Women on the Frontline

The appalling treatment of women and girls by the soldiers of Islamic State and other jihadist groups raises troubling questions about the historical relationship between military conflict and sexual violence.

Souls for sale: the slave market at Zabid, Yemen, by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, 1237

A news report in the Independent of September 11th, 2014 told of the case of a 14-year-old Yazidi girl who had been captured by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq, given as a gift to one of its commanders and threatened with rape and forced marriage. A video has also emerged, said to show ISIS fighters haggling over the price of captured Yazidi women during a ‘slave market day’. In Nigeria, meanwhile, hundreds of Christian women and girls in the north-east of the country have suffered a similar fate at the hands of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.

Such reports resonate strongly with powerful themes uncovered while undertaking my current historical research, which investigates the political and cultural significance of marriages and other sexual encounters between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian peninsula from the Islamic conquest in the early eighth century to the end of Muslim rule in 1492. Examining a wide range of sources, including legal documents, historical narratives, polemical and hagiographic works, poetry, music and visual art, it sheds light on the ways in which inter-faith couplings were perceived, tolerated or feared, depending upon the political and social contexts in which they occurred.

In early Islamic and even pre-Islamic culture it was considered honourable for a man to acquire a woman from another kin group by war or alliance. The institution of concubinage (that is, sexual cohabitation outside of marriage) was recognised by the Quran and enjoyed popularity throughout the Islamic world, with the acquisition of slave concubines regarded as an important status symbol. Islamic law laid down that a concubine who bore a child to her Muslim master could not be sold, would have the right to permanent residence in her master’s household and would be manumitted on his death, if not sooner. Their child would be regarded as a legitimate heir, whose legal and social status was equal to that of any siblings born to their father’s free wives.

In Iberia large numbers of Christian women and children fell into slavery in the aftermath of the regular military expeditions that were launched by Muslim armies against the Christian states of the north. In the poems that Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli composed to celebrate a string of Muslim military victories at the turn of the 11th century, he laid frequent emphasis on the capture of Christian women, whom he described as ‘herds of fat gazelles’. Women of high social status might be ransomed, but for the majority there was the prospect of a lifetime of servitude – be it in domestic service, agriculture or artisan workshops – either in Iberia or in other regions of the Islamic world. A smaller number were taken as concubines on account of their beauty, or their abilities as singers, dancers or reciters of poetry. Among the best known of these concubines was the Navarrese Christian known as Subh (d. 998). Recruited to the harem of al-Hakam II (r. 961-76), Subh bore the caliph two sons and it was through her influence that one of them later succeeded his father as Hisham II, for whom Subh initially acted as regent on account of her son’s young age. 

Although none of these women would necessarily have been obliged to renounce their faith, they were required to abide by Islamic social practices, such as those concerning ritual purity and dietary laws, and their children would have been brought up as Muslims. The social pressures to convert to Islam may have been considerable. The concubines who entered the harem of a caliph or another Muslim lord might live in some comfort, yet they could also suffer victimisation or even violence at the hands of their masters. For many, clearly, the experience must have been a deeply traumatic one. We should also be aware that this was by no means a one-way street: Muslims, too, were regularly enslaved in the course of Christian cross-border raids and forced concubinage was also commonplace in the northern kingdoms of Iberia. 

For the Muslim Umayyad rulers, who dominated the peninsula from the eighth until the early 11th centuries, the taking of concubines served an important political purpose. Marrying a Muslim woman necessitated paying a dowry, divorce might lead to a costly property settlement and there was even the risk that, through the dynastic link created, the wife’s family might eventually press its own claims to power. Procreating with concubines forestalled those concerns. It is striking that all the Umayyad rulers in Iberia between the eighth and 10th centuries were born to slave concubines rather than to Muslim married mothers. Similar patterns of reproductive politics can be glimpsed elsewhere in the Islamic world, for example among the Abbasid caliphs and the Ottoman sultans. 

The mass enslavement of Christian women and the recruitment of some of them as concubines to the harems of Muslim notables also constituted a tool of psychological warfare. The sexual use of female captives was aimed at destroying solidarity among Christian communities by inflicting shame on the women and on their male co-religionists who had failed to protect them. Moreover, the forcible uprooting of Christian women and children and their probable conversion to Islam in most cases was designed to encourage a process of assimilation and ensure a shift in cultural loyalties in the future.

Of course none of this was an exclusively medieval Iberian phenomenon. Organised sexual violence against women, with the intention of reinforcing a sense of humiliation among the vanquished, has been an integral aspect of military conduct throughout the ages. In a modern context, one need only recall the forcible recruitment of many thousands of ‘comfort women’ to Japanese-run brothels during the Second World War, or the mass rapes carried out during the Balkan and Rwandan conflicts of the 1990s, to list only some of the most shocking examples. In all such cases, sexual violence acts not only as a cruel outlet of violence for the aggressors, but also as a political metaphor, an emblem of military hegemony. The radical Islamist groups now active in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria are motivated by the same considerations, encouraged by the pronouncements of a handful of Islamic jurists for whom slavery remains an integral part of jihad. Sadly, as Ruth Seifert has observed: ‘In war zones women apparently always find themselves on the frontline.’

Simon Barton‘s Conquerors, Brides and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press.