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Caring about human rights: the case of ISIS and Yazidi women

Mass sexual violence against women and girls is a constant in human history. One of these atrocities erupted in August 2014 in ISIS-occupied territory and persists to this day.

Mainly targeting women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority, ISIS officially reinstituted sexual slavery. Publicly promulgated, purportedly Sharia sanctioned rules govern buying, selling, gifting, and emancipating abducted women and girls.

Accessing the perspectives of the victims is necessary to understand this flagrant human rights abuse and to secure commitment to restoring their rights.

The victims’ stories that the media and NGOs transmit provide ample information about where ISIS imprisoned Yazidi women and girls, how ISIS transported them, and how ISIS allocated them to men. Documenting these logistics could prove invaluable if it becomes possible to prosecute ISIS leaders and other perpetrators for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The victims also testify to the workings of ISIS’s sexual slavery system and the suffering it inflicts:

Enslavement:

  • “They wrote our names on papers around our necks, and sold us.”
  • “One person bought me and brought me to a prison in Raqqa. One day they called me to be sold again.”
  • “My captor was killed in a fight, so I was sold again, and then again, but this time I was given as a present.”

Sexual Assault:

  • “I remember one of the saddest moments there … was this little girl, twelve years old. They raped her with no mercy.”
  • “I was raped, so many times, even six times per night. They always fastened my legs and arms when they raped me.”
  • “We were held in a house during the day, then different men would come and pick us up for the night.”
  • “I kept telling him it hurts – please stop … He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said by raping me, he is drawing closer to God.”
Nadia Murad Basee Taha
Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a 21-year-old Iraqi woman of the Yazidi faith and a victim of abduction and torture by the terrorist group Islamic State, during the Security Council meeting on human trafficking in situations of conflict. UN photo by Rick Bajornas, used with permission.

Forced Religious Conversion:

  • “[H]e wanted to ‘purify’ me from being Yazidi, and forced me to give up my rings, my clothes and all those things that recalled my religion, my identity.”
  • “They gathered us all in one place and made us repeat after [the leader] … We didn’t dare not say the shahada [the Islamic creed].”
  • “We were forced to read the Quran and we started to pray slowly. We started to behave like actors.”

Each set of quotations attests to the violation of a human right – the right not to be trafficked, the right not to be tortured, the right to freedom of religion. Provided that journalists and other researchers obtain victims’ informed consent and avoid interview procedures likely to revictimize them, they perform an inestimable public service exposing this human rights cataclysm.

Still, we must ask how disseminating this testimony can strengthen commitment to human rights. Here, empathy is crucial, and empathizing requires viscerally imagining a unique individual and her suffering from her point of view. The human meanings of human rights abuse are manifold. Victims’ stories that go beyond stating the facts of abusive treatment – stories that plumb the subjectivity of enduring and surviving abuse and that situate individual victims in their social and cultural contexts – help us grasp those complex meanings.

So far, the publicly available stories of Yazidi women who have escaped from ISIS are thin. Even so, different victims tell of responding in strikingly different ways.

This woman became bold:

“I was in Mosul when I decided that it was enough. I was scared, but I wore a black abaya and went in the streets. I got on a taxi, told the taxi driver I was escaping from slavery and begged him to help me … He called my brother and asked to arrange a smuggler. My brother knew a driver in Mosul … and asked him to bring me to Badush where he would collect me.”

Another woman despaired:

“One day we were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes. Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful.”

It might seem counterintuitive that commitment to human rights rests on imagining distinctive individual experiences of abuse. Yet, we don’t really get what’s so bad about abrogating human rights if we haven’t registered that it prompts derring-do in one person, hopelessness in another, and countless nuanced alternatives. The variations in human suffering constitute the poignancy of human rights abuse because they are the shadow side of the dazzling individuality that respect for human rights promotes and protects.

It’s not the attack on an abstraction called humanity or an undifferentiated mass of people that galls us. It’s channeling profoundly personal experiences of degradation, horror, and loss that consolidates moral commitment to human rights.

Featured image credit: Weapon collections, © adekvat, via iStock Photo.

Recent Comments

  1. […] It might seem counterintuitive that commitment to human rights rests on imagining distinctive individual experiences of abuse. Yet, we don’t really get what’s so bad about abrogating human rights if we haven’t registered that it prompts derring-do in one person, hopelessness in another, and countless nuanced alternatives. The variations in human suffering constitute the poignancy of human rights abuse because they are the shadow side of the dazzling individuality that respect for human rights promotes and protects. – See more at: https://blog.oup.com/2016/05/human-rights-isis-yazidi-women/#sthash.sQnlhHIi.dpuf […]

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