By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Did you see the latest headline about the woman tricked into eating her own child by ISIS. It reads like something out of the play Titus Andronicus. “Served with a side of rice,” is how one newspaper explained it. Another recent account, passed on Yazidi MP in Iraq Vian Dakhil, claimed brutal gang rape of children. “She also revealed that a 10-year-old girl had been raped to death in front of her sisters and her father.” Then there is the new Guardian article about a woman “sold seven times.”
The stories of what ISIS did to thousands of woman is unspeakable. I’ve read so many accounts I finally almost stopped reading them. I can’t bare it anymore to hear more and more stories about the dehumanizing, about people numbered and sold. But in another sense it is important to learn about what happened, to come face to face with the true Nazism of our time, and not shy away. A recent account noted: “In an apparent bid to win her respect, the man she knew as Abu Orfman also tracked down her son, in the same internet slave market where he had bought her, and reunited them.” The accounts never cease to give horrible details. The man who prayed before he raped his slaves. The rape of children. Many women have provided survivor testimony.
The problem with much of these accounts is that few of them want to look at the overall story. They prefer the salacious and sensational for discussions about why more wasn’t done to stop the genocide, how this happened and has been allowed to continue to happen. Why ISIS members who did this are not on trial for crimes against humanity. Why ISIS fighters return to Europe. Why Europe allowed many ISIS fighters to go back and forth in 2014-2016 even though they were carrying out these crimes. It’s easier to concentrate on prurient stories that in themselves don’t necessarily humanize the victims. Are we brought closer to victims by hearing endless stories of rape? It’s a double-edged sword. We seem to think that if you tell the brutal reality of something that it makes the victim more human. But what if it doesn’t? What if telling stories of rape doesn’t make the victim more like us, but each time we tell something we actually distance them because we secretly know “that’s not going to happen to me, that happens to these people.” There is something insidious about the term “Yazidi sex slaves” as if slavery and sex are the only two things now connected to the word Yazidi. We don’t learn about the culture before the slavery, we don’t learn about life after it, we learn only about rape. The public who read about a woman forced to eat her own child doesn’t learn more about her in general. Not about her life or her dreams or her education, or her family and culture and daily life. It learns one thing “she was sold and raped.” And accounts always seem to want only that information. How many times were you raped a day. Was it numerous men at the same time? What did he do to you? Ok, thanks, we got our story.
And it isn’t just about rape, it’s other brutalities also. The story of the kids who were “kneaded to death” in a dough machine. ISIS also “burned mother and four children alive.” It’s a little bit like the ISIS beheading and killing videos. Even ISIS realized that beheadings were becoming “boring” so it got involved in burning people to death and other methods of torture and killing. A recent video making the rounds supposedly shows “fathers killing their own sons who didn’t join ISIS.”
You can only watch the scene in Schindler’s List where Jews are herded off a train so many times because you are inured to it. Then you stop caring. Worse, maybe you just start making jokes about it. Seinfeld did that. That’s not because Seinfeld was anti-semitic, but because the movie had become so much a part of popular culture that it became part of popular jokes as well. Does that humanize victims of the Holocaust? No. It dehumanizes them. It’s not the movies fault for doing so, the movie was attempting to humanize. It’s our fault. The brutalities of slavery for instance in the Old South can only be shown so many times before it becomes a Tarantino film. Do we take it seriously by that point.
For years I’ve written about ISIS crimes, I even created a hashtag on twitter #ISIScrimes where I tweet all the stories about the evils of ISIS. I made a photo essay about the genocide and mass graves, I looked at Nadia Murad‘s return to her village, and written again and again and again about how ISIS crimes are similar to Nazism. I interviewed Vian Dakhil about the genocide. I went into ISIS tunnels in a Kakei village that was liberated in 2016. There is a documentary from 2015 about the mass graves on youtube. Also articles from Hamdaniyeh about ISIS crimes against Christians.
But through it all I noticed that mostly people didn’t care so much about documenting human life, or even about cataloguing and recognizing genocide and documenting mass graves. What they wanted were “sexy” stories. One magazine asked me if I could find ISIS women rape victims who had become snipers and were “fighting back.” Unfortunately I couldn’t find the rape-victim-sniper unit. Other journalists did find this fictitious unit and made it into a story. For some reason when a documentary was made about US soldiers raped in the US army called The Invisible War, the journalists didn’t require the women to then become snipers and hunt down their rapists, in order for it to be “newsworthy.” Perhaps because women in the US, like us, are humanized, while women from Iraq, as somehow more easily dismissed “just” for suffering, and we need stories about eating children or “rape victim snipers”. And this is where the prurient sex-obsessed media actually dehumanizes the victims. Our culture likes stories about “woman raped 43,200 times” more than it likes to look more deeply at human trafficking. There is a lot of interest in massage parlours and sex work in media these days. Of course, hand in hand with the “humanizing” is the romantisizing of the same thing. Are films like “The Receptionist” helping to end sex slave trade in places like the UK, or not?
We have to ask this question because there is a line that connects Schindler’s List, the suffering of Yazidis and documentaries about sex slavery and rape culture in the West. And are we really humanizing and understanding victims? Did Three Girls really explain how thousands of young women were raped in the UK by being “groomed”, in just one area. Thousands. Why is that different than what happened in northern Iraq? Isn’t it just a nicer version of the genocide and sex slavery ISIS did? So when we talk about Yazidis it isn’t some foreign thing, it isn’t some “exotic” story, it’s a story very close to home. That is why the genocide of the Nazis is like ISIS, that is also why the sex slavery is like the sex slavery happening in Europe today and in the US and other places.
But when media only focuses on sex, “how many times a day were you raped, how many men?” it takes away a bit and inures us to this evil. A Holocaust survivor who had to crawl over 50 dead bodies is as horrified as crawling over 100. Yes “He crawled through 100 dead bodies to survive” is a good headline, some clickbait surely, but are we humanizing those dead people, are we understanding the nature of the crime, are we charging the criminals, or are we just trying to make something “interesting.”
Media’s focus on sex crimes often blurs the lines between wanting to entice the reader and maybe even turn them on, and shocking them and humanizing victims. It’s not entirely clear where the proper balance is, but when every story focuses solely on sex crimes and shocking details, there is no evidence that readers are coming close to wanting to learn more about the victim before and after the sex crime, or that the reader is interested more in prosecuting the offenders.
If readers were interested in justice, then we would hear more demands for war crimes trials of ISIS members. But we don’t. In fact we have societies where they can come back and relax. So did the stories of mass rape and genocide make us want to do something? There is evidence that the stories didn’t. They are solely there to make us excited but not to make us do anything or even get our society to do anything. After all, who has raised money to help Yazidi women victims? If they had suffered an earthquake though, and 300,000 Yazidis fled a natural disaster, you’d be giving money to help or volunteering. But mass rape and genocide? Well…