When Nadia Murad Stood Before Trump

When the best of humanity stands before the worst of humanity, the rest of us have an opportunity to learn. 

Nadia Murad belongs to the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority. When she was 19 years old, the Islamic State attacked her village in Kojo, Iraq and killed 600 Yazidi men, including members of her family. Nadia, along with many other young women and girls, was abducted and trafficked.

After three months enduring beatings and rape, she escaped and made her way to a refugee camp. She told this harrowing story in her book, The Last Girl, and now works to help survivors of human trafficking and the Yazidi genocide.

At the other end of the fight for the rights of women and girls, we have Donald Trump. So far, sixteen women have accused him of sexual assault and two women, including his ex-wife, have accused him of rape. Teenage girls said that he walked into a dressing room while they were changing.

While these are accusations and not convictions, Trump has boasted about sexually assaulting women and has called women pigs and dogs. He has made jovial remarks about Epstein, the billionaire who was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting and trafficking teenagers.

“He likes beautiful women as much as I do,” Trump noted, “and many of them are on the younger side.” With these words I believe he convicts himself of the crimes he otherwise denies.

On Saturday, Nadia Murad stood before this mighty and devious man to speak about the Yazidi genocide. Either because he did not pay attention to her testimony or because he is unable to respect a woman, the president asked Murad where her family members were right after she’d told him they had been killed. Despite this hurtful insult, she pressed on, using words like “dignity” to a man who believes that the best way to treat women is like shit.” 

At first, I could not understand why Nadia was there. Why didn’t she refuse a meeting to protest his words, his deeds, and his policies impacting women and girls? But watching the video of their encounter, I realized that meeting with the president was the most powerful form of protest because she wasn’t there for him.

Nadia stood before Trump in solidarity with the women and girls she represents.

Knowing that he has been accused of some of the same crimes committed against her while she was living in slavery, she still stood before him as a tower of strength. Trump avoided looking in her eyes. He barely listened to her story. But there she was, insisting that he acknowledge her words, her story, her humanity; insisting that he come face to face with a survivor of the crimes he, at the very least, jokes about.   

Toward the end of their encounter, Trump asked her why she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nadia replied, “I made it clear to everyone that ISIS raped thousands of Yazidi women. This was the first time a woman from Iraq got out and spoke about what happened.

Trump’s discomfort and resentment were palpable through my computer monitor. So were Nadia’s courage and defiance.    

If we are to honor our commitment to fighting for the rights, health and dignity of women and girls, we must stand for them in the most difficult places and situations. For me, this has been conflict zones and resource-poor settings. For Nadia, this has been the White House.  

What I learned from Nadia is that our commitment to human rights must not shy away from the powerful, the ambivalent, the offensive. These are the trenches we need to sit in; these are the battles that we must choose.

It is the most hardened hearts and minds – not the hearts and minds of our allies – that we must change if we are to create a more just and inclusive world.

And even if we cannot change their hearts and minds, we can go on record for standing tall in the face of injustice. Where one of us stands, we all stand together.  

Standing with Syrian Women and Girls

Last year on the anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, I wrote about the disappearing girls in Syria.

A year later, the whereabouts of many women and girls are still unknown. There are an estimated 3,000 missing Yazidi and likely as many missing Christian women and girls. We don’t know exactly how many women and girls are missing because their disappearance isn’t always reported. This can be due to fear, stigma around trafficking, and forced marriages.

Girls and women have been abducted by various forces throughout Syria, but sexual slavery and forced marriage are a key part of ISIS ideology.

In December 2014, ISIS publicly released guidelines – even putting them in a pamphlet for mass distribution – on keeping slaves. In 2015, they followed up with more detailed guidelines on when and how they could sexually assault and rape enslaved women.

That same year, they systematically attacked Assyrian villages, capturing Christian women and girls as young as nine. Women from Bangladesh and other countries have also been trafficked into Syria. In 2016, the group trafficked thousands of Yazidi women and girls from Iraq to Syria.

Women and girls in Syria, like women and girls in all conflicts, suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, the world largely ignores them.

This week, Nadia Murad wrote an article: Prioritizing ISIS over Survivors. She asked why the global community spends so little “on the survivors, on healing their wounds and communities, on freeing them to live again?”

But women have mobilized themselves. Many fought to escape ISIS, some losing their lives in their battle. Survivors tell stories of enslaved women supporting each other to find subversive forms of resistance.

Women created spaces and even villages, like Jinwar, for women and children only to ensure their freedom and protection. One third of Kurdish combatants are women who engaged in direct battle with ISIS and are responsible for liberating ISIS-held areas of Syria like Raqqa. If one positive thing emerges from this this relentless and brutal war, it is women liberating women.

