Rejected: the Iraqi children fathered by Islamic State rapists

A dispute is raging in Iraq over the future of children born to Yazidi women who were abducted and raped by Islamic State fighters.

The Yazidis are a non-Muslim minority centred mainly around Sinjar in northern Iraq who follow their own distinctive religion. To maintain what they see as the "purity" of their community they don't accept converts and are forbidden to marry non-Yazidis. If a Yazidi woman is unfortunate enough to be raped by a non-Yazidi she is considered impure – and excommunicated.

When IS forces captured Sinjar in 2014, thousands of Yazidis fled and others were killed or taken prisoner. Young women among the captives were often forced to convert to Islam and become sex slaves for IS fighters. Some of them – thought to number several hundreds – have since given birth to children whose fathers belonged to IS.

The question now is what to do about them, and it raises some fundamental issues regarding patriarchy, discriminatory religious practices and the rights of mothers and their children.

Since IS was driven out of Sinjar some of the expelled Yazidis have been accepted back – including some of the women who were raped. Their return was approved by the Yazidis' spiritual leader who recognised that their sexual relations with IS fighters had occurred under duress. Given the conservative traditions of the Yazidi community, though, it was a radical step that prompted controversy.

There was also a catch. While the women themselves could return they were not allowed to bring any children with them who had been fathered by IS members. This rejection of the children was based on a rule that no one can be accepted in the Yazidi community unless both parents are Yazidis too.

The Iraqi authorities don't regard the children as Yazidis either. Legally-speaking, they are Muslims because Iraqi law says children automatically inherit the religion of their father (see previous blog post).

Last Wednesday, under pressure to resolve the matter, the Yazidis' Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement saying it would welcome "all the survivors" of the onslaught by IS, "considering that what happened to them was against their will". A note posted on Facebook to accompany the statement said this included "the Yazidi women survivors and their children".

The Spiritual Council's original statement issued on Wednesday

The Spiritual Council's statement was widely interpreted as a decision to accept the children fathered by IS men into the Yazidi community. Whether or not that was the intention, it provoked a backlash.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a journalist/researcher who has been following developments closely, writes that although Yazidi women tended to welcome the announcement "the online and offline discourse regarding the decision, dominated by men, was overwhelmingly negative". 

One comment quoted by Tsurkov, from a man in Sinjar, said: "How can a Yazidi welcome a child descendant of ISIS who fought and slaughtered the same family? This is the beginning of the end of pure Yazidi identity." Others have suggested the children would be so stigmatised that they would not be able to marry when they grow up.

On Saturday, in the face of complaints, the Spiritual Council back-tracked and issued a second statement headed "Clarification". It said the previously-mentioned welcome for "survivors and their children" applied only to children who had been forced to flee with their Yazidi parents, and not to those who had been "born as a result of rape".

Based on that, the fate of children brought into the world by the forced union of Yazidi women with IS men seems as far from being resolved as it ever was. The Islamic State may be gone but the after-effects of its reign in Iraq look set to cause misery for years to come.

The Spiritual Council's