Shifting the burden of shame

In its choice for Peace Prize this year, the Nobel Committee has empowered the narrative against sexual crimes

Published - October 08, 2018 12:02 am IST

In conferring the 2018 Peace prize, jointly, to Nadia Murad, a former sex slave of the Islamic State (IS), and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecological surgeon who helps raped war survivors, the Nobel Committee has placed itself at the centre of the raging #MeToo movement by calling for a change in the narrative to shift the burden of shame away from survivors of sexual crimes.

Dr. Mukwege, who has been treating patients as young as 2 and as old as 70 who have been brutalised by soldiers and guerrillas, has been an outspoken activist calling for an end to using women’s bodies as weapons in war. But in baring her face to the world, Ms. Murad has made it impossible to look away from the suffering of sexual survivors in conflicts. Ms. Murad, now 25, was barely out of her teens when she, along with some 3,000 other women of the minority Yazidi community in Iraq, were taken away as sex slaves by the IS. In her book, The Last Girl , Ms. Murad describes not just the abject cruelty and complete violation that the IS inflicted on their sex slaves but also the efficient bureaucracy that was set up in order to reward their fighters with access to women’s bodies as well as prevent the escape of the slaves.

Murad’s story

Until the IS arrived, Ms. Murad lived in Kocho, a village of Yazidis, off the valley of the Sinjar mountains, the centre of the community. Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion, with an oral history that predates Islam. There are only about a million Yazidis now, with conversion into the religion not accepted. Yazidis have been persecuted several times in history, including by the Ottomans and Saddam Hussein’s Baathists. When the IS took control over Mosul and established its Caliphate, it declared Yazidis, who do not have a holy book, to be Kuffar, non-believers, making it legal to murder Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam and enslave the women. The IS has elaborate written protocols on the buying, selling and care of these slaves ( sabaya ), including complex valuation models such as what made a girl more or less valuable, which fighters would get a sabiya as an incentive and who would have to pay.

Ms. Murad describes her ordeal without flinching — the brutality, the gang rapes as punishments for trying to escape, and sometimes even the bewildering romance that older men tried to infuse into their relationships with young slaves, dressing them up and posing for photographs as though with a partner or spouse. Ms. Murad was moved from house to house, city to city, as she was bought and sold several times, her value decreasing with each transaction. At one point, she was even held in a room at a check point, available to any IS fighter who happened to pass by.

She managed to escape, eventually, through a combination of grit and luck, and was ultimately reunited with the parts of her family that remained. In what has been described as a genocide, the men in the village were shot dead minutes before young women were taken as slaves and the older women killed. Ms. Murad lost her mother and several siblings. However, returning women weren’t usually received very well. Virginity is highly valued in the community and the shame of the crimes done to them cling to the survivors.

It is here that Ms. Murad truly found her courage. While in the refugee camp, and more vociferously after she arrived in Germany, she decided to speak out about the crime, to flash a light on the violence that was inflicted on them, instead of internalising the shame for things that were no fault of survivors. She recounted her experiences in great detail all the way up to the United Nations and in doing so, to a large extent, helped lift the cloak of shame from the bodies of the survivors and lay it instead on the shoulders of the perpetrators.

Another time and account

Putting her face to the story makes Ms. Murad’s experiences real and indisputable. In another account of wartime rapes, a journalist wrote an anonymous account of the eight weeks, from April to June 1945, when Russian soldiers took control of Berlin. The book, called A Woman in Berlin , recounts, in a rather calm manner, the terror of anticipating that Russian soldiers would violate women in their own homes, and the rather practical way in which the women dealt with life when that fear became a reality. They bargained with the soldiers for rations, cigarettes and even protection from other soldiers. The book caused outrage when it was published as having “besmirched the honour of German women”, and immediate efforts focussed on uncovering the identity of the author or proving it to be a false account.

Ms. Murad leaves no one with that choice. In videos of her talks, she stands diminutive, yet firm, her long dark hair framing her fragile face. It is impossible to deny the truth of her experience. It cannot be easy for her. Ms. Murad asserts that each time she recounts her story, she has to relive it. But in hearing her, believing her, and now in honouring her, the message that goes to the survivors of sexual violence everywhere is certainly that while they have to deal with the burden of their memory, they can at least shed the weight of its shame.

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