From Scotland to Iraq, We Cannot Stay Silent about the Abuse of Women

The state failed women in Bosnia. The west failed the Yazidi women in Iraq, and in the UK, two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners, having been failed by the state. Carolyn Leckie argues that we cannot stay silent about the suffering faced by women throughout the world, and the failure by states - indeed in some case the west itself - to protect them.

Millions of us opposed the war in Iraq. We predicted carnage and perpetual conflict. By the time of withdrawal of American troops three years ago, authoritative research had put the death toll in the country at half a million – pro-rata to the population the equivalent of over a million deaths in the UK. And still the conflagration rages on.

Islamic State (Isis) – a direct product of the hubris of George Bush and Tony Blair – has even been condemned by al Qaeda for its extreme brutality and mindless fanaticism.

Some of its atrocities attract more attention than others. Billions worldwide are aware of one Jordanian pilot’s dreadful end. But when thousands suffer and die, it becomes too big to comprehend. As Josef Stalin once said: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

Sometimes, though, courageous survivors and superb journalism force us sit up and take notice. On Channel 4 News last week, a report compiled by Mehran Bozorgnia and edited by Jonathan Rugman exposed, via personal testimonies, the unimaginable cruelty inflicted on women of the Yazidi minority – the Kurdish religious community spread across Northern Iraq. We now know that immeasurable numbers of Yazidis were killed, while at least 7000 women were ‘taken hostage’ by Isis.

Women, and girls as young as eight years old, were raped, impregnated and traded as sex slaves. According to Isis leaders: “It is permissible to buy, sell or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property which can be disposed of.”

One woman, 19-year-old Hakimeh Jelo, was among 300 who managed to escape. She described the devastating psychological impact of being ‘property’: “We were asking them to kill us, we were pulling their guns towards our heads, but they refused.”

When 300,000 Yazidi people fled Isis and sought refuge on Sinjar Mountain last year, the respected Middle East journalist Robert Fisk criticised the hypocrisy of the Obama government for “riding to the rescue” of the Christian minority, while ignoring the plight of others.

In the event, Obama failed to ride to the rescue – and so did the rest of the world. On Channel 4 News, Narine Shammo, a Yazidi representative, explained that through August, September and October last year, activists relayed information and advice on an hourly basis to the Iraqi and US governments about the situation on the ground. By acting on that information, “it would have been easy to release them”, she insisted. But as Jonathan Rugman pointed out, governments were reluctant to get involved for fear of becoming embroiled in Iraq once again. In other words, the 2003 Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq to this day inhibits international humanitarian missions in the country. The Yazidis were left to the mercy of the fanatics.

I’ve read Robert Fisk regularly over the last 15 years. His incisive analysis of the politics of the Middle East is unmatched. His exposure of Western hypocrisy, which forgets inconvenient genocides – such as that perpetrated by Turkey in 1915 against 1.5 million Armenians – is second to none.

But when we focus solely on hypocrisy, we potentially ignore ‘inconvenient’ genocide ourselves.

Sara Khan of Inspire, an organisation formed to ‘empower Muslim women’ says that “women are a key battleground” for Isis, and acknowledges that some women can be influenced by their ideology. They present themselves as ‘liberating’ women from western cultural dominance and hyper sexualisation. That can resonate with some, especially in a community which feels its values are under siege from the West.

In contrast, she explains that ‘societies thrive’ when women are empowered - which is in direct conflict with the aims of Isis.

Every war in history, led mainly by men competing for supremacy, has been a war on women and children, whose names remain unknown and whose stories are untold.

The concept of ownership of women and children is worldwide. In the UK, an estimated two women a week are women killed by partners and ex- partners for whom murder is the ultimate expression of control over their ‘possessions’. The number is estimated because the state doesn’t collate them in the one place and ensure the deaths are recorded in the context of domestic abuse. That’s why we need campaigns such as #knowhername.

Catharine MacKinnon, lawyer, feminist and author, once asked, in the context of human rights, “Are women human?” She was one of many who forced the world to look at what happened to women in Bosnia. She pointed out how state structures protected the perpetrators of the mass abuse of women in the Balkans in the same way that the private sphere of the home has shielded individual abusers.

In the 1990s, international structures, states and institutions failed the women of Bosnia. Today, they are failing Yazidi women. I don’t pretend to have a solution.

But from the horror recounted by the Yazidi women, inspiring stories of the quiet resistance and solidarity of women emerged. The 300 women who managed to escape did so in part with the assistance of the wives of the Isis men – no doubt, risking their lives in the process.

Building solidarity amongst women sounds like a good place to start. And telling women’s stories and refusing to be silent is the least we can do.

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