Two years ago Aisha, a 28-year-old wife and mother of three from Nigeria (#12 on the 2019 World Watch List), found herself face to face with Fulani Islamic militants. During an attack on her northern Nigerian community of Kano, they had forced their way into her home. A Bible in the room was a sure sign, they thought, that Aisha’s husband was a pastor. Immediately, they grabbed him and took him away. Then the men demanded sex from her. When she refused, they beat her up. Two attackers raped her.
When Maizah* invited Christ into her heart, she also invited persecution. As a Muslim and as a young woman, leaving Islam and converting to Christianity was basically a death wish. In Libya, she was beaten by a group of bearded men, who offered for her to become the fourth wife of one of the Muslim men who had just attacked her. The attack and ultimatum—combined with the very real potential her own family could kill her if they knew about her conversion—gave her little choice. She fled her home. In her 20s, Maizah is still suffering from the traumatic experiences even after she finally found refuge in a Western country where she is now free to profess her Christian faith.
Rita, a Christian woman from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, was 26 when Islamic State militants invaded her town and took her captive. She was sold and bought four times as a sex slave before she was freed in 2017 and reunited with her father last April—almost four years since she was taken captive, four years after beatings, rape, mockery, intimidation, isolation.. the list goes on. IS militants, she says, see women as goods they can buy and sell and torture for disobedience.
Esther was 17 when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attacked her village of Gwoza in Nigeria’s Borno State and abducted her, taking her deep into the Sambisa Forest. In captivity, militants did everything they could to make the Christian girls renounce their faith. Determined to not give in, Esther was raped continually. In captivity, she conceived and had a daughter, Rebecca. When Esther was rescued a year later and returned to her community with Rebecca, she wasn’t prepared for the second phase of persecution she would endure, this time from her own community. “They called my baby ‘Boko,’” Esther says. People, even her own grandparents, were not so eager to welcome back the “Boko Haram women.”
Tragically, the examples of persecution and its devastating effects in these women’s stories are not uncommon.
Research for the newly released 2019 World Watch List surfaces some disturbing realities for Christian women and girls in countries where Christians are highly persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus. Around the world, Christians are targeted based not only on their faith but also their gender. Like Aisha, Maizah, Rita and Esther, increasing numbers of women face double vulnerability—because they are Christians and because they are female.
Persecution exploits all of a woman’s vulnerabilities, including (but not limited to): lack of education, healthcare, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. For someone who belongs to two minority groups, the compounded vulnerabilities can make life doubly difficult, even deadly.
TWICE AS MANY PERSECUTION TYPES
The research also found that Christian men and women experience persecution in very different ways. Notably, women face more physical violence than men in terms of the quantity and variety of forms violence can take. In fact, no overlap exists between the three most prevalent ways Christian men and women face pressure to abandon their faith.
For example, Christian men are most often subject to pressures related to work, military/militia conscription and non-sexual physical violence while Christian women are specifically and most frequently targeted through forced marriage, rape and other forms of sexual violence.
In addition to violent physical acts, persecution against Christian women also includes silent, often hidden and complex attacks such as shame, isolation, discrimination, and grief. On the surface, a woman’s persecution experience hardly shows, but as Hana, a Christian woman in Southwest Asia and one of Open Doors’ international guests for the launch of the 2019 World Watch List, points out, Christian girls and women have hidden, internal wounds that cannot be bandaged. Their persecution hides in plain sight.
A KEY TOOL TO DESTROY THE CHURCH
Whatever form it takes, the ultimate goal of all gender-specific persecution is to destroy the Christian community, say researchers Helene Fischer and Elizabeth Miller in their eye-opening report on gendered persecution. Fischer is women’s strategist and specialist at Open Doors International. Crimes committed against women are more likely to engender shame and ostracism than those committed against men. … And attackers rely upon this community response.
For example, the sexual assault of women like Aisha and Esther in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and Rita in Iraq by Islamic State is typically acknowledged as rape, but not as a tool of religious persecution. A study of both the demographics of victims and their testimonies of the words their attackers’ hurled at them leaves no doubt that at least one primary objective of Boko Haram and the Islamic State is to eradicate the Christian population by every means.
And they see women as a key tool.
“The persecutors seek to isolate women and teenage girls from the (Christian) community,” Fischer and Miller write. “[These women and young girls] are forced into a marriage with a non-Christian man.”
Forced marriage accomplishes several things: married to a Muslim, these women will not have a Christian family; and as the wife of a Muslim, they’ll move in with the husband’s family who will oversee her.
“That means no contact with the Christian community,” Fischer and Miller write. “A forced marriage is a very effective way to isolate women.”
They offer a helpful scenario: “Try to imagine a young teenage girl who gets to know Jesus Christ. She got a new life in Christ, a life-changing experience, experiencing the love of God for the first time. And then, suddenly, she is cut off of from all contact with other Christians and with Christian television. That is such a successful means of isolation, that it’s impossible to keep track of them.”
It’s so untraceable that no figures are known about how often this kind of situation happens to Christian girls and women.
During the 2019 World Watch List press conference, Hana from Southwest Asia shares firsthand observations about the far-reaching impact of persecution of Christian women: “Behind every story that he tells and she experiences, a community, a street, a city, a town, a country is affected when Christians are persecuted,” she says. “That’s how deep the impact goes. That’s how deep the marginalization and religious injustice and the breakdown of dignity of both women and men goes.”
The lower the status of women in a society, the worse the violence will be against women in persecuted groups. Open Doors CEO David Curry explains how living as second-class citizens in many countries exacerbates persecution: “To further complicate and degrade their value, Christian women specifically face an even greater challenge. They are targeted specifically for their faith and often are helpless to demand justice. As the world continues to focus on improving the lives of women, let us not forget those who cannot even have a man arrested for violence against them.”
Women are commonly seen as the ‘weaker sex’, vulnerable and in need of protection. But many women in the persecuted church have shown us that women can also be courageous and strong in the Lord, choosing to pick up their cross and follow Christ no matter the cost.
*Name changed for security reasons