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 United States continues to focus on improving the lives of American women, let us not forget those who cannot even have a man arrested for violence against them.”
Gendered Persecution by Country
While our research for the 2019 World Watch List shows that gendered persecution is particularly prevalent in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Colombia, and the Central African Republic, here’s a quick look at what’s happening to female believers in several of the countries on the 2019 World Watch List:
The exposure of Christian women in Egypt to discrimination, threats of violence and aggression occurs on multiple levels. Broader political, socio-economic and cultural factors ranging from domestic violence to recent increased Islamist radicalism and political upheaval also provide a context for how Christian women in Egypt are treated. It’s is clear that the intersection between gender and religion in Egypt is leveraged to deliberately intimidate and weaken the church there.
Women are mostly victim to abduction, rape and divorce. An Open Doors researcher notes: “Some believers will also face the challenge of living without marriage. In Ethiopia, women comprise the majority of churches. “But, these women would not find husbands. And the community and their relatives will pressure/insult them,” church leaders explained.
Christian women in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan face compounded vulnerability from both cultural inequalities and religious persecution. The situation of all women in Iraq is exacerbated by the current conflict and insecurity of the region. The targeting of Christian women in Iraq can be deliberately used as a strategy to weaken or even destroy the church in the short and long term.
After decades of armed conflict and organized crime, coupled with a strongly “macho” culture, women in Colombia continue to face a great deal of violence and pressure. While this is not necessarily a direct result of their Christian faith, women face danger when their faith compels them to not submit to armed and criminal group. In addition, for those who are from indigenous communities, becoming a Christian can be seen as a betrayal of the indigenous beliefs and way of life, prompting action from the community against women and girls who convert.
Women in the Central African Republic (CAR) have gone from a traditional, pre-colonial position of being viewed as cherished educators of the next generation with economic influence to being deeply disadvantaged members of society. In a country with the world’s second-lowest gross domestic product, they face violence and exploitation, including strategic mass rape by armed groups and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers.
They also have the lowest levels of female literacy and the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. Even in the church, widespread cohabitation and the blaming and suspicion of women leaves them deeply vulnerable in a community where they should be safest, particularly if they have been traumatized by war and sexual violence. This undermines the entire Christian community, leaving it far more vulnerable to external pressures because its own core is fragile.
A journalist who conducted an in-depth investigation of the situation for Christian females in Tunisia comments: “Tunisian Christians face discrimination and targeting that is often obscure and hidden to the public eye. It affects their day-to-day lives. Because of their Christian identities, many experience job insecurity, abandonment from family, friends and even fiancés. They are victims of verbal, mental and physical abuse.”
Women who convert to Christianity are often threatened with rape or forced marriage.
Women and girls have often been abducted and subjected to sexual assault and rape—the common practice of both Boko Haram and Fulani Muslim herdsmen. Many are also forced into marriage with non-Christians.
Laws that permit under-age marriage in some states (as well the existence of cultural and religious norms that discourage girls from attending school) only contributes to this problem. The persecution of women and girls has a detrimental effect on the church and Christian families. In addition to the great emotional toll and social cost, in some communities where widows are the main bread winners of the famil, such persecution of women also affects the economic well-being of the community.
Horrific statistics continue to indicate that an estimated 700 Pakistani Christian girls and women are abducted each year, often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men. This involves forced conversions as well, and if a Christian family is bold enough to challenge the abduction and marriage, they often face accusations of harassing the “voluntarily converted” girl and her new family. A report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan found that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu communities are forced to marry Muslim men every year.
The forms of persecution women and girls are particularly subject to include molestation, rape, physical and verbal abuse, attempted murder, forced participation in Hindu rituals; isolation, and expulsion from their home. Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has announced the launch of the “bahu lao-beti bachao” campaign. Under it, they “protect Hindu boys who marry Muslim or Christian girls” and create awareness among Hindu families “to protect their girls from falling in love or getting married to Muslim or Christian boys.”
Persecution is gender-blind, especially in this country. Given the very weak role women play in Afghan society, women who convert to the Christian faith are prone to even more pressure and harassment than men. However, because conversions are kept as secret as possible, women are able to live their newfound faith, bringing their husbands and whole families to Christ.
Given the very strict interpretation of Islam in the Maldives, there is no difference in the ways women and men are persecuted: Once they are discovered as converts, every effort will be made to bring converts back to Islam. However in general, women and girls are more vulnerable because despite the closely-knit social control on the islands, abuse, rape and sexual harassment are surprisingly common. Christian women are affected by this as well.
Christian women and girls are also subjected to physical violence, but it comes gradually after emotional and mental torture. In an initial phase, they are emotionally tortured by immediate family members (such as husband, in-laws and parents). Gradually, the mental and physical torture starts until finally they are regarded as social outcasts by family and community.
This process makes them vulnerable and victims of sexual oppression. Nepal is a patriarchal society where girls have less opportunities. Education and exposure to wider society are minimal. Females are limited within the boundaries of home with a large amount of household duties. Those who become Christians do so mainly through witnessing healings and miracles in their own or closest family life.
Due to cultural reasons, new female converts find it more difficult to follow their faith. Furthermore, women and girls are often subject to cultural dress codes or certain traditions (for example, in Hindu communities, to continue wearing certain religious symbols, etc.). If the female convert comes from a Muslim background and clings to her newfound faith, she is more at risk of being forced into marriage with a Muslim than a male convert.
When Christian women and girls—not just converts—are subject to persecution, their families are more reluctant to send them out for any church-related work again. Also, if there has been any kind of sexual assault due to their faith, most often it would be considered a shame on the whole family—also impacting those girls’ prospects for marriage in the village.