By Harriet Gray
Nadia Murad was born in 1993 in Kocho, a mainly Yazidi village in the Sinjar district of Northern Iraq. In 2014, when Murad was 19, ISIS carried out a massacre in Kocho. They killed around 600 people, including six of Nadia’s brothers. They took boys to make them into fighters, and they took younger girls and women as sex slaves. Older women, including Murad’s mother, were later also killed. Murad was taken to Mosul along with some of her sisters and female cousins. Once in Mosul, she was sold at a market, ripped from her family, and, at the hands of a succession of IS militants, she was repeatedly raped, beaten, tortured, and humiliated. Three months later, after one failed escape attempt that resulted in brutal retribution, she finally escaped and, with the help of a family whose door she chose at random, she managed to escape Mosul and made it to a refugee camp in Kurdistan, where she was reunited with some of the surviving members of her family. In 2015, she was relocated as a refugee to Germany, where she now lives with her sister Dimal.
In the years since her escape, Murad has become a powerful advocate. In 2015, just one year and three months after ISIS came to Kocho, Murad spoke at a United Nations forum on minority issues in Switzerland (p. 299). In 2016, she was appointed a UNODC Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. Also in 2016, she launched Nadia’s Initiative, an organisation “dedicated to rebuilding communities in crisis and advocating globally for survivors of sexual violence.” In 2018, Murad was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Congolese gynaecologist and human rights activist Dr Denis Mukwege, “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”
Her powerful memoir, published in 2017, tells the story of her life in Kocho before the arrival of ISIS, of the massacre, of her capture and sexual enslavement, her escape, and of the beginnings of her activism. It paints a devastating picture of all that she and her community have lost, and of the brutality and cruelty of the people who took it from them. Murad is, perhaps, the world’s best-known survivor of conflict-related sexual violence. All too often, survivors are not framed in public discourse in individual terms. We do not know their names or their backstories. Sometimes, the numbers are so overwhelmingly massive that individual stories and individual faces are difficult to untangle. Often, the persistent understanding of rape as a ‘hidden’ crime and the stigmatisation of its survivors makes it difficult for individual survivors to control the narrative around their own experiences. In many examples the hypervisibility of particular types of wartime rape, structured through colonial narratives of otherness and unique barbarity, mean that the nuance and complexity of individual lived lives may be difficult to reconcile with the overly simplistic dominant narrative. Murad’s life story – at once such a powerful description of her experiences of wartime rape and so much more than that – undermines and subverts many elements of the dominant homogenising narratives on conflict-related sexual violence.
There is much to learn, for scholars interested in conflict-related sexual violence, from Murad’s experiences and from her advocacy. In this post, however, I centre on one broad theme: how the horrendous acts of sexual violence that Murad endured are, in her writing, deeply and inextricably entangled with the myriad other forms of harm that she narrates – the loss of her family, her home, and her hopes for the future. This, I suggest, chimes closely with academic arguments, proliferating in recent years, about the importance of resisting a “hierarchy of harm” that abstracts particular kinds of sexual violence from their contexts. In recent years, scholars have mounted a compelling critique of what Paul Kirby calls a “fixation on rape as a weapon of war” within particular policy circles. Without seeking in any way to diminish or disregard the multiple and very real harms caused by rape in conflict spaces, multiple scholars have expressed concern over the securitising move to frame rape as a weapon of war, critiquing, among other things, the hierarchy of harms that is creates “both within gender-based violence, and between gender-based violence and other human rights abuses,” the difficulty it evokes in making visible different forms of sexual violence that do not fit the ‘weapon of war’ frame, the ways in which it exotifies and racialises conflict rape as something that could only happen in some distant, ‘backward’ land; its obscuring of the intermeshing of different violences, and its ignorance of the structural causes of sexual violence.
Murad herself, of course, is primarily known as a survivor specifically of ‘weapon of war’ rape – when I googled, ‘what happened to Nadia Murad,’ for example, the first answer that came up read “Nadia was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, along with 6,000 other Yazidi women and girls… Today, she is working to bring ISIS to justice for their genocide against the Yazidi community.” Indeed, Murad’s peace prize has been criticised as for the ways that it was framed within the dominant ‘weapon of war’ framework. Her book, however, does the work of unravelling some of the problematic rigidities of the ‘weapon of war’ framing far more powerfully than any academic article. That is, in her book, where her story is told on her own terms, without the pressures of having to boil it down into a short soundbite or newspaper article, her experiences of rape are not and indeed cannot be disentangled from the huge myriad of others losses that she has endured.
Murad’s pain at the loss of her family and her home radiates throughout the book. At its outset, she paints a rich picture of a full life, well-lived. Like everyone, Murad had hopes and dreams – she wanted to open a beauty salon, and she collected pictures of brides on their wedding days in Kocho, keeping them in an album that would help her future customers to choose the looks they wanted to achieve (pp. 60-61 85). Murad does not romanticise life in Kocho – she talks of the hardships that this life entailed – but the Kocho she describes is also joyful, changing, full of life. The loss of one’s home she describes as “one of the worst injustices a human being can face. Everything you love is stolen” (p. 52). Her own community’s losses are narrated in the context of the devastating losses endured by the Yazidi community itself; a people displaced, individuals forced to make impossible decisions to survive (pp. 58-60). She also talks about her love for her religion, and her pain when ISIS tried to take it from her by making her and others ‘convert’ to Islam in the courthouse: “Who was I if I wasn’t Yazidi?” (p. 151).