As the last ISIS stronghold breaks down, ISIS fighters are being forced to release hundreds of enslaved women and girls. Yet many will never be free.

As I know from working in conflicts, when a power is defeated the people who practice its ideology don’t go away. They simply go underground.

As ISIS loses political control, men with enslaved women and girls can keep them by false claims of marriage, including “short contract marriages.” These “marriages” are a type of trafficking, where girls and women endure systematic rape by one temporary “husband” after another.

Still, sometimes what is happening in Syria bleeds into our own communities. A Google search of “Syrian girls for sale” shows that the distance between injustice in Syria and in our communities may not be that far after all.

It hurts to feel that we can do very little to stop the widespread sexual violence in Syria and support released survivors. Yet disconnection and powerlessness are illusions. We can have an impact on human trafficking in our corner of the world, and the shared struggle, shared purpose and shared values link us with women and girls a world away.

Here are a few ways that we can all fight against human trafficking:   

– Learn the signs of human trafficking, and know local reporting protocols.

– Volunteer and support anti-trafficking organizations in your community.

– Buy products from organizations that employ and support survivors, like my personal favorite survivor-focused enterprise, White Field Farm.

– Let your local and national government know that you care about the freedom, safety and dignity of girls and women. Choosing which pressing social justice issue to fight for can be overwhelming, but speaking out about other issues does not preclude speaking out against trafficking.

– Remember that sex trafficking is one type of trafficking. Others being forced labor, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and use of child soldiers. Learn your slavery footprint, and work to reduce it.

As some Syrian women and girls are being released and as others remain enslaved, we have to be careful not to link this type of mass exploitation with the Syrian war.

Trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls exists everywhere.

To end it globally, we must expose and fight its local forms. In doing so, we are participating in the global struggle for freedom and dignity of women and girls. By standing with survivors right where we are, we stand with them everywhere – including in Syria.

On Her Shoulders: A Call to Stand with Survivors

I have just finished reading reviews of ‘On Her Shoulders’, Alexandria Brombach’s documentary on Nadia Murad, the human rights activist who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

From the New York Times to RobertEbert.Com, the almost exclusively male reviewers gave halfhearted write-ups on a movie so powerful that I felt anxiety in my chest while watching. The reviewers, shying away from challenging the culture around sexual assault, took the movie on its surface, commended Nadia’s bravery and quietly moved on.

But if we quietly move on – as our culture suggests when it comes to the rights and dignity of women and girls – we’re missing an opportunity to question our response to sexual assault. We’re missing an opportunity to better support survivors. And we’re missing an opportunity to resist the subtle misogyny that inspires a “three thumbs up review” of a movie that dares questions how we treat survivors of sexual violence.       

Nadia Murad is a young Yazidi activist who is known as a survivor of sexual violence in conflict.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a make-up artist. She never wanted to leave Iraq. Never wanted to be an activist, never desired the public light.

Then ISIS, targeting the Yazidi minority, came to her village. They killed Nadia’s family, destroyed her community, and abducted, tortured and trafficked her until she narrowly escaped.

But ‘On Her Shoulders’ does not highlight Nadia’s background. Instead, it reveals that Nadia is telling a story that she does not want to tell.

Part of her reluctance is reliving the terror, and the other is dealing with a media that is more concerned with her rape than her advocacy.

She answers questions that distract from ending sexual violence in favor of focusing on the act of sexual violence itself. Her goal is to prevent such atrocities, and yet she is asked about the details of the abuse of her body.

Even in the midst of #MeToo, sexual assault is still seen as a sexual act rather than an act of power and control. The objectification of women is a deeply rooted cultural norm. So when we encounter a survivor of such extreme violence that no one dares justify it, the media defaults to the pornographic interest around the act.  

Nadia knows this. Yet she answers these deeply personal and objectifying questions because she recognizes that any attention, however misdirected, provides the opportunity for advocacy. She survived the assault of ISIS, and now she is surviving repeated retelling in pursuit of justice and prevention.

How can we, as individuals living in a culture that still objectifies female bodies, better support survivors and resist the framing of sexual assault as desirable, justifiable or entertaining?       

We need to change how we receive the stories of survivors.

We need to believe them, and we need to focus on what they want us to know, not on what our voyeuristic society wants to know. We need to shift from the male gaze to the human gaze, where we see survivors as individuals with dignity and not as a victims whose assault exists to incite our imaginations.  

