Early Years - Early Adulthood
Widad grew up in the southern part of Kurdistan, where the central government controlled every aspect of political, economic, social, cultural and organisational life. She was a little child when she survived the Iraqi government offensive against the Kurds in the mid 1970s.
Already in her early and teenage years, she became a defender of her rights and the rights of her classmates against the interference of both the government and society. She would eloquently speak out for the rights of the oppressed not to live in fear or be marginalized by law and/or enforced socio-cultural traditions.
Widad resisted all efforts by members of the Baath Party to win her over to their side. As a result, she was blacklisted for prolonged periods of time.
Committing to Human Rights & Peace: A Personal Choice
By the time she was 16, she left her birth city and attended Salahadin University in Erbil, where she was able to acquire knowledge about human rights and their incorporation into daily life, including education and health care systems. The development of specific mechanisms necessary to protect these rights in order to create peaceful and human-rights-friendly environments was one of her priorities. She explored the use of excessive force and the nature of violence in general and their psychological and physical impacts on victims and communities.
Her anti-authoritarianism and commitment to a culture of human rights and peace were not without risk, and as time went by a number of safety problems emerged. Without taking certain precautions, she and her parents would have faced the same fate as the victims of the Anfal campaign - a genocide that took place in the late 1980s.
In the summer of 1987, she became secretly involved in documenting the immediate and long-term impacts of torture and other violations of human rights on the victims throughout Iraq. Soon after, she was politically involved in various struggles for human rights, peace, ethnic reconciliation, social justice, and participatory and inclusive governance. Aiming to provide needs assessments for different decision making scenarios, she carried out surveys and interviewed the victims and their families under very difficult circumstances.
Widad is an eyewitness to Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks and the deadly Anfal Campaign, which has been officially recognised as "genocide" against the Kurds. In 1988, when the Iraqi government gassed the Kurdish cities and villages, the only way for human rights activists to document the massacres and the impact of these heinous weapons on the environment and human health was to travel to the scene. In her self-biography and when giving seminars, Widad has described what it was like to be there on the scene. She witnessed how tyrants predetermined destiny and how lives were changed forever. She has referred to this as "the worst time of my life. Even today, all the memories are still in my mind, unflinching and fresh.”
Despite the hardships faced, she found a way to complete her education and graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Structural and Civil Engineering in 1990. This was not only an academic achievement that laid the foundation for her statistical and mathematical skills, but also a symbol of personal empowerment and a spiritual journey in her life in the sense that she got used to taking on responsibility and tackling challenges single-handedly.
Relocation & Education
After the first Gulf War, as the bloody offensive against the Kurds mired deeper, she fled to Turkey. That was very shortly after she had become disillusioned with the human rights situation and political and social degradation of her birth country. Because of her peace activism and political affiliations, she applied for political asylum in a third country, where she relocated.
She learned a foreign language in record time and attended a distinguished university with the goal of studying the genetics of health, disease and disease-related microorganisms. Her master's thesis focused on a genome-sequencing project that dealt with examining the biological function of newly discovered genes. She also earned a PhD in global health and cancer epidemiology and has served as a peer-reviewer for high-profile medical journals and as a researcher in inherited diseases at a leading university hospital.
Even as she worked in the laboratory long past dinnertime, sometimes into the early hours of the morning, a fraction of her time was devoted to protecting and promoting human rights by monitoring, advocating, lobbying, and taking solidarity actions. She dedicated lots of her time volunteering for Amnesty International, especially after 1994.
Widad is one of Internet's first prominent bloggers specialising in the MENA region. She knew how to harness the power of the internet to address effectively vital issues of human rights, peace, freedom of expression, women's empowerment, international understanding, leadership, governance, and environmental and health issues.
She launched urgent actions, wrote articles for Arabic (e.g., al-nnas, ahewar, droob) and Kurdish (e.g., Kaniya-spi, yek-dem, welate-me) print and online (e.g., hekar.net, musanadah.com, thefreesyria.com) newspapers, gave seminars, and took part in panel discussions on topics, such as human rights, women's rights, international conventions, and the duality of peace and war. While reflecting on the challenges and lessons learned, she remained optimistic about the high level of engagement observed. Consequently, she was able to mobilise civil society activists, which led to increased participation in politics and human rights dialogues. In 1999, she was voted the MENA region's most prominent blogger (elected among Arabic and Arabic-speaking bloggers from around the world). She conferred the title of "Queen" blogger for two terms after which she declined a reelection. A few years later, she helped Amnesty International to develop a blog on control arms in order to raise awareness about conventional arms and to publish some photos of the first regional conference on a possible Arms Trade Treaty. The goal was to highlight the importance of having an effective and a legally-binding treaty on arms trade. The Web Team and the International Secretariat of Amnesty International thanked Widad for her efforts in support of Amnesty's campaigns.
Widad's endeavor blossomed thanks to the strong and loyal support system that believed in her. Along with her commitment to enhance peace, she did the best she could to ensure that the victims of war and human rights violations were receiving the kind of treatment and care that every human deserves. She quickly climbed the ranks, serving as a volunteer and board member with a variety of local and international organisations.
In 2006, Widad met the Manager of Amnesty's Control Arms Campaign, Mr. Mark Neuman - an outstanding British expert on international security and disarmament - who arranged for her to travel to New York to focus on her lobbying activities at the United Nations. The invitation specifically asked her to join Amnesty's lobbying delegation in New York to lobby government delegates at the First Committee of UN General Assembly on the proposal for an international Arms Trade Treaty, stating that "this request follows the excellent work you did for us in Cairo in helping to make the Control Arms campaign workshop such a success." Widad was asked to accept the designation of "Amnesty International First Committee Lobbyist for an Arms Trade Treaty." In a statement in October 2006, Mr. Neuman stressed that thanks to Widad's background, knowledge and skills, she "has been able to act as one of our principal lobbyists," and in this capacity "she has succeeded in obtaining excellent insights and making substantial impact" on Member States' understanding "of our case and their thinking on the issue."
This is how her expertise was rewarded. Her efforts influenced policy decisions both in individual countries and at the global level. These experiences honed her skills, preparing her to alleviate suffering and save lives. Soon, she co-founded Defend International - an NGO devoted to respond to grave violations of human rights; monitor the implementation of preventive measures that are designed to end impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes; conduct research that may directly or indirectly improve the health standard of communities; and to promote peace and democracy through cultural relations and advocacy.
2014 Humanitarian Crisis In Middle East
In August 2014, when ISIS militants attacked Kurdistan region, Iraq, targeting the Yazidis, Christians and other minorities, Widad was one of the very few who dared to publicly denounce the slaughtering of civilians and the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls. In September 2014, she launched a global campaign with a creative strategy that on social media boiled down to five main goals, namely Save Yazidis, Save Christians, Save Kobane, Save Humanity and We Want Peace.
Widad urged world leaders (e.g., Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers of foreign affairs and Members of Parliaments), religious and spiritual leaders, regional and international agencies, journalists, women rights activists, children rights activists, writers and artists to speak out to prevent more massacres and improve respect for all in the Middle East. She tirelessly wrote to public figures like the Executive Director of UN Women Ms. Phumzile Mlambo, the Pakistani activist Ms. Malala Yousafzai, and the UN refugee envoy Ms. Angelina Jolie, asking them to express their support for the shocked and grief-stricken Yazidis. While Ms. Jolie and Ms. Mlambo showed their compassion and responded positively to Widad's call, others preferred to keep silence, turning a blind eye to what was happening to the enslaved Yazidi girls and women. However, Widad didn't give up and kept knocking on doors until her persistence finally paid off. Her intensive advocacy effort was rewarded when the UN secretary general Ban Ki Mom started mentioning the Yazidis in his speeches and when senior representatives of governments and international agencies demonstrated their commitment to protect the thousands of Yazidis who were trapped on mount Sinjar, surrounded by militants, and in desperate need for food, baby milk, water, shelter, medical assistance and protection.
"One can't help but wonder how many lives would have been lost to the large-scale ethnic cleansing and how different our reaction to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East might have been without Widad's quick thinking, bravery, leadership and willingness to stand for what was right even though it meant making personal sacrifices." Ms. Lolla Rasmussen, August 2015
"The souls of the dead cry out: 'Remember we were citizens; hold perpetrators accountable for acts against humanity.' Widad can dry the tears and bring hope for peace. You are the voice for the voiceless. You help make the world see the need for humanitarian aid and the need to join together to make world peace a reality. This day opens up a future of no war, a future where peace will reign over peace and happiness. No more genocides." Mrs. Zoë Gordon, April 2017
In October 2014, Widad dedicated her newly-awarded Pfeffer Peace Prize to the Yazidis, the Christians and the residents of Kobane. Soon afterwards, she published documents that confirmed ISIS' use of slavery and rape as weapons of war. One of the documents was ISIS' "price list" for kidnapped and enslaved Yazidi and Christian women and children. In November 2014, she recommended to the United States to open humanitarian bases in Kurdistan region and Rojava to enable the protection and provision of food and medical relief aid to all civilians, including the displaced Syrian refugees. In the same month, when His Holiness Pope Francis visited Turkey, Widad asked His Holiness to meet with refugees to restore hope, stating that she was "aware of the security problems" and suggested transporting "selected groups of refugees to secure locations where their concerns could be heard." Before ending his three-day visit, His Holiness did just that.
