By Brian E. Frydenborg
AMMAN—While much of human history—especially recent history—can been seen as a long, difficult road of progress in taming our more bestial, darker side, some of the worst of our behaviors—mass murder and mass rape—are far from eradicated even if they have been mitigated.
Two of the places where these terrible behaviors have been most prevalent globally in recent years are central Africa (home to the ongoing deadliest conflict since WWII) and the area that ISIS delusionally termed its “caliphate” (now just a rapidly shrinking fraction of its former peak area). So it is with little surprise that when the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award this year’s Peace Prize to highlight “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict” that the two recipients—Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad—came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq, respectively.
Below, we shall explore Nadia’s story and what it means for the Middle East.
Nadia Murad (Left), Denis Mukwege (R)
ISIS and Sexual Enslavement
After ISIS came to her small town of Kojo in Iraqi Kurdistan in early August, 2014, as part of their sweep into northern Iraq, it began mass executions and mass sexual enslavement. The town was home to a community of the little-known tiny religious minority, the Yazidis, most of whom live in Iraqi Kurdistan and worldwide probably only number between 500,000 and 700,000. Yazidis were especially targeted by ISIS, who thought of them as devil-worshipping pagan infidels worthy of only conversion to Sunni Islam, execution, or slavery, several of the very legal definitions of genocide. The religion’s settlements had been targeted by Islamic extremists before, including an attack that would turn out to be the worst terrorist attack of the entire Iraq War, killing over 500 and wounding over 1,500 and most likely carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia, ISIS’s precursor, almost exactly seven years before ISIS came to Nadia’s village.
The situation the Yazidis faced with the ISIS onslaught was so terrible that it even persuaded U.S. President Barack Obama—who had energetically campaigned and promised as a presidential candidate in 2007-2008 and even earlier to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq, who had withdrawn all U.S. forces from Iraq over two-and-a-half years earlier, who had soured on the idea of new military interventions in particular after the Libya experience, and who was loath specifically to involve U.S. forces in Iraq again—to reluctantly begin America’s anti-ISIS campaign with strikes against ISIS forces that surrounded and were advancing against some 40,000 Yazidis—trapped without food, water, shelter, or any defenses—who had fled to Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. They were just a fraction of the huge portion of Iraq’s Yazidis who were fleeing their homes from ISIS, fleeing along with hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis.
Yazidi celebration in Iraqi Kurdistan, April 17 2017 (AFP File Photo)
Out of an approximate population of some 400,000 Yazidis in that region of Iraq, one solid study estimates that some 2.5% of the population (nearly 10,000 people: (95% confidence interval range of 7,000–13,900) was either killed or kidnapped, with over 3,000 (95% confidence interval range of 2,100-4,400) killed and nearly 7,000 (95% confidence interval range of 4,200–10,800) kidnapped but with many of the kidnapped’s fates uncertain as of the publication of the study in mid-2017; the authors of the study caution, though, that because of limitations the numbers may actually be higher. Obama’s rapid U.S. military intervention with Kurdish assistance was the decisive factor in saving massive numbers of Yazidis then and later from horrific fates; without this military intervention, the number of dead Yazidis would have been far higher.
ISIS bygone days! (AFP)
If Nadia lost just one family member to ISIS's genocidal rampage against Yazidis, or if she were raped just once, that would be more suffering than anyone should ever bear and more than most of us have ever experienced or could truly imagine. But just within Nadia’s immediate family, six of her brothers were executed in cold blood, three others wounded but escaping with their lives; her older mother, deemed past ideal raping age, was later found in a mass grave with other older women; as two examples of the evils inflicted upon her extended family, one of her nieces was sold into sex slavery, and one of her nephews, then 11, was brainwashed into becoming a member of ISIS, with Nadia noting earlier this year that he was still a committed member of the terrorist group.
Nadia Murad uses her Twitter page to advocate against sexual violence (Twitter)
As for Nadia herself, she was corralled like an animal into her village’s single school with the village’s other younger women and underage girls while the town’s men were being executed, and was put into the rapeable-sex-slave category by ISIS, taken to a slave market, and sold as a sex-slave to an ISIS judge. While other women were forced wear the more extreme forms of the Islamic veil, the conservative young Nadia was made to wear heavy makeup and a sexy dress; then she was beaten and raped simultaneously. When she tried to escape, the judge made her strip naked, then had his six guards gang-rape her; eventually she fell into a state of unconsciousness as they continued to rape. She was forced to “convert” to Islam and suffered months of non-stop rape and beatings and other degradations, abuses, and humiliations, and deprived of food passed around from remorseless man to remorseless man, Nadia wishing her rapists would just kill her and end her misery as she saw her family killed or disappear and her world destroyed. She would write of this period:
“At some point, there was rape and nothing else. This becomes your normal day…You don’t know who will open the door next to attack you, just that it will happen and that tomorrow might be worse…There is only rape and the numbness that comes with accepting that this is now your life.”
