The Islamic State’s Pattern of Sexual Violence: Ideology and Institutions, Policies and Practices

The Journal of Global Security Studies, Forthcoming

64 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2020 Last revised: 21 Aug 2020

See all articles by Mara Redlich Revkin

Mara Redlich Revkin

Duke University School of Law

Elisabeth Jean Wood

Yale University; Santa Fe Institute

Date Written: July 17, 2020


The Islamic State, which controlled significant territory in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017, engaged in a wide repertoire of violence against civilians living in these areas. Despite extensive media coverage and scholarly attention, the determinants of this pattern of violence remain poorly understood. We argue that, contrary to a widespread assumption that the Islamic State wielded violence indiscriminately, it systematically targeted different social groups with distinct forms of violence, including sexual violence. Our theory focuses on ideology, suggesting it is a necessary element of explanations of patterns of violence on the part of many armed actors. Ideologies, to varying extent, prescribe organizational policies that order or authorize particular forms of violence against specific social groups and institutions that regulate the conditions under which they occur. We find support for our theory in the case of sexual violence by the Islamic State by triangulating between several types of qualitative data: official documents; social media data generated by individuals in or near Islamic State-controlled areas; interviews with Syrians and Iraqis who have knowledge of the organization’s policies including victims of violence and former Islamic State combatants; and secondary sources including local Arabic-language newspapers. Consistent with our theory, we find that the organization adopted ideologically motivated policies that authorized certain forms of sexual violence, including sexual slavery and child marriage. Forms of violence that violated organizational policies but were nonetheless tolerated by many commanders also occurred and we find evidence of two such practices: gang rape of Yazidi women and forced marriage of Sunni Muslim women.

Keywords: Conflict, Political Violence, Sexual Violence, Islamic State

Suggested Citation

Revkin, Mara Redlich and Wood, Elisabeth Jean, The Islamic State’s Pattern of Sexual Violence: Ideology and Institutions, Policies and Practices (July 17, 2020). The Journal of Global Security Studies, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Mara Redlich Revkin (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States


Elisabeth Jean Wood

Yale University ( email )

493 College St
New Haven, CT CT 06520
United States

Santa Fe Institute

1399 Hyde Park Road
Santa Fe, NM 87501
United States

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