In December 2016, she called on individuals, organizations and civil society groups in the MENA region to urge their governments to put an end to the flow of recruits and financial aid to ISIS, noting that "together we can make a difference. Together we can bring peace and unity to our communities. Together we can build a better world."
* Since 2014, Widad has become a global voice for Kobane/Rojava, the Yazidis and Christians, including the females abducted, sold and enslaved in the Middle East.
* In April 2015, she was invited to be one of the 200 celebrities supporting the Billion Signs initiative. This charity project was launched a year later and aims at collecting one billion peace sign photos to help children affected by war. With each uploaded photo, one cent will be generated by the sponsors and donated to the War Child organization.
* In October 2014, Widad was awarded the International Pfeffer Peace Award by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
* In December 2013, she was awarded a 'Special Prize' by the National Organisation for Future Generations for being a "passionate advocate of bridging the gap between civilisations and cultures" and making "valuable contributions to humanity through the creation of a culture of coexistence and harmony."
* In August 2013, she was ranked among the top 10 current public figures who might win a Nobel Peace Prize in the future.
* She was the first and youngest woman born in the Middle East region to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities related to illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, armed gender-based violence, chemical and biological disarmament, conventional disarmament and international security.
* Over the years, she has addressed and actively participated in several regional and international meetings and conferences, such as the United Nations Third and Fourth Biennial Meeting of States, the UN Commission on The Status of Women, the General Assembly Interactive Hearings with Non-Governmental organizations, Civil society organizations and the Private sector, and the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.
* From 2005 on, she was engaged in different ways to create momentum in favour of a UN resolution on a strong and an effective Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to prevent the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons that might be used for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or terrorism. In June 2006, she co-chaired the first regional conference on ATT held in Cairo at the Pyramisa Hotel. In addition, she was part of a delegation of high-profile NGO-diplomats handpicked by Amnesty International to meet with diplomats and policy-makers at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian Parliament. In the following years, she attended the meetings of the First Committee of the General Assembly on issues of security and disarmament, the Third Committee of the General Assembly on human rights issues, as well as the Biennial Meetings of States on issues of small arms and light weapons. In 2008, she was part of the prestigious UN open-ended Group of Governmental Experts to examine the feasibility, scope and draft parameters of an ATT. Her lobbying and advocacy are said to have influenced the opinions expressed and the votes of Member States in 2006, 2008, and 2013. Her ultimate goal was reached in April 2013 when UN General Assembly adopted the historic ATT to control the trade in conventional arms worth $70 billion annually, voting it through by 154 votes to three (Syria, Iran and North Korea), with 23 abstentions (e.g., Russia, China and Cuba).
* In 1990, she started advocating for gender equality and women's empowerment in the MENA region. She has committed to combat armed gender-based violence, considering this commitment a crucial investment in healthy minds and bodies to create inclusive, equitable, productive and healthy societies. In February 2013, she called on UN negotiators of the ATT to include a legally-binding provision to prevent armed gender-based violence, emphasizing that "the promotion of such an integrated approach to ending armed gender-based violence has always been at the top of our priorities. We aim to provide new directions to assist in developing policy measures that counter the harmful impacts that illicit trade in small arms and light weapons have on vulnerable populations, especially on women and children."
* Widad has also helped influence other policies on gender equality and women's empowerment at the national, regional and international levels, including successfully lobbying for the adoption of a new Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. With her advocacy skills, the support of countries like Afghanistan, Bahrain, Congo, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen was achieved, and 113 countries signed the declaration on 24 September 2013.
* She has additionally taken part in lobbying for the adoption of a resolution exclusively dedicated to illicit transfer, destabilising accumulation and misuse of small arms and light weapons around the world. At its 7036th meeting held on 26 September 2013, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2117 (2013) Dedicated to Question of Small Arms and Light Weapons. This ground-breaking resolution has relied on recommendations and language promoted by human rights defenders and peace-activists like Widad, who for many years have been involved in discussions with government delegations, UN agencies and other stakeholders.
* Widad has initiated numerous peace projects and urgent actions, in which she proposed innovative and transformative approaches to addressing (armed) conflicts or reducing racial, religious or ethnic tensions in the MENA region countries or elsewhere.
* She has held leadership positions in national and international organisations, including Executive Board member of Amnesty International and ambassador of Amnesty International's "Stop Torture" campaign.