I have read many news reports on war-time gender-based violence. As a therapist, I have often questioned the effects of journalists’ approaches on the women they work with. Sometimes, the story seems more important than the woman, her wounds and her healing.
For me, this raises questions – who does journalism benefit? Is it the woman who speaks up, the public, the news channels? And who has the responsibility to keep women who speak out safe?
It seems that media coverage of highly sensitive topics, such as war-time sexual violence, is not always about educating the public and empowering the speaker. Instead, it is about shock and entertainment.
The Al-Iraqiya news channel has received criticism for exactly this reason. They broadcasted an interview between a Yazidi woman and the ISIS fighter who had bought, captured and violently raped her multiple times a day.
In August 2014, ISIS set off to destroy Yazidi culture and religion. They did so through systematic killings, sexual slavery, torture and other atrocities in the Sinjar region in Northern Iraq. Thousands of girls and women have been captured and sold, leaving them in sexual enslavement of ISIS fighters. Girls would often be sold, or gifted, from one fighter to the other, undergoing extreme abuse and degradation at each of the fighters’ hands.
A great number of Yazidis are still missing. Others have found their way out and are living in refugee camps or trying to rebuild their life in a new country.
Ashwaq Haji Hamid, now 19, is one of the girls who managed to escape. She recently came face to face with her previous abuser during a TV interview set up by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
Ashwaq confronted him:
“You destroyed my life. You robbed me of all my dreams. I was once held by Isis, by you, but now you will feel the meaning of torment, torture, and loneliness. If you have any feelings, you would not have raped me when I was 14, the age of your son, the age of your daughter.”
After speaking these powerful words, while shaking and starting to cry, Ashwaq fainted at her former capturers’ feet. The video has been shared around the world, and has received mixed reactions. Critics stress the voyeuristic element, saying the interview was never about Ashwaq’s healing but about public entertainment.
Kurdish-German psychologist, Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, spoke out against the interview. He stated that the news channel:
“…cared about ratings of the show more than her … I know the survivor as my patient and it was medically an absolute contradiction to her severe trauma (to do the TV interview), as we saw with her fainting.”
The world needs to hear stories like Ashwaq’s. The Yazidi community have the right to be heard. Finding one’s voice can be a powerful and inspirational experience, with the potential to be healing and empowering.
Sensational journalism stands in stark contrast to how stories on gender-based violence should be told – in an empowering, trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive way.
We cannot prioritise entertainment over healing. The media cannot decide if and when it is in women’s interests to speak. Media outlets and journalists need to have a greater understanding of how their involvement can open deep wounds and re-traumatize those speaking out.
For this to happen, however, the conditions of stepping up and speaking out have to be set by the speakers themselves. This is what happened when winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Nadia Murad wrote about her experience with ISIS in her powerful book, ‘The Last Girl’.
The Last Girl offers an understanding of how life has changed for Yazidis since 2014. Most of all, the book inspires and insists on a call to action to achieve justice for the Yazidi community.
Media outlets working in a trauma-sensitive way must become the norm. Nadia Murad’s book is the perfect example of how telling a story and informing the public can go hand in hand with a process of empowerment and healing.