. I was shaking from pain and fear....

“Suddenly, another man came and did what he wanted to do despite me crying and begging him, kissing his foot to leave me alone....”

Women like her are systematically separated by age and appearance, forced to convert to Islam, and subjected to various forms of physical and sexual violence, including sexual slavery.

They are sold like cattle, complete with price tags, in markets in Iraq and Syria. Their price ranges between $25 and $1,000.

If they resist, they are killed. Some become pregnant pariahs, open to honor killings. Many are subjected to genital mutilation. An increasing number commit suicide.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (whom I had the privilege of interviewing after her 2007 release from solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison), has asked why ISIS’s cruelty toward women gets such scant attention in the world’s media while beheadings and executions of captured men are front and center in the news.

“Why,” she asks, “are there no demonstrations in Western and Muslim societies against this barbaric onslaught on women and girls?”

* * *

Once again, when it comes to resisting, exposing, and ending violations of women and their human rights, women are taking the lead.

In both Iraq and Syria, women have taken up arms, organized civil protests, and tried to warn the world about ISIS.

According to Frida Ghitis, a columnist writing for CNN, a woman led Kurdish forces in Kobani and more than a third of Kurdish troops in Syria are women.

They do it, she says, “because women have more to lose than anyone else.”

They do it because of reports like this from a Kurdish woman who got hold of a cell phone:

“Please bomb us,” she begged. “There is no life after this. I’m going to kill myself anyway. [] I’ve been raped 30 times and it’s not even lunchtime. I can’t go to the toilet. Please bomb us.”

Brutality such as the beheading of westerners needs to be reported, of course. But where is this woman’s story being told? Why does she remain invisible in the story, as do multitudes more women like her?

And how do we stop the unimaginable terrorism on a medieval scale?

As Haleh Esfandiari asks, “How much longer will the world watch these horrors against women and children before speaking out and acting forcefully to protect them and rid the [world] of such calamity?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #293 (Wednesday, February 18, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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