Features, Feminism, Politics, Religion

Why Isn’t Sexual Slavery a Feminist Priority?

That Nadia Murad’s #StandforYazidiWomen campaign hasn’t captured the attention of Western feminists is an appalling oversight. Some of the most popular feminist topics on Twitter last year included equality for public nudity, sexism in the tech industry, and racial diversity for Oscar nominations. Yet the topic of global sexual slavery brings a scarcely believable absence of attention.

The Yazidis, viewed as devil worshippers by their captors, were overrun by ISIS in north-western Iraq in August 2014 in the beginning of what is now being recognised as a genocide. Most of the men and older women were instantly slaughtered. Thousands of younger women and girls were taken to the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’, where they were traded among Jihadists as sex slaves.

Nadia is a survivor of this mass sexual enslavement, and now a human rights advocate. Regarding her fight, Nadia said “I am continuing to do this, with resiliency, because millions of women and girls have no rights. Their lives were destroyed, and their lives will remain destroyed if we don’t say anything. To bring back their rights, we must speak up.”

In such areas of the world, it isn’t just ISIS responsible for the worst of crimes. The soldiers of Bashar al-Assad have engaged in a deliberate campaign of systematic rape and torture as a tool of widespread demoralisation. But within Western feminists circles, such crimes gain significantly less attention than online harassment, representation in the media, and the ‘gender pay gap’.


The bleak reality is that widespread Western condemnation may have no impact in improving the situation in Syria. Perhaps this is a situation that is beyond the influence of a populist Western revolt, and modern feminists are simply being situationally pragmatic. But if so, where are they on the issue of child marriage?

Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp

Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp

A recent move to ban child marriages in Pakistan was withdrawn, after the Council of Islamic Ideology dubbed the motion ‘blasphemous’. In May of 2014, this influential organisation confirmed its earlier ruling that girls as young as nine years old were eligible for marriage “if the signs of puberty are visible”.

My critique is not that feminists were found to support such medieval cruelty, but that there was virtually no response at all. This in a world where 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year.

I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that a nine year old girl cannot possibly consent to marriage. Therefore, I submit what should be a profoundly uncontroversial point in 2016; the reality of a marriage between a middle aged man and a nine year old girl is nothing less than the enslavement and systematic rape and torture of a child. If ever there were an example of a patriarchal practice, surely this is it. Yet how many times have you seen the term ‘patriarchy’ being used in this context?


The key issue here is not that feminists view sexual slavery as an issue unworthy of attention, but rather the widespread inability among progressively minded people to willingly engage in moral triage. When two patients are rushed to the emergency room, one with a broken nose and one with a bullet to the stomach — the lone on-call doctor must use triage to determine which case demands more attention. On the most pressing moral issues facing us today, we must also take responsibility for difficult choices. If each person had 10,000 hours to dedicate to feminist causes, and we had to split them between sexual slavery and Twitter abuse, what should be the ratio? This is an empirical question of meaning. We have limited resources with which to combat global injustices, and we cannot ethically allocate them equally among all issues.

There are wonderful charities dedicated to fighting female genital mutilation, human trafficking, and child marriage; many of which were doubtlessly started by feminists. Why doesn’t this translate to genuine global support? It’s important to state that #NotAllFeminists suffer from this sin of omission, but #FarTooManyFeminists do.

It’s true, I’m not a woman. So I can’t possibly know how it feels to be on the receiving end of virulent online attacks. But I also can’t possibly know how it feels to be on the receiving end of daily rape and torture. As Maajid Nawaz tirelessly argues, you don’t have to be black to condemn racism, nor gay to condemn homophobia, nor Muslim to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry, nor Jewish to condemn anti-Semitism. I’d add that we must be willing to make distinctions between relative horrors, particularly when those around us refuse to.

You might think this is all just too historically universal to gain a rush of attention, and that the real answer is in a bias we have to large scale current events. But a content analysis of social media reaction to the enormously pervasive Brock Turner case compared to the feminist ambivalence towards the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne would indicate that one captured American rapist is worthy of significantly more public attention than hundreds of uncaptured rapists in Germany. Comparing news stories on Turner and those on Yazidi women and girls reveals a similarly ghoulish trend in the media.

Moral relativism bears much responsibility, but it is clearly not the only factor. Away from atrocities committed by the likes of ISIS or Saudi Arabia is the world of commercial human trafficking. This happens everywhere, including the United States. Of the over 20 million adults and children bought and sold into commercial sexual slavery, women and girls make up 98% of the victims. Men of all ethnicities, committing the worst conceivable crimes on women and girls of all ethnicities. And yet, in quantitative terms of coverage, the interest of tackling sexism in video games absolutely dwarfs that of combating sex trafficking. How is this possible? (That wasn’t rhetorical. Please tell me. There’s a comment section below and everything).


In a classic philosophical thought experiment, Peter Singer asks the following: Imagine that one morning you’re walking past a pond, when you notice a child who appears to be drowning. To wade in and save the child would be easy, with only one issue; you’ve just purchased expensive new shoes, and if you jump in the water they’ll surely be ruined. Do you have an obligation to save the child? Unanimously, we answer yes. He follows up with asking, would it make a difference if the child were very far away, in another country perhaps, but equally within your means to save at no great cost? Again, almost all of us say yes. What Singer is getting at is our inability to give to charity in a manner consistent with our underlying ethical intuitions. However, we can, and should, apply this idea equally to our moral concern for all monstrous situations happening on the other side of the world.

It’s often said that in a century we may look back at our current day treatment of non-human animals in a similar light as we do other horrific practices of our frighteningly recent past. I think there’s every chance of that being correct. But at least on this front we acknowledge the possibility of our making an enormous ethical error. When sexual slavery exists, in various forms, in significant numbers, and without any signs of being abolished, this should be almost all any of us are talking about. It represents, without exaggeration, the height of possible suffering.

There’s a theory that the recent mass movements on college campuses are a response from a generation that doesn’t have their international battle to fight. The sixties and seventies demanded action on Vietnam. The eighties demanded action on apartheid South Africa. Today does not demand action on ‘micro-aggressions’, nor ‘triggering language’. Today demands action on global sexual slavery.


Keiran Harris is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne. You can follow him on Twitter @KeiranJHarris

Filed under: Features, Feminism, Politics, Religion


Keiran Harris is an Australian writer whose current focus is effective altruism – the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible.