With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State

Author: Otten, Cathy

Publication Date:

October 2017



Territories Handled

France, Netherlands, Scandinavia


Politics, Religion & Spirituality

With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State

Author: Otten, Cathy


“That Cathy Otten took first place was the first unanimous decision the jury took. Her work spoke to the very best of dedication to her craft and her subjects. Working in Iraqi Kurdistan she was in familiar and well-trawled territory yet she brought a freshness to the stories of Yezidi women and Iraqi soldiers simply by telling their stories with clarity and simplicity.” — New Voice Award Jury.

With Ash on Their Faces is an insightful read for anyone – inside and outside academia – with an interest in understanding today’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq… it is an intense and morally needed chronicle of the Yazidis’ battle for survival.” — Middle East Centre blog of the London School of Economics

“This is an intelligent and perceptive book about one of the great tragedies of our age. It is also an inspiring story of resistance and survival that everybody should read.” —Patrick Cockburn

“Woven through with heart-breaking, terrifying accounts of its survivors, and demanding an understanding of their community’s historical persecution, Otten’s searing chronicle of ISIS’ genocide of the Yezidis is compelling and devastatingly necessary.” —Sareta Ashraph, former Analyst, UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria

“There are two constants in the modern history of genocides: they are recognized too late and their victims, particularly if they are women, are presented as passive sufferers. Cathy Otten’s important and morally urgent book tells the story of an ongoing crime and a history of strength and resistance. Told with great care but with neither sentiment nor sensationalism, With Ash on Their Faces, needs to be read by all those who care about justice—and by those too occupied with global power to care.” —Lyndsey Stonebridge, author of The Judicial Imagination

“Otten tells the Yezidis’ remarkable story with a deft and detailed hand in this revealing account of suffering, endurance and survival. An essential read for anyone interested in the plight and resilience of one of Iraq’s most persecuted minorities.” —Anthony Loyd

ISIS’s genocidal attack on the Yezidi population in northern Iraq in 2014 brought the world’s attention to the small faith that numbers less than one million worldwide. That summer ISIS massacred Yezidi men and enslaved women and children. More than one hundred thousand Yezidis were besieged on Sinjar Mountain. The US began airstrikes to roll back ISIS, citing a duty to save the Yezidis, but the genocide is still ongoing.

The headlines have moved on but thousands of Yezidi women and children remain in captivity, and many more are still displaced. Sinjar is now free from ISIS but the Yezidi homeland is at the centre of growing tensions amongst the city’s liberators, making returning home for the Yezidis almost impossible.

The mass abduction of Yezidi women and children is here conveyed with extraordinary intensity in the first-hand reporting of a young journalist who has been based in Iraqi Kurdistan for the past four years, covering the war with ISIS and its impact on the people of the country.

Otten tells the story of the ISIS attacks, the mass enslavements of Yezidi women and the fallout from the disaster. She challenges common perceptions of Yezidi female victimhood by focusing on stories of resistance passed down by generations.

Yezidi women describe how, in the recent conflict, they followed the tradition of their ancestors who, a century ago during persecutions at the fall of the Ottoman empire, put ash on their faces to make themselves unattractive and try to avoid being raped.

Today, over 3,000 Yezidi women and girls remain in the Caliphate where they are bought and sold, and passed between fighters as chattel. But many other have escaped or been released. Otten bases her book on interviews with these survivors, as well as those who smuggled them to safety, painstakingly piecing together their accounts of enslavement. Their deeply moving personal narratives bring alive a human tragedy.