Women worldwide face sex-based religious persecution

A panel discussion at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., June 2022. A panel discussion at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., June 2022. | Katie Yoder/CNA

Religious women around the world suffer unique forms of violence and persecution because of their sex — and their ability to give birth to future generations. 

“When we talk about persecution of religious minority women and girls, we always talk about double vulnerability,” Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab, a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of Coalition for Genocide Response, told CNA. “Vulnerability because of their religion or belief and, in addition, vulnerability because of their sex.”

Ochab, along with other human rights advocates, spoke with CNA about the persecution of women belonging to religious minorities at the International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington, D.C., June 28-30.

These women, simply because they are women, face horrors from rape and forced marriage to forced birth control and sterilization. This type of persecution is not a product of the past; rather, it is ongoing.

At the IRF Summit, advocates focused on modern-day examples: Christian women in Nigeria; the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Burma (also known as Myanmar); Shia Hazaras, an ethnic-religious minority in Afghanistan; Uyghurs, a predominantly-Muslim ethnic minority in China; and the Yazidis, an ethnic-religious minority in Iraq.

Some also pointed to the suffering of women and girls in countries such as Pakistan and Ukraine.

David Alton — a British parliamentarian, human-rights advocate, and lifelong Catholic — compared these women to those “at the foot of the cross” who refused to flee.

Many of these advocates called for assistance for these tortured women, while, at the same time, urging that perpetrators should be held accountable to prevent future atrocities. 

Persecution ‘overlooked’

Women, particularly those belonging to religious minorities, suffer from unique forms of persecution, advocates agreed.

“In general, when we talk about kind of gender and genocide, we tend to minimize or overlook the experiences of women and girls,” Naomi Kikoler, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide said, adding that women and girls experience persecution “in a very particular and acute way.”

As an example, she pointed to Yazidi women suffering from sexual violence committed by the Islamic State. 

These perpetrators “are intentionally targeting women for these acts of violence because they're trying to change the future makeup of those communities,” she said. “They're trying to ensure that future Yazidi children are no longer Yazidi, but that they will be of a different faith.”

Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Katie Yoder/CNA
Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Katie Yoder/CNA

Kikoler also pointed to the Uyghur women in China facing forced birth control, forced implantations of IUDs, and forced sterilization in order to “restrict the reproductive capacity of a community.”

For a third example, she pointed to the targeting of certain hospitals and maternity hospitals in Afghanistan used by the Hazara Shi’a Muslim minority to give birth. 

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Azra Jafari, the first and only female mayor in Afghanistan, belongs to the Hazara ethnic group, which has endured oppression from the Taliban. From 2008-2014, she served as the mayor of Nili, a town in Daykundi province. 

Azra Jafari was mayor of Nili, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2014.
Azra Jafari was mayor of Nili, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2014.

Jafari spoke to CNA about the religious persecution that women face. 

“Unfortunately, most of the time women in religious countries always are bounded by the name of the religious,” she said. “Every bounding, rule, law, or regulation that they put on women in religious countries, they excuse it as the religion. So, they don't want women be in charge.” 

She pointed to her life as an example of introducing change, despite being discriminated against as both a woman and a Hazara. 

Another woman belonging to a minority group, Pari Ibrahim, spoke about the persecution of her people. A Yazidi, Ibrahim pointed to when the Islamic State arrived to “eradicate” the Yazidis of nothern Iraq in August 2014.

“The men were killed immediately and then the women had to suffer more and are still till this day suffering,” the founder and executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation said. 

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Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation. Katie Yoder/CNA
Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation. Katie Yoder/CNA

She said that the women were enslaved, raped, sold as sex slaves, forced to marry ISIS fighters.

“Unimaginable things happened to them and, yes, I see a difference in the sense that women are being used to harm the community as a whole more,” she said.

Ibrahim told the story of one Yazidi woman whom she helped. When she first met this woman, she saw that while her body was present, her soul was gone — dead. Ibrahim invited her to meet other Yazidi women, but this woman responded that she had nothing left to live for, with her family killed. Ibrahim eventually convinced her to come, and the experience changed her life. She decided to learn English. She decided to get involved in the community. 

While she once wore only black clothing, she now embraced color.

‘Foot of the cross’

David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, was a Member of the House of Commons for 18 years and, today, is an independent crossbench life peer in the House of Lords. Known for his human-rights advocacy, he teaches as a visiting professor and has written several books, including his most recent one on genocide that he wrote with Ochab.

Ewelina Ochab and David Alton, coauthors of 'State Responses to Crimes of Genocide: What Went Wrong and How to Change It'. Katie Yoder/CNA
Ewelina Ochab and David Alton, coauthors of 'State Responses to Crimes of Genocide: What Went Wrong and How to Change It'. Katie Yoder/CNA

Alton said that he recently attended the opening of an exhibition called “Tears of Gold” at the Palace of Westminster, which featured paintings of persecuted women by Hannah Thomas. It included Rohingya and Ukrainian women, he said. 

He recalled an image that deeply affected him, of a Christian woman from Nigeria who was attacked by the Fulani, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group.

The woman was raped, he said, twice — while eight months pregnant. Her husband was forced to watch. 

Still, this woman clung to her faith. And after the unspeakable pain, came hope.

“She miraculously gave birth to a child, a little girl who is a sign of hope in the midst of all that horror,” he said. “And they gave her the name Gloria because they wanted to give glory to God for her survival.”