Yezidi survivors of ISIS welcomed back into their communities

Yezidi women from ISIS captivity become brides in Lalish.

For the first time in Yezidi history, an exceptional decision was made for the women survivors captured and forced to convert to Islam by ISIS.

ISIS or what is called the Islamic caliphate state in Iraq and Syria attacked Sinjar in north-east Iraq, and capture more than 6000 of Yezidi women, girls, and children, and put all of them into slavery.

The Yezidis – an ancient ethnic-religious minority group who practice one of the least known religions in the Middle East – live predominantly in Northern Iraq, though many Yezidis can also be found in Europe, Armenia, and Russia. They generally speak Kurmanji, the dialect used by the vast majority of Kurds. The global Yezidi population has been estimated at approximately one million.

The Yazidi religious tradition shares common roots with preZoroastrianism and also contains elements found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islamic Sufism. Yezidism is stringently monotheistic, like the Abrahamic religions. Yazidis believe in a single God, referred to as Khuda. The most prominent and central figure in Yezidi tradition is Tawusi Malak (Angel Peacock), who was created by God”

The Yezidi people have faced many tragedies. Throughout their history, they have been the victims of 74 genocides, with the most recent and best known happening at the hands of ISIS in 2014. This resulted in the killing of thousands of Yezidis, the enslavement of thousands of women, girls and children, and the destruction of about 85% of their residential homes and 68 shrines and temples. Thousands are still missing and in captivity. About 350,000 people ended up living in 16 IDP camps, where the majority have remained for almost seven years now.

According to ISIS ideology, the enslavement of the women and girls, and killing of the men, is acceptable for those who do not follow Islam. 

The enslavement of women and girls was one of ISIS’s prime targets in their attacks against Yezidis because women are considered to be the honor of the Yezidi. If women are taken from them, then the whole community collapses. ISIS believed that if they managed to take their honor, they would control them completely. 

Those women and girls  enslaved by ISIS were forced to convert to Islam and were raped. That made it hard for them to return to their families, and made them spoils of war. 

Yezidi women in the slave market in Mosul

The women were sold by ISIS as sex slaves in the slavery markets in Raqqa and Mosul, at the very low price of 10 to 100 dollars. They were even giving them to each other as gifts.  

“He (an ISIS member) came home and told me to pack my stuff. I asked him why, and he told me that another one has won you by winning the lottery. So, imagine that. Girls were being sold for 20 dollars, and even less. We were like objects in their hands,” said a young survivor.

Some of those girls managed to escape from their captivity and return home. But those females were not sure if they would be accepted again in their community or not, as they were forced to convert to Islam.

“We did not return at the beginning, because we were not sure how it would go, if the Yezidi community would accept us again or not. So we waited until we received the news of the acceptance,” said a Yezidi survivor.  

When those girls returned, the Yezidi community — and specifically the youths — asked Rohani’s Yezidi Council to accept them again to Yezidism, because they had been forced into conversion. 

Baba Chawish explained: “The Rohani’s Council consists of two main religious figures: Baba Sheikh (the top Yezidi spiritual reference) and Amir (the prince of the Yezidis in Iraq and around the world), along with and other members. This council is responsible for making these types of decisions, based on long discussions and voting according to humanitarian principles and Yezidi society’s customs and traditions.”  

The Rohani’s top Yezidi council decided to accept their girls who are returning from ISIS captivity after the Yezidi community put pressure on them in 2014.

Young Yezidi men welcome the women survivors.

The Yezidi religion is not a missionary religion. If a Yezidi person converts to another religion, they are not allowed to return.  But they made this exceptional decision for those who were forced into slavery and conversions. 

The Yezidi religion is not restricted by the rules of holy books, so they can change their religious laws in some specific situations (like this with the survivors) This is in accordance with their “Had and Sad,” which is the Yezidi religious rules that everyone must follow. 

Baba Chawish is the person who is responsible for  all customs and traditional affairs in Lalish temple. He says that “Life has changed. It is not the same case as it was before, and people are more open-minded to accept these kinds of decisions. We were more than happy to accept our daughters again and make them a part of our community.”

Baba Chawish in Lalish

Said Baba Chawish: “Girls who survived wear white scarves and dresses, and they go to be baptized and pure again in Kania Spi ( a river in Lalish, where the Yezidi go to be baptized in Lalish Temple). Then, to “Zim Zim” (a place of the holy water in Lalish where they could make wishes for others to survive too). And they go to so many other sacred places in Lalish, and we tell prayers and with Dav and Shabab (drum and pipe), and say may God bless you in this religion again, and you are our daughters, no matter what happened to you, to give them relief.”

 The white color is the symbol of peace and purity according to the Yezidi religion. 

The survivors’ baptismal procession in Lalish, with Dav and Shbab (type of pipe
and drum that are considered sacred instrument in Yezidism)

To show the world that those girls are being accepted, Yezidi boys welcome these survived women in Lalish temple with red flowers raising Yezidikhan flag. They proposed marriage to them so that they feel valued within their community. The boys even show their readiness on social media platforms to marry those girls.   

Yezidi guys welcoming Yezidi women survivors with flowers, proposing to them.

This decision changed the lives of about 3500 Yezidi girls and women — who otherwise would have been left in captivity to suffer for their whole life — and they were accepted again and returned to their families. 

“This decision changed the faith of all of us — specifically by re-welcoming us to our families and community and encouraging the community to respect us. Otherwise, we will not be respected, and no one will accept or marry us even if we return. But what Baba Sheikh did changed our entire life, he made us like angels and protected us. This is what is called humanity,” said one women survivor. 

“I was never this proud. I am never disappointed or regret taking such a step. From the beginning, I made a promise to marry one of those girls, and I made that happen and I feel very proud that I could change her life from darkness to light,” said Mahir Elias Went out, a journalist from Sinjar. He is now married to Vian, a female survivor from ISIS captivity. 

“I thought I will make a difference if I marry one of these survivors as being a journalist, because that will make other boys take the same step and marry survivors and value them in our society,” added Mahir Elias.

Mahir adds, “We have to look at these girls as those who were subjected to brutal violence, and our duty is to heal them from that violence, and not to look at her as a survivor. In the Yezidi community, they see women and girls as their honor, so they have to consider them as their honor and protect them.”

Mihir’s message to all young Yezidi men was, “Look at these girls as ones who have lost their virginity and honor, but that love can change everything. Love her not as a survivor, but as a normal girl who never experienced violence. And never look at her as someone who is considered as bringing shame for our communities.”

Yezidi survivors’ collective wedding