Iraqi female activists take a stand for Yazidi women

A Syrian Yazidi girl marches during a demonstration near the Syrian-Turkish border on 3 August 2018, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Islamic State (IS) attacks on SInjar. [Getty]
4 min read
Baghdad
10 June, 2021
In-depth: Women activists across Iraq are joining wider anti-government protests to call for recognition and action on behalf of the Yazidi women kidnapped by the Islamic State.

Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped and enslaved when the Islamic State (IS) overran their ancestral homeland in northern Iraq in 2014, as the extremist group sought to destroy the ethnoreligious minority through mass killings and sexual slavery.

In May of this year, a UN investigation concluded that this campaign against the Yazidis constituted genocide. Many of the kidnapped Yazidi women were trafficked to Syria, while thousands remain missing

Across Iraq, female protesters from non-Yazidi backgrounds have taken up their cause as part of the wider anti-government demonstrations which first started in 2019.

We cannot separate the Yazidi issue from the protest movement of the October Revolution, because the revolution is a protest against the corruption of the political system

"It is the duty of women anywhere, regardless of their race, cultural, and social condition, to unite in defence of a very simple idea that women should be treated as human beings, not owned or subordinated," Layla Azad, a 23-year old medical student and activist organising protests in Baghdad, told The New Arab.

She called the kidnapping and rape of Yazidi women an "insult to humanity," stating, "We cannot separate the Yazidi issue from the protest movement of the October Revolution, because the revolution is a protest against the corruption of the political system".

The October Revolution, which began on 1 October 2019, is a widespread protest movement that decries corruption, unemployment, and inefficient public services in Iraq.

Activists connect government corruption and ineptitude with its inability to prevent, and a failure to respond, to the kidnapping of Yazidi women.

Demonstrators protest in support of kidnapped Yazidi women in Shingal, May 2021. [Haji Saleh]
Demonstrators protest in support of kidnapped Yazidi women in Shingal, May 2021. [Haji Saleh]

Many women, such as Noor Talib, a 27-year-old feminist activist based in Basra, feel a kinship with the persecuted Yazidis.

"In fact, our country is not safe for all women… Yazidi women's issues are not different from the rest of the issues advocated by feminists in Iraq such as honour crimes and domestic violence against women. And because the suffering of women is the same everywhere, you do not need to be just Yazidi... in order to convey their suffering."

A unified protest movement

Since late May, women from different religions and governorates in Iraq have gathered for one cause: demanding the liberation of Yazidi women kidnapped by IS in 2014. 

The protesters assert that Yazidis have been neglected by the Iraqi government and treated as numbers rather than human beings.

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Basra Feminists, a new group in southern Iraq, issued a statement on 25 May demanding the liberation of the abducted Yazidi women and calling for further protests.

Their campaign began on Twitter with the Arabic hashtag 'Save the Kidnapped Yazidi Women.' As with other movements, social media has become an essential form of protest by women against repressive regimes and inequality.

Many women barred from the streets have been able to continue to support fellow protesting women via social media.

It is the duty of women anywhere, regardless of their race, cultural, and social condition, to unite in defence of a very simple idea that women should be treated as human beings, not owned or subordinated

Major demonstrations were planned for 25 May, as feminist organisers intended to join wider anti-corruption protests in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq, which have most recently focused on the assassination of pro-democracy Iraqi activists, including Ihab al-Wazni.

However, when earlier demonstrations were met with violent repression by government authorities, the organisers decided to postpone protests out of safety concerns.

While the new date for the postponed demonstration is not yet confirmed, Iraqi feminists are not giving up the fight in supporting kidnapped Yazidi women.

In-depth Rachel
Coffins wrapped in the Iraqi flag during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of the Islamic State in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district, on 6 February 2021. [Getty]

"The Iraqi government should expedite the formation of the department for Yazidi survivors, which will create a search team for the Yazidi abductees with military support. Thousands of women were abducted and the government does not care for [them]," says Salma Shingal, a 22-year-old Yazidi activist based in Duhok.

"It is impossible for the Yazidi community to escape from constant suffering and tragedies unless we become a self-autonomous state."

This corrupt regime has direct responsibility for the suffering of the Yazidi women. I demand justice

In a move lauded by activists, on 1 March Iraq adopted the Law on Yazidi Female Survivors, a landmark bill outlining a host of reparation benefits for survivors of IS, particularly Yazidi women and girls who survived conflict-related sexual violence.

However, specific details regarding the implementation of the programme remain largely unclear, and there is still much work to be done to rescue, rehabilitate, and recognise Yazidi women.

"The secrecy of the local media and politicians regarding the Yazidi issue… suggests that this corrupt regime has direct responsibility for the suffering of the Yazidi women," Salma Shingal says. "I demand justice."

Sanar Hasan is an Iraqi journalist covering Baghdad with a special focus on gender, refugees, and displacement.

Follow her on Twitter: @HasanSanar