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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '20 & Jan '21



Sex, Shari’a1 and Shattered Souls: Examining the Intricate Dynamics of Theo-political Violence in Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq

Somedutta Mukherjee, Ph.D. Scholar, Dept. of English & Culture Studies, The University of Burdwan, West Bengal


Abstract: The article examines Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, which deals with the 2014 Sinjar massacre. The Sinjar province, situated in the northern mountainous regions of Iraq, is mostly inhabited by Yazidis. The province became a target of IS’s Theo-political violence, which dramatically changed the lives of the people living there for years. Rapes and mass-killings prevailed as part of IS’s strategic genocide. Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq records the oral history of this genocide. Probing deep into the testimonies, the article brings to light how violence was perpetrated by IS members in the name of religion, thereby, metaphorically shattering the innocent souls and converting the whole province into a wasteland. Exploring the intricate dynamics of politics, religion and violence, the article shows how IS exploited religious beliefs as part of their political strategy for strengthening their territorial hold upon the region.

Keywords: Sinjar, Theo-politics, Violence, Genocide, ISIS, Religion.


Cornered in a dead-end tunnel, with a robot creeping towards him, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had nowhere left to run. Dogs barked in the darkness, a US soldier called out … and then came the thundering explosion that killed the world’s most wanted man – together with three terrified children he was using as human shields. (Chulov)

The death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the former head of world’s most hated terrorist organization, ISIS, was thus reported in The Guardian. Although, one can never firmly claim that Baghdadi’s death will put an end to the organization’s workings, the world still rejoiced over the prospect of the termination of a heinous reign of terror. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is also known as Daesh, acquired global prominence in 2014 when it captured Mosul and Sinjar. Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, originally published in Arabic as Fi Suq al-Sabaya in 2017, was translated into English by Max Weiss and Mikhail herself in 2018. The book documents the oral history of the Yazidis who survived the Daesh attack on Sinjar. The testimonies are stringed together by the narrative of Abdullah Shrem, a former beekeeper, who, after 2014, devoted his whole attention to the rescue operation of the women and children abducted by IS. Claudia Card notes in her article, “Martial rape has become a political institution” (9). By close-reading the testimonies recorded in The Beekeeper of Sinjar, this paper seeks to show how religion also became such a ‘political institution’ in Daesh’s hand. Moreover, by deeply analyzing the narratives, this paper intends to foreground the complex relation existing between both these ‘political institutions’, namely sexual violence and religion.

As we all know, sexual violence against women go hand in hand with war. Martial rape has been a common practice to weaken the enemies. Whichever side may win, the fact remains that women on all sides suffer. Quite pertinently does Claudia Card state, “If there is one set of fundamental functions of rape, civilian or martial, it is to display, communicate, or produce and maintain dominance . . . Rape is a cross-cultural language of male domination” (7). Be it in the World Wars or the Vietnam War or the Gulf War, though the immediate targets were women, the actual intention behind was to debilitate the entire people___ an entire community, race or ethnic group. Coleen Kivlahan and Nate Ewigman
 opine that rape’s “goal is not to maim or kill one person but to control an entire sociopolitical process by crippling it. It is an attack directed equally against personal identity and cultural integrity” (468). Severing the bonds of family, community and culture is a common feature shared both by martial rape and genocidal rape. According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Genocide is the attempt to destroy a racial, ethnic, religious, or national group as such, in whole or in part, by committing any of a number of acts against the group's members; the acts include not only killing, but also causing serious bodily or mental harm, creating conditions of life intended to destroy the group physically, and imposing restrictions intended to prevent births within the group” (Whisnat). Therefore, genocidal rape is part of an organized strategy to wipe out the traces of a particular religious, cultural or ethnic group.

The 2014 Sinjar massacre cannot be categorized as a war proper. Rather, it should better be called an one sided attack on the minority communities; a genocidal attack to eliminate or ‘cleanse’ ethnic or religious groups whose faith differed from that of the attackers. Defeating the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga2 fighters, the Daeshi militants advanced to occupy the whole mountain region of Ninevah province of northern Iraq. After subjecting the people, especially the women of the region, to terrible humiliation and torture for almost a whole year, the ISIS militants were defeated by the US coalition forces and the Peshmerga fighters in 2015. Although the barbarity of the attack drew international attention towards the Yazidi plight, very few literary works have so far been produced which, to use the words of Cathy Caruth, have been able to capture the “voice that cries out from the wound” (qtd. in Krimmer 85). One of the best known among them is Nadia Murad’s award winning self-narrative The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State3. Wared Badr al-Salim’s Adhraa’ Sinjaar is another important work in Arabic, which provides a fictionalized representation of the Sinjar massacre. Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar is distinctive in that it is neither a fictional work, nor does it document the plight of a single victim. Rather, it documents the systematic violence carried out against the Yazidi population and some other minority groups (like the Iraqi Christians) too. Over phone, the Iraqi Oskar Schindler4, Abdullah Shrem kept telling Mikhail the harrowing accounts of the abducted women, whom he, along with his group of smugglers and helpers, was able to smuggle out of the clutches of Daesh and hand them over to their families. Sometimes Dunya Mikhail herself talked to the victims over phone and sometimes, she repeatedly listened to the recordings of the sufferers; all of which got transcribed and came out as The Beekeeper of Sinjar.

