A humanitarian worker in Iraq’s displaced person camps, Dr Orly Stern, describes the overlapping layers of violence that women experience in war.

I meet Nofa at a displaced person camp in northern Iraq. The pale 17-year-old wears a long velvet dress that must have once looked smart, before months in the harsh environs had tattered the material and beading. She and her sisters fled to this camp before ISIS attacked their home in Sinjar, 170 km away. The rest of her family had not left in time and were captured. Nofa does not know where they are, or if they are still alive.

Nofa is talking to me at a centre that provides assistance to women experiencing violence. She tells me that one year after her family’s capture, her father managed to escape and join his daughters. Traumatised by his experiences, he has become extremely violent. The situation in their tent has become so unmanageable that Nofa has sought help. However this, she says, is not the story she wants to tell me.

What Nofa wants to tell me happened a year before ISIS took their home; before her family’s capture and the sisters fleeing to the camp. A fourth sister, 16 at the time, was raped and became pregnant. Her family found out and were ‘shamed’. Her father decided the girl must be killed to avoid further dishonour to the family. He did not wish to kill her himself, so he asked Nofa to carry out the task.

Her father handed Nofa a can of gasoline and match. Compliantly Nofa went to find her sister, only to find that she, wishing to spare Nofa the ordeal, had set herself alight. Nofa looked on in horror as her sister ran around in flames – screaming for them to save her; screaming for them to let her die. Eventually, her father put an end to it, shooting her in the head.

Soon afterwards, ISIS approached Sinjar, the sisters fled to the camp, the rest of the family was taken into captivity and, some would say, the real problems began.

by United Nations Photo [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via Flickr 

I’ve worked in Iraq since 2015, during which time I have conducted numerous interviews with displaced women. This story strikes me in the way it illustrates something so often missed in accounts of women’s experiences of war: women do not just experience a single type of violence – rather, their violence is comprised of layers. Too often reporting on conflict captures only one layer, failing to properly reflect so much of women’s lived experiences. The reality is that the ‘newsworthy’ item (in this case, attack by ISIS), falls above layers of harm caused by patriarchy, culture, tradition and poverty. It’s the combination of these that shapes how women experience conflict.

I have found that as war rages nearby and swaths of territory remain occupied, women’s experiences are shaped as much by traditional and cultural practices, as by the geopolitical events they find themselves embroiled in. While these layers should be acknowledged separately, they are inseparable – they feed into and shape each other.

The most obvious layer – War – is our starting point.

Then there is the next layer; Patriarchy. It is probably this layer, above all, that shapes women’s experiences of conflict. Iraq is deeply patriarchal, with this permeating all aspects of women’s lives. Patriarchy permits violence in households; the beatings taking place in crammed tents shared by numerous family members. Women speak of husbands being more aggressive since displacement. They tell me about extreme violence; punching, burning, whipping.

Patriarchy allows for the harassment women face when leaving the camps – the hissing; the lurid advances; the employment offers from men who feel they can take advantage of displaced women, with no recourse.

It creates impossible situations for women whose men are absent because of war; be they killed, enlisted, boated to Europe or merely disappearing. I’ve heard stories of husbands divorcing wives by text message. Or husbands selling their family tents for money for passage to Europe, leaving wives and children on the roadside. Patriarchal norms make these women vulnerable – unable to find work in a male dominated public space, subjects of swirling gossip by a frustrated population.

Then the layers of ‘Patriarchy’ and ‘War’, interact with the layer of ‘Culture and Tradition’. Traditional practices that might have positively coloured a culture become distorted when interacting with War.

Cultures that permit early marriages see a spike in these unions, often for financial reasons. Desperate families who have lost their livelihoods, marry off their girls. Early marriages tend to be unsuccessful unions, characterised by domestic violence and marital problems. Gender violence centres report growing numbers of divorce and abandonment cases involving child brides.

Religion forms another layer. In the camps, one hears of ‘two-day marriages’ – marriages convened, then divorced by prior arrangement, allowing a man to enjoy intercourse with a girl while married, and hence with religious legitimation, in exchange for funds being paid to her family.

So too, the sexual violence perpetrated by ISIS towards Yezidi girls has been shaped by religion, with ISIS’ rape carried out in the context of strictly regulated slavery arrangements, performed in keeping with clearly elaborated edicts, allowing rape to not violate their version of religious rules. Yezidi girls report their captors would pray before raping them, talking of their acts as exercise of religious duty.

Finally, add the layer of Poverty. A lack of resources underpins all aspects of displaced life. A Syrian refugee told me, “When there is no money, my husband is violent to me, and I am violent to my children. Nothing else will work unless you fix this problem.” High levels of illiteracy, a lack of marketable skills and the distances of camps to cities, make it hard for women to earn a livelihood. Yet Culture plays a role here too – many women are not permitted by their families to leave the camps to work. For reasons of Culture jobs are primarily given to men.

Even the most obvious acts of war – those actions perpetrated by armed actors – are experienced by women through a lens of Culture. Sexually enslaved Yezidi women report their greatest fear was that their families would learn about their sexual violation. One woman had been open with her family. They responded saying, “ISIS has raped you. We don’t want you anymore. Take your children and go.”

Another woman hesitantly admitted to me she had been raped by ISIS militants. She’d told a doctor soon after her return, yet he’d advised her to never tell another, due to the stigma she’d face. For a year she kept this heavy secret, unable to talk or to ask for the help she needed.

Nofa, and so many others displaced in northern Iraq, give us a lens with which to understand the dangers women face in conflict. Women’s experiences of violence are multifaceted; they are harmed by war, by armed groups, by family members and by patriarchal traditional practices. Acknowledging only one layer leaves others unaddressed – a failing too often seen in the assistance provided to victims of conflict. Nofa sat across from me crying in her tattered velvet dress, an angry father in her tent, her family missing, her home destroyed. She cried for her sister and her people and for the layers that used to make up her old life, layers that the nearby conflict had destroyed.


About the author

Dr Orly Stern is a researcher, consultant and lawyer, focusing on armed conflict, gender, security and law. Orly has worked and researched in countries including Iraq, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Jordan, Uganda and South Africa. She had consulted for various international organisations, research institutions and NGOs, and has published extensively in her field. Orly is a senior fellow with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. She holds a PhD in law from the London School of Economics and a Masters in human rights law from Harvard University.