There was a murder in my building in Dubai earlier this year. The victim, a woman in her 20s, was sexually violated and then thrown from a fifth-floor window. When police spoke with her neighbors, this is what they heard: she lived alone; she wore “short skirts”; she wasn’t friendly; men visited her home; she was probably a prostitute or, at the very least, immoral. And thus, went the consensus: she was the cause of her own murder. Here and elsewhere, we are quick to blame victims of sexual abuse for the very crime they suffer.
But it gets worse. In a survey I conducted as part of my university thesis, I found that women were the harshest critics of other women. If a woman found herself alone with a man and is violated, assaulted or disrespected in any way, some women are the quickest to lay the blame on their own.
If we are to progress, this has to stop.
That is why I was so gratified that this year’s Nobel peace prize was awarded to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” I have followed closely the work of both, after witnessing a crammed tent in Lebanon packed with Syrian refugee women. They had been raped and then later abandoned in what some called the “tent of shame.” In war as in peace, many things have to change.
Mukwege, a doctor, has been helping victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But it is Murad’s story that is perhaps most relevant to Middle East society’s readiness to blame victims. Murad, a member of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, was a witness to, and a victim of, crimes of war by ISIS. Maybe with the spotlight on her, we can start to change some of our worst prejudices.
Murad has recounted her story widely. She believes that this is the “best weapon against terrorism.” For her, it all started in 2014, when ISIS launched a brutal, systematic attack on the villages of Iraq’s Sinjar district aimed at exterminating the Yazidis. In Murad’s village, hundreds were killed and young women were taken captive to be used as sex slaves. Murad, then 19 years old, was repeatedly raped. She was also threatened with execution unless she converted to ISIS’s warped version of Islam. After a three-month nightmare of unimaginable magnitude, she managed to escape.
Two years later, she was named the UN’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. I have interviewed Yazidi women and others who have been sexually abused or, worse, made to continually relive the assault against them as sex slaves. An estimated 3,000 Yazidi girls and women have been victims of rape and other abuses by ISIS. The women (even some children and men) all have the same fears: of being recognized, and of the backlash from the violators, their own families and their communities.
Murad has shown particular courage in speaking up about the horrors she suffered in the hope that others will not have to go through the same ordeal. For her courage, we owe her and all the other women who have suffered like her, the dignity of believing their stories, of not pre-judging, and of a dedication to end the deplorable way that women around the world are too often treated.
This year has been a revolutionary one for victims speaking up against sexual violation and abuse, from the #metoo and #timesup movements to high-profile cases such as that of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified in the US senate against the supreme court then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh. It is, moreover, the 10thanniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1820. This resolution holds that the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict constitutes both a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. Maybe, just maybe, we can begin to hope for a change.
On the website of the Nobel Peace Prize is this statement: “A more peaceful world can only be achieved if women and their fundamental rights and security are recognized and protected in war.” That is a sentiment that no right-thinking person can disagree with. The question is how we get there. And the “how,” I submit, fundamentally lies in no longer doubting women who have the courage to reveal the anguish and the attack against their body and soul they suffered.
There is nothing aberrant in how women choose to live their lives. It doesn’t matter what a woman chooses to wear, or not to wear, or where she goes or how she behaves. What is wrong, and only ever so, is the crime committed against them. In war as in peace, in a refugee camp or in a modern metropolis, stop blaming women.
Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years of experience. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.
AFP PHOTO/FREDERICK FLORIN