Iraqi women: Life under ISIS control

Under ISIS control, Iraqi women live in fear of forced marriages to militants.

Women are an important part of a nation’s stabilization, economic standing and societal change. The women in Iraq are dealing with violations that are stripping away their rights and drastically changing their way of life. In Mosul, a city charter, issued by ISIS, outlines the rules and punishments for all citizens, with women being targeted by several of the new mandates.

In the beginning of July 2014, the Iraqi Ministry of Rights said it had recorded a number of violations against women by ISIS. These abuses range from murder to kidnappings and have affected all Iraqi women, regardless of age, religion or ethnicity.

Life for women in the current security crisis

The city charter introduced in Mosul includes directives that keep women in at home except for emergency cases. When they do leave, all women must wear the niqab. A wife and husband were whipped, in Mosul,  because she donned only a headscarf and not the niqab. This is also evident in other cities that ISIS has taken. For example, billboards in Rakka, Syria state that women must dress modestly. Mosul has also seen the banning of stores that sell modern clothing and closing of salons, both of which are considered blasphemous by the militants.

United Nations Women’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, released a statement, earlier this month, indicating that UN Women is outraged by the deliberate targeting of women and girls in Iraq and reports of kidnapping, rape and forced marriages by militants.

Marriage has been an instrument used by militants to target women. In captured towns, leaflets are passed out informing all that ”women, virgin or not, must join jihad and cleanse themselves by sleeping with militants”. Last month a Saudi-based cleric issued a fatwa, a religious order, that allows militants to rape women in those captive towns, such as, Mosul or Fallujah. In Baiji, another occupied town, where citizens are living in fear because of the door-to-door checks for unmarried women, one resident said that “many of their mujahedin, guerrila fighters, were unmarried and wanted a wife. They insisted on coming into my house to look at the women’s ID cards (which in Iraq shows marital status)”. ISIS has claimed that its members have been asked not to bother anyone in captured towns, but the reality on the ground is completely different.

A jihad marriage, or sexual jihad, refers to when a woman volunteers to offer sexual comfort to fighters to assist the cause of establishing Islamic rule. This is not the case in ISIS-controlled towns, where women are kidnapped and forced into marrying militants. That is not the case in ISIS-controlled towns as women are being torn from their families and forced into marriage or raped. Salama al Khafajy of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission points out that the fatwas used “have no basis in Islam and are rejected by Iraqi social customs and traditions, whereby every ISIS recruit is forced to bring in a female relative to have intercourse with a member of the group”. Media outlets have reported that four women committed suicide because of rape, as well as, reports of men committing suicide after being forced to watch or unable to stop  their wives, daughters or sisters from being raped. These acts are a grave violation of human rights and leave devastating consequences for women, girls, families and societies.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that 20,000 women and girls in Iraq could face an increased risk of sexual violence. The reality is that rape is a common weapon used by militias worldwide to create a submissive and controlled public. UNFPA’s Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin said “We must not wait for cases to be counted comprehensively and documented in detail before we act. We must act immediately to ensure that women and girls are protected from sexual violence”.

Militants have also brutally targeted minority women who reside in captive towns and villages. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights has forensic medial reports confirming an incident in Basheer where four Turkmen women were murdered. The report states that the women were mutilated and one was hung from an electricity pole for a few days.

Reports of violations against women in the Shabaki and Yazidi communities have been characterized as crimes of racial cleansing have also reached the Ministry. As well as, confirmations of recent kidnappings of two nuns and three orphans from a monastery in Mosul.

Organizations aiding women in Iraq 

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), located in Baghdad, assists women who have been hurt and driven away from their homes. The organization is reaching out to cities with the largest numbers of women displaced by the fighting. Yanar Mohammed, OWFI’s President, said “Kerbala is our target place to go because this is a city where a big population of displaced have gone and where there are families without men, which are very vulnerable”. OWFI provides shelter to women who are being threatened by gender-based violence and in 2008, created a network of safe houses for women who were fleeing such violence.

Along with providing shelter, OWFI is rallying with international allies to supply medical care and humanitarian aid to women who have survived rape or have fled ISIS-controlled areas.  OWFI has also distributed food to  women and by doing so the organization has been able to also assist two of the most vulnerable displaced populations: children and the elderly. This plays into the fact that many women are becoming the heads-of-households and taking on the responsibilities of providing for their families and communities. 

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) notes that the Erbil Maternity Hospital has had an increase in caseloads since the beginning of the crisis, with 20 Caesarean and more than 50 normal deliveries each day. To assist the hospital, UNFPA has provided 1,200 reproductive health and delivery kits, but without additional resources, the kits will only last a few weeks. About 250,000 women and girls, including 60,000 pregnant women, are in need of urgent care and the overwhelmed health facilities can lead to the possibility of a rise in unassisted childbirths. Approximately 1,000 pregnant women each month may encounter life-threatening complications.

The organization has also provided more than 2,000 women and girls in the Dohuk Governorate with women dignity kits which contain underwear, soap, sanitary pads and other necessary items.

While the number of internally displaced women is unknown, they do make up almost 50% of the total population.  Organizations are working to support and protect them but with the continuation of the crisis it is imperative that more assistance is given to provide relative safety and aid to Iraq’s women.

The following organizations are either located in Iraq or working to fund support for Iraqi women:


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