The Islamic State attacked the Yazidis on the pretext of converting them into Muslims. The Yazidis’ religious faith and customs differed from those of Islam. As Abdullah describes, “some people believe that we worship fire, but actually we worship light, which is why we face the sun when we pray . . . The sun deity was one of our Babylonian ancestors. There was democracy back then ___ people could choose which male or female God they wanted to worship” (Mikhail 16). But unfortunately, such ancient democracy waned and the Yazidis became the Pariahs of Iraq. Still, they were peacefully co-existing in the northern mountainous regions of Iraq with Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups, until the arrival of Daesh, who exploited people’s theological beliefs to achieve their political goals. By labeling all non-Muslims as ‘infidels’, Daesh took religious extremism to a different level. Very systematically, they singled out every non-Muslim family and marked their houses with red letters. The Christians were reduced to “N”, signifying Nasara5. Mikhail describes how they “were shaken out of sleep by megaphones blaring all over town that they had twenty-four hours to get out, and that they couldn’t take anything with them; and just like that, with the stroke of a red marker across their doors, they would have to abandon the houses they’d lived in for over 1,500 years. They’d leave their doors ajar and turn their backs on houses that would become Property of the Islamic State” (Mikhail 1). Similarly, the Yazidis were also given an ultimatum of leaving their houses or surrendering to Daesh and converting into Islam. Thus, religion or, better we should call it a distorted form of religion, became their tool of exploitation. They justified the raping and slaughtering of the non-Muslims by giving it the name of Jihad.

Jihad, in Arabic, signifies struggle. But sometimes, the word is wrongly translated as ‘holy war’. For example, Omar Ashour interprets Jihad as “theologically legitimate and instrumentally efficient method for sociopolitical change” (qtd. in Sedgwick 34), giving rise to confusions and misunderstandings. On the other hand, one who participates in Jihad is called a Mujahid. In Islam, a Mujahid is one who is not afraid of martyrdom for the sake of his religion. Therefore, Islam never instructs its followers to kill the non-believers. Rather, people like the ISIS members deliberately misinterpret religion to achieve certain personal and political goals. As Nadia, one of the Yazidi women who succeeded in escaping from Daesh, reveals:

. . . they took us to a school in Talafar where we stayed for eighteen days, studying Quran. They forced us to recite verses in that filthy place, even as we were dying of hunger and thirst. They told us that we were infidels, that we must convert to Islam because it’s “the true faith”, and that we’d have to get married. Then they transferred us to another building near Raqqa, in Syria, where they put us up for auction . . . The man who’d bought me told me I was now his wife. “Isn’t it forbidden to marry married women?” I asked him. “Not Yazidis”, he replied. (Mikhail 3-4)

It becomes quite evident that the Daesh members misused Islam to satisfy their personal interests; in this case, to satisfy sexual hunger by raping a married woman. Some Daeshis even went so far as to compare rape to worship. As one of the rescued Yazidi women asserts, when she questioned the justifiability of such misdeeds, her torturer replied, “he was doing the right thing, implementing shari’a law” (Mikhail 127). Even when he raped her, he justified it by saying that it was a kind of “worship” (Mikhail 127). Sometimes, the Daesh members exchanged the abducted women among themselves like objects; and all these heinous acts were justified in the name of God’s law. Abdullah, in his conversation with Dunya Mikhail, refers to such a justification given by a Daesh caliph, who says:

O my brothers, what don’t you understand? If we prevail against the enemy infidels, it’s only natural that everything should become our property. The people should be our spoils, our captives. What else would we do with the female captives if not distribute them to the jihadis? In order to create this system, we need to open a market where we can sell the sabaya6 and their children. Each head has a price. If the share of each jihadi is five people, for example, and if he didn’t need all of them but needed some money, what would he do? It’s simple. He would sell some of them at auction . . . Isn’t that just? (Mikhail 171)

Indeed, What a just reason to reduce women to the status of objects! Quite pertinently does Claudia Card opine, “martial rape aims to splinter families and alliances and to bind not women to men but warrior rapists to one another” (7). The same goes true for genocidal rapes also. Apart from other reasons, one basic reason behind such exchange of sabayas among Jihadis is to maintain a spirit solidarity and fraternity among the members.

