The work group comprised of Şahika Yüksel, Suzan Saner, Ayşe Devrim Başterzi, Zerrin Oğlağu and İsrafil Bülbül has been granted the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) publication award with their article on Yazidi women who are victims of war. This award is granted each year to the most valuable and outstanding articles focusing on psychology of women and gender.
We are very happy to hear this good news. To begin with, we, the çatlak zemin team, would like to congratulate you for the work you carried out and wish you success in your future endeavors. Leaving aside for now the AWP and its award, I want to start with my question on the subject of your article. When and where did you conduct the field research? Which institutions supported you?
Zerrin: Yazidis, who escaped the ISIS attacks in Şengal on 3 August 2014, crossed the Turkish border and sought refuge in the cities of the region, particularly in Diyarbakır and Şırnak. Approximately 5,000 Yazidis were living in the Fidanlık camp which was created with the initiative of the Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality. At the end of 2014, with the psychosocial support program that was created by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey and supported by the UN office in Turkey, psychosocial programs including personal psychological health services and various training began to be implemented. These services were initially offered every day of the week, and later reduced to 2-3 days per week. Additionally, the project also included the training and supervision works that were necessary for all these services.
Whereas two volunteer psychiatrists, including Dr. İsrafil Bülbül, who is one of the authors of the article, held psychiatric sessions, psychotherapy sessions were held by volunteer psychologists. Additionally, the volunteer teams which consisted of social workers, preschool teachers, and psychological counselors also engaged in psychosocial group work.
The project was carried out by Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality and district municipalities, Turkish Psychological Counseling and Guidance Association, Turkish Association of Social Workers, Diyarbakır Chamber of Medicine, Diyarbakır Bar Association, Doctors WorldWide, Ekin-Ceren Women’s Center, and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.
The works carried out in Fidanlık camp were terminated in December 2016 when the trustee appointed to run the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality closed the camp.
What kind of traumas did you observe in Yazidi women who are victims of war?
Ayşe: Men can create stories of heroism and victory out of war; however, women know that war is about rape and slavery and that it wrecks and destroys humanity. Since the 1980s, women and gender studies have revealed the real face of war. The Syrian war which has been going on over 10 years, just like other wars, has had terrifying and destructive effects on women and girls. War is a male and a brutal thing, and sexual violence is one of the ways of subjugating and humiliating an enemy. Particularly in the patriarchal order, harming the women and children who are supposed to be “protected by men in that order” is one of the atrocious weapons of attack. Besides, even in times when there is no war, many behaviors which would not be regarded as legitimate at all are no longer defined as crime in times of war.
Yazidis are a group of people who had been exposed to massacres and genocides all throughout history. We know that stories about traumatic events are transferred intergenerationally. However here, we see how an unending threat against the existence of Yazidis has affected and shaped their culture and see how the effects of previous genocides on women have coalesced in the community into a structure that makes domination possible in the families.
Yazidi women who have reached Diyarbakır had experienced difficulties in every stage of the exile, escape, migration process. In fear and anxiety, which began to be felt before the attacks, some of the Yazidis set off on the road early; we know about women who lost their babies or children as they travelled without water and food for days. When the attacks and fighting began, ISIS had kidnapped, enslaved, lost, and killed many women and little girls. The whole world listened to the atrocious stories of those who were kidnapped from Nadia Murad; however, it is also very wounding to be a relative, friend, parent of those who were kidnapped.
Migration in itself entails many difficulties; in a country where you do not know the language, culture, the life habits, and especially in a country that shares a similar religion with your aggressor, it is extremely difficult to again feel that “moment of safety”. Psychological recovery after the traumatic events sometimes takes place once the feeling of safety is reestablished, and when you think about the conditions in the refugee camps, this becomes very difficult.
Besides, here, we do not want to omit the erotization of trauma. When Yazidi women come to mind, the whole world starts thinking about sex slavery; however, can we really grasp the evilness of it all? As those who are experts on trauma in mental health , we are struggling against the expression of sexual violence in erotic terms. We would like to underline the necessity of refraining from using a pornographic language such as “sex slave” which eroticizes the atrocious and horrendous aggression that has been experienced. We know that feminist struggle, like any other struggle, also begins in language. The erotization of sexual violence legitimates persecution.
