The audience sat in silence. Nadia Murad had just wrapped up a speaking event at the Carr Centre at Harvard University. The room had been full, as it usually was when Nadia spoke to an audience. “I can take more questions,” she said. But none came. The crowd had listened intently and seemed empathetic, yet was seemingly too shy to ask much of the slight, 23-year-old woman they saw before them.
Nadia had come here for the questions. It was March 2016, and the ISIS battle was still raging. With 3,000 women from her Yazidi tribe in northern Iraq still under ISIS control, she wanted the world to know about how her people were suffering. She had come to get them involved.
Nadia often wondered if people attended her events, she later told me, to hear more about the story of Islamic State brutalities than to help the Yazidi people. She wanted them to know her cause was something the world could address. “Everyone cannot control or defeat Daesh” she’d say, using a disparaging Arabic term for the group. “[but] everyone can help the Yazidi people.”
Today ISIS is defeated, and the Yazidi people enslaved and brutalized by the militant group are now slowly being reintegrated into Iraqi society. For her efforts in raising awareness of the use of sexual violence in wartime, Nadia Murad has won a Nobel Peace Prize alongside the Congolese surgeon Denis Mukwege. Yet carrying the weight of her people’s plight took a personal toll on Nadia, she told me on that night in Boston over two years ago. What I remember most is the glimpse she gave me of the courage it took her to go through with it.
After the talk, we headed to an Indian restaurant near Harvard Square. I wanted Nadia to taste the kind of cuisine I had grown up with in Pakistan. We connected over being women of color, and our origins were soon a subject of discussion. I had been following her work since she embarked upon her campaign to bring the world’s attention to the plight of Yazidi people. Here she was, in Boston, on a trip sandwiched between meetings with heads of states and leaders of the European Union.
As we filled our plates from the buffet of curry and rice, I asked her if she was pleased with the response to her campaign. I wanted to know how things were unfolding as she lobbied with world leaders week after week, while many of her friends remained under ISIS control. Surely, she must be making progress in her campaign?
She responded cautiously. “They are trying to help us. We have a lot of support.” But that wasn’t working she said. “The process is very slow. We want to do something about the women still stuck there… they need to be saved.”
Earlier that year in February she had visited the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament. Her story was raised by British lawmaker Robert Jerick to other members of parliament and then Prime Minister David Cameron. “When the Prime Minister welcomed me and heard what happened to the Yazidis, I felt they will do something to eradicate ISIS but still nothing has happened,” she said.
She kept meeting leaders, and engaged with the United Nations, but she said, “everyone listens and no one does anything.” She looked tired and frustrated at a lack of concrete results. This was not the breakthrough she had dreamed of.
Over dinner, Nadia said she felt her struggle was in vain. She told me about her then-recent visit to Iraq. This conversation was so painful for her that she stopped eating her meal and tears started sliding her cheeks. It was often like this for her. Meals were skipped. Her sleep cycle was unstable. Her suffering could always be seen on her face. She carried the trauma with her everywhere she went, every day.
“I have two burdens,” she told me. “One, is my memory,” — the torture, the rape, the murders of her family, the nights and days as a prisoner of ISIS — “and the second burden is that of my responsibility. I have to make sure that my fellow women do not suffer like me.”
Despite carrying with her this extraordinary despair and pain, Nadia continued to champion the cause of Yazidi women until the Islamic State was driven out of Iraq. And she has gone from triumph to triumph.
Her campaign to speak out about the crimes ISIS committed against her people, was instrumental to understanding and defeating ISIS. And in that she triumphed over ISIS.
When she felt frustrated that world leaders did not move, she kept pushing harder. She showed up at every platform she could to lobby for the Yazidi people, and for all women who are victimized in wars. She communicated her message to audiences shy and bold. And in that she triumphed over those unwilling to listen.
When she felt there was more action needed to help her people, she created the Nadia Initiative and the Sinjar Fund that aims to support Yazidis and other victims of war crimes. And in that she triumphed over inaction.
Now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Nadia has the highest platform yet to campaign against the violence and abuse of women during conflict and in society. The recognition of her work — alongside that of Dr Mukwege — will give other activists more access to more people at the heart of the problem.
This is a prize shared by every woman with the courage to speak out despite their fears and traumas. Women across the world who are standing up against oppression and censorship against their bodies, and their lives. These women are the lucky ones. As Nadia Murad told me that night in March 2016 — “survival is a kind of serendipity, one that empowers you to fight for the survival of others.”
This could be her breakthrough.