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The long path to healing for the women of Iraq

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Iraqi women face a long recovery after the cruel ISIL occupation (Screenshot via YouTube)

Living in a strict society of abuse and violence, the women of Iraq maintain a daily struggle for human rights, writes Sara Chessa.

THE WORD “war” is often used with lightness, without recalling the immense amount of time, support and resources needed to help Iraqi women to recover from what they have been through during the ISIL occupation. Ali Alrassam, Director of Mosul Projects for the NGO Al-Mesalla Organisation for Human Resources Development, spoke to us about how local and international activists are taking action to bring girls and women to life again and he does not fail to point out that the perfect ground for ISIL occupation was prepared by the invasion of 2003.

Mosul was freed from ISIL four years ago, but women over there are still on their way to liberation from violence. It’s not news that women are often the main victims of conflicts affecting civilian populations. However, there are people and groups currently making every effort to eradicate gender-based abuses, despite the scarcity of resources in an Iraqi society stemming from consequences of the 2003 invasion by the United States and its allies and the subsequent rise of ISIL.

Ali Alrassam, Director of Mosul Projects at Al-Mesalla, a local non-governmental organisation in the field of human resources development, represents one of them and with him, we went through the current situation, the complex causes behind it and the hopes for a different future.

Mosul in a cage under the ISIL rule

A major city in northern Iraq, Mosul stands on the west bank of the river Tigris around 400 kilometres from Baghdad. It is graced by historical buildings and was once the home of Agatha Christie.

It was 2014 when ISIL conquered much of Iraq, including the province of Nineveh where Ali is based. If the general situation of the country was already dramatic, it became infernal when the extremists imposed their radical interpretation of religious rules. Ali, who had his house destroyed because of his relationship with Western humanitarian groups, had to flee the city with his family.

Outside Mosul, both the local organisations and the United Nations began to care for the needs of the tens of thousands of displaced people fleeing from the area with Al-Mesalla setting up women's support centres in the refugee camps.

During the interview, however, Ali challenged the view that this was just a simple clash between a dark power and an oppressed population. People in Mosul and the surrounding area were suffering such a level of poverty when the ISIL invaders provided the local families with food and other supplies, leading many to accept the new regime.

However, for many women, the price was extremely high. “ISIL imposed a special dress for them, which covered the entire face, combining Hijab and Khimar,” Ali says, with ISIL members watching the streets and markets, beating and imprisoning women who walked in the street without wearing the “correct dress”.

“They were imposed not to leave the house if not accompanied by a man from the family members,” Ali recalls. And there were no exceptions for health reasons.

He said:

Women who went out alone in the street were punished even if they had to visit a doctor.”

Young women were removed from school and girls as young as 12 were made to marry older men. “They were forced to be women when they were just children,” he told us.

 Ali says despite the needs of these women:

“The country's security and economic conditions after the war against ISIL made the Government focus on other issues and women's support issues were neglected. So far there is no shelter for displaced women in Mosul despite the many demands and the great need for it.”

Al-Mesalla’s centres are entirely run by women, he told us. Each centre includes a psychological social worker with female employees who organise training, rehabilitation activities and individual psychological support sessions.

Most of the women to who Al-Mesalla provides services live with their families in cities or camps for displaced people, but many of the women and girls in Mosul communities still suffer from difficult access to service centres. There are challenges; for example, men's interference in women's decisions within the family, yet Ali thinks things are changing in the perception of the problem among men.

He told us:

“The difficult experiences that women lived during the period of the occupation of ISIL and also during the war of liberation have made men think seriously about women's issues.”

Another challenge faced by organisations like Al-Mesalla has been managing to help a particular category of women, those who were involved in the activity of the Islamic State. In the years of the occupation, ISIL elements forced women within their families to support extremist ideas and in some cases, they were recruited for specific tasks — for instance, as nurses for the wounded or as teachers feeding male children the ideology of the Islamic State. Some even reported other women for violating the harsh dress code.

 Ali told us that since the liberation, “their families have been socially ostracised and subjected to prosecution by the security forces and locked up in camps, therefore it is difficult to reach out to those ones offering health or psychological support”.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2017, Iraqi Security Forces have forcibly relocated at least 170 families with alleged Islamic State members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” east of Mosul.

Ali recognises a direct link between the war promoted and carried out by the Bush Administration in 2003, with the support of Britain and the suffering experienced by Iraq under ISIL rule:

“The cause of all the problems that occurred in Iraq was due to the war led by the United States and Bush in 2003 after the 9/11 incident, that war carried a lot of lies only to bring down the Iraqi regime, occupy and destroy Iraq as our country lost control of its borders and could not maintain order.”

This does not mean that he praises the previous regime:

“Saddam's regime was dictatorial and very cruel. But it was imposing security and preventing terrorist organisations and extremist groups. Western powers, especially America, wanted this to be the fate of Iraq and had it not been for that war, this destruction would not have occurred in Iraq, nor would this large number of innocent people have been killed.”

Ali is one of those courageous humanitarian operators that even under the ISIL threat continued to send information from Mosul to Western NGOs. Even when all the telephone lines were cut off, he fought to find those small areas in Mosul where he could communicate by using the weak internet signal.

The risk of being discovered and killed by the ISIL controllers was extremely high.

Today, as a guide for the Mosul projects, happy to see his family still alive and strong, he has only one wish — contributing to reducing the suffering of other people and improving their life conditions:

“Unfortunately, the rates of violence against women in Mosul are still very high, so I think it is necessary to continue to transmit facts and pressure societies on a large scale in order to move more to stop the violence and I hope that we will reach the day when the suffering of women from violence and abuse everywhere in the world will end.”

Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist. You can follow Sara on Twitter @sarachessa1.

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