Your article is titled “Genocidal sexual assault on women and the role of culture in the rehabilitation process: Experiences from working with Yazidi women in Turkey”. Why do you define sexual assault as “genocidal”?
Zerrin: Yazidis whose population does not excess 1.5 million people and who largely live on the skirts of the Şengal mountain, are one of the most vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities in the region. They are the practitioners of an ancient religion which carries elements from Zoroastrianism as well as the three Abrahamic religions. In the 16th and 17th centuries, on account of being accused by the Muslims for worshipping the devil, they gradually became a closed, impoverished, and vulnerable community. The genocide attempts which they had been exposed to had affected their religious beliefs tragically. They express that all throughout history they had been exposed to attempts of genocide or massacre for 72 times; and the memory of being harmed constitutes the fundamental part of their identity. They name the ISIS attacks on their lands which took place in 2014 as the “73rd Decree”. In these attacks which were intended as genocides, sexual violence has been used as a strategic weapon against Yazidi women and girls. What was aimed was to destroy the social fabric of a community by the way of obliterating the community’s biological and cultural identity, and thus, to deeply harm the ways in which the community and its members relate to each other. We felt the necessity to point at the combination of historical traumas with recent traumas as one of the factors that renders the therapy and recovery processes more difficult.
What are the common and different aspects of “everyday” sexual violence and sexual violence during hot conflict to which women are exposed? How does feminist approach provide us with the tools to understand these experiences?
Suzan: Sexuality of women is constructed in conjunction with a cultural and religious “shame discourse”. This results in the sexual trauma being experienced as silence and a secret. The traumatic events that can be experienced during war such as the death or loss of relatives, being deprived of food or water, being injured, being sold as a slave, and forced displacement render sexual traumas even more complicated.
In many instances, it is utterly difficult to resurface sexual assault. It is even more difficult when someone is living in camp in a foreign country. Understanding the social structures of the environment where the assault had taken place is utterly critical when articulating the meaning of sexual violence. The spiral of violence that beings with sexist language and accusations directed against the victim and extends to murders committed in the name of “honor” and disguised as suicide can pull the health workers into its vortex, unfortunately.
Zerrin: Our work is based on our different experiences and observations in working with Yazidi women escaping genocide and sexual slavery. No single theory is sufficient to scientifically address and discuss the effective, correct, and ethical ways of intervening wartime sexual traumas. We argue that a multidimensional approach which includes feminist theory, cultural pathology theory or strategic rape theory is necessary.
Şahika: There are many different studies, albeit insufficient for strengthening the Yazidi women. An England-based group has been working in the region with Yazidi women and has been providing them with trainer’s training. Traumas are destructive, they affect every aspect of health. Nonetheless, there are also those who are strengthened. This is hopeful. This year, a Yazidi woman became the first in the university entrance exams in Iraq.
One of the painful experiences of Yazidi women who were raped during war is their exclusion from their own society… As far as you can observe, how did the Yazidi women go through this process?
Zerrin: The Yazidis has a patriarchal caste system where the extended family dominates, this is a model that we often see in the Middle East. Endogamy is applied via very strict rules and regulations. Marriage or sexual relations with a non-Yazidi person is a reason for excommunication, and premarital sex is forbidden to women, while adultery can lead to exclusion or even killing of both parties. In our work, we identified two cases of suicide, both were women.
Suzan: An exception was made for Yazidi women and their families who survived the sexual assaults of ISIS. They were blessed by their religious leaders. It is still a taboo for children born of rape to be accepted into the community. These children are sent to the orphanages without the consent of the women, and the women who want to reunite with their children are eventually excluded from the community.
As far as I understand from the article, you experienced difficulties in the rehabilitation process due to cultural differences. How was your experience and how did you overcome these difficulties?
