Talking Policy: Arsla Jawaid on Iraq’s Yazidi Community

Much of the world first became aware of the Yazidis, a minority religious sect, when Islamic State militants began to close in on roughly 40,000 people trapped on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. The Yazidis have been targeted throughout the extremists’ campaign in Iraq and Syria, and women and girls were captured and forced to convert. Many of them have by now escaped captivity, but the homes they left behind have been ravaged by war. World Policy Journal spoke with Arsla Jawaid, who worked with the United Nations on youth radicalization and counter-terrorism in South Asia and the Middle East, and as a 2017-18 Concord Fellow conducts research on violent extremism and prevention, about providing long-term, sustainable assistance to the Yazidi women who have returned to their communities.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Could you give a brief overview of what has happened to Iraq’s Yazidi community during the conflict over the past few years?

ARSLA JAWAID: Yazidis are a minority group in Iraq that has been persecuted for decades, largely because their religion is derived from Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. These kinds of communities, or minorities, are heavily persecuted in Iraq, given the extremism element and conflict the country is in. The Yazidis are seen, essentially, as devil-worshippers, as non-Muslims. They have a lot of commonalities with Christianity, in that they practice baptism. They have a lot of commonalities with Islam, in that they fast during a certain part of the year and practice circumcision. They also share elements with Zoroastrianism, in that they revere the fire, or the sun, as God. Where their religion differs is that they worship a fallen angel, who they say was banished by God, was forgiven, and then returned to the heavens.

So when groups like the Islamic State take over a country like Iraq and persecute minorities, it gives them an easy edge to portray groups like this as non-Muslims, because they don’t believe in monotheism and worship an angel. Because of the nature and composition of the Yazidi sect, the group argues it is permissible to kidnap and take them as sex slaves. Furthermore, for the Yazidis, being a member of the community is a form of purity. It is such a strong virtue that the idea of leaving one’s religion and joining another is just unheard of and is considered unacceptable.

Within the Iraqi context, the Yazidis were the most impoverished minority group. They lived in the most difficult of places. Many of them are not highly educated, they haven’t been actively participating in Iraq’s politics, and of course they have been persecuted for decades. This is a community that has been vulnerable from the very beginning.

WPJ: Who did you speak with in your reporting?

AJ: I initially went to Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. This region has a lot of camps that were set up for Yazidi women who escaped Islamic State captivity. These women were captured by the Islamic State, taken as sex slaves, and forced to convert—the ones who didn’t were brutally raped, over and over again. I was most interested in speaking with women who fit that profile, rather than meeting some of the 40,000 or so Yazidis who fled their homes when the Islamic State was coming and sought refuge on Mount Sinjar.

I had gotten in touch with a number of NGOs that are working on the ground, such as the Free Yezidi Foundation and the Yazda foundation, which provide support and refuge for Yazidi women. I worked with great psychologists and translators who were able to take me into these camps as part of my ongoing research into the effects of extremism and militancy on vulnerable communities, especially women. I fortunately was working with people who these women were comfortable speaking to, but in interviews like these there are always heavy ethical concerns. I would make my objectives very clear to the women I spoke to, and seek their approval in a way. These women had gone through so much, and to have them go through the ordeal of repeating their stories over and over again, it has to be for a greater purpose than simple media consumption. So we got clear consent from all the women, and when we spoke with women under the age of 18, we would often sit with their families first and secure their consent. When the others were no longer around, we would explain again to these young women what we were trying to do, and re-confirm that she was okay talking about her experience. Most of the time we got a very positive response, but one or two women couldn’t bring themselves to talk. At that point, we just left—and that’s okay.

WPJ: What resources were available to these women and other survivors of the conflict, and what did they tell you about what they needed versus what was being offered?

AJ: The assistance that is required is not just to meet immediate needs, but to establish a sustainable model. But when we went to the camps, it was evident that the women weren’t receiving even the most basic assistance. And it’s not just financial assistance; it’s not just humanitarian aid. These women have gone through something incredibly traumatic, but the level of psycho-social assistance available is below the bare minimum. When you’re working with women like this, you need to put long-term mechanisms in place, not just a one-time fix, like getting a woman a visa to Germany. We interviewed women who had escaped Islamic State captivity eight months before, three months before, and as little as two weeks before. Just the fact that I could walk in and speak to a girl as young as 15, who had escaped Islamic State captivity and come back to her family just two weeks prior, should tell you how little psychological support there is for women, and especially girls. They have nowhere to go, and no one to provide advice or a roadmap.

Most times, when they come back to their communities, there’s no one left who was there when the women were abducted. Their mothers have been killed, their fathers have been killed, and their brothers have been killed. Instead they come back to their uncles, their uncles’ families, or their cousins. The brutality of the Islamic State has not just been the practice of rape; it has been the destruction of an entire community. The level of trauma that has on a young mind is just insurmountable—it’s something I don’t think you and I can ever fathom. And there just isn’t much available to them. There’s a lot of work being done by NGOs, but the NGOs are strapped for funding. People have been shouting and screaming about helping the Yazidis and bringing the women home, but the world has yet to listen. And that attitude manifests very quickly in the lack of resources available to these women and the NGOs working to help them.

WPJ: You mentioned this not being a problem that can be solved just with humanitarian aid or a standard first response. If these women’s needs are greater than that, then where do you think the problem lies with the model of helping post-conflict societies?

AJ: A multi-pronged approach has always been needed. But the Iraq conflict is just so complex, and humanitarian aid has to be focused on so many different areas because there are so many vulnerable communities, each with a unique set of needs. And when it comes to Yazidi women, what is required is not a short-term plan—it is not just providing humanitarian aid or a few psychologists for women to talk to. They need safe spaces, dialogue, and to understand that there is still life ahead despite what they have endured. Often, just having psychologists is not enough.

There are plenty of models that have been used in Rwanda, in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh—countries where people have seen war right in front of their eyes, where women have been made tools of expressing power, and where rape has been used as a tool of expressing power and ego and victory. In these cases, it’s not just humanitarian help you need, but sustainable mechanisms. In countries like Iraq, you need greater infrastructure development and institutional capacity that can support these women and make them feel like they are a part of the community. The communities they come back to need to welcome them and be safe for them; they need to be spaces where women can interact and share their experiences and talk about their trauma and not break down every time. That requires a gradual and patient approach—which doesn’t always happen in today’s world. Humanitarian responses are often looking for quick fixes or a light-footprint approach. We’re hungry for instant gratification and we’re not patient enough for gradual success, which yields far greater benefits than a quick fix.

WPJ: What have been some of the other long-term effects of the incursion by the Islamic State in the communities these women are returning to? What state are they in, compared to how they were a few years ago?

AJ: I met a lot of the women in camps in Dohuk, so I didn’t get a chance to go back to the places people had left behind. But what I understand is that these communities have completely been devastated. There are no communities, really, remaining. As I mentioned earlier, we’re not just talking about a singular act of rape—the Islamic State systematically destroyed these communities. And I think that has a particular impact not just on women, but also on Yazidi men, and boys especially. As far as I understand, a lot of women who are in Dohuk camps or who are with their families have not returned home. I did get a chance to speak with three young women, all under the age of 18, who had gone back to their uncles’ houses. As we went to these areas—and these were not in Sinjar, but were close to the Dohuk camps—they told me there is nothing to go back to. They were in these places because this was the only option they had. I think, too, that returning to a place that no longer exists can have a severe impact on minds that already have gone through such intense trauma.

WPJ: In terms of international attention, it seemed that when the Islamic State’s forces were circling Mount Sinjar, the stakes were presented in such stark terms in the international media. The message was that, if no one took action, then this community would be wiped out entirely. What do you think the stakes are right now for the Yazidis, particularly the women, and why aren’t they being conveyed to the world as forcefully as they were in 2014?

AJ: The people I spoke with had very mixed views. It was interesting, too, because the views came from a range of different stakeholders. I do think there has been a healthy effort to raise awareness of the plight of Yazidi women, especially at the United Nations. We’ve seen Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who escaped Islamic State captivity, speaking at many U.N. forums, speaking with the secretary-general, speaking with different women leaders at the U.N., and trying to raise as much attention as she can. There are a few other Yazidi women—though not many—much like her who are trying to raise attention. But when I speak with NGOs working on the ground, many of them are not quite thrilled about this approach. For many humanitarian issues, what often happens is that when you have a spokesperson who is backed by tremendous celebrity status or media attention, the event itself and the crisis itself become very glitzy and glamorous. A lot of NGOs on the ground—the people working day and night with these women and with families, and who at the height of the crisis were trying to smuggle people away from the Islamic State—have had major reservations about what kind of attention has come to them. On the one hand, a lot of investors have been interested in pumping in some money to see what results could be yielded. But on the other hand, many of them felt that the attention being showered on them was coming with a lot of strings attached. It was coming with a lot of sound bites and photo ops, as opposed to a true dedication to the cause.

I always made sure to ask the women I spoke with what they thought of Nadia Murad at the U.N., because in many ways she has become the champion of raising awareness for Yazidi women. Most of the older women said that it was very good, that she is one of them, and that they’re happy she’s raising attention because, while we can’t save everyone, maybe through her efforts we can save some of the girls. When the younger girls spoke about Nadia, however, they were somewhat indifferent. I think some of them felt that there is a healthy amount of publicity that is coming with her, but they’re not seeing much implemented on the ground. I think that comes from a younger mindset naturally—these women have fled but have left friends behind, and now that they’re out, they want their friends out too. Their attitudes, I think, come from that frustration a little bit.

WPJ: Given the way the international community seems to respond, and how gaining attention can elicit a somewhat superficial response, do you think the aid that is needed will come from the international community, or will it come from elsewhere?

AJ: It’s a complicated question. I do think it’s very good that noise is being created on the international level. U.N. agencies will always have member states backing them, and they will often be able to quickly get into places that are otherwise inaccessible. But at the same time, I don’t think that the bulk of attention, financing, or investment is going to come from the international community. Let’s remember that Iraq is of great strategic value to a lot of big powers, and the international community is complex in its priorities and agendas. The reason the Islamic State has gotten away with what it has, the reason Iraq and Syria are devastated, the reason we’re facing a tremendous humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, is that the international community has not been able to form a consensus. People are dying; this is genocide, but people are afraid to use that word. This is 2018—we should be able to stop the massacre of people. In this part of the world we see conflict and war all the time, and it’s the people, it’s those who are most vulnerable, who get sacrificed in this big-power game.

I do think the bulk of attention is going to have to come from the people themselves—from Iraqis, the communities working on the ground, and the NGOs working on the ground. I met a lot of vulnerable communities while I was there, but I was just blown away because I met tremendous young people looking to give back to their country, whether by opening an NGO, opening a community center, or whatever it is they wanted to do. I think that is where the real push is going to come from. The young people of Iraq are going to become the bigger pressure group than Nadia Murad standing by herself.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Photo courtesy of Arsla Jawaid]

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