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Conducting fieldwork in settings with a recent history of violence conflict presents unique challenges. In addition to the concerns about the safety of subjects, the researchers face some difficult professional and ethical choices. We offer some reflections on the basis of our fieldwork among the Yazidis, a persecuted religious community in northern Iraq and address three interrelated questions: What are the most effective strategies in speaking the unspeakable with individuals who suffered tremendously (i.e., abducted and kept as sexual slaves)? Next, how do researchers navigate power relations that are often in conflict with liberal-democratic practices? Finally, how do researchers go beyond the principle of “no-harm” and contribute to public good of their subjects without compromising scholarly objectivity?
The self-styled Islamic State’s (IS) violence against the Yazidis in the summer of 2014 has been unprecedented even by its own vicious standards. According to the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the Islamic State’s premeditated campaign was a genocide involving mass executions and abductions, forced conversions, and sexual enslavement. While the Yazidis have a long history of persecution and marginalization, the Islamic State’s assault has pushed the community to the brink of survival. An estimated 360,000 Yazidis live in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, while a further 90,000 seek asylum in Western countries.
We study the dynamics and aftermath of the IS violence against the Yazidis. Our research involves dozens of in-depth interviews with a variety of individuals including Yazidi leaders and displaced survivors, local and international activists, and Iraqi Kurdish officials involved in Yazidi affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan (September 2017 and May 2018) and Germany (June 2017), and via electronic platforms. The interviews are being conducted to develop a comprehensive view of the Yazidi population with regards to social caste, economic class, gender, age, and geographical location while being attentive to the diversity of individual experiences. We deal with a variety of logistical issues including travel safety, suspicion of “Westerners” who are widely perceived to capitalize on “Yazidi victimhood,” and ongoing political instability making it impossible to reconstruct their lives in Sinjar. These issue also directly affect how we address questions concerning sexual violence, social inequalities, and ethical commitments stated above.
Talking to Survivors: The sexual slavement of Yazidi women by the IS has attracted significant amount of media attention. As a result, many Yazidi women who survived the atrocities have given interviews. While speaking up may help these women overcome their victimhood status and gain a sense of empowerment (e.g., UN Goodwill Ambassador and Yazidi Survivor Nadia Murad), it can also have a traumatic effect on these women and reduce their identities into victims of sexual abuse. Furthermore, as many of these women remain displaced and continue their lives in camps, speaking up may not address their daily challenges. We discuss how we talk to survivors to maximize their comfort and minimize the risk of hurting their well-being. We also emphasize the importance of letting them feel that their experience entails no guilt.
Navigating Power Relations: As a religious minority, the Yazidis remain at the mercy of powerful forces (e.g., Kurdish groups, Iraqi government, and Shiite militias) and seek alliances with these forces to continue their precarious existence. Many Yazidis remain in camps under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government while Iraqi forces have supremacy in Sinjar. This prevailing situation dealing with different political actors when conducting research among the Yazidis. While many Yazidis are critical of these forces, they are also careful not to antagonize them. This prevailing situation demands utmost diligence from the researchers to deal with patterns of self-censorship and biases in interviews. We suggest that a commitment to the safety of the subject may require an act of professional balancing in what to emphasize and not to emphasize by the researchers in their writings and presentations.
Engaging Gender Dilemmas: The Yazidi community is characterized by social inequalities with deeply rooted patriarchal practices. The massive sexual violence experienced by the community has had a transformative impact on the community. From a liberal feminist perspective, the increasing opportunities for Yazidi women as asylum seekers in Western countries is a positive development contributing to gender equality. At the same time, the dissolution of communal life and dissociation from historical lands may threaten the very survival of the religious minority in the long run. We discuss how a fieldwork strategy informed by the notion of intersectionality could address these tensions in a nuanced way.