Şahika: How about we say that although we might have slightly opened up a space, it is difficult to say that we have overcome the difficulties arising from the caste system and the male-dominated system. But we came close; trust was built in time. As the authors of this article, with the exception of İsrafil, we don’t speak Kurdish. It took time for İsrafil and other Kurdish speaking volunteers to regularly visit the camps and build trust. Our psychosocial support project was, luckily, built on an environment where the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality provided us with the general infrastructural support and trust.
Our experience of working with different women confirmed that different cases of sexual assault have something in common. It showed us the importance of taking cultural differences into consideration in psychosocial responses. Struggling with sexual assault can only be possible by collectively creating strong models and maintaining them. The difficulties of working with refugee women’s traumas entail transnational cooperation and solidarity. In this teamwork that inspired our first joint publication, brave human rights organizations, volunteers, friends, and Yazidi women have shown collective efforts; we thank them all.
Ayşe: Can gender and women’s studies that are based on the narratives of women who work in the field of mental health subvert the patriarchal hegemony of war? We are not sure, but we are aware of the importance of writing women’s truth in wars. Only truth can unite people, with all their differences, in the path of peace. Can we change the horrible psychological effects of genocide and physical/sexual violence? We are not sure, but we did not only witness the suffering of Yazidi women, but also witnessed their strength and perseverance, and we tried to support it. We believe that women are strong together.
Going back to your award, where was your article published, how were you nominated for the award? For the readers who are not familiar with the field, can you briefly provide us with information about the association (AWP) that gives the award?
Şahika: Our study was published in 2018 in the Torture Journal* which focuses on torture-induced psychological traumas and it was granted the AWP publication award in 2019. Due to the pandemic, we could attend the ceremony held in Austin on 8 March 2020 with our thank you note.
Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) is a feminist psychology organization that was founded in 1969. It works with volunteer members who unite their personal, professional, and political powers to serve social justice. Feminist sexologist Leonore Tiefer introduced us to the AWP. In December 1999, Pazartesi magazine published the translation of an interview with her in which she was introducing the “A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems” campaign. In the 5th Congress of the Sexual Education-Treatment and Research Association (CETAD) in 2004, she gave the speech titled “Is Medicalization a Solution or a Threat for Sexual Life and Problems?” You can find more information on the speech at bianet.org. An empowered, outspoken feminist woman who has been challenging the mainstream perspective that attempts to locate sexuality within the biology, we are friends with her since the 1990s. She is the author of books Sex is Not a Natural Act and A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems.
Suzan: Tiefer and her colleagues made a very nice, short video for the 50th anniversary of AWP in 2019. They made a collage of how feminists working in the field of women’s mental health became involved in AWP. A group of feminist psychologists protested in the grandiose APA (American Psychological Association) the lack of proper focus on issues such as domestic violence and rape, which are intimately related to women’s mental health. These women chose to start an independent organization. They aimed at opening a space for the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s to positively affect women’s health. They also continued to raise their voices against sexism in APA meetings. There are working groups on non-binary sexualities and gender differences, social class, body differences, motherhood, studentship, junior experts, researchers, activism, elderly women, etc. It has a non-hierarchical structure, each and every new member is celebrated, their projects support activism, members’ articles or books. In the annual meetings, feminists of all ages and color can dance together. When we were saying goodbye, we learned that they call Vitamin F the feeling of energy and refreshment that remains with you afterward. This is a very familiar feeling thanks to our ties with the feminist movement in our country.
When we saw the list of names who were granted the award since 1977, we were thrilled: Lenore Walker, Evelyn Fox Keller, Patricia Hill Collins, Ellen Kaschak, Lynne Segal, Jennifer Freyd, Susie Orbach – women whose works we know… In the 50th anniversary video, a colleague who talked about “how thrilling it was to get off the same elevator as Carol Gilligan” was also expressing the feelings shared by some of us while describing her first AWP conference experiences. Finally, we would like to share the call for proposals of AWP’s 2021 congress themed “Doing Anti-Racism Work and Addressing Intergenerational Trauma”.
* Yüksel, S., Saner, S., Basterzi, A., Oglagu, Z., & Bülbül, I. (2018). Genocidal sexual assault on women and the role of culture in the rehabilitation process: Experiences from working with Yazidi women in Turkey. Torture Journal, 28(3), 123-132.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan