Nadia Murad Speaks on Behalf of Women Heroes of War

7 March, 2022
“Daesh Molest­ed the Girls” by Iraqi artist Ros­tam Agha­la, 2015. “I have fought vio­lent Islam­ic ide­olo­gies, and I have fought ISIS by paint­ing ideas and beau­ty” says Agha­la (cour­tesy Wom­en’s Media Cen­ter).

 

The Last Girl, My Sto­ry of Cap­tiv­i­ty, and My Fight Against the Islam­ic State
A mem­oir by Nadia Murad
Pen­guin Ran­dom House 
ISBN 9781524760441

 

Maryam Zar

 

Nadia Murad’s tale of cap­tiv­i­ty and humil­i­a­tion at the hands of ISIS, and her even­tu­al escape and res­cue are a har­row­ing account, brave­ly reliv­ed for the ben­e­fit of the world.

Although few read­ers will be unfa­mil­iar with the nar­ra­tive of Daesh or ISIS in the con­flict lands of Iraq and Syr­ia — or the ordeal of Nadia and thou­sands of women like her — the details of fear and humil­i­a­tion borne by the psy­che of girls in order to demor­al­ize and strip them of their iden­ti­ty is a dif­fi­cult nar­ra­tive we are all bet­ter to endure.

The Last Girl is a mem­oir by Nobel Peace Prize win­ner Nadia Murad.

Nadia is the eleventh and last child of a Kur­dish fam­i­ly. She was abduct­ed from her home­town of Kocho when she was only 16 years old. Kocho is a Yazi­di vil­lage in the Sin­jar region of Iraq, made up of farm­ers and shep­herds. She has child­hood mem­o­ries of long dri­ves through the coun­try­side, sand­wich­es along the way with a dot­ing moth­er and a brave father of whom she is proud. She takes the time to recall bet­ter days at the side of broth­ers and cousins, pok­ing fun and play­ing pranks, and recalls coex­is­tence with neigh­bors and friends, like any­one would.

Still, Murad speaks of prej­u­dices hard­en­ing into hatred as the war in Iraq dragged on after the US inva­sion; “rela­tion­ships bur­dened by cen­turies of dis­trust” begin­ning to bub­ble to the fore. Even­tu­al­ly, even the kind coex­is­tence that pop­u­lates her child­hood mem­o­ries begins to break apart into the seeds of vio­lence — a vio­lence that creeps into her neigh­bor­hood with signs of bru­tal­i­ty from the start.

The war that the US brought to Iraq in 2003, with the promise of a swift takeover of pow­er and a wel­com­ing pop­u­lace, bled into a last­ing con­flict fueled by local rival­ries and vicious ter­ri­to­r­i­al bat­tles that dec­i­mat­ed com­mu­ni­ties and laid a nation to waste. The Last Girl chron­i­cles the slow slide into con­flict and the incre­men­tal real­iza­tion that the coex­is­tence her com­mu­ni­ty had long enjoyed with their Sun­ni Mus­lim neigh­bors was unraveling.

Yazidism, Murad explains, is an ancient monothe­is­tic reli­gion that is spread by folk­lore through holy men and fam­i­lies, and passed down the gen­er­a­tions. It is not what we term as a “book reli­gion” and for that rea­son, Yazidis have been the tar­get per­se­cu­tion from the Ottomans to Sad­dam who looked down upon them as idol­aters and dev­il wor­shipers — all because there was no book. Still, it was Yazidism that held her com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er and gave them the sense of uni­ty and pride that infused her child­hood, and still sus­tains her deter­mi­na­tion today.

 

In truth, this is an all too famil­iar sto­ry for many refugees who watch in dis­be­lief as their lives suc­cumb to the destruc­tion of war and con­flict, waged by far­away strate­gists whose only cal­cu­lus is a tac­ti­cal one, not a human one.

As the Iraq war raged in what seemed like uncon­trolled new direc­tions, the Kur­dish Pesh­mer­ga formed to defend the Kurds near Erbil. Peo­ple in Sin­jar asked to form their own deter­rent force, but were rebuffed. Nadia Murad tells of weapons slow­ly com­ing into the home, and check­points being manned by broth­ers and cousins as vil­lagers began to real­ize that the old, com­fort­able order had reced­ed, and a new bru­tal real­i­ty was set­ting in. 

The slow demise of life as they knew it reminds me of Malala Yousafzai’s descrip­tion of the same slow unrav­el­ing of the vil­lage sur­round­ing her when the Tal­iban set in. In truth, it is an all too famil­iar sto­ry for many refugees who watch in dis­be­lief as their lives suc­cumb to the destruc­tion of war and con­flict, waged by far­away strate­gists whose only cal­cu­lus is a tac­ti­cal one, not a human one.

A defi­ant spir­it with a bold instinct, Murad writes that she nev­er thought she’d live any­where out­side of her vil­lage of Kocho. As life would have it, she is now the friend and client of Amal Clooney and a glob­al ambas­sador for women’s empow­er­ment while being the face of resis­tance for women around the world who endure the degra­da­tion that their gen­der infus­es into their lives. Nadia Murad’s har­row­ing jour­ney from Kocho to the under­bel­ly of ISIS, where she endured rape and abuse at the hands of Mus­lim men whom she may well have deemed dirty, all while learn­ing to keep qui­et and hide her inde­fati­ga­ble spir­it for free­dom —which ulti­mate­ly led her to a dar­ing escape — shows us that we dis­miss the strength of women at our own peril.

