Now I have to write about failures of the imagination.
There is still slavery over much of the globe, but slavery tends to be a pragmatic, if excessively brutal, arrangement: human beings are “owned” because their “owners” want to exploit them, and this can bring a little protection. It does not make economic sense to abuse a slave without limits and risk killing her or driving her to suicide; this must apply to trafficked women in the “ordinary” sex industry. But then there is genocidal sexual slavery.
Brief news reports about ISIS atrocities against girls and young women in Iraq and Syria elicit gasps of anger and fulminations about retribution (with an emphasis on military strikes). This account by Nadia Murad — who belongs to the Yazidi community singled out for special persecution — of what she went through day by day as a sabaya or sex slave ought to have a more useful influence. I know the personal effusions expected in response to such personal testimony; yet Murad asks — and deserves — not that we get our full imaginative empathy around what she reports, because that is likely impossible, and if it were possible, it might be purely self-indulgent — a sort of psychological voyeurism; rather, she challenges us to take in the facts, compare them to our own happy experience of human rights, and try to come up with a reason that, when she came of age, she needed to be in a more vulnerable category of humankind than the one we inhabit.
The failure of imagination that that exercise is bound to lead to might actually serve her as she seeks to free Yazidi women and girls who remain in captivity and to bring her tormentors before the International Criminal Court at the Hague. The very lankest gesture we could make toward her and her scattered, decimated family is to raise US “world moral leadership” above the level of farce by taking in our share of Middle Eastern refugees, Yazidis included. Murad found safety and a basis for her activism in Germany, whose openness and generosity ought to make us walk off the international stage in shame.
Murad is from the Yazidi village of Kocho near the northwestern corner of Iraq. In 2014, ISIS militants laid siege to the village and eventually imprisoned all its inhabitants in the schoolhouse, where they separated the men to be massacred immediately, the boys to be indoctrinated and enlisted, the older women to be killed a little later, and the young women and girls to be trucked away to slave markets.
Murad’s story is a lesson about the outrageous difference between actual, lived religion and invented religion as a mere pretension to power. Her scattered descriptions of Yazidism can give an impression almost of whimsical charm. It’s tempting to leave it at that concerning a faith that shows many contrasting influences (though a Quaker commentator, of all people, should be wary of condescension in this regard). Yazidis are permitted to marry only other Yazidis; they accept no converts and regard outward conversion as abominable; but they are tolerant of and collaborative with other ethnic groups and religions. (Murad speaks Kurdish as her native language, and also perfect Arabic. She attended a government-run school emphasizing Iraq’s Muslim history and teaching nothing about her own religion, in which she nevertheless remained devout.) Yazidis strive for virtuous merit that they believe will contribute to favorable reincarnation. The image of a peacock represents an angel central to the Yazidi creation story, who is invoked and prayed to along with the sole Yazidi deity.
What is most solidly and steadily apparent, however, in Murad’s account of growing up Yazidi is her deep, unquestioning attachment to her home and family and town. It was painful but not shattering for her as a child when her father took a second wife and eventually relegated the first one, with her many children, to an outbuilding, and then let them start over on their own. Murad, the youngest child, has mainly good memories of the resulting crowded, hardscrabble household, generationally layered (she shared a room with both sisters and nieces). The better life they aimed for was about material gains they would share.
The year her mother, worshipped for her pluck and devotion, was away taking her turn at herding, Murad failed every course in middle school. “I am blind without you,” the girl pleaded. She worked placidly at many dirty and dangerous farming tasks, the hardships always given meaning by the people around her. Her great treasures were a silver and zirconium necklace and bracelet, which her mother bought for her after a life-threatening tractor accident; she hid the jewelry inside a sanitary napkin to take along when ISIS kidnapped her.
For a girl like this, sex appears to have been an issue that tradition enclosed and rendered not especially worrying. She loved the sight of flowing Yazidi dresses and veils — the latter were to lie in heaps wherever ISIS slaves were processed — and she was comforted by her mother’s reminders to button up and be a good girl whenever she left the house. Weddings were her great joy, and her experiments on her own and her companions’ hair got encouragement from the virtuoso coiffures of brides, which she photographed for an album, hoping to run a salon someday. She narrates not male inspection of the sheets on the morning after a wedding, but instead the bride’s friends’ flocking in at the first possible moment to discuss the big event with her and peer at the bloodstain. Murad herself exists only because her mother, buying birth-control pills out of household scrimping and taking them in secret, at last had no money for them; the daughter born of this crisis knew about it and experienced natural feelings of ambivalence, but tells of no related fears for her own future.
It’s inevitable that Murad’s version of her early life is lit up by contrast to her captivity and its aftermath. She relates, for example, that in the mournful silence of the refugee camp, she missed the noise of village squabbling. I doubt that, even if her homeland had been peaceful, she would have avoided bitter disappointments and unmitigated sorrow in adult life. (Ironically, the single-parent family’s growing comforts and capital depended on her brothers’ work in government security forces; with no civil war, she wouldn’t have been enslaved, but she would have been dirt-poor.) But in a society of this kind, people are physically and emotionally together in both celebration and mourning, tedium and success and frustration, and that must mean a lot. They believe — in each other and what makes them a distinct group.
Radical Islam, a movement too infantile even to parasitize effectively on the entrepreneurial/disruption chic that attracts it, wreaks a special rage on people like this — maybe in large part out of jealousy: the others are whole, they know exactly what they value, and it definitely wouldn’t change because of some incendiary marketing podcast. Murad, even before her captivity, actually knew much more about Islam than the average ISIS recruit from overseas does. She knew, and could throw in her captors’ faces, how wantonly the older, locally born ISIS leaders were falsifying their heritage, how many rules and principles they discarded.
From the time the girls were continually and painfully groped on the drive from the schoolhouse, the project was, explicitly, to make them believe that they were only commodities, not human beings; that they had no rights, no inner life to be considered, no past, no future. But endless taunts, tortures, and humiliations could not take away their integrity. They had to be hammered, pried, and dragged, shrieking, away from each other; nothing would make them stop demanding visits with their imprisoned friends and relatives. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t seem to have applied here. They never embraced excuses for their captors. They never stopped trying to escape. They were never going to stop deeming ludicrous the rule book that purported to govern their treatment — much of the bureaucracy Murad describes reminds me of Nazi conceits. The captives’ defiance held not only because the men broke the rules whenever they felt like it, in separating nursing mothers from their babies, for example: more fundamentally, the girls understood what rules were, and thus that these people weren’t entitled to claim any in the first place.
Since the captives were unflagging in their escape attempts — risking their lives and enduring gang rape and other sadistic punishments — quite a surprising number did get away, with the help of male relatives in exile and of heroic Sunnis living under ISIS rule; though finding one of these was like playing Russian roulette with a gun loaded in nearly every chamber. My favorite escape story involves an ISIS wife who was persuaded to reveal her husband’s whereabouts by phone so that a coalition air strike could target and kill him and she and his slave could escape; he was a leader of the movement, a high-value target, and she was sick of him abusing Yazidi girls in her home.
But meanwhile the captors, who had nothing, inside or outside, to hold them upright, tried to take self-respect from the girls as if it were a material thing that could be appropriated. There must be some way to force this captive, who is being raped every few hours and beaten and berated in the intervals, to show no sign of strain, to wear the cocktail dress and the make-up gracefully and naturally, like the girlfriends of those cool guys on TV. There must be a way to make her say — and mean — that she likes it here, that her forced conversion is a priceless gift; that, yes, she reads the Koran and prays as ordered, and it does make the suffering go away as promised. Also in these maniacal attempts to dehumanize, there are echoes of the Nazi concentration camps.
But here is a striking difference. Yazidi slaves changed hands at screeching speeds, often within a few days. Their tormentors were apparently convinced that, if you just kept shopping and fiddling frantically enough, the magic toy, manipulated in the magic way, would grant you an apotheosis. This has been, in other words, an atrocity peculiar to the IT consumer age, when mass-produced fantasy is the universal sop to alienation. The atrocity howls the need for international law to begin inching toward technology in status, power, and appeal; and for at least a few human monsters to be attributed human responsibility, and humanely but justly punished.