Truth is perhaps not the first casualty of war. Its first victims are women who face a variety of sexual and physical abuses in a manner that indicates that a war is essentially a brutal masculine sport, which, among other reasons, is fought to secure dominance over women. Wars in human history are replete with offences against women. Within just a few years, the ISIS has redefined the brutality by creating a well-oiled network of sex slaves in which Sunni fighters abduct and rape women of other faiths.
There are several journalistic accounts of this barbaric slave trade. The Last Girl is the autobiography of a young Yazidi woman, Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and winner of the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, who was abducted by ISIS militants, brutalised and gangraped for long before she managed a narrow escape.
The Yazidis constitute a small minority community in Iraq and adjoining areas. The ISIS considered them kuffars (plural of Kafir)—“unbelievers worthy of killing”. Murad lived in a village called Kocho of Iraq, and was one of the thousands of Yazidi girls who were abducted, forced to become sex slaves and sold in markets. Her mother and six of her brothers were killed by the militants.
After her escape, she became a global figure, was appointed a UN goodwill ambassador and has delivered speeches at various international forums. Her story is heart-wrenching, and the account of sexual torture prevailing in the ISIS camps horrifying. Abducted women were packed in a bus and, on the way to the slave camps, were molested en masse. Murad was taken to Mosul before she was made a sex slave.
Women were asked to wax themselves, made to wear provocative dresses and apply proper make-up, as they appeared before men. Recalling the horror, she writes about one of her captors: “For him, it was not enough just to rape me—he humiliated me as often as he could, spreading honey on his toes and making me lick it off.”
The Islamic militant group has an elaborate manual, Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves, about the ways to handle sex slaves. Here’s a question that’s also a comment on the abyss to which human civilisation finds itself in: “Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty?” And the answer is: “It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty as she is fit for intercourse.”
The book also vividly details the customs and life of Yazidism, an ancient monotheistic religion, spread orally by holy men through stories. Yazidis do not marry outside their religion and prohibit the conversion of outsiders into their faith. Murad cites instances how the Yazidi stories were misinterpreted by the Sunnis who termed them “devil worshippers”. The misinterpretation of their religion was later “used to justify genocide” against the Yazidis. Stories, after all, have destructive powers.
The Last Girl also underlines how the Iraq invasion suddenly opened up old wounds and sprouted new ones. The relationships between Yazidis and Sunni Muslims “were burdened by centuries of distrust”, she writes, “but still, there was genuine friendship”. The Yazidis of Kocho were “particularly known for our close relationships with Sunni villages”. As the Sunni Arabs were dislodged from political power after the fall of Saddam Hussain, it led to a treacherous war that found victims in the Yazidis.
Her account underlines the impact of the policy of the US and its allies towards the Arab world. However, one wished The Last Girl was a stronger comment on the US invasion of Iraq. Her plight, and of many women like her, can be traced to a series of western invasions.
Perhaps her most damning comment is on the psychology of her audience, which includes international media and activists, that is mostly focused on one aspect—sexual abuse. “Sometimes it can feel like all that anyone is interested in when it comes to the genocide is the sexual abuse of Yazidi girls… I want to talk about everything—the murder of my brothers, the disappearance of my mother, the brainwashing of the boys—and not just rape.” Her account, thus, comes to reflect the collective guilt of civilisation.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla