A Yazidi woman just became the first Iraqi ever to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Nadia Murad, 25, an activist from the persecuted Yazidi religious minority in Iraq and a former captive of ISIS, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. She shares the award with Dr. Denis Mukwege, 63, a Congolese surgeon who treats victims of rape.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement that they had chosen Murad and Mukwege for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.
“Nadia Murad is herself a victim of war crimes. She refused to accept the social codes that require women to remain silent and ashamed of the abuses to which they have been subjected,” the statement said. “She has shown uncommon courage in recounting her own sufferings and speaking up on behalf of other victims.”
Murad and about 3,000 other Yazidi women were kidnapped and sold into sex slavery by ISIS in 2014, as part of the terrorist group’s genocidal campaign to wipe out the religious minority.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that Murad’s “powerful advocacy” helped lead to a UN investigation into ISIS’s possible war crimes. Iraq’s new president, Barham Salih, also congratulated Murad and said he also recognizes all victims of “terrorism” in Iraq, according to state television.
Murad was humbled by the award, she told Reuters on Friday. “I share this award with all Yazidis, with all the Iraqis, Kurds, and all the minorities and all survivors of sexual violence around the world,” she said.
Yazidi women in particular suffered horrific treatment at the hands of ISIS
The Yazidis are a religious community of about 400,000 people who mainly live in the northern part of Iraq. In her 2017 memoir, The Last Girl, Murad sets the backdrop to the current violence, explaining that people in her village of Kocho enjoyed close relationships with other religious groups in Iraq and families in nearby Sunni Muslim villages until recently.
“For at least the past ten years, since Iraqis had been thrust into a war with the Americans that started in 2003, then spiraled into more vicious local fights and eventually into full fledged terrorism, the distance between our homes had grown enormous,” she writes.
When ISIS rose to prominence and began taking control of vast swathes of land in Iraq, it specifically targeted Yazidis because the group doesn’t see the Yazidis’ religious beliefs as legitimate. In addition to massacring hundreds of members of the religious minority, they captured thousands of women and forced them into sexual slavery.
In 2014, ISIS came to Murad’s village. She watched as ISIS took her mother and brothers away to be executed; seven members of her family were killed in a single day. In a New York Times op-ed in February, she recounted her ordeal:
Three years ago I was one of thousands of Yazidi women kidnapped by the Islamic State and sold into slavery. I endured rape, torture and humiliation at the hands of multiple militants before I escaped. I was relatively lucky; many Yazidis went through worse than I did and for much longer. Many are still missing. Many have been killed.
Once I escaped, I felt that it was my duty to tell the world about the brutality of the Islamic State.”
Murad went on to become an activist, and in 2016, she became the UN’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.
Sexual violence that occurs in the context of war or conflict is not uncommon, but it has only recently gained recognition and become a subject of focus for many policymakers around the world. It’s also difficult for many women to speak out about sexual violence because victims are often blamed or ostracized from their community.
But Murad, who now lives in Germany, writes in her memoir that speaking out against the crimes against her takes power away from her abusers.
It’s a message that some may find particularly poignant today, in the midst of the #MeToo movement and an increased recognition of victims of sexual assault.
“I think there was a reason God helped me escape … and I don’t take my freedom for granted. The terrorists didn’t think that Yazidi girls would be able to leave them, or that we would have the courage to tell the world every detail of what they did to us,” she writes. “We defy them by not letting their crimes go unanswered.”