However, the above quoted words of the Daesh Caliph also give us a hint of how they raised funds to keep their organizations going. Buying and selling captive women and their children in the sabaya markets became an important part of their economic policy. However, Daeshi fighters ran such slave markets online too. Showing an advertisement to Mikhail, Abdullah says:

This is a contract from a guy in Daesh advertising a ‘girl’ for sale in what they call the ‘sabaya market’ . . . It opens every day at specific times on Telegram, an encrypted messenger . . . There might be an announcement for a Quran recitation competition, for example, in which the prize is a young girl. (Mikhail 27)

This reveals how terrorist organizations misuse religion to achieve their political and economic goals. However, apart from selling female captives in the sabaya markets and confiscating the properties of the victims, Daesh had other sources of income too. In a conversation with Dunya Mikhail over phone, Raghda7, a rescued captive from Kocho, reveals how Daesh used her along with her children to make explosives:

RAGHDA: They sold us from one person to another, until Abu Jihad held onto us so that we could make rockets.
MIKHAIL: . . . How did you make them?
RAGHDA: We boiled them on the stove.
MIKHAIL: What were you boiling?
RAGHDA: Chemicals.
MIKHAIL: What were they exactly?
RAGHDA: Refined sugar powder and chemicals they told us they got near the
Turkish border.
MIKHAIL: How much time did it take to make the rockets?
RAGHDA: I made ten or twelve rockets a day for five months.
MIKHAIL: What kind of rockets? Did it have a shell or was it more like a grenade?
RAGHDA: It had a shell. They forced Rula and Hoshyar to make four rockets per day. If there was any defect in the rocket he’d beat them with electrical cables. That was the hardest thing for me. I wanted to kill myself. I pleaded with him not to beat them but he told me he didn’t care about anything but the rockets. (Mikhail 12-13)

Therefore, what becomes manifest is that the female captives not only suffered forced concubinage but were also used to give productive labour, thereby, unwillingly contributing to the enhancement of Daesh economy, and all these were conducted in the name of religion.

The Yazidi children were also not spared from the brutality of ISIS members. Whereas the infants were used as instruments of blackmailing their mothers into doing whatever Daesh wanted, the young girls were used as sex-slaves. Claudia, a Christian captive and a friend of Mikhail, recounts the horrible fate of a ten-year-old girl, named Lalish:

She was exceptionally beautiful. Her braid was still tied the way her mother had done it for her. They took her away at night, didn’t bring her back until morning. She came back with dried blood all over her feet. She was trying to walk but kept falling to the ground. She was naked, and they threw her clothes on top of her. (Mikhail 192)

On the other hand, young boys were separated from their families and sent to Daesh training centres, where they were fully brainwashed and indoctrinated by the leaders. As Abdullah reveals, when Kami, a female captive, got an opportunity to flee her captor’s house with his two sons, her elder son, fourteen-year-old Ragheb, straight away refused to accompany her, as, according to him, he had “a sacred mission under the leadership of the Islamic State” (Mikhail 85). Sometimes with death threats and sometimes by false promises, Daesh persuaded young boys into becoming members of the training camps, where they learnt “how to kill, how to chop off people’s heads” (Mikhail 78). As Abdullah describes, in Daesh camps:

They would also teach him Quran for two hours a day, and fiqh8 for another hour. They have classes on everything, from how to wash your hands to sex education, from impurity to handling an animal, from genetics to just about anything you can imagine ___ and things you can’t even imagine. And finally a personalized sermon to convince him to die for God, so that he’ll be rewarded in heaven. They have special passes to get into heaven that are handed out at the end. (Mikhail 78-79)

Influenced by false promises of a better afterlife, the young boys forget about their own families and start considering the instructions given by the leaders as their only goal of life, thereby, unknowingly, harming his own self and his people and helping the terrorist organization achieve its own political goals. Quite pertinently does Abdullah state:

