Pari Ibrahim on the plight of Yezidi women and the establishment of the Free Yezidi Foundation

I am Pari Ibrahim, and I am Yezidi from Iraq. Yezidis are an ethno-religious minority, among the first inhabitants of present-day Iraq. Our community has suffered immensely from centuries of persecution and unfair treatment because of who we are and our religion. In 1991, my family and I fled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. We walked towards the mountains and arrived at a refugee camp in Turkey. After living in tents and dire circumstances, we were finally picked up by the Netherlands government as political refugees. I have lived in the Netherlands since I was three years old.

Yezidi women face intense discrimination in Iraq for their religion, ethnicity, and gender. ISIS kidnapped and enslaved Yezidi women and girls as sex slaves, selling them in literal and virtual slave marketplaces. ISIS sought to eradicate Yezidis, claiming that our people were infidels and should not exist. ISIS executed men and older women, and kidnapped children, women and girls.

Those women who avoided ISIS or were able to escape mostly joined their displaced families residing in IDP camps throughout northern Iraq. Others have fled to Europe or tried to rebuild their lives in Sinjar. Yezidi women are attempting to heal from mental and physical trauma and an environment where their people enjoy few economic opportunities. Many also face gender-based violence in their own lives. Organizations that do provide mental health and livelihoods services to these women must contend with a shrinking funding landscape and a government that often prioritizes the desires of majority communities rather than addressing the struggles of the Yezidis, a small and marginalized indigenous community. 

I established the Free Yezidi Foundation in response to the Yezidi Genocide of 2014. At that time, I was studying law in Amsterdam. As I watched what ISIS was doing to our people, I knew immediately that it was genocide. I felt compelled to act, raise awareness, use my voice, and do my part to shed light on what was happening to Yezidis.

The Free Yezidi Foundation is primarily a Yezidi women’s rights organization, and therefore the empowerment of Yezidi women is a key objective. Empowerment may manifest in different ways that seem mundane but actually have profound impact for female members of a community that suffers discrimination and lack of opportunities and is traditional and often patriarchal. FYF believes strongly in women’s education, women’s employment, and complete autonomy on personal status decisions, like choosing who and when to marry. FYF works hard to advance the rights and opportunities of all Yezidis, especially in economic and educational fields, while also providing trauma treatment and pathways to justice and accountability. However, FYF has a special focus on the welfare, rights, and future of Yezidi women.

At this time, Yezidis do not have a bright future. There has been limited government provisions to develop security or infrastructure in Sinjar, from where a large population of Yezidis are still displaced after seven years. There have not been many successful efforts to identify and bring to justice ISIS perpetrators who committed crimes against Yezidis, not to mention the tens of thousands of accomplices who facilitated in the Yezidi Genocide in large ways or small. Many still live in or around Sinjar, or in other parts of Iraq or Syria. Recently, the Iraqi Government repatriated Iraqi ISIS members from detention camps in Syria. One female ISIS member explained that she is proud to be ISIS, her whole family are ISIS members, and she is proud that her husband owned and raped a Yezidi ‘sex slave’. The presence of ISIS members and acceptance of discrimination and prejudice against Yezidis, even today, makes it hard to envision a safe and bright future for Yezidi families in Iraq.

 While I hope that the future for Yezidis in Iraq is one in which they have equitable access to the justice system to gain redress for the human rights atrocities and genocide they have suffered through, and we work for that every day, there is only a glimmer of hope that this will be the case. Meanwhile, we as a women-led Yezidi organization must do our best to focus on education, employment, development, and modernization of the Yezidi society. With the right tools, we hope our people can overcome the enormous barriers in front of us and access a better future for ourselves and the next generations.