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For centuries now, women have been at the center of wars. Be it the cause or the effect, women have borne the brunt of it all. While we wonder why, it is seldom that we get to hear their stories of the aftermath. With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten, is an honest account of women surviving through the ISIS’s regime in Iraq.

With Ash On Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State

Author: Cathy Otten

Publication: Fingerprint! Publishing 2019

Genre: Human Rights, International Relations, Non-Fiction

This book particularly focuses on the genocidal attack, executed one summer afternoon in 2014 when thousands of men were massacred, and women and children were enslaved. Otten talks about the slavery these women went through at the hands of ISIS men and their experiences of living with this horror for years, before their stories could be told. This book is a much-needed attempt to document the struggles of the Yazidi community.

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Background

Considered to be one of the first accounts of the genocidal attack unleased by Daesh against the Yazidi community in Iraq, With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State speaks volumes about the resilience of Yazidi women. It is a collection of survivor’s accounts; stories of women who sailed through those turbulent times to tell their story. It begins with a short analysis of the political scenario present in Iraq with reference to the Yazidi community, the Kurdish (minority) and the government, both during and after Saddam Hussein’s rule. Further, the book is divided into three parts taking us through the course of events as and when they happened.

It is a collection of survivor’s accounts; stories of women who sailed through those turbulent times to tell their story. It begins with a short analysis of the political scenario present in Iraq with reference to the Yazidi community, the Kurdish (minority) and the government, both during and after Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The drastic turn of events, leading to the extreme incident immediately after the end of Yazidi fasting period, is scary and nerve wrecking. The scenes are intense with descriptions that make your heart beat faster in fear and anticipation of what next. It would not be wrong to call it nail biting. Sadly, this is real life we are talking about and to imagine a fellow human being undergo such terror is unfathomable.

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Real Life Stories

With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State covers real life experiences of women who have been enslaved. Though their identities are protected, it is difficult to not feel their pain. Their raw images of living through this horror, day in and day out, is one that continues to haunt the readers long after the book is over. Though the stories cover only a handful of such experiences, it is enough to give you a glimpse into what actually transpired there and at what scale.

The writing is raw, unflinching and gut-wrenching. Cathy Otten takes a break from the painful narrative from time to time, only to give a breather to the reader from witnessing the trauma being brought upon these women. The women are now living in camps and temporary shelters in Norther Kurdistan, struggling to bring back the tiniest glimmer of normalcy to their lives.  

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Harsh But True

Since time immemorial we have been hearing stories of women either being enslaved in wars or being fought for.

What is with women being called the reason for wars?

For how many years more will women continue to be treated like this for being a woman?

Why is a woman responsible for a man’s prestige and considered vulnerable without a man to be treated like a sex slave?

These are some of the questions that haunt you after reading this book, but sadly there are no answers. One will never know why women are targeted in this fashion till date. Nor will one understand, how one proves their power by capturing innocent kids and harmless women.

The War is still on

Not limiting this book to the experiences of these survivors, Otten has also brought in different perspectives by showing us the dynamics behind this action. She has tried to familiarize the reader with the plethora of people, who were riling up against each other to lead to this monstrous act. Though it is difficult to comprehend how these Daesh fighters would be punished for executing this mass level murder, the result of their obsession with religion leading to fanaticism is clearly evident.

The fact that this continues to happen across the globe in various forms with different communities but between the same genders is a sign that the war has not ended yet. It will continue till the day women are no longer considered vulnerable and are used as baits in wars, like these.

Weirdly enough, the very religion in the name of which these fighters executed those attacks and such behavior, is what helped these women survive through some of the darkest times of their lives.

The End?

Reading the atrocities these women went through at the hands of the Daesh fighters is like witnessing hell at close quarters. One cannot imagine what they might have undergone while living in such a difficult state. The trauma, the anguish and the pain of living in such conditions cannot be erased so easily from one’s psyche. The honest, heart-wrenching accounts of these women leave you with goose bumps as they tell their stories of survival. Weirdly enough, the very religion in the name of which these fighters executed those attacks and such behavior, is what helped these women survive through some of the darkest times of their lives.

Left to die to their current conditions, many of these women narrate the various ways of abuse they underwent at the hands of Daesh fighters. Ranging from subjugation, gang-rape, starvation, abuse and assault, these women also talk about what helped them survive this phase. It is commendable to read how despite it all, these women fought through the torture and survived.

The strength of these women is unprecedented, as they clenched onto hope and did not let anything deter them. Even right now when they speak about their desolate existence, not one voice sounds doubtful or scared. Rather they sound confident and hopeful, for a better tomorrow.

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Conclusion

With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State highlights the influence of gender issues in conflict settings very well as it gives a voice to the struggles of women. It is a poignant narrative with no attempt at sensationalize the apathy. Otten manages to strike a balance between narrating the hard-hitting truth and keeping it as close to reality as possible, without making it sound gory. Her attempt is not to gain sympathy for these women. Rather, she wants them to be see more than just victims. It is an attempt to acknowledge the silent battle these women fought in their own way for survival and bring forth their voices to us.


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