Understanding the lived experience of marginalised people in situations of violence and insecurity is vital for peace and conflict policy-makers and practitioners, but can being involved in participatory research also contribute to the well-being of conflict-affected people? Four Yezidi women from northern Iraq here reflect on their research into their own experience of and response to insecurity.

How we undertake research is increasingly recognised as being as important as the subject we are researching. This is not only because the way we research impacts what we are researching, but due to the possibilities that the research process itself may also contribute to advancing the underlying aims of the research.

Within our project ‘Embodying Peace, Navigating Violence’ funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, we have sought to explore the coping mechanisms deployed by Yezidi women in Iraq and queer and/or feminist Palestinians as they navigate life amidst distrust and insecurity. However, coming together as a team of women researchers in Iraq and attending to and documenting the emotional and physical resonances of everyday life – while not an easy process – has itself become a strategy and resource for managing shocks, disruptions and challenges.

What we did

In seeking to understand our lived realities of navigating insecurity and instability we trialled a range of methods within an initial workshop, which brought us together as a group for the first time. While there was some trepidation in not knowing one another, or what to expect from the research and project, there was also excitement. In coming together as women and building a safe space in which we could voice our experiences in our own words, it was as though the air returned to our bodies – free from everyday patriarchal constraints, our minds started to melt as we began this new process of working and joining together.

Through a communal and exploratory approach that created a space for all to contribute in the ways they felt able, we began to articulate our everyday experiences – and in so doing, discover ourselves and one another. From walking and meditating to painting, we came to acknowledge and appreciate our strengths and talents amidst the adversities and challenges we face. We were given permission to focus on ourselves, our feelings, needs and bodies – a privilege so often denied to women, especially those with caring responsibilities.

The primary methods we used in order to achieve this were through photo voice and establishing a journalling practice to record and reflect on our lived experiences. Our notebooks became our ‘silent friend’ which absorbed our dreams and frustrations, helping us to unwind our entangled thoughts. Some days it was our favourite thing to do. Some days it was the only good thing to do. And some days it was impossible to do. But accounting for each day acted as a medicine that helped release the pressure that built up inside of us surrounded by obligations and constraints and inspired us to learn and grow in new ways. Through writing, reading, studying and exercising, we came to recognise the areas in which we could take control and exercise our agency, gaining power and freedom within ourselves.

Alongside personal reflection we met each week in a learning circle, to share, analyse and understand our experiences together. Over the course of six months, we passed through different stages of the project and our lives. Each stage had its own flavour and taste, and we began to open ourselves to one another and the research process. Eventually, these circles expanded beyond a research method to become a support system: we realised we were not alone and that there were others who shared and understood our feelings and frustrations.

From this collective space of catharsis and care, we took encouragement to keep going. Despite sometimes being overwhelmed, when confronted with all that is taken from us as women in a patriarchal society – our freedom, our self-expression, our solidarity – there was immense value in standing together and to find the courage in collectivity to take small steps to reclaim our desires.

What we found

Being asked to pay attention to our feelings through our bodies was the most rare, strange and beautiful thing. Usually, the interest is primarily in what we can provide: in our families, it often feels as if our worth is equated with how we care for other people but not ourselves. In workspaces or engagements with NGOs, it is how our knowledge and qualifications might be of benefit and use to others. Yet through acknowledging our feelings within this research, we have become more reconciled with ourselves as we learn to listen to what our bodies, minds and hearts need – and, importantly, gain confidence in expressing this.

Although it took courage to share these emotions and expose our truths, it was also a relief. So often, we seek to protect others by only portraying our strengths but in this space, we could unburden ourselves of some of the weight we carry upon our shoulders everyday. Instead, by opening ourselves up we were able to better connect with those around us, letting go of the fear of what they might think or say about us, and become more comfortable and confident in who we are. In hiding our emotions, it was as if we had previously been stifled and suffocated by a disease. In releasing them, we gained renewed energy.

Through undertaking research together, we also built a network of friendships that helped us find a greater sense of peace and trust. We shared our pain with those who did not know us, grieving with each other’s grief and celebrating in each other’s happiness. This helped us to overcome social stigma and shame in sharing our feelings and, even if it didn’t always feel comfortable, we started to revel in sharing together and to build a solidarity through which we became stronger and invigorated to challenge certain barriers and change certain aspects of our lives. We realised that we weren’t alone and that we faced similar struggles.

We also shared the same dream of breaking free of the gendered roles and norms that our society had created for us. Knowing that we were understood by those around us in this space made us feel at home, free from rules regarding what to say and how to behave. As a result, we found some of the courage to start challenging the strictures that seek to keep us in our place. We began by riding bikes through the street, or visiting a café alone, or driving through the streets of Bashiqa. We hoped that by doing so it may become a little bit easier for the next woman. Knowing one another in this way made us wonder how many women there must be who have kept silent regarding their desire for change and liberation. We learnt what we – as Yezidi women may come to do through our courage and strength by joining together.

Although this is a process and the changes may be small, we are still using the methods we experimented with during the project in our daily lives. Now, we can show the same kindness and care to ourselves that we bestow on others. This helps us to recognise our needs and strengths, and to have the hope that we can begin to break down the walls that have enclosed us. It has enabled us to envisage the opportunities we could have as women – if we could expand our spaces to define ourselves in our own terms, voice our own needs and desires, and build solidarity and support systems based on mutual care and reciprocity.

Authors: This article was written jointly by Afrah Khedher Murad, Awaz Saaed Kichan, Ikraam Rasheed Hassan and Lilian Fadhil Hayder.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Photograph from one of the authors’ PhotoVoice project.

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