It seems to me that the promise of paradise is the golden idea Daesh uses to win over young guys ___ using both modern and older means of communication and propaganda, as well as to linking the past of the caliphate with the promised paradise. And their chanting, along with the verses, raises the adrenaline level of the fighters so much that they forget everything but the black flag fluttering in front of them. (Mikhail 172)

However, the motivation for the adult Daesh members, as one of the Yazidi women points out, was sexual (Mikhail 133). As she says, “they would kill anyone in order to rape women. In the end, they would kill themselves to meet the houris9 in heaven (Mikhail 134). Therefore, these personalized crimes were nothing but a part of a larger genocidal strategy. Although Daesh claimed that they forcefully married and raped the ‘infidel’ women in order to convert them into Muslims and thereby to help them find a place in heaven after death, no such benevolent intention was proclaimed for the older women. However, the members of Islamic State were very good at fooling people. Very strategically, they separated the family members from each other in such a way so that no one could suspect them. For example, they separated the elderly women from rest of their family members saying, “elderly people need special treatment in a cool place” (Mikhail 48). Truly, which place on earth could be cooler than a grave? As Badia, a young Yazidi girl, rescued from the clasp of Daesh, reveals, “in the morning they took all the older women, even the pregnant ones, and killed them all. They dumped them into fish ponds in the courtyard of the institute, then heaped soil on top so that not a single one of them could possibly survive” (Mikhail 64). The adult Yazidi males were also brutally killed by Daesh. Initially they were given the choice to choose between converting to Islam and leaving their homeland. But soon the Yazidi men realized that they have been fooled by IS members and that they had no option except waiting for their horrible death. As Khalid, a Yazidi survivor, recounts:

. . . they took us to pits on the farm that were supposed to be our graves. . . They threw us down there in shifts. Every fifteen minutes they would lower down about a dozen men from the outcropping and open fire on them. They arranged us into rows, telling us to line up next to each other so it would be easier for them to shoot us . . . After they shouted Allahu Akbar10, the sound of gunfire rang out . . . (Mikhail 42).

Several such testimonies of how genocide in the name of religion was perpetrated abound the text. Mass killing and mass rape shattered the entire community. Even those who survived had to suffer the trauma throughout their lives. According to Cathy Caruth, "trauma ... is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, can not be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language" (qtd. in Hesford 196). We, as readers, cannot even imagine the pain of such traumatic survival, especially, of those women who become pregnant due to rape. Mikhail wonders:

Is that pregnant survivor going to get rid of her child? . . . If she has him, will he ever seem as beautiful in her eyes as other children are in the eyes of their mothers? Or would she always see him as a painful memory growing alongside her? Had his father ever been an innocent child or had he always been broken, oozing with poison? How had he learned to pray while he cut off people’s heads and raped young girls? (Mikhail 16)

Quite pertinently does Mikhail question the relation between religion and crime. Whatever its name might be, a religion ought to provide a sense of protection and peacefulness. What kind of religion is it that asks its followers to harm others? The answer is apparent. It is not the religion proper but a distorted form of it which, in the hands of people like the IS leaders, become an instrument of torturing others. It is not Islam, but the Daeshi Theo-politics, which urges its followers to kill people and rape innocent girls.

Despite the all-encompassing brutality surrounding their lives, the abducted women never gave up their spirit of resilience. Like the narjis flower, whose secret is that “even though it shrinks away when strong rains fall, as soon as the sun shines, it blooms back again” (Mikhail 147), the women never stopped trying to fight back. As Badia told Mikhail, to prevent being raped by Daeshis, she invented some tricks:

The first trick was to stop bathing for an entire month, until she smelled so bad that the fighters would stay away from her, refusing to buy her. The second trick was to claim that she was married, and that the little child beside her was her son. It took longer for married women to be sold. The third trick was to pretend she was pregnant in order to avoid being raped, even if only temporary. The fourth trick was to say that she’d just stepped outside with her girlfriend to get some air . . . The fifth trick was to ask permission to call “the American Emir”11, to make it clear that she was not trying to run away from him. (Mikhail 59)

Although it never meant that the tricks would always work and thereby protect the girls from being raped, at least, those tricks delayed the inevitable for some time. The book records numerous such moments when the victim was caught red handed attempting to escape from captivity and then was subjected to even harder cruelty. For example, when Nidal, a Yazidi captive, tried to escape, her captors tossed her two-year-old son from the balcony in front of her eyes. Mikhail also happened to talk to Nadia Murad, who asserted:
The daily routine for Daesh is taking drugs, reciting religious songs, going to fight, and then coming home and raping women. I ran away several times but I didn’t get away. They punished me by continuously gang-raping me until I lost consciousness. (Mikhail 172)

But the threat of such inhuman behavior could neither defeat the indomitable spirit of the Yazidi women of Iraq, nor could it stop people like Abdullah from trying to rescue the ‘stolen women’. The former beekeeper Abdullah “cultivated a hive of transporters and smugglers from both sexes to save our queens, the ones Daeshis call sabaya, sex slaves” (Mikhail 18). Thus, it could be said that inhumanity gave birth to such humane bonds, which were beyond any religion.

Unfortunately, these are the testimonies of those few women, who were able to escape from Daeshi captivity; the trauma and pain of thousands of other women, who were unable to escape, remain untold. Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq thus becomes a powerful narrative where history receives a literary touch. Every narrative is a harrowing tale of an individual’s plight. But when collectively read, they reveal the history of one of the most gruesome genocides of the world. A close reading of the text reveals how the terrorists have deliberately misused religion in order to strengthen their territorial hold upon the region. Using a personalized and distorted form of Islam, ISIS fighters literally turned Sinjar province of Iraq into a wasteland. IS’s torture and brutality shattered the innocent souls, transforming them into hollow men. I call this Theo-politics, as religion was misused by a certain group of people to achieve their political goals. Thus, in the hands of Daesh, religion, violence and politics got entangled in such a way that survival became an enigma. Still, the coming forth of the stories of Theo-political violence is an act of resistance against the violators of not only people but of religion itself.



1. Shari’a is Islamic law, based on the precepts of Quran and Hadith.
2. In Kurdish language, peshmerga means those who are not afraid of facing death. The Peshmerga fighters form an important part Kurdish army in Iraq.
3. In this book, Nadia Murad gives account of her period of captivity under ISIS. The publication of this book brought Nadia the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
4. During World War II, Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, is credited with the rescue of more than 1000 Jews from deportation to Nazi Auschwitz camp.
5. The Christians of Iraq were called Nasara by the ISIS followers.
6. The non-Muslim women captured by Daeshi fighters were called Sabayas. The sabayas were used as sex slaves and even bought and sold in sabaya markets.
7. Raghda was one of those women rescued by Abdullah from Daesh captivity. At the time of her telephonic conversation with Mikhail, Raghda was residing in a camp with her two children___ her three-year-old son Hoshyar and seven-year-old daughter Rula. Both these children were also forced to make explosives during their captivity.
8. Fiqh is the human understanding of the divine Islamic law. While Shari’a is thought to be unchangeable, fiqh is less rigid and depends on human interpretation.
9. In Islamic theological imagination, houris are young and beautiful virgin girls who reside in paradise. It is believed that those faithful Muslims, who follow the divine rules by heart, would ultimately be rewarded with the company of these houris in their afterlife.
10. God is the greatest.
11. A former elementary school teacher, the American man left his country and his family to join Daesh. He held quite a high rank in among the Daesh fighters. Badia tricked the public telephone owner by saying that she wanted to call the “American Emir”, when in actuality she was trying to get help from Abdullah.



Works Cited:

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Chulov, Martin. “Nowhere Left to Run: How the US Finally Caught up with ISIS Leader Baghdadi”. The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2019. caught-up-with-isis-leader-baghdadi. Accessed on 10 Nov. 2019.

Hesford, Wendy S. “Reading Rape Stories: Material Rhetoric and the Trauma of Representation.” College English, vol. 62, no. 2, National Council of Teachers of English, 1999, pp. 192-221. JSTOR,, Accessed on 9 Nov. 2019.

Kivlahan, Coleen, and Nate Ewigman. “Rape as a Weapon of War in Modern Conflicts: Families and Communities are Victims, As Well As Individuals”. British Medical Journal, vol. 341, no. 7771, BMJ, 2010, pp. 468-469. JSTOR,, Accessed on 7 Nov 2019.

Krimmer, Elisabeth. “Rape, the Second World War, and the Ethics of Reading.” The German Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, Wiley on Behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German, 2015, pp. 82-103. JSTOR,, Accessed on 11 Nov 2019.

Mikhail, Dunya. The Beekeeper of Sinjar: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. Translated by Dunya Mikhail and Max Weiss, Serpent’s Tail, 2018.

Sedgwick, Mark. “Jihadism, Narrow and Wide: The Dangers of Loose Use of an Important Term”. Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 9, no. 2, Terrorism Research Initiative, 2015, pp. 34-41. JSTOR,, Accessed on 12 Nov 2019.

Whisnat, Rebecca, “Feminist Perspectives on Rape.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2017,