Shifting the burden of shame

In its choice for Peace Prize this year, the Nobel Committee has empowered the narrative against sexual crimes In conferring the 2018 Peace prize, jointly, to Nadia Murad, a former sex slave of the Islamic State (IS), and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecological surgeon who helps raped war survivors, the Nobel Committee has placed itself at the centre of the raging #MeToo movement by calling for a change in the narrative to shift the burden of shame away from survivors of sexual crimes. Dr. Mukwege, who has been treating patients as young as 2 and as old as 70 who have been brutalised by soldiers and guerrillas, has been an outspoken activist calling for an end to using women’s bodies as weapons in war. But in baring her face to the world, Ms. Murad has made it impossible to look away from the suffering of sexual survivors in conflicts. Ms. Murad, now 25, was barely out of her teens when she, along with some 3,000 other women of the minority Yazidi community in Iraq, were taken away as sex slaves by the IS. In her book, The Last Girl , Ms. Murad describes not just the abject cruelty and complete violation that the IS inflicted on their sex slaves but also the efficient bureaucracy that was set up in order to reward their fighters with access to women’s bodies as well as prevent the escape of the slaves. Murad’s story Until the IS arrived, Ms. Murad lived in Kocho, a village of Yazidis, off the valley of the Sinjar mountains, the centre of the community. Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion, with an oral history that predates Islam. There are only about a million Yazidis now, with conversion into the religion not accepted. Yazidis have been persecuted several times in history, including by the Ottomans and Saddam Hussein’s Baathists. When the IS took control over Mosul and established its Caliphate, it declared Yazidis, who do not have a holy book, to be Kuffar, non-believers, making it legal to murder Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam and enslave the women. The IS has elaborate written protocols on the buying, selling and care of these slaves ( sabaya ), including complex valuation models such as what made a girl more or less valuable, which fighters would get a sabiya as an incentive and who would have to pay. Ms. Murad describes her ordeal without flinching — the brutality, the gang rapes as punishments for trying to escape, and sometimes even the bewildering romance that older men tried to infuse into their relationships with young slaves, dressing them up and posing for photographs as though with a partner or spouse. Ms. Murad was moved from house to house, city to city, as she was bought and sold several times, her value decreasing with each transaction. At one point, she was even held in a room at a check point, available to any IS fighter who happened to pass by. She managed to escape, eventually, through a combination of grit and luck, and was ultimately reunited with the parts of her family that remained. In what has been described as a genocide, the men in the village were shot dead minutes before young women were taken as slaves and the older women killed. Ms. Murad lost her mother and several siblings. However, returning women weren’t usually received very well. Virginity is highly valued in the community and the shame of the crimes done to them cling to the survivors.

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