Nadia, as such a public figure, is giving us the opportunity to do this. We can stand with her by reading her book, watching ‘On Her Shoulders’ and supporting Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis.

We can support all survivors by speaking out against any framing of assault as desirable. I will walk out of movie theaters when rape is sexualized, and I will not cast a vote for anyone – man or woman – who perpetuates this culture of victim blaming. We can question and disagree and create change within our own families and communities. And, of course, we do not need to swallow “three thumbs up” reviews of topics about the dignity of our bodies.

I’m fighting – and writing – back.  

Nadia is battle-weary, but still she soldiers on. ‘On Her Shoulders’ reveals the burden of her fight and challenges us to support her, and all survivors who have become reluctant heroines for our sake. She may not be the last girl to survive sexual assault, but if we raise our voices together she could very well be the last girl to speak out alone.   

Noble Peace Prize Awarded to Nadia Murad & Denis Mukwege

In the same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault case, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were awarded the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of their efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

To recognise their work is to recognise the fight against sexual violence everywhere.

Sexual violence in warfare is not random – it is a tactic, and the reality of that is terrifying. Countless communities have been destroyed across the world and the perpetrators often walk free. But Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege are examples of those who cannot and will not stay silent on this issue.

Nadia Murad grew up in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq, which was attacked and occupied by Isis in 2014. The people of the region – the Yazidi – have been very heavily persecuted.

Nadia’s commitment and determination to spreading awareness of sexual violence in warfare comes from her own incredibly harrowing experience.

She was captured by Isis and kept as a sex slave. However, she managed to escape, and despite everything she is determined to tell her story. Even though it means she has to relive the trauma of her experience, she continues to show her face to the world:

“Whereas the majority of women who escaped refused to be named, Ms. Murad insisted that she be identified and photographed, and her advocacy helped to persuade the United States State Department to recognize the genocide of her people at the hands of the terrorist group,” reported the New York Times

By doing this, she is showing that she has not only survived, but is now a voice and champion for many women who have suffered like her. Yazidi people deserve a voice, women deserve a voice and Nadia Murad is yelling out to make her voice heard. Nadia is the second youngest recipient of the award – Malala Yousafzai was only 17 when she received it in 2014.

In her autobiography, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, Murad writes: I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”

Dr Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist specialising in treating women who have been victims of rape in Democratic Republic of Congo – a country which has endured decades of violence and conflict. In 2012, during a speech at the UN, Dr Mukwege criticised the government of DR Congo for not doing enough to stop what he described as “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war.”

Only a month later, he was targeted by gunmen in his home, and subsequently fled to Europe. It was only after a group of Congolese women raised funds to pay for his return trip home that Dr Mukwege retuned to DR Congo.

“After that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence….My life has had to change, since returning. I now live at the hospital and I take a number of security precautions, so I have lost some of my freedom,” he told the BBC 2013.

According to Dr Mukwege, sexual violence in war and armed conflict is “not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it…It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

To end sexual violence we need more men like Dr Mukwege – his skill and care in what he does has changed the lives of so many.

It is clear that once he saw the horrors and atrocities being committed he could not forget them. But we need more men in his position, and higher, who want to stop this. You should not have to see the trauma first hand to know that sexual violence as a tool of war has to be stopped.

Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege have achieved so much already, and having their amazing work and bravery acknowledged is a significant step forward. 

The Women of ISIS

One of the most frequently mentioned names in the news today is ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has seized international attention through acts of unusual barbarity, often filmed and distributed as terrorist propaganda. ISIS is not merely an extremist minority, but a powerful network of organized militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and is quickly spreading to other parts of the world.

​ISIS’s culture of fear and control is not only aimed at the West, but at the citizens of the areas they have claimed. Women in particular have become targets under ISIS’s strict edicts, with their expectations and roles strictly defined by extremist ideology.

A manifesto published by the group, written with the aim of outlining the role of women, gives a glimpse into life under ISIS rule. Though it deviates somewhat from a radical portrayal of Islamic laws – women are allowed a limited amount of education, are allowed unescorted out of the house under specific conditions, and are provided for in the case of widowhood – it is nonetheless an extremely misogynistic and repressive doctrine.

Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.

“The central thesis of this statement,” states the manifest, “is that woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.”

Subsequently, it outlines how best women can carry out this duty. Girls are to be educated to the extent that they can adequately raise their children and instruct their families, with education stopping at age 15. Girls are also considered ready for marriage at a mere nine years old.

The UN published a report on the acts of violence carried out on women. Lashings for deviating from established rules, executions for adultery, and the well-documented capture and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi women are among ISIS’s growing lists of human rights violations. Disturbingly, the punishments meted out, and those in charge of brothels are often women themselves.

The al-Khansaa Brigade is the group’s moral police and consists entirely of women. While this seems to stand in contrast to ISIS’s assertion that women should first and foremost be wives and mothers, women are, even in the manifesto, permitted to fight for Islam.

An expert on Islamic militancy, Thomas Hegghammer, told The Atlantic, “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one.” Indeed, ISIS actively works to recruit women. Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.  Little is understood about what is drawing women to the besieged region, but ISIS’s campaign is proving disturbingly effective.

As bizarre as it is perverse, ISIS’s relationship with women is complex, but wholly exploitative.

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

How ISIS is Recruiting Women And Why Its Working

Recent headlines have howled at the atrocities: mass executions, public beheadings, and communities terrorized by Islamic State. Last week, CNN.com shared the ill-fated story of Jana, a 19-year-old Yazidi woman kidnapped by the militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. She was held hostage and sold to a 70-year-old man who attempted to convert her to Islam at gunpoint. Previously, Jana had once aspired to finish her education and become a doctor. She has since given up.

Regrettably, Jana’s story is one of many. Over 2,500 Yazidi and Iraqi minority women and girls were kidnapped last August, says Dr. Nazand Begikhani, an advisor to the Kurdistan regional government. Moreover, a report released by Amnesty International details that “girls in their teens and early 20s, have been subjected to rape or sexual abuse, forced to marry fighters, or sold into sexual slavery.” There are reports of enslaved girls as young as 10 being offered for purchase as wives.

Against the case of women, ISIS is notorious for promoting child marriage, sexual violence, and eradicating girls’ hopes for education and careers.

So why have there been numerous accounts of Western women fleeing their homes to join ISIS?

Evidently, there has been a recent social media campaign rigorously targeted toward recruiting women to join ISIS. The recruiting strategy offers an Islamic paradise of sorts, wherein women can join the fight by marrying jihadist fighters, or serve the cause through militant or domestic efforts. Dr. Katharine Brown, a lecturer in Defence Studies from King’s College London, says that these social media sites portray “images of women carrying AK47s and holding severed heads. But they are also cooking, making Nutella pancakes, meeting for coffee, and being mothers.”

We are talking about women who have felt negatively alienated and demonized by Western governments. Brown explains that while there is naïve romanticism in women becoming jihadi brides and marrying heroic ISIS fighters, they are attracted to a promise of a new utopian Islamic state. They find empowerment in their participation of this unified community. She claims that the campaigns demonstrate “[ISIS] takes [these womens’] politics seriously, they give them a voice, they give them credit, and that has a certain amount of appeal,” There is a sense of welcome and belonging being offered here for women who otherwise feel marginalized in Western societies.

But let’s be clear: ISIS does not promote gender equality or positive empowerment of women. To quote Steven Erlanger from his The New York Times article, “the reality of life inside the radical groups is often different from the cheerful images on screens. The Islamic State is run by men and is strictly patriarchal.” The primary role of a migrant woman is not to have a voice or find purpose, but to support her fighter husband and his jihad.

Instead of living an empowered life in this new caliphate state, there have been reports of women taken as wives and then violently sexually abused. Women have been confined to their homes, requiring permission to leave, and day-to-day tasks consist of watching the children of the jihadist fighters. Of course, there are still the massacres, airstrikes, bombings, and beheadings.

While the natural reaction of some is to point fingers at these women and say they got what they deserved, are we justified in viewing them as traitors? Mia Bloom, a professor at UMass Lowell studying crime and terrorism, says no.

These women are victims.

“They’re tired of being not the agents of change in history. They are just the bystanders,” says Bloom. Yet, “within a few weeks they’re going to be married and pregnant and basically that’s not the life that they’re anticipating in terms of their contribution to the cause.”

Help for these women will not be found in continuing to demonize their motivations, as they have been left to live among the lies of ISIS recruiters. We cannot neglect to see that there are complexities in the situations from which the women left. On either side, minority women have been abducted from their communities and subjected to sexual abuse and slavery, or have been wrongfully alienated from their society and pushed out to find a place of belonging. Yet both have found themselves manipulated as resources of a war fought by male ISIS militants. The hope for their situation lies in the steps that organizations committed to ending gender violence will take next. But it will also take our voices in confronting these atrocities. Will you stand with the women who have been oppressed in the incalculable horror of the ISIS conflict?

Cover photo credit: Michał Huniewicz, Flickr Creative Commons