Middle East alliances — this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue — have often been between governments ruthlessly ruled by so-called “strongmen.”

But in some areas an even more fundamental force — strong women — are rising despite spiraling violence. Two such women, Dr. Nagham Nawzat Hasan of Iraq and Nihal Naj Ali Al-Awlaqi of Yemen, who were among 14 honored with the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, visited Minnesota this week to talk about their countries’ crises. Their grit, and gifts, show how much Mideast societies could benefit from fuller participation by women.

Hasan, a gynecologist and activist, was among the first to respond to the horrors inflicted upon her Yazidi community by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Secretary of State John Kerry, referring to those “dark days,” summarized the nihilists’ crimes as he lauded Hasan’s “perseverance in championing the rights of Yazidi women and girls, even in the face of extraordinary adversity.”

Yet the most telling testament to what Yazidis face — especially women — came from Hasan herself. “There are some stories I’m not able to forget,” she said in an interview. With chilling detail she recounted how scores of Yazidi girls and women have been kidnapped, gang-raped, sold as sex slaves, tortured and sometimes eventually killed. Even children are brainwashed into killing or are used as human shields. Many escapees, despite being welcomed back in their communities, attempt suicide. Describing survivors’ “total psychological collapse,” Hasan said that this was not the first attempted genocide against Yazidis, but that previous attempts were in “the Dark Ages and we never expected in the 21st century” such “animalistic behavior.”

Then, reflecting an alliance often overlooked here at home, she thanked America for striking ISIL just in time. “I want to thank the U.S. for the wonderful thing they did for us,” Hasan said. “If it were not for hits from the U.S., the whole Yazidi minority would have been victims of genocide.”

Yazidis have fiercely fought back, too, including some women combatants. “Personally, I salute any woman who fights ISIL from wherever she is, and I consider this honor I have received is not just for me, it is for them, and all the survivors and mothers who have lost their sons in this battle.”

It’s not Mideast alliances, but adversaries that are among the defining dynamics in Yemen’s warfare. But Al-Awlaqi, Yemen’s minister of legal affairs, said in an interview that it’s more complicated than the depiction of an Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war.

Al-Awlaqi is well-credentialed to decipher the conflict’s complexities. Kerry hailed her as a “breaker of barriers” who helped draft her country’s constitution, is the only woman in the peace talk delegation with Houthi rebels, and is a champion of girls and women.

“I’m a living example of the Arab Spring being a source of empowerment for women,” Al-Awlaqi said. As for the Arab Spring itself, while it’s much maligned by many Western observers surveying the regional chaos, Al-Awlaqi defended its origins while lamenting uneven outcomes. “The root causes for which the Arab Spring came about are noble causes. People have the right to transition to democratic societies, modern societies with equal rights for everybody. But it is unfortunate that the path to this transition was derailed.”

This path to democracy and modernity would be advanced by enhancing the role of women, added Al-Awlaqi. “If Yemeni women were empowered, they would contribute socially, politically, economically in the welfare of Yemen.”

Al-Awlaqi also appreciated the U.S. for “supporting the legitimate government in Yemen,” yet she hopes that the Obama administration will exert even more pressure on the Houthis to comply with the latest U.N. resolution.

Both women also appreciated Minnesota’s interconnected internationalism. In particular, Al-Awlaqi, a professor at the University of Aden, lauded the Law School, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and programs focused on women’s rights and human rights at the University of Minnesota, while Hasan cited the Center for Victims of Torture as an example of “the humanity and kindness of Minnesotans.”

While thoroughly modern, both women also turned to timeless cultural touchstones to reflect their views.

“As the saying says, ‘a bird has two wings,’ ” said Al-Awlaqi. “One wing is men and one is women. If you have one wing down, the society would fall.”

Neither woman will let her society fall. And Hasan spoke beyond Yazidis in Iraq to the wider world when she said: “This earth, this land belongs to everyone. And everyone of any belief and any religion should have the freedom to live peacefully under the canopy of humanity.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


The Star Tribune Editorial Board and Global Minnesota are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.