In this broader context of violence against Yazidis, the war comes to Kocho. When ISIS enter her village, the men of her family are taken away and shot; the women, being held in a room in the local school, hear the gunshots. Her two brothers who survive the killing do so by pulling their wounded bodies out of the mass graves filled with their family, neighbours, and friends. Her narration of this event is unflinching and harrowing (pp. 102-107). Later, after she is torn away from her by a militant, Murad’s beloved mother is killed, although she does not know of this until after her escape. While some of the other women in her family managed, like her, to later escape and survive, others, including her much loved niece Kathrine, were killed. The narration of these losses is particularly devastating in the book, of course, because Murad speaks first of her love for these people. This section, about life with mother, is worth quoting at length:
“For twenty-one years, my mother was at the centre of each day. Every morning, she woke up early to make bread, sitting on a low stool in front of the tandoor oven we kept in the courtyard, flattening balls of dough and slapping them against the sides of the oven until they were puffy and blistered, ready to be dipped into bowls of golden melted sheep’s butter. Every morning for twenty-one years I woke up to the slow slap, slap, slap of the dough against the oven walls and the greasy smell of the butter, letting me know my mother was close by…. I would pick burned edges off the fresh bread, updating my life plan for her… ‘Just as long as you never leave me, Nadia,’ she would say, wrapping the hot bread in fabric. ‘Of course,’ I always replied, ‘I will never leave you.’” (pp 27-28).
The last time she saw her mother, they were huddled in a school in a town called Solagh, on Murad’s route to Mosul. Here, Murad’s mother, whose name was Samme Salih Amman, lay down with her head in her daughter’s lap before she was torn from her and became one of many women who were deemed too old for sexual slavery and killed (pp.111-114).
At the end of the book, Murad recounts a visit, with other survivors, to a holy Yazidi village not long before she left Iraq for Germany. With others, she met with a holy man, who asked them about their experiences. He asked them, who have you lost?
“Then he sat and listened closely as each of the women, even the ones who had been too shy to speak before, recited the names of their family and friends, their neighbours and children and parents, the dead and the missing. Their answers seemed to go on for ours, as the air grew cooler and the stone on the temple walls darkened in the fading light, Yazidi names listed in an endless chorus, stretching out into the sky to where God could hear them, and when it was my turn I said: Jalo, Pise, Massoud, Khairy, and Elias, my brothers. Malik and Hani, my nephews, Mona, Jilan, and Smaher, my brother’s wives. Kathrine and Nisreen, my nieces. Hajji, my half brother. So many who were taken and escaped. My father, who wasn’t alive to save us. My mother, Shami, wherever she is” (pp. 298).
It is within this context – this devastating ocean of loss – that Murad unflinchingly describes the horrendous sexual violence that she also endured. She recalls step-by-step details of how the women were processed after being rounded up in the school – details that refuse the reader permission to assume this is something that could never happen in their country, to them, or to those that they love. She tells us about the split-second decisions that women made about what to say and how to present themselves in an attempt to survive (pp. 113-116), emphasising their agency and their determination to live. Her descriptions of the sexual violence she endured, and the associated humiliations she was forced to undergo (pp. 163-164, 185), are not pornified and they are not abstracted from other elements of her life. She describes vividly how the ongoing cruelty of rape became her everyday reality, and the devastating hopelessness that this evoked:
“At some point, there was rape and nothing else. This becomes your normal day. You don’t know who is going to open the door next and attack you, just that it will happen and that tomorrow might be worse. You stop thinking about escaping or seeing your family again. Your past life becomes a distant memory, like a dream. Your body doesn’t belong to you, and there’s no energy to talk or to fight or to think about the world outside. There is only rape and the numbness that comes with accepting that this is now your life. Fear was better. With fear, there is the assumption that what is happening isn’t normal… Hopelessness is close to death” (p. 186).
Her descriptions of sexual violence are also embedded in descriptions of other forms of physical violence: she was hit (p. 171), cigarettes were put out on her body (p. 127), she was whipped (p. 174-175). She also talks about the physical pain caused by sexual violence (e.g. p. 121) as well as the psychological damage (e.g. pp. 119, 121). Murad does describe the rapes she experienced as “the worst part” of what she went through, because “It stripped us of our humanity and made thinking about the future – returning to Yazidi society, marrying, having children, being happy – impossible. We wished they would kill us instead” (p. 161). However, because everything she describes is deeply embedded in the everyday details of a lived life, the reader cannot look away from her being a real person, whose life and losses, and the worth of that life and losses, stretches far past rape itself. Her descriptions of life as lived also prevent the reader from mistaking the rapists for simple monsters – her story about the guard who treated his glasses with great care and her with great viciousness (p. 185) reminds us that perpetrators are human beings with complex everyday lives who made cruel and devastating decisions to commit great violence; a reality that is far more frightening, and requires a different response, than the simple vilification of rapists as inhuman.
Murad’s experiences, then, and her compelling narration of them, both maintains the knowledge that rape is a horrendous and cruel violence that permeates warfare and refuses the abstraction of this violence from the myriad other cruelties and harms of war. The harms of the rapes that she endured cannot be abstracted from her other devastating losses – of her family, her home, her community, her identity. It is within this broader context that conflict rape must be understood. I heard Nadia Murad speak at the PSVI conference in London in November 2022, in her role as a powerful advocate for victims of conflict-related sexual violence. I was struck, in particular, by one thing she said – something along the lines of ‘I want you to remember, when you all leave here today, that while you will be going to a warm, safe shelter, many survivors will not. Many survivors have no warm, safe shelter to go to.’ This – the way in which Murad’s advocacy and her experiences consistently resist the pull to falsely disentangle experiences of sexual violence from other forms of harm and loss in conflict and beyond – remains a centrally important reminder for those working on conflict-related sexual violence in scholarship and in policy.