Sometimes, Yazidi survivor Khalida* sends me pictures of traditional food she has cooked – a sweet pastry, rice wrapped in vine leaves, flatbreads. They are interspersed with photos of her and her children at home in regional Queensland. To me, the images represent the continuity of Yazidi culture and resilience of the survivors.
On August 3, four years after ISIS launched a genocide against this ancient minority in Northern Iraq, the Yazidi community will remember the murdered, the displaced and dispossessed, and the enslaved women and children. Details of ISIS’s unimaginable cruelty against Yazidi women have permeated public consciousness of the genocide but such stories do not do justice to the complexity of their experiences. As we commemorate the genocide this year, it is time to highlight the strength, humanity and resistance of Yazidi women.
Killing is one part of genocide but equally important are strategies to destroy the victim group’s culture and society. That is why ISIS forced Yazidis to convert, changed their names and forbade them from practising their own customs. It is why men and women were separated, why women were subjected to systematic rape and trafficking, and children trained in ISIS ideology.
“They told my son, if you hear your mother speaking Kurdish come and tell us. They brainwashed him”. But Khalida insisted. “Don’t speak Arabic,” she told him, “Kurdish is your language.”
Khalida’s story is one of many that show how Yazidi women fought back. Sometimes they resisted overtly, insulting and shouting at their captors, or banging on the windows of the buses that transported them across Iraqi and Syrian landscapes. Others refused or feigned conversion, and secretly prayed to the most revered angel, Taus Melek. There are accounts of rising early to pray towards the sun, an important symbol in Yazidi culture. When Khalida gave birth to her daughter in captivity, she named her ‘Sun’, in Kurdish.
None of this was without risk. Khalida tells me that ISIS beat the women when they were caught, “but all the ladies were praying until their clothes were covered in blood.”
“They always told us to stop talking Kurdish but we never listened,” she continues.
“They told my son, if you hear your mother speaking Kurdish come and tell us. They brainwashed him”. But Khalida insisted. “Don’t speak Arabic,” she told him. “Kurdish is your language.”
As a community that has endured persecution for centuries, Yazidi women had internalised the stories of their ancestors and were familiar with tactics of protection. Older women cut the hair of younger ones and shaved off their eyebrows. On one occasion, Khalida attempted to protect a nine-year-old girl. “Two ISIS men came and they looked like monsters. I tried to keep the girl with me but they threatened to hit my children with their guns.”
“All the survivors have a book inside their hearts from the first day that Daesh came, to their day of freedom,” Khalida tells me.
Khalida says that she and the thirty others held with her deliberately avoided showering in the hope this might prevent being raped or sold. Others have reported feigning disability or pretending not to understand Arabic. Women often worked together to survive. Khalida and the other women made a fire and then covered their faces with ash. Accounts such as these are so common that journalist Cathy Otten titled her book about Yazidi women, ‘With Ash on their Faces.’ Otten recounts an extraordinary story of a woman who combined breast milk with ash and used the mixture to tattoo her own name so she could be identified in death.
For some survivors, the choice to tell their stories is felt as a final act of resistance – calling out the crimes of the perpetrators and forcing the world to take notice. “All the survivors have a book inside their hearts from the first day that Daesh came, to their day of freedom,” Khalida tells me.
Khalida says that she and the thirty others held with her deliberately avoided showering in the hope this might prevent being raped or sold.
She and many others are hoping for the day when they can give their testimony as part of an official process to hold ISIS accountable for crimes against humanity and genocide. “It has been four years. We want to record everything that happened so it can be used as evidence. We are waiting.”
Yazidi women are not archetypal victims or heroes. They are individual human beings who have experienced atrocious crimes but who also made active decisions for their survival and protection, defying their perpetrators. Despite the risks, they preserved their religion and instilled a sense of pride in their children.
Khalida’s young daughter speaks Kurdish and is learning English; she eats her mother’s bakhlava and plays with her brother. She has emerged from the darkness of captivity like the rays of the sun she is named after.
The next generation lives - and that is the strongest form of resistance to genocide there is.
*Full name withheld for privacy
Nikki Marczak is a genocide scholar and advocate for genocide survivors. Her research on Yazidi women’s resistance was presented at the International Association of Genocide Scholars conference in Brisbane.