Yazidi Women and the Portrayal of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Global South
17 Jul. 2020
By Busra Nisa Sarac
This article is a part of a study that was published by Journal of Strategic Security. The original can be accessed here.
Mainstream feminist scholars have long discussed the difficulties women face in demonstrating their agency in different contexts. Pioneering works of scholars such as Shome (2006) and Mohanty (2003) have paved the way for understanding how unequal global media representation has contributed to the (re)production of conventional gendered stereotypes about certain women in the Global South. This article focuses on UK newspapers’ portrayal of Yazidi women’s experiences not only under ISIS, but also their post-ISIS lives. Although the title suggests that it concerns with the representation of sexual violence under ISIS, this article also takes the effect of sexual violence into account when analysing the media’s portrayal. The reason behind this decision is the fact that the violence exercised against Yazidi women has affected their post-ISIS lives and eventually influenced the way their experiences are portrayed by the media. Thus, I propose to analyse how media discourses address the broader security implications of sexual violence that Yazidis experience and how these security problems affect their daily lives in post-conflict situations. It is a timely and an important discussion for two reasons. First, the existing literature appears to focus on a relatively short period (2014-2016), which corresponds with the peak of ISIS activity in Iraq and Syria. Second, the portrayal of marginalised women’s lives, struggles, and oppression as what Mohanty (1988, p.61) called ‘a singular monolithic subject’ in global power structures fails to move beyond the dominant narratives of ‘Third World’ women as victims of sexual violence and the lack of agency ascribed to them. By analysing news articles from 2014 to 2019, I evaluate if the newspapers placed an emphasis on women’s survivorhood as time goes on, thereby placing their predicament within a bigger picture. At the centre of this discussion is the view that women’s experiences should not be universalised due to women’s diverse needs and agendas in many cultures. This new perspective allows us to understand women’s cultural, social, and economics differences in a very heterogeneous and multi-faceted world and to understand the women’s security needs after being subjected to sexual violence.
Having conducted a content analysis of 190 UK news articles over the period of five years from 2014 to 2019, this study aimed to highlight evaluations and changes in the UK newspapers’ portrayal of Yazidi women’s experiences. The second objective was to evaluate whether these portrayals remain rooted in conventional gender clichés. For that purpose,, 57 articles from The Independent, 9 articles from The Telegraph, 63 articles from Daily Mail, 26 articles from The Mirror, 20 articles from The Times, and 15 articles from The Guardian were selected for content analysis. Although content analysis allows researchers to analyse the media qualitatively and quantitively, the quantitative analysis of the news item is beyond the scope of this article. To perform a content analysis, all the articles were initially coded into three different meta-frames. The meta frames included (i) linguistic forms to describe Yazidi women; (ii) the representation of women’s survivorhood through their agency, and (iii) the representation of the consequences of violence against women.
Given the fact that linguistic forms are associated with specific ideological and social functions, three main linguistic forms appeared in the depiction of Yazidi women; victims, sex slaves and (rape) survivors. For instance, Mirror ran a story of Nadia Murad and reported “a brave victim of Islamic State who was captured in her home and sold as a sex slave has told of the daily horrors she was subjected to” (Shammas, 2015). A Mirror article covered a story of a Yazidi women and reported, “In the confusion and lack of a processing system, Azima–like other IS kidnap victims–was bundled into the same camp as other suspected IS brides and children” (Hughes, 2019). Notably, the term ‘sex slaves’ was the most referenced word in the news articles, appearing in 130 articles, referenced 323 times. For example, an article beneath the headline - Father of the Brave: The Man Who Rescues Enslaved Women from ISIS- (which perpetuated the notion of male agency being more powerful than female agency) reported “The jihadis have kept the women as concubines or sex slaves. Boys are indoctrinated and those able to carry guns are trained to fight” (Salih, 2015). This kind of portrayal was also used for Nadia Murad, the public face of Yazidis, who have travelled the world to campaign against sexual violence. The Times failed to resist the dominant discourses about women who experienced violence. A headline in The Timesreads: ‘Yazidi Sex Slave Begs the World to Stop Islamic State Genocide’ (Miller, 2016). The article beneath the headline also obscures her sense of agency and resilience, given the fact that she had to flee her homeland to raise awareness about the genocide against her own people. Regarding the term survivor, on the other hand, even though the articles describe these women using the term survivor, a tendency to associate the word ‘rape’ with survivor was apparent. For instance, The Guardian published an article entitled “Yazidi Leaders to Allow Isis Rape Survivors to Return with Children” (Chulov and Rasool, 2019). Similarly, The Independent also chose the term rape survivor for a headline to describe an important issue of children born to ISIS fathers; “Yazidi Leaders Issue ‘Historic Call for Children of Isis Rape Survivors to Return Home” (Hall and Qasim, 2019). These portrayals are problematic in that they did not mention the historical context surrounding Yazidi persecution in the Middle East and therefore lacked detailed analysis of the socio-cultural background to this issue. Rather, the articles had a tendency to use tropes related to the women’s victimhood that ‘re-victimise’ women and fail to demonstrate their wider security problems during and after ISIS captivity. These kinds of representations relate to several prevalent gender stereotypes and themes about the ‘Third-World’ and prevent a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted aspects of these women’s lives, despite the fact that their stories of escape have also appeared in the international media (even in 2014 following the genocide in Sinjar). Given that the media contributes to the public’s understanding of what a victim ‘looks like’, the media often portray Yazidi women as the passive victims of sexual violence.
