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Francesca Mannocchi

The Iraqi women daring to show their real faces

Women tore off face veils, part of a compulsory dress code under IS [Alessio Romenzi]

Date of publication: 13 November, 2016

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In-depth: Iraqi women recently escaped from IS-held Mosul made a united and defiant statement to the militants - by tearing off their compulsory face veils.
More than 10,000 civilians have fled Islamic State group-held Mosul and made their way to refugee camps spread across northern Iraq.

Aid groups are gearing up for a massive humanitarian crisis when Iraqi and Kurdish troops enter residential districts of Mosul. 

There are 13 new areas allocated in Iraqi Kurdistan for camps, while existing ones are being expanded, ready for the influx of civilians.

One of these camps is Hasansham which opened last week and is located just a few kilometers away from another huge camp al-Khazir, which lies on the road to east Mosul.

In the first two days it opened the camp received 800 families, almost all from Gogjali, the last village to the east of Mosul which has been engulfed in ferocious fighting.

Hasan Sham is still under construction but already hosts more than 4,000 people.

Refugees arrive crammed in large trucks with the men separated from women and children. They form two long lines in front of the chain-link fence that rings the camp.

Men first need to be checked and questioned by soldiers before entering the camp to ensure no IS militants smuggle themselves in.

A policeman shows us a list of names of alleged supporters and members of IS, which he  obtained from sources in liberated villages around Mosul.

Path to freedom

Hussein from Gogjali stands in line holding his eight year-old son's hand - Firas - among dozens of other men waiting to enter the camp. In his other hand are their identity papers. These are his sole possessions and he was unable to take anything else with him before fleeing.

"The last few days in Gogjali were terrible. We were terrified by the noise of the bombs, constantly threatened by IS members," he said

"The [militants] barricaded themselves in some houses forcing the people there not to leave... using civilians as human shields. But the worst thing is that one morning they gathered some families forcing them to follow some men inside Mosul."

He said he is concerned that family members not lucky enough to escape could be used as human shields and die in the fighting.

When he came home he told me they wanted to teach children to kill. That the so-called teachers explained to him the value of sacrificing their lives in the name of Allah.
- Hussein, Mosul resident

Hussein cannot find his wife among the refugees, and he does not have a phone, as they were banned under IS rule.
                
Some people hid phones in their homes to speak to family members outside IS territory, but there were significant dangers doing this.

Firas never lets go of his father's hand, and the fear in his eyes are evident having lived through two years of terror.

"I prevented my son from attending Islamic schools," said Hussein, after IS closed all other schools in Mosul when they first took over the city.

"They were replaced with Islamic schools in some homes and one day they forced my son to go. When he came home he told me they wanted to teach children to kill. That the so-called teachers explained to him the value of sacrificing their lives in the name of Allah."

Since that day, Hussein tried to make sure Firas never left his home.

"Now, I thank God that we are saved and that my son will never be an IS fighter."

Freedom

Women line up at the entrance of the camp and throw away their niqabs and burkas.

It is the first time in more than two years they have shown their faces in public.

The wire fence is festooned with blacks scarves, their revealed faces symbols of freedom.

Hana from Gogjali arrived at Hasansham camp where she met again with three of her cousins. She also reunited with her husband who escaped to Erbil in the summer of 2014, and she hasn't seen him since.

"I managed to hide a mobile phone in a hole I made on the floor of my bedroom," she said.

"I knew I was risking a lot. Everything was forbidden: television, phones, any form of communication with the outside world. IS did not want us to know what was happening beyond their control."

If they discovered she had a phone she might be whipped in front of a crowd in the town's square, or worse end up in one of the group's notorious dungeons.

One day I looked in the mirror and did not recognise the reflection in it. I did not know who was the woman hidden by the black cloak.
- Hana, Mosul resident


"But I needed to talk to my husband, I prayed everyday to see him again," she said.

Hana holds a mobile phone in her hand, and now feels safe to talk to family members.

She cries and embraces her cousins, aware they are lucky to survive the ordeal.

"In the last few days I thought I would die. There was no more food, no electricity, even water was scarce," she said.

"We knew that staying in Gogjali was terrible but we also knew that escaping was dangerous too. We have heard that many civilians have been punished because IS found them while fleeing." 

There have been reports of dozens of civilians murdered by the militants for trying to break out of the city.

They do not want citizens; they are looking soldiers only willing to die.
- Hana, Mosul resident


Hana threw her burka on the metal fence of the camp alongside the other black veils of the other women waving in the wind.

Now her face is adorned with a turquoise scarf, and she can finally show her smile.

"For two years I have almost never left my house. I could go out only when accompanied by an immediate relative," she said.

"I was not used to wearing burkas, but the real shock for me was the imposition of the gloves. One day I looked in the mirror and did not recognise the reflection in it. I did not know who was the woman hidden by the black cloak."

She said she was banned from working, studying, even felt restricted thinking her own thoughts.

"They do not want citizens; they are looking soldiers only willing to die."

For Hana and her husband, they are lucky enough to start a new life in Erbil. Thousands of other refugees will be living the coming weeks, months, or possibly years in tents, but free from the shackles of IS rule.


Francesca Mannochi is a journalist reporting from the front lines of the battle for Mosul. Follow her on Twitter: @mannochia

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