Yazidi women and girls resist ISIS in creative ways

By — October 4, 2016

On September 16, Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi survivor of ISIS captivity, was appointed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as the Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. It was the first time the UN had bestowed the title on such a survivor.

On August 3, 2014, ISIS militants captured Murad from her village along with an estimated 5,000 other women and girls from throughout Sinjar. Since her escape, she has become a symbol of strength for the Yazidi community, including other survivors who now live in deplorable circumstances in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

While it is true that Yazidi women have been victimized by ISIS, the media portrayal of Murad and others like her has been disparaging, describing them with dehumanizing labels such as “sex slave” or “rape victims.” Not only is this unhelpful to their recovery, it denies the breadth of their experience and stories.

Nadia Murad tells her story during a December 2015 UN Security Council meeting on the maintenance of international peace and security and trafficking of persons in conflict. (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

I have lived in the Kurdish region of Iraq for most of the last decade, working on human trafficking, violence against women and girls, and other human rights issues. To say that Iraq is a difficult country in which to be female is an understatement, as women face oppression on a daily basis by relatives, criminal gangs, and armed groups at home and in public. Still, women work hard to survive under restrictive and abusive conditions and to try to advocate for change within a very limited, and very oppressive, space. And within this sphere, the stories of Yazidi women and girls are not just the stories of victims. They also tell of how strong these women and girls have been in the face of one of the world’s most aggressive militant groups.

I have worked with a number of Yazidi survivors, helping them to apply, for example, for emergency financial assistance through a U.S. State Department-funded program. To obtain the funding, we had to explain how the survivors had suffered religious persecution. A compelling narrative emerged as the women told stories of bravery, resistance in the face of forced conversions and violence, fearless attempts to protect their children, and courage when they escaped.

One woman I met was Ghazal*, who was 23 years old when ISIS attacked Iraq’s Mount Sinjar on August 3. Some of her relatives escaped, but ISIS militants captured Ghazal and her sisters just outside their village. Ghazal has a round face with bright brown eyes and light brown hair, and she smiled when she spoke about how she fought back against the men who’d trafficked her. I realized that more important to Ghazal was how she challenged her captors than how they abused her.

Ghazal tried to flee from ISIS at least four times over 11 months, knowing that if they caught her they would punish or even kill her. Nonetheless, she tried to run away when ISIS trafficked her to Syria. When she and three other girls left the house in which they were being forcibly held, ISIS shot at them, recaptured them, and then beat them severely, she said. Despite this terrifying ordeal, Ghazal refused to give up. When an ISIS emir threatened to “marry” her, she insulted him and spit in his face. He was so angry that he beat her until she lost consciousness, and then he sold her to another trafficker.

When ISIS began kidnapping Yazidi women in 2014, the women understood they were at risk of rape and other sexualized violence—because ISIS separated young women and girls within days of capture. Creatively, the women and girls took steps to avoid being separated and trafficked. Some of them rubbed mud on their faces; ISIS selected those with lighter skin. Others tried to make themselves ugly with self-inflicted pinpricks on their skin. Women fiercely tried to protect their children and, sometimes, even when faced with brutal armed militants, they’ve succeeded. With little time to strategize and even fewer resources available, women have managed to trick ISIS militants into passing over them.

Another woman I worked with was Khunaf*, who was 37 years old when ISIS militants abducted her along with her three daughters and a son. When Khunaf realized that ISIS militants were taking young girls, she saw the danger that her daughters, aged 10, 6 and 4, faced. She shaved their eyebrows and cut their hair short to try to make them look like boys.

Amal* was a quiet woman whose wrinkles and grey hair made her appear much older than her actual age of 43. ISIS killed 85 men in her extended family, including her husband and one of her sons, and abducted Amal and four other children. Amal was determined to hold on to her small children. She instructed her kids, she said, to behave as if something were wrong with them so ISIS would leave them alone. Her children pretended they were crazy, and her daughter in particular pretended she was disabled and could not walk. Amal kept up the charade and always carried her “disabled” daughter to the bathroom. Militants would laugh at them, saying “These ones are handicapped,” but they also left the girls alone with their mother.

These women and girls have found ways to resist and challenge male power and domination, even under the most difficult conditions of captivity and conflict.

But now that these survivors are free, they face many challenges. They live in displacement camps with limited access to quality health care and basic needs. They suffer the psychological effects of trauma with few mental health services. Many of their relatives are dead or in captivity, and their future is uncertain. They still contend with some issues of stigma and shame, yet there have been some positive steps to mitigate this fallout. As early as August 2014, the Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, issued a decision that said survivors should be welcomed home with honor. This kind of welcome was not the case historically when the Yazidi community had been attacked.   

When women fight back, when they leave, when they refuse to be silenced even in the face of such stigma and shame, they resist institutionalized oppression and injustice. Telling the world about survivors’ strength and courage can impact how they are viewed within their families, communities, and globally. If media, politicians, NGOs, and the Yazidi community are willing acknowledge these survivors as agents of change who are capable of transforming themselves and their community, it opens up many opportunities for meaningful change to take place. They can become educated and contribute in other ways to their communities. They can become peacemakers and negotiators; they can receive and mentor other survivors who return, helping them to integrate into displaced and broken families. Women and girls can lead, representing their community in local matters of governance, access to resources, and an eventual return to Sinjar. Narrating their stories of strength, courage, and resistance helps to reframe their experience from narrowly constructed stories of rape toward more balanced and realistic accounts of their experiences, elevating a more positive view of Yazidi women given what they have endured.

Resistance by Yazidi women and girls is a powerful expression of strength that should not be underestimated. These individual acts of resistance can be transformed into a movement for greater rights and recognition within the wider Yazidi community and the world at large. Nadia Murad has shown us how it is possible to transform yourself from a victim to a survivor and an activist. There is no reason why she should not be joined by the thousands of other women and girls who already have escaped, and continue to, from ISIS.

We too have a role to play. By conceiving of these brave women as survivors, and not only as victims, we can draw on their strength to help provide support where it is desperately needed.

*All names of women have been changed to protect their identity.