BAGHDAD: The Yazidi Survivors Law, passed by the Iraqi parliament in March 2021, does not apply on victims of ISIS brutality belong to majority Arab Muslims women.
This law recognises acts of genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by ISIL against the Yazidi, Christian, Turkmen and Shabak minorities and provides for reparations for, among others, women and girls subjected to sexual violence.
Arab Muslim women (both Shia and Sunni), who also faced ISIL brutality, call themselves ISIL’s invisible victims, both because their families and communities have rejected them and because they are not included in the Yazidi Survivors Law.
At a shelter of these Arab Muslim women in northern Iraq, old sofas and thin mattresses fill the room. It is currently home to a small number of women who, between 2014 and 2017, were abducted, tortured and raped by members of ISIL (ISIS) when the group controlled this area.
Umm Diya, a resident of the shelter, was abducted, abused and sexually assaulted by members of ISIL and now struggles to care for her three children, aged 13, 10 and 7, she is not eligible for the assistance including a monthly salary, a plot of land or housing unit and access to psychosocial and other health services provided for in the law.
“ISIL kept us in a house with my kids, there were other women too,” she explains. “Torture began there.”
Umm Diya says she begged them not to touch her children. But she could not stop them from witnessing the abuse she and the other women endured.
“They started unclothing us and beating us. We were tied by our legs to the ceiling fan, and they beat us with sticks and also lashed us, calling us the most abusive words, calling us prostitutes.”
She says many men participated in the abuse, moving from one woman to another as they beat and raped them.
“We were shouting Allah Akbar, but despite that they [continued],” she says.
Now, she explains, the trauma of what she witnessed has caused her 13-year-old daughter to lose the ability to speak. “My daughter listens to you but never speaks,” she says.
Umm Diya believes her daughter needs treatment but she cannot afford it.
Like the other women at this shelter in a dilapidated old complex, Umm Diya survived ISIL but then faced further abuse at the hands of her family and tribe.
“They have this belief if you have been raped you are an ISIL woman,” explains a female aid worker who I have asked to sit with Umm Diya as she shares her story, thinking that having a woman present might make her feel more comfortable.
She explains that when the leader of her tribe declared that she was “an object of shame”, her aunts, other relatives and even childhood friends abandoned her.
“My husband spat on me and started beating me with my brother. I was beaten so badly, they had to take me to the doctor,” she says.
“My husband left me. [He said] ‘You are shame to me, I do not want you any more, you have given your body to ISIL militants,’ He left us alone.”
That is how Umm Diya and her children ended up at the shelter, which has supported 14 women since it opened last year. Some of the women have left the shelter after receiving written guarantees from the leaders of their tribes that they would not be harmed. Others have returned to their family homes, where their husbands have remarried, to work as servants in the house so that they can be close to their children.
“Honour, ironically, is used as a pretext by the wider society and tribes as they dishonourably abuse their own sisters, wives and even daughters,” says Yanar Mohammed, the President of the Organization of Women’s Freedom, an NGO that runs shelters, including this one, for Yazidi and other survivors of ISIL’s crimes.
Much of the support Yanar and her team of volunteers and staff provide to the women must be done secretly because of the threats these survivors face from within their own families and communities. All the women they work with, she says, face societal challenges. But while the crimes ISIL committed against Yazidi women are widely recognised within and beyond Iraq, she says non-Yazidi victims have been largely ignored and abandoned.
“Muslim Arab women who were enslaved by ISIL did not find a place to go back to, they are still living in the shadows of the society with nobody who acknowledges them, respects them,” Yanar explains.
Most did not disclose what they had endured to anybody she says, adding: “She lived with her pain or she died with her pain. Many of them turned into dead bodies just buried in the back yard of ISIL fighters.”
She estimates that no fewer than 10,000 women were victims of ISIL but says this has not been “acknowledged by the international community or dealt with in a way that keeps the dignity, the respect or [provides] compensation for most victims”.