Despite all the atrocities these women have endured, some of the articles (although not many) mention the Yazidi women’s resistance to ISIS’s brutality and focus on the strategies they developed to deal with the ISIS’s atrocities. The way the mainstream media portrays these women is crucial, because, until the media accounts for their activism and agency in the post-conflict era, publics are more likely to view them as simply the passive victims of mass rape at the hands of ISIS. This is not to presume that the journalists alone have the responsibility to counter this view but given the fact that they cover the ISIS’s violence against Yazidis in general, there exists a need to highlight all sides of the story. Yet, in British newspapers, only 27 articles present narratives that frame women as escapees (referenced 35 times). For example, the Daily Mail covered an escape story of a woman and stated that “she said she had slipped pills into her captors' food to escape in the middle of the night, walking for 14 hours to Mount Sinjar where other Yazidis had found safety” (Kara and Stickings, 2018). Moreover, the news items sampled barely mention women’s activism (appearing in only five newspapers and referenced five times). Women in each of these examples have dedicated their lives to helping others cope with the atrocities, even though they themselves experienced the same brutality. These articles illustrate women’s strength to move on with their current lives. For example, an article published by The Independent tells us of a Yazidi woman who has returned to her family in Duhok, and “started volunteering for the German International Society for Human Rights as they distributed aid to refugees (Dearden, 2017).
The newspaper articles sampled discuss the different kinds of consequences of ISIS’s brutal treatment of women from 2014 to 2019 in the following terms: Trauma, suicidal tendencies and/or death as a result of rape, indoctrination, revenge, and resistance. Surprisingly, only a few articles mention how these women have been able to start new lives after the brutal attacks against them and other civilians. 18 separate articles and 23 specific references describe trauma as one of the most severe consequences of the violence these women experienced. In an article appearing in The Independent, Dr. Nagham Nawzat Hasan, a Yazidi gynecologist, described the women who were raped as “very tired, unconscious, and in severe shock and psychological upset” (Callimachi, 2017). In The Mirror, a Yazidi woman in her 50s told of Yazidi women who escaped ISIS, “they were starving, terribly frightened and traumatized. They had broken arms from being beaten, the kids wept at night, wetting themselves from nightmares” (Hughes, 2019).
Further, it is noteworthy that revenge and resistance on the part of these women are the least mentioned aspects of the consequences of their experiences of violence under ISIS. For example, the themes of revenge only appear in seven articles and attract only ten references. However, the themes of resistance appeared when some of the women had tried to kill themselves in order to avoid rape or set themselves on fire to look less attractive (appearing in 36 items, referenced 41 times). For instance, in an article published by The Mail Online in 2016, a German doctor revealed, “In a panic she poured gasoline over herself and lit a match, hoping it would make her so ugly they would not rape her again (Newton, 2016).
In conclusion, it can be said that, the news articles sampled deemed these women’s experiences of violence, abuse, and rape more newsworthy than the other consequences they faced. The articles in the dataset demonstrate that the western media’s focus on the narrative of Yazidi women as passive, agency-less sex slaves undermines their own subjective narratives of resilience and opposition to ISIS domination and serves to perpetuate out-dated gender stereotypes and tropes of women. Furthermore, this kind of portrayal ignores the on-going difficulties they experience in their own communities after ISIS. While it is important to recognise the important role that Western news media plays in disseminating narratives about women’s experiences of violence, the analysis of the news articles through gender lenses demonstrated that the representation of women’s experiences under and after ISIS perpetuate the gendered narratives used to portray women in the Global South. However, one should bear in mind that, “the issue of ‘third- world’ women finding a voice and acquiring representation in the global arena is a complex matter that cannot simply be theorized by invoking a homogenous orientalism” (Shome, p.258).
Callimachi, R. (2017). “Women Raped Daily by ISIS are so Damaged. They are Falling into Deep Sleeps and not Getting up,” The Independent, July 28,
Chulov, M., & Rasool, M. (2019). “Yazidi Leaders to Allow Isis Rape Survivors to Return with Children,” The Guardian, April 27,
Dearden, L. (2017). “Former ISIS Sex Slave Vows to Achieve Dream and Become Lawyer After Surviving Regular Rape and Abuse,” The Independent, March 1,
Hall, R. and Qasim, A. (2019). “Yazidi Leaders Issue ‘Historic’ Call for Children of Isis Rape Survivors to Return Home,” The Independent, April 26,
Hughes, C. (2019). “Teen was Forced to Become ISIS Fighter’s Child Bride Aged Just 11,” Daily Mirror, June 20,
Kara, L., & Stickings, T. (2018). I Feel Safer in a Refugee Camp': Yazidi Former Sex Slave is Pictured Back in Iraq After Fleeing GERMANY When She Came Face-to-Face with Her ISIS Captor in Stuttgart - As Police Say They are Now Trying to Track Him Down, Daily Mail, August 17,
Miller, E. (2016). Yazidi Sex Slave Begs the World to Stop Islamic State Genocide, The Times, 22 February,
Mohanty, C.T. (1988). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Feminist Review, 30, 61-88.
Mohanty, C.T. (2003), ‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anticapitalist Struggles. Signs 28 (2), 499-535.
Newton, J. (2016). “Living Hell of Yazidi Sex Slaves: Support Group Reveals ISIS Raped Eight-Year-Old Hundreds of Times… and One Girl Burned Her Face off so She was ‘too ugly’ to be Assaulted Again,” Mail Online, February 28,
Salih, M.A. (2015). “Father of the Brave: The Man Who Rescues Enslaved Women from ISIS” The Guardian, July 13,
Shammas, J. (2015). ISIS Sex Slave Survivor: ‘They Forced Us to Pray Before Raping Us- to Them We Were Animals, Mirror, December 31,
Shome, R. (2006). ‘Transnational Feminism and Communication Studies’, The Communication Review 9, no.4 (2006),257-258, doi: 10.1080/10714420600957266.
Edited by Julius Rogenhofer.