Like many countries in the region, the matter of women’s rights in Iraq was often met with challenges and push-back throughout its history. Although attitudes in major cities, particularly cultural hubs like Baghdad, tended to be more permissive, the rural parts of the country where most of the population lives has been dominated by conservative tribal rule that often favoured patriarchal rule. Women often found themselves receiving comparatively limited education and there is a stigma against women who work or take active roles in society.
Even in this environment, however, the levels of violence committed against women by ISIS militants was unprecedented. The militants not only enacted strict rules that controlled how women could dress, move, act of participate in social life, they also punished women in violation of these laws harshly. Furthermore, the sheer violence committed against women from minorities such as Christians and Yazidis the systematic use of rape and other gendered means of violence by the militants (not to mention their gleeful display of such acts) has shocked the world.
With ISIS no longer a territorial force, women across Iraq are organising, leading the charge not only to ensure that the acts of ISIS militants cannot be repeated, but also working the ensure that the societal attitudes that has allowed for such a permissive environment against women to flourish. Since 2014, many women’s rights and support groups have emerged to help those harmed by the militants and these groups have only gotten stronger since the liberation of Mosul.
The Masalla organisation has been particularly active in Mosul. Fighting for women’s rights in the city that was once the capital of ISIS carries with it a particularly strong symbolism. The organisation has been setting up workshops to help women gain skills in daily life to become more active in the workforce. A similar effort has been undertaken in Fallujah where women actively participate in the reconstruction of the city. Such efforts also have a pragmatic reason behind them. The war has left many women as the primary breadwinners for their families. De-stigmatising work for women is vital towards ensuring that these families will not be caught in a poverty trap.
Encouraging education is another important facet of women’s activism. Many families discourage women and girls from taking a full education, viewing it as inappropriate. Others are forced to leave their education unfinished due to economic circumstances. The end result is all the same. The Wajdan School in Basra is a catch-up school that not only caters to such women and girls who have missed out on education, but they take active efforts to ensure that families send all their children to school. Similar efforts are undertaken by activists in Diyala and Baghdad who are working to ensure that women and girls have a steady access to books.
Activists in Kirkuk, meanwhile, are working on a more critical issue: Suicide among women in Iraq. Displacement, trauma of war, societal pressures and similar problems have led to a massive increase in women committing suicide. In a country where mental health and suicide are stigmatised just as women’s rights are, these activists are fighting an uphill but worthy battle.
It would seem that the rise of ISIS and the sheer horror it inflicted on women has galvanised activists not just in Iraq but across the Middle East. Many countries in the region are witnessing increased social activism to challenge prevailing attitudes and practices towards women.