After Escape, Former ISIS Sex Slaves Find Hope in 'Rebaptism' Ceremony
Before the terror group enslaved its women, a Yazidi who had sex with someone outside the faith would be cast out—or worse. Survivors are now finding hope in a new ritual.
Left: Sausan Khalaf, 18, survived ISIS and was "re-baptized" into the Yazidi faith on her escape. Right: Ancient stone archways surround the cobbled courtyard at Lalish. All photos by Francesco Brembati
For two and a half years, Sausan Khalaf hid a 16 GB memory card in her sock. If it was a good day—a day when she was allowed to shower, drag a comb through her hair and swap one black abaya for another—she would undress and fold the sock over once, maybe twice, and wrap it tightly inside her clothes. Unless she got soap in her eyes, she kept her gaze locked on it. The rest of the time the card stayed in place, wearing away a small patch of hair on her ankle as she desperately waited for her ISIS captor and supposed "husband" to leave the house.
"I wanted to kill myself whenever he raped me," Sausan remembers now, kneeling on a low mattress in her aunt's house in Sharya, a quiet town in Iraqi Kurdistan. "I tried, all the time. But it never worked."
The teenager doesn't look up as she speaks. Captured by the Islamist extremists in the weeks following her 15th birthday in 2014 and eventually freed in March this year, Sausan stares at her phone, thumbing at its screen and avoiding eye contact. "The only time when I was on my own was when he'd finished assaulting me. Then he would shut the door, and I could switch out the memory card in the MP3 player he'd bought me to memorize the Qu'ran."
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Sausan remembers sitting in the corner of a room with one earbud out to ensure her 55-year-old captor wasn't coming back, listening to the Yazidi songs (known as strans) from home, eyes closed to help her picture her parents' faces.
"I was so scared and ashamed at what was happening to me," she says. "But the hopelessness was the worst feeling. I thought that even if I did escape, my family would never take me back. It didn't matter how many songs I listened to—I knew I didn't deserve to be Yazidi anymore."
She pauses, and in the seconds of silence, begins to cry.
Born in the hilly region of Shingal in northeastern Iraq, Sausan and her six sisters were raised to be sanguine about the differences between their lives and those of their four brothers. The girls could never go outside alone, while their male siblings stayed out until sunset. School was also off limits—the cost of educating all seven sisters deemed costly and worthless on a farm where there was fruit that needed picking. But despite a vague yearning to learn to read and write, Sausan was looking forward to her future.
What was most important, their mother instructed, was that they remained "pure" Yazidi—both before and after marriage. Falling in love was permissible, but to break away from their religion by being with a non-Yazidi man would bring shame on the whole family and invite punishment. Sausan never asked her parents what would happen to one of her brothers if he was found having sex with a non-Yazidi woman. "That was never talked about," she says now, slowly.
The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority group originating from Kurdistan and are rumored to date back as far as 1200 AD. It is estimated that there are between 700,000 to 1.5 million Yazidis worldwide today—over half of whom are thought to still live in the Middle Eastern region that spans Syria and Iraq.
Once known as "devil worshippers," today their belief system simply appears as arbitrary as any other ancient religion (a historic disapproval of wearing the color blue continues to make headlines in the present day). Ancient songs tell of a fallen angel who took the shape of a peacock and describe how Noah's Ark was saved from sinking by a particularly ingenious snake. In the absence of any official religious text, beliefs derived from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism continue to be passed down by word of mouth. But the lion's share of theological guidance comes from Lalish.
Home to a conical temple positioned above a four-millennia-old sacred spring, Lalish is the Yazidis' holiest site in Kurdistan. Here, just 35 miles from Mosul, knots are tied in swathes of colored silk for good luck and scarves are thrown at sacred rocks for good fortune. Spiritual advisors are moored cross-legged on cushions along the edge of the courtyard, on hand to impart wisdom at a moment's notice.
But for all its photogenic rituals, Yazidism comes with one particularly rigid rule: Individuals are not permitted to marry into the religion, and to sleep with an outsider is typically met with immediate and permanent expulsion from the community. This tenet is considered a critical means of safeguarding their culture.
But it's also led to women and girls suffering unthinkable consequences in the name of preserving family reputation—especially in a country where gender-based violence is commonplace. (According to 2013 data collected by the UN, 46 percent of married women in Iraq have experienced abuse from their husband, and 46 percent of girls aged 10-14 have experienced abuse from a family member.)
"I tell them, 'You are my daughters: This does not define you. You will lead a great life again.'"
Long before ISIS rolled into Sinjar, a Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights and Minority Rights Group International report from 2015 noted that the number of kidnappings of women in Iraq had increased since 2003. As a minority group, Yazidi women were found to be especially vulnerable to kidnap, but many families never reported their daughters' abduction for fear of the stigma attached to the sexual abuse they experience in captivity.
The Yazidi approach to so-called honor-killing hit the international news in 2007, when 17-year-old Du'a Khalil Aswad was stoned to death in Bashika, a town in the Iraqi district of Ninawa, after she was accused of falling in love with a Muslim man. Little data exists on how frequently this form of femicide occurred before Du'a's death, but her murder lifted the veil of secrecy around such killings. Four of the men who stoned Du'a were sentenced to death by the Iraqi government in 2010. Despite the international outcry, however, Yazidi law remained the same.
"It didn't matter if a girl consented to sex with a non-Yazidi man or not," says Jihan Ibrahim Mustafa, the founder and executive director of the UNICEF-funded Kurdish-based Women's Rehabilitation Organization. Mustafa has spent the past two decades working primarily with Yazidi women. "In this society the act itself is always her fault, and is invariably enough to warrant her death."
Other—notably male—Yazidi leaders contest this. "If a woman had been raped by a Muslim or Christian man, we would have come up with an alternative solution depending on the circumstances," Baba Chawesh, one of Lalish's most senior spiritual advisors, tells me. "But that never happened. The girl had always consented. So we never had to think about it."
They had to start thinking about it in August 2014. Following their capture of Mosul, ISIS selected Sinjar as their next target and picked out its 400,000-strong Yazidi populace on the grounds of long-held religious differences and potential vulnerability. Armed with machetes, rifles, and explosives, a convoy of men in military uniform and traditional Arabic dress approached the city in trucks and on motorbikes, waving the black flag of ISIS. Experts believe that between 2,100 and 4,400 Yazidis were killed in the days that followed—half of whom were shot, beheaded, or burned alive by the extremists—and up to 10,800 were taken captive. The majority were women and girls, who were promptly auctioned off in public markets and over social media as wives and sex slaves.
"It took a couple of months for the penny to drop, and for everyone to realize what was happening to these women," says Yazidi local Mamosta Falih Hassan, 54, who has been volunteering at Lalish for over 40 years. "But one thing was suddenly very clear—if the girls did escape, or we did manage to rescue them, then excommunicating 4,000 of them wasn't an option. Killing them certainly wouldn't protect any family's honor. It would make Yazidis just as bad as ISIS."
Sausan flicks through the photos on her smartphone. For the first time during our interview, she's so occupied by the task at hand that she's stopped anxiously rubbing the corner of her headscarf against her eyes. "This is outside the temple," she says, producing a selfie taken on a staircase in front of Lalish. "Then this is after the ceremony." The second photo shows the 18-year-old surrounded by her family, thinly disguised relief printed on everyone's face.
It was taken shortly following her "re-baptism," she explains, almost smiling. "When everyone told me that what had happened to me didn't matter, and that I was still Yazidi. That the dark times were over and that everyone was just happy I was safe again."
"It shouldn't have taken a tragedy of this scale to provoke change, but following the massacre in Sinjar, the Yazidi supreme spiritual leader Baba Sheikh officially issued a fatwa or religious law, to stop all the honour killings," says Jihan. She isn't sure exactly what month this took place, but believes it was probably in the November of that year. "From my understanding of the situation, all the spiritual leaders sat in counsel to discuss what to do about the women who had been captured by ISIS. Together they decided upon a 're-baptism' ceremony of sorts."
In Lalish, Baba Sheikh, an 80-something-year-old man with a stern expression and a pack of cigarettes tucked into his pocket, confirms this. "When the survivors escape ISIS and are sent to the IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps, I send a message to them inviting them to my house in Lalish," he explains. "I tell them, 'You are my daughters: This does not define you. You will lead a great life again.' Together we go to the temple and apply water from the spring to their hair and say, 'We will make you happy to be Yazidi; this is not your fault. We will help you to forget.' They always act as if a great weight has been lifted from their shoulders."
He declines to answer when I ask if he regrets the honor killings of the past. It's prayer time and he has to go, he says, standing upright and pulling a cigarette from his pack with a sigh.
Baba Chawesh is more forthright about what motivated the sudden change of heart: "If we didn't do this, our community wouldn't survive," the 72-year-old says. "I don't know if it will carry on when ISIS are defeated and all the women are rescued. I imagine so."
Lalish elders tell me that they think they've baptized up to 500 women in the past 24 months, although they admit they haven't kept track. Many of the women come back time and time again—finding solace in the symbolism of washing themselves clean of their pasts, but still seeking repeated reassurances of their faith's forgiveness.
After all, they might have been told by their spiritual leaders that they've been accepted back into the Yazidi community—but that can be hard to remember back at home, away from the mulberry trees of Lalish. Some women say that the dishonor of rape has lessened over the past three years, but that doesn't mean it's disappeared completely.
For others, however, the baptism still represents a one-off opportunity to draw a line under their experiences and focus on the future—and for their families to begin looking forward, too.
Ramziya believes she falls into this category. I meet the 20 year old as she emerges from the chamber housing the baptism pool, fenced off from the public with gold bars; her hair still damp from holy water. It's been seven months since her escape from ISIS captivity in November, and she's hoping that the baptism will shake whatever stigma still surrounds her.
"I wanted the ceremony because I knew it would be a way for me to show that I'm still committed to my faith despite everything that has happened," she says. "I didn't realize it would make me feel so much better about the future. The men I know are already much more respectful because they know what I've been through, but now I've been baptized, I feel confident that one day I'll be able to get married and have children too."
For Sausan, a husband is the last thing she wants. "Knowing that my family and my community still love me is all I ever cared about," she says. "Now I just need to remember how to feel safe again." And with that, she pops an earbud back in and closes her eyes.