 

Nadia Murad is a human rights activist and win­ner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the recip­i­ent of the Vaclav Hav­el Human Rights Prize and the Sakharov Prize, and is the UN’s first Good­will Ambas­sador for the Dig­ni­ty of Sur­vivors of Human Traf­fick­ing. Togeth­er with Yaz­da, a Yazi­di rights orga­ni­za­tion, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing to bring the Islam­ic State before the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court on charges of geno­cide and crimes against human­i­ty. She is also the founder of Nadia’s Ini­tia­tive, a pro­gram ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing sur­vivors of geno­cide and human traf­fick­ing to heal and rebuild their com­mu­ni­ties (pho­to cour­tesy Fred R. Conrad.)

 

It is hard to read her sto­ry, espe­cial­ly as a woman. There are lay­ers and lay­ers of injus­tice she chron­i­cles, not just with war and bru­tal­i­ty but with small acts of gen­der-based degra­da­tion to which one becomes accus­tomed, but nev­er quite com­fort­able with. As she recounts tale after tale, and laments the loss of fam­i­ly mem­bers she knows are endur­ing the same degra­da­tion at the mer­cy of men with pow­er and seem­ing­ly no con­science, she writes of her peo­ple, “we would, over gen­er­a­tions, get used to a small pain or injus­tice until it became nor­mal enough to ignore.”

She becomes the slave or “sabaya” of a high rank­ing ISIS com­man­der, Hajji Salman, who pro­claims her as his own. Liv­ing in his house, Nadia sees ISIS up close and under­stands the way they rel­ish the pain they inflict upon the com­mu­ni­ties they over­take. She lives with Salman in a house in Mosul which had clear­ly been tak­en from its for­mer wealthy inhab­i­tants —an Iraqi fam­i­ly no doubt tak­ing refuge in some adopt­ed home­land away from the con­flict. She watch­es as they hoist their black and white flags and spread their jiha­di pro­pa­gan­da, all while occu­py­ing the nicest homes first and loot­ing what’s left of the towns they roll into, turn­ing schools into mil­i­tary bases and destroy­ing arti­facts they deem un-Islamic.

More than any­thing, this book is a chron­i­cle of the resilience of women. She describes unflinch­ing­ly the bru­tal­i­ty of the rapes and the humil­i­a­tion of the slave mar­kets where women are bought and sold ran­dom­ly like commodities:

We would be bought at the mar­ket or giv­en as a gift to a new recruit or a high-rank­ing com­man­der, and then tak­en back to his home where we would be raped and humil­i­at­ed, most of us beat­en as well. Then we would be sold or giv­en as a gift again, and again raped and beat­en, then sold or giv­en as gift to anoth­er mil­i­tant, and raped and beat­en by him, and sold or giv­en and raped and beat­en, and it went this way for as long as were desir­able enough and not dead yet.

After reveal­ing such hor­rors, Murad gives a harsh rebuke to the Arab women and the com­mu­ni­ties who watched as all this hap­pen to Yazi­di girls.

As if she knows that this world is desen­si­tized to the vio­lence vis­it­ed upon women around the world, she reminds the read­er that the rapes were the worst part. “It stripped us of our human­i­ty and made think­ing about the future…impossible.” Still, she claims that future, even though she endures a bru­tal whip­ping after her first attempt at an escape and fears being caught. She final­ly finds the deter­mi­na­tion when she real­izes that all the abuse, the bru­tal­i­ty, the whip­ping and the rape are designed to sap her of her spir­it to be free, and she won’t let that happen.

Giv­en a moment alone and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to flee, she musters the deter­mi­na­tion to risk it all again, as she swings her bag over a short wall and rush­es toward free­dom. “My heart beat so hard in my chest that I wor­ried peo­ple I passed would hear it and know what was.” 

This is a book well worth read­ing. It is not an easy read, clear through to the end where even in escape, Nadia Murad is forced to relive Iraq’s war-torn pain. Not so much for the dis­turb­ing details of phys­i­cal and gen­der-based vio­lence that we might expect, know­ing what the Yazi­di com­mu­ni­ty has endured, but for its spir­it of tri­umph and its tale of war the way it impacts ordi­nary peo­ple, this is a book we need now more than ever.

 

Writer’s note: These peo­ple who expe­ri­ence bru­tal con­flict and flee their lands for bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty are no dif­fer­ent from you and I, the writer and read­er of this review. They are ordi­nary peo­ple caught in extra­or­di­nar­i­ly bru­tal cir­cum­stances, through no fault of their own. Remem­ber that the next time you cheer or con­demn a con­flict far away from your own homeland.

 

Amal ClooneyDaeshIraqISISNadia MuradrapeYazidis

Writer-attorney Maryam Zar was born in Iran and came to the US in 1979. She graduated from Boston University with a BS in Mass Communication and a JD from Pepperdine Law School. In 1992 she returned to Iran where she became an advertising executive as well as a correspondent at a time when the nation was troubled by the neighboring conflict in Iraq. She made her mark as a fiercely capable woman in a patriarchal land, and was named editor for the English-language newspaper Iran News. Returning to southern California, in 2010 she launched Womenfound, an organization that would raise awareness for the plight of women around the world and advocate for their empowerment. In 2017, she was appointed to the LA City Commission on the Status of Women by Mayor Eric Garcetti, and presently chairs the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils (an alliance of 14 Neighborhood and Community Councils on LA’s Westside). She has written for HuffPost, the LA Review of Books and other publications.

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