Nadia eventually escaped. Though in her conservative culture it is customary for women who suffer from sexual abuse to avoid talking about it publicly, she has become a crusader for her people and for women in general who suffer from sexual abuse, even teaming up with famed human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (married to the actor George of the same surname) and addressing the United Nations multiple times, traveling around the world to seek both justice for victims and their ISIS tormentors. It is not an experience she enjoys or relishes; in her interviews she does not smile, in fact, she is clearly miserable recounting the hell of her enslavement, seeming to relive the horrors, trying to hold back tears or breaking down in tears repeatedly, the interviews difficult to watch; this includes an explosively emotional, deeply painful visit to her home village almost three years after ISIS enslaved her, shortly after it was liberated from ISIS; these interviews and public events are a sacrifice she makes to help others and in the cause of justice, no matter how much pain they cause her.
Raped Behind Closed Doors
Even setting aside the mass murder, what occurred at the hands of ISIS was horrific in terms of scale. But I have personally talked to women here in Amman who were raped behind closed doors by their husbands for years, beat up and horribly abused; their suffering did not occur in the midst of war, sectarianism, or ethnic strife, but in the process of everyday life, in the middle of residential neighborhoods in a major city. Such things happen all around the world, to famous actresses and journalists, as the #MeToo movement highlights, and in far more secretive and shadowy ways to waitresses, prisoners, housekeepers, farm workers, and others who are often too poor and desperate to find their voice, terrified of the risks, which could include jail or deportation or even worse. They happen in the United States (which just installed Brett Kavanaugh, a man credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults, as one of nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices without a serious investigation into those accusations) and India, and even in places like Sweden, so famous for being a world leader in women’s rights and gender equality and yet still a place where the sexual abuse characterized in Stieg Larsson’s famed Millennium (i.e., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) series can actually be based on real events there.
No place is immune. But the horrors of ISIS in Iraq and Syria do deserve special attention, and the research shows that sexual abuse and violence against women is more pervasive in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region than nearly every other region, and may actually be the highest because of huge issues of underreporting. Underreporting is understandable, as it is a region where families, societies, and cultures pressure victims to be silent and the traditional legal structures in place—often informed or partly-governed by Islamic sharia law that favors men—are far from attractive venues for women to pursue justice in places where they suffer far more general discrimination and disadvantages than many other places. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2017 noted that the MENA region had the worst overall gap of any region, and, excluding Israel, which ranked 44th best in the world for gender parity, the highest-ranking MENA country was Tunisia, at 117th out of 144 countries measured, while Yemen ranked dead last, and 14 of the bottom 20 countries were in the MENA region.
Far more men, especially, and more so than women (obviously), need to step up their game and become allies and fellow soldiers with women in the war against sexual abuse. Women in places of privilege, too, need to also evaluate their roles in perpetuating a system that oppresses women overall and especially those in far less privileged positions. This is far beyond the more limited #MeToo movement that has focused on Western white women in elite professions of privilege, and a reckoning in every country around the world is due.
But the problems women face are not of an equal depth and pervasiveness globally. Some countries and regions have a lot more work to do than others. As Iraq’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate and coming from the Middle East, Nadia Murad can hopefully cause people in the region to think longer and harder about the problem of sexual/gender based abuse—harassment, violence, assault, and rape—and about persecution of minorities, about their own roles in perpetuating these evils, either actively or passively, about their cultures, laws, societies, and religions that in their Middle Eastern mix have obviously failed so many women and minorities in this part of the world, and done so generally worse than other cultures, laws, societies, and religions, and figure out what needs to change and how to make those changes happen soon.
With so much suffering, it is time for the taboos and hesitations about confronting these issues of gender, sex, coercion, minority-status, and violence to be sacrificed in favor of a bold public conversation followed by bold public action. Nadia sacrificed her own privacy and much more to do the same, and the region owes her and the many thousands of others suffering from these evils—and the many thousands who succumbed to them—a good faith effort in the mold of her own extraordinary effort, no matter how painful that effort was and is for Nadia and will be for the region.
The Last Girl!
In her memoir, she wrote that “I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”
The book is titled “The Last Girl.”
(From Google Books)
It is hard to think of anyone as deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize—who has suffered and had to sacrifice so much and yet perseveres again and again regardless of her obvious, visible, and audible aguish in doing so—as Nadia Murad, the second-youngest recipient of the Prize ever, second only to Malala Yousafzai
Despite so much suffering and horror, though, life does go on: Nadia just got engaged to fellow Yazidi activist Abid Shamdeen this past August. Still, instead of her having to be inspiration for the Middle East, it is time the Middle East became inspiration for her.
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan.