By Staff Reports
(Victor Valley)– ISIS militants’ efforts to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria may have failed, but the lingering effects of its short, but brutal, reign there is still being felt by the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority who were forced to leave their home in northern Iraq.
Those not able to escape in ISIS’ ethnic cleansing of their homeland — the militants wanted to rid the area of non-Islamic influences — in 2014 suffered greatly. The men who were captured were executed and the women, an estimated 7,000, were sold into slavery.
In her presentation, “Women After War: What We Learned From the Yazidis as an Ethnic Minority,” visiting Turkish scholar Eda Erdener shared how she saw up close the ways Yazidi women coped in the aftermath of it all. Her talk at Cal State San Bernardino on March 1 was sponsored by the university’s Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.
Erdener, a professor of psychology, met with Yazidi women in the Diyarbakir Refugee Camp in Turkey between January and March 2015 as part of a humanitarian initiative to offer them psychological support.
Yazidis are a Kurdish ethnic group living in northern Iraq, Armenia, Syria, southeastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, and since the 1990s, in Germany as a result of migration. Erdener explained that their religion — Yazidism is derived from the word “Yazdan,” which means pure, merciful and generous God, and “izid,” which means angel — is monotheistic, and has been influenced by Islamic Sufism. But their beliefs are complex, with other influences including ancient Zoroastrianism. They also practice endogamy, or marriage within the community, because they believe they are a chosen people.
“So, it can be said that Yazidism is not only a belief system among the community, but is also identity forming because of its ethno-religious character,” Erdener said. “This belief does not permit religious conversion to join them; one must be born into the Yazidi community.”
All of that may have contributed to other societies perceiving Yazidis as an aberrant secret sect, she said, which fed into hate, persecution and discrimination they have historically faced.
Beginning in August 2014, ISIS invaded Iraq’s Sinjar region, forcing some 400,000 to 500,000 Yazidis to flee into the mountains. Their villages were destroyed, many men and boys were killed, and many women were taken captive and sold into slavery, enduring “rape, torture and humiliation at the hands of multiple militants,” wrote Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman in a column for The New York Times on Feb. 10. Murad herself was a sold into slavery by ISIS, but managed to escape.
Some trauma reactions are universal for all survivors, Erdener said. But because of their history of persecution and discrimination Yazidis have faced, “unique consideration has been given (to) Yazidi women because of their unique roles within the culture and their unique experiences of war,” she wrote in a paper on which her talk was based.
While at the refugee camp, Erdener observed how the women coped with the trauma of the war, which included practicing mourning rituals and worship, strengthening their bonds with each other, and forming solidarity with those who were sexually attacked.
For example, she said that other research has found that having “a firmly held religious belief is a predictor of coping relatively well with trauma by helping to re-establish a sense of well-being, leading to more positive psychological treatment outcomes.” One of the women Erdener spoke with shared this about her worship ritual: “I turn my face to the sun two times in a day during sunrise and sunset. Everywhere, the presence of the sun is my holy worship venue. So, I feel wounds in my heart are healed.”
When it came to dealing with the trauma of being sexually assaulted, Erdener said women who were related to those who escaped ISIS never mentioned rape or sexual slavery. Yet the silence on the subject did not mean denial.
“Non-verbalization can be counted as showing respect to the wounded women among that community,” Erdener said. “An old Yazidi woman whose son was killed by ISIS expressed why they avoided talking about the women who were raped as follows: ‘They dishonored our women. Even if they return, they return dishonored (she means their pregnancy).’
“When reminded that it was not the fault of these women, she continued: ‘We agree with you. That is why we baptize them with the holy water brought from Lalesh (a small town in northern Iraq, site of a holy temple). Thus, they are cleaned. We dress them with white dresses. They are our daughters. The men who want to marry them make a list. We would never leave them alone. We don’t want to hurt them by talking about it.’”
Erdener said it was important to make sure that the plight of the Yazidi be made known to the worldwide community and not be forgotten. Many Yazidi women remain captive by ISIS.
“These women who are still held by ISIS are the daughters, sisters and mothers of the women and men living at camps,” she said. “We know that captured Yazidi women are not sold and raped only one time, but almost 30 times, and each time before being sold, they are exposed to surgery to restore their virginity. Thus, a lot of Yazidi women slaves kill themselves because they cannot stand this kind of intense torture anymore. …
“ISIS has earned millions of dollars from human trafficking,” Erdener said. “Though, human traffickers generally prefer to hide their crime, ISIS chooses to disclose this brutality in order to spread fear as part of the psychological war.”
With return to their homeland not a viable option because of the continuing conflict there, many Yazidis continue to live in refugee camps. Others have been fortunate to relocate elsewhere, although, because of the general sentiment against migrants and refugees in many host countries, Yazidis have not found a haven that could be considered safe.
“We do not have sufficient information about the fate of the Yazidi women who left the refugee camps, or migrated to European countries,” Erdener said. “They can be typically forced into marginalized and isolated communities in their new home countries. Moreover, increased prejudices and discrimination against asylum seekers spread by the media has fed a sense of isolation among these refugee communities. …
“Hence, in the middle of the 21th century, we are talking about slavery even as we are fighting against it, and it will be passed into history as a shame of so-called civilized humanity,” she concluded. “In spite of this, it is out of question to summarize this topic with a cliché such as ‘further research is needed.’ The only thing to be done to eliminate this shame on humanity is to raise entire world’s awareness to this community’s screams.”
Erdener and Ece Algan, director of CIMES, were interviewed at KCAA Radio on March 1. The interview can be heard online at “KCAA Morning Show Thu, Mar 1, 2018.” The interview can be heard in the second half of the hour-long show.
Visit the CSUSB Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies website for more information on its programs.