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After tragedy, new freedoms for Yazidi women

December 18, 2021

Historically Iraq's Yazidi community was isolated, under-resourced and very conservative. Seven years after the "Islamic State" tragedy, the community is more open to the world — and Yazidi women are benefiting.

Iraqi Yazidis attend a candle-lit vigil marking the sixth anniversary of the Islamic State group's attack on the Yazidi community.
Yazidi women have taken a leading role as advocates for their communityImage: Safrin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

"We really appreciate your visit," Luqman Suleiman told a group of tourists from around Iraq and Germany recently, when he met them at the entrance of the Yazidi temple, Lalish. For the ethno-religious Iraqi minority this site in northern Iraq is the equivalent of the Vatican to Catholics, or Mecca to Muslims. Every Yazidi is expected to come here at least once in their lifetime. And these days, more outsiders are coming here too.

"It is really so important that people come here and listen to the Yazidis," Suleiman, a spokesperson and guide at the temple, said. "You shouldn't listen to other people. They may speak falsely about us."

Suleiman was talking about long-standing prejudices against his community in Iraq. Their highly secretive and ritualistic religion — traditions and rules are passed on orally and outsiders are prohibited from knowing most of them — has made the minority a target of the Muslim majority in the country.

A stall inside the entrance to the Lalish temple in northern Iraq, selling souvenirs to a group of visitors from Iraq and Europe. The spokesperson for the temple, Luqman Suleiman, can be seen facing the camera, second from the left.
Luqman Suleiman (second from right) at a small souvenir stand inside the Lalish compoundImage: Cathrin Schaer

The Yazidi faith has been described as "dualist" because they believe that good and evil are part of the same divinity. This is also why some Iraqis have described them as "devil worshippers" and, for example, won't eat any food prepared by Yazidi hands.

It is the same sort of prejudice that made the small religious community, which is thought to number around half a million inside Iraq, a target for the extremist group known as the "Islamic State" (IS).  As the extremists took over swathes of the country in 2014, the minority's marginal status was part of the reason why the IS militants felt they could kill, rape and enslave thousands of members of the community with impunity.

Unexpected outcomes

The Yazidi minority was forever changed by the IS group's brutal assault on them. By the time the extremists were more or less pushed out of northern Iraq in 2017, thousands of Yazidis had been killed or kidnapped. Several international bodies now classify the events as a genocide. Today, around 240,000 are still living in camps for the displaced, many in grinding poverty.

But the community has also changed in some ways that were perhaps not quite so predictable.

People take scenic photographs at the holiest temple of the Yazidi faith.
Outsiders can tour the Lalish temple compound but many areas are only open to YazidisImage: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

"The Yazidi community has transformed toward more openness," said Murad Ismael, head of the Sinjar Academy, an institute in northern Iraq providing education to locals in the area. "The Yazidi community has nothing to hide but I believe, in the past, many thought it was better to not discuss identity or faith. I also think the world today is more passionate and supportive to the Yazidis, which encourages them to be more open."

Newfound freedoms

One noticeable change has come in Yazidi women's rights, Suleiman told his curious visitors.

"Before the IS group came, a woman was not free to leave her village without a male guardian," Suleiman said. "But after the IS time, people have more of an open mind. Women can leave their village and catch a plane to Europe, if they want to," he said, smiling and gesturing at the sky above the hills surrounding the 4,000-year-old temple.

Girls sit in class on the first day of school in a Yazidi displacement camp in the Sharya area.
Previously Yazidi women had a much lower literacy rate than Yazidi men or local Muslim womenImage: Ismael Adnan/AFP/Getty Images

"In the past, the community would not have accepted that," confirmed Naven Symoqi, a Yazidi activist and journalist from Sinjar, the district where many Iraqi Yazidis reside. " But after many Yazidis became displaced, they ended up in different parts of Iraq and they saw different ways of doing things."

That experience, said a local in northern Iraq, who worked with Yazidis in a displaced persons' camp, has had impact. "Imagine if you come from a really isolated agricultural community without many resources, where many people were not educated beyond primary school level. And then you've been displaced, you're in a camp, and there are all these NGOs running programs on education and women's rights," the source told DW. The person requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the community with which they still work.

Women drivers

Symoqi marvels at the fact there are now driving schools for women in town. She also knows of Yazidi women studying at universities and praises Amera Atto, a Yazidi who competed in 2021's Miss Iraq contest.

Yazidi women involved in local survivor networks are also doing things they never would have before, such as traveling to cities to meet male politicians to discuss justice and compensation.

Because of the murders of their male relatives, many Yazidi women became heads of their own households, pointed out Abid Shamdeen, executive director of Nadia's Initiative.

His nonprofit organization, founded by Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has been able to help Yazidi women set up their own small businesses, rebuild homes and access education. "We have seen that these kinds of projects have a profoundly positive impact on Yazidi women," Shamdeen told DW. "After IS' destruction, Yazidi women have very much taken the lead in advocating on behalf of their community, both locally and globally."

Yazidi women are also benefiting from better access to education and job opportunities, the Sinjar Academy's Ismael added. "There are more women employed and some even own small businesses or lead NGOs. This is really something new to the Yazidis of Iraq."

Underage marriage

Despite it's awful origins, this new attitude could be seen as a positive development. The Yazidi religion has strict rules. You cannot convert into it, nor can you leave it. Adherents may not even marry out of their own caste within the community, let alone outside of the religion.

Iraqi Yazidi women sit on a wall outside the Temple of Lalish, in a valley near the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
Previously many Yazidi women were not able to travel independently without being harshly judgedImage: SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

In one high-profile case from 2007, Dua Khalil Aswad, a young Yazidi woman, who was thought to have converted to Islam for love was beaten to death in public, including by members of her own family. 

In 2011, after a growing number of suicides among young Yazidi females, researchers from the International Organization for Migration conducted community interviews to find out why this was happening. They concluded "the marginalization of women and the view of the woman's role as peripheral" were to blame, alongside isolation, unhappy arranged marriages, unemployment among females and community and sectarian tensions.

More to come

Still, community members told DW that, despite recent changes, much remains to be done.

For one thing, the former camps worker explained, there's still a big difference between the way Yazidi survivors and other women in the community are treated.

A woman mourns by a grave during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of the Islamic State group whose remains were found in a mass grave, in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo.
In early December, Yazidis held a ceremony to bury 41 community members killed by the IS groupImage: Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

"Some are welcomed back by their families, others are not. Although the community doesn't like to talk about it like this, it's a bit of a disaster," the source said. "And all this [the new rights Yazidi women have] is still only possible with the permission of male family members. It's still deeply patriarchal here. Then again," they concluded, " these things take time. And once people are given opportunities, it's very hard to take them away again."

"Definitely there is still some social friction," Ismael agreed. "It will take time and education," he argued. "But I think in many ways Yazidi women led by example, during and after the genocide. [They] were at the forefront of everything that happened and in many ways became symbols of the people."

Kholoud al-Amiry assisted with this report in Iraq.

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.