The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a young Yazidi woman, the first time someone of Iraqi descent has ever received the Nobel Peace Prize. The 25-year old activist, Nadia Murad was honored for her bravery in speaking out about her own experience and for her fight to bring an end to the weaponizing of sexual violence in armed conflict.

Nadia Murad shares the prize with another activist focused on sexual violence in wars, Dr. Denis Mukwege, of the Congo who is a surgeon. He provides critical, life-saving treatment to women who are victims of sexual violence.

Murad’s journey to advocacy began in 2014 when she, along with roughly 3,000 other Yazadi women were kidnapped by ISIS. They were subsequently sold as sex slaves, pursuant to the goal of ISIS to eradicate the Yazidis from the face of the earth.

After her escape, Murad refused to remain silent about the torture, rape, and abuse she and thousands of other women endured. She spoke out and became a defiant advocate working tirelessly to bring world attention to sexual violence and human trafficking.

From time to time, the media pays attention to the Yazidis, but they remain a mystery. In the huge landscape known as the Middle East, it is difficult to remember that the region is not a monolithic lump of one people. It is a rich tapestry of tribes and nations who have pursued their own independence and heritage for thousands of years.

Who are the Yazidis?

The Yazidis are a religious tribe numbering around 700,000 peoples, according to the best estimates. The largest percentage of Yazidis live in northern Iraq today, but for centuries they lived throughout Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Wars and persecutions have caused their small number to migrate around the world, including Germany, Canada, and Australia.

The Peacock

According to historical accounts, surviving primarily by oral transmission, the Yazadi religion was founded in the 11th Century. Headed by a sheikh, the religion is a combination of Islam and Christianity. Yazidis practice both baptism and circumcision.

The Yazidis believe that they descended directly from Adam whereas the rest of humanity descended from the combined lineage of Adam and Eve. This belief is rooted in the teachings of a Sufi who died in 1162.

A central element is the worship of Melek Tawwus, a fallen angel who, unlike Satan, was forgiven and returned to Heaven. They pray to Melek Tawwus, symbolized by the peacock, five times a day.

But, Melek Tawwus is known in other sects as Shaytan which means “Devil” in Arabic. This translation, plus some rumors about fire worship has led to the rejection of and hatred of the Yazidi people.

Not a People of the Book

For centuries, the teachings of the Yazidi people have been limited to oral transmission only. It was forbidden to write down the sacred texts. This led to allegations of illiteracy, but in fact, the Yazidis have always had other books which were learned in schools. The most religious texts, though, considered divine in origin, were restricted to religious and tribal leaders.

In the mid-1900s, the Yazidis felt compelled to write down some portions of their religious beliefs, especially since they were surrounded by Muslims who have the written Koran and Jews who have the Torah. But, what you might find on the library shelf are more in the nature of history books and stories.  The heart of their sacred beliefs and practices remains available only to Yazidis.

Centuries of Persecutions and Genocide

The peculiarities of their religious practice have been the root cause of centuries of persecution and genocide. The Ottomans during the 18th and 19th centuries committed at least 72 acts of genocide against the Yazidis.

Most of the Yazidis fled the Ottoman Empire after the Armenian genocide in 1915, moving to Russian territories such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, their plight once again became perilous, with many Yazidis returning to Turkey and Syria.

The failure to understand their religious practice is not the only reason the Yazidis have suffered so much persecution, especially at the hands of Sunni extremists. There is also confusion around the origin of their name. Sunnis believe it comes from the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty—Yazid ibn Muawiya. He was deeply unpopular. However, the Yazidis have nothing to do with this caliph. According to the Yazidis, their name derives from Izidis, which means worshippers of G-d.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis have fled their homes, landing in Europe. Baba Sheikh, their current spiritual leader, says that the mass exodus to Europe is particularly chilling as their religion shuns intermarriage, assimilation, and converts.

Do the Yazidis Have a Future?

Baba Sheikh wonders what will be the future of a people living in exile among millions of Europeans? Will the Yazidis ultimately be forced to intermarry, assimilate and abandon their religious roots?

While the future is unclear, one thing is certain. Nadia Murad will continue her crusade to save other Yazidi women from the fate she endured and hopefully bring a worldwide end to the sexual abuse of women that has become a common theme in warfare.