6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Freeing Yazidi Women: Combating a 21st Century Slavery Revival Project

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Webcast Recap

Two experts discussed ISIS’s treatment of Yazidi women and efforts to rescue kidnapped individuals.

On October 31, 2014, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted an event “Freeing Yazidi Women: Combating a 21st Century Slavery Revival Project” with Matthew Barber, a scholar from the University of Chicago who was working in Iraqi Kurdistan during ISIS’s attack this summer, and Murad Ismael, a Yazidi-American advocate for the Yazidi community. Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Barber began with an overview of Yazidi history and culture. The Yazidi community has been particularly vulnerable, he emphasized, because it practices one of the few religions in the Middle East outside of the Abrahamic faiths, relies on oral tradition rather than holy texts, and contains elements that can be interpreted as polytheistic; as a result, ISIS regards the Yazidis as “devil-worshippers.” Barber asserted that ISIS approaches the Yazidis and other minority groups in a theologically “nuanced” way; the Christians expelled by ISIS from Mosul, for example, did not suffer the violence that the Yazidis later did because of their “protected” status. Reflecting on stories told by Sunni survivors in August, Barber recounted that ISIS separated fleeing Sunni and Yazidi cars, returned Sunnis to Sinjar, and hauled Yazidi women away in trucks. Of the nearly 7,000 people missing, a majority are women and girls. Such organization and planning, according to Barber, is evidence that ISIS’s strategy was both pre-meditated and sexually-motivated.  ISIS has embarked on this “21st century slavery project,” he explained, because it is “spiritually advantageous” to provide ISIS fighters with Yazidi women as alternatives to their wives. Speaking on the role of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and peshmerga, Barber argued that although the KRG is known for its sympathies towards minorities, it has not done enough to protect the Yazidis. If the peshmerga forces had held out on August 3 rather than pulling out immediately, the Yazidis would not face the situation they do today, he contended. To conclude, Barber cautioned that a shift in focus to Syria’s Kobane has resulted in the neglect of Sinjar.

In consensus with Barber, Ismael explained that the ISIS fighters that took Sinjar were met with no resistance from the 10,000-12,000 peshmerga fighters present. During the question portion of the event, he explained that this lack of resistance resulted from an unwillingness and incapability to protect the Yazidis due to “complicated reasons,” including lack of training, military corruption, and the issue of Sunni Kurds killing coreligionists to save Yazidis. Ismael echoed Barber’s August stories of ISIS fighters separating women from men and hauling them away in trucks. Women and girls ten years and older were separated from their families and given as “gifts” and sexual “rewards” for ISIS fighters. While the Yazidi delegation has sent letters to al-Azhar and other influential religious officials urging them to issue a clear fatwa that killing Yazidis and enslaving their women is against Islam, it has been to no avail.

To conclude, Ismael warned that the siege of Sinjar continues. About 3,000 lightly armed Yazidis have proven quite effective in resisting ISIS, particularly when cooperating with the YPG. At the same time, they possess insufficient arms. In this context, the Yazidi delegation came to DC with a number of ways in which the international community can aid Yazidis: by supplying arms to Yazidi civilian fighters, increasing airstrikes around Sinjar, evacuating civilians from the Sinjar mountains, and freeing Yazidi women from “slavery.” As winter approaches, he warned, more assistance is urgently needed, and the Kurds, Iraqis, and UN coalition must work together to mitigate the crisis.

By Emily Parker, Middle East Program