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Learning from how the ISIS occupation of Iraq affected genders

By Rudaw 5/7/2017
A man carries a child after fleeing from western Mosul in late June. Photo: Mohamed El-Shahed | AFP
A man carries a child after fleeing from western Mosul in late June. Photo: Mohamed El-Shahed | AFP
The following is analysis of gender in ISIS-affected conflict communities of Iraq provided to Rudaw English from the UK-based Oxfam non-governmental organization. Officials in Baghdad and Erbil have long acknowledged that the country lacks adequate psychosocial institutions. Oxfam reasons that "critical discussions and appropriate decisions need to take place" to prevent violations from reoccurring.

“ISIS decided everything and left no room for personal decisions. ISIS decided for our wives – what to wear and what not to wear, they did not let women decide on their own, nor let the husband decide what he likes his wife to wear. They were deciding what to do, how to live, how to work, where to stay or go,” said a man from Ramadi, describing family life under ISIS occupation.

The study participants talked about how they experienced the imposition of a set of extremely restrictive and brutally enforced rules for women and for men which included the strict separation of women from unrelated men, the regulation of marriages and family decisions, a new dress-code and daily practices. This, combined with the banning of women from the workplace (except for those who were serving ISIS interests), the mobility restrictions, the fear of public humiliations and punishments put pressure on men to join ISIS in order to access an income, pushed people away from the public space, highly contributed to the disintegration of the social fabric and left people with no support network. For women, frustrated men constantly at home also meant more domestic violence. 

“Women and children have suffered most in this conflict, due to aerial bombardment, the threat and intimidation by terrorist gangs, the fear of being killed. In addition, the head of the family often turned violent towards his family, beating his children and his wife, without any reason whatsoever,” said a woman from Ramadi. 

Whilst this quote captures the various facets of vulnerability that women and children face in times of conflicts and unrest, this research also identified the adolescent and young men as well as the unmarried women as two of the most vulnerable groups in the ongoing conflict against ISIS. This is yet more evidence of what the gendered impact of conflicts is about: Women, girls, boys and men are affected differently; they face different threats and their needs are, therefore, different. 

In this context, it is crucial to understand that this is not a competition for who suffered the most and who’s most at risk but rather a confirmation that every single person had their share of suffering and an attempt to understand where this vulnerability comes from and how it can be addressed. For young men, the vulnerability lies in the pressure they’re under to become “real men” as the society has set it for them by founding a family of their own. But in a collapsed economy, joining ISIS and other armed groups becomes the only source of income and hence, their only way to make it to “manhood.” 

As for women and girls, their main vulnerability is perhaps less visible and yet, devastating since it is linked to the taboo of sexual violence and its aftermath in a society where a family’s “honor” lies with the women and girls “chastity”; that is precisely why families perceive their unmarried daughters as a potential “liability” and hence, rushing to ensure they get married, sometimes as early as 11 years-old, to a relative to protect them from the abductions and the forced marriages to ISIS fighters. For many girls and women, that risk materialized and they were either abducted and raped or forcibly married to ISIS-fighters. 

The researchers came across a group of women in Heet, Anbar, who lived in segregated informal settlements, cut-off from their communities, deprived from aid and at very high risk of abuse and exploitation; they are being “punished” because they were either married, often forcibly, to ISIS fighters or have members of their families that joined ISIS. 

Despite all these restrictions and throughout the occupation and the displacement, Iraqi women reinvented their role and extended their responsibilities to keep their families together, as one of the women respondents to the survey expressed it: “Women had important role in our communities during the conflict by watching over family members, especially youth and children, through the provision of psychological support and increase self-confidence of children for them to stay away from Daesh,” said a female from Heet. 

While this research is only one piece of information on how ISIS-occupation impacted the relationships between women and men and within the communities, it comes with critical knowledge on where to go from here. 

Amidst all the suffering and the immense scale of the humanitarian situation, there is a great need for the aid community to seize the opportunity to promote equity and equality in their projects by consulting communities more, providing livelihood opportunities for men and for women without setting them up for competition and by ensuring that shelters and camps for displaced families are safe for women and girls. It is also important today to invest in women’s rights organizations in retaken areas to reform and carry out their work. 

Finally, as the country is moving ahead with its commitment to the Women, Peace & Security agenda, critical discussions and appropriate decisions need to take place to recognize the violations that women underwent, to make sure that these violations stop now and never happen again in the future and this should be led by supported and inclusive voices from the women’s rights movements in Iraq.

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