In the summer of 2014, the jihadi group that had until then called itself “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” seemed invincible. Its fighters swept through north and central Iraq, seizing swaths of territory including Mosul, the country’s second city, and bulldozing earthworks that marked the Syria-Iraq border. Despite their US‑provided equipment and overwhelmingly superior numbers, the Iraqi armed forces fled in the face of ruthless attack columns flying Isis’s black war banner. The group celebrated these victories by taking the grandiose new name of Islamic State – no more petty geographical limitations. They also announced the establishment of a caliphate: a reimagining of the original pan-Islamic empire led by the Prophet Muhammad, with the cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at its head.
As westerners followed these distant events in the news, in northern Iraq an 18-year-old girl followed them too, with the same disbelief and pity for Isis’s victims. Farida Khalaf dreamed of becoming a teacher and in the peaceful village of Kocho, where she played football with her four brothers under the apricot trees, the violence seemed a long way off. But her family were Yazidi, members of a 700,000-strong Kurdish minority who follow a faith based on pre-Islamic traditions. And so, in the eyes of the puritanical Isis, they were devil worshippers who must be exterminated – or enslaved.
The Girl Who Beat Isis is Farida’s powerful testimony of that summer and the months that followed, co-written with the German author and journalist Andrea C Hoffmann. In its opening chapters, the dismantling of the lives of Farida and her fellow Yazidis is nightmarishly rapid and complete. When Isis arrive in Kocho, the villagers are rounded up and given the chance to convert to the jihadis’ brand of Islam. When they refuse, the men and older boys – including Farida’s father and oldest brother – are killed, and the unmarried women and girls, including Farida and her friend Evin, are loaded on to a bus at gunpoint. Their destination is the human market of Raqqa, the new caliphate’s de facto capital in northern Syria. There, they will be sold as sex slaves.
Their experiences confirm the ritualised system of sex slavery that has been described in Isis’s own publications: in reintroducing it, Isis has gone further than groups such as the Taliban or al‑Qaida. Farida’s “owner” prays before he rapes her. The girls are forced to take contraceptive pills so as not to break Islamic legal injunctions against sex with pregnant slaves, and are also made to pray as Muslims. Debating with the fighters about Islam or humanity, as Evin tries to do, proves futile.
What amazes both Farida and her readers are the glimpses of normality amid this horror. When her first buyers drag her from the slave market, she can hardly believe that the sun is still shining, and that Raqqa – the sinister “capital of terror” – has ordinary shops and kiosks selling everything from snacks to football shirts. Similarly, there are hints that life under Isis control is more complex than it appears. The girls meet civilians forced to work for the group and fighters who have joined under duress. But freedom brings the book’s final disturbing twist – the escapees are stigmatised by their traditional community, and tormented by guilt over their inability to stop the rapes and the resulting “dishonour” to their families. With little medical or psychological support, and no future, their only chance is to hope for resettlement in Europe. Amid the policy-wrangling over how to combat Isis, and the cynical calculations of the international powers embroiled in Syria and Iraq, this is a compelling testament to the suffering of ordinary people caught up in violence far beyond their control – and to the particularly terrible price it exacts from women.
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