In her research as part of Alejandro Baer’s course, SOC 4315 “Never Again! Memory & Politics after Genocide,” Alana Erickson reviewed media coverage of violence against Yazidi women in territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS). Below is a reflection of her work.
Looking at the repeated recounting of women’s traumatic experiences in the gory detailed articles across my news log, I find the descriptions of the crimes often gratuitous. I am critical of the use of descriptive stories and recounts of sexual violence perpetrated against Yazidi women by Daesh / the Islamic State (IS). Why are the writers choosing to use these descriptions or leaving them out completely? I am aware that these are real atrocities which happened, and part of reporting on them may include telling things that horrify any sensible reader. However I found myself avoiding logging the more horrible articles in my research, and instead writing them off as pointlessly evocative. I believe that there is something very powerful at play under the surface of these representations of the trafficking and sexual violence of Yazidi women in the news.
I read many articles: large publications, regional, religious, both far right and left political writers, opinion columns and articles that generally filed in the World section of these online publications. A common thread I have noticed in the coverage of the Sinjar Massacre — from 2015 to the present — is the sensationalistic representations of violence and genocide. It is worth being critical of any gratuitous description of horrific events, specifically when the events concern a primary “enemy” of the West, like ISIS, because the effect of horrific language in that context reinforces the West’s moral dichotomy of the “barbaric” Muslims and the “civil, democratic, benevolent” West. It only serves the narrative of protecting Western civility and modernity to emphasize the evil nature of their crimes — and by extension the evil nature of their selves.
Actions that horrify are presented in all media outlets not only to sell papers but also to reinforce the legitimacy of military involvement in the Middle East. The news serves as a warning and a call to arms. In one Newsweek article, I note an especially evocative headline, “Yazidi Teenager Describes Being Islamic State Sex Slave.” This headline is filled with loaded words that elicit intense feelings instantly in the reader. The article continues to center around fear and includes a quote from an IS propaganda video in which the man who held the teenager captive explicitly makes threats to take Western nations: threats that they are going to “spill your blood…erase your history…convert your children.”
The narrative of the war states that it is necessary, untouchable in its necessity lest we find our golden cities surrounded by the black cloud of Daesh forces. I find it interesting that this IS propaganda video is combined with the detailed account of the terrible crimes that Nihad Barakat was subjected to while in captivity. We must look at the cultural meanings invoked in representations of Daesh and its genocidal crimes against Yazidis in the media and how those meanings are used to cause societal action.
There is a more hidden tactic in the articles I read, especially the loud, horror invoking pieces such as one from the Independent (British online newspaper) published in mid-March with the headline “Yazidi Woman Held as ISIS Sex Slave ‘Abused Every Day’ for Seven Months.” In these articles the special use of the term “sex slave” is not only upsetting, but it also carries a cultural weight left over from old Orientalist tropes of Arab sex slavery and the exotified ‘harem girl.’ Not only is the narrative of ‘evil by nature’ invoked (the article opens with noting that the interviewee described her captors as “not like humans”) but there is also an increased level of sexual brutality described which has been used to code people of Arab descent as predatory, barbaric, not like people, and, most importantly, as the radical “Other.” Noting and describing these actions are easy clickbait when they are described in terms that instantly trigger Orientalist fantasies combined with horror in the Western reader. There was usage of a descriptive dramatic narrative style and triggering words or horrific words in some articles on the Yazidi genocide crisis from all forms of news media. For example I did not note the use of more horror words in right wing media comparatively. The article is written with mind to imagery that the Western reader can understand, coded from centuries of representation and fantasy in Western culture. The usefulness of the evocativeness in these articles is varied: Articles with language that triggers and reinforces Western identity sell news and they also demand emotional attention in a way that unbiased factual reporting cannot.
As survivors of trafficking and the Sinjar massacre are finally escaping captors many months later, several are choosing to tell the world what happened to them and demand that the global community pay attention. Nadia Murad Basee Taha, whose interviews and testimony at the United Nations is widely cited, gave details on her sexual assault explaining what happened to her and when, how she felt and how she escaped. In addition to the stories of her harrowing experience she also has made pleas for the global community to take action to help the Yazidi recover from genocide. Among these calls for action are requests to establish facts, offer monetary support for rebuilding, and to open borders for Yazidis, respecting their dignity and acknowledge their victimization by genocide. Lastly, and probably the most commonly cited demand by news media, is her request that the world “Get rid of Daesh completely… all those who committed these crimes must be brought to justice so that women and children may live in peace.” The decision to use details of the experience is calculated for the purpose of furthering awareness of the plight of the Yazidi.
There is no question that the world must know the stories of survivors of genocide but we must be critical of how the stories are relayed. Does the level of fear and hatred for Daesh amongst the West (manifested through Islamophobia and racialized Orientalist attitudes) and in the news, which precipitates and reinforces that fear, assist the Yazidi’s struggle? Or do the stories simply pile more harmful incendiary rhetoric on top of an already very culturally problematic mindset towards violence in the Middle East?
Alana is an undergraduate student working on her Global Studies Major (with Concentrations in Cultural Analysis, Mideast Region) and an Arabic Minor. She transferred to the University of Minnesota from MCTC in Fall 2015 and was recently awarded a 2016-17 Foreign Language & Area Studies Academic Year Fellowship. In her other life she is a performance artist and musician.