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The New Arab

3,000 Iraqi women enlist in militias to combat IS

The Hashd al-Shaabi was formed in 2014 after IS captured Mosul [Twitter]

Date of publication: 23 August, 2016

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More than 3,000 Iraqi women are volunteering in the controversial Hashd al-Shaabi government-backed Shia militias to help push IS out of the country.

The number of women enlisting in Iraq's Shia militias has risen to more than 3,000 as the country's military continues to make inroads into Islamic State-held territories.

The women militia members are mainly tasked with running the group's media outlets, preparing meals for troops and boosting morale, a source close to the government-backed paramilitary forces told The New Arab.

Set up in mid-2014, the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) is mainly made up of Shia volunteer soldiers who are fighting alongside the Iraqi military to retake cities from IS.

The group's soldiers have been accused of committing serious abuses and reprisal attacks against Sunnis thought to belong or to be sympathetic to IS in cities recently retaken from the jihadists.

"We help out behind the scenes and we are well respected by the troops," militiawoman Suhad Jasim told The New Arab.

"The pictures of us on the front line that have been posted on social media have inspired many young men to get off their couches and enlist in the Hashd al-Shaabi," the 31-year-old added.

Following the fall of Iraq's second city of Mosul, the country's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa calling on all able-bodied men to join the counteroffensive.

     
      The "Zeinabs of the Hashd" on the front line [Twiter]

Many women, however, also heeded the cleric's call and signed up for the Iranian-backed militias, dubbing themselves "the Zeinabs of the Hashd" - a move that has received varied responses from conservative Iraqi society.

Hashd al-Shaabi fighter Baqir al-Ziadi cheered on the women's participation, saying it was a positive step forward to challenging gender norms.

"Our Mujahideen sisters and mothers are fighting alongside us to the best of their abilities."

Among the tribal leaders in Sunni-majority areas, however, the concept of women on the battlefield has not been accepted quite so readily.

Shiekh Hussein al-Otaibi said: "This is not pleasant, it goes against our traditional customs to have women walking around with men on the battle lines,"

"The military situation on the ground does not require women because they do not directly take part in the fight against Daesh," Otaibi added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

This week, a Hashd al-Shaabi militia headed by a woman was set up for the first time in Baghdad, bringing the total number of groups in the umbrella organisation to 79, The New Arab's Iraq correspondent reported.

The "Muslim bin Aqeel Brigades" was established by Inam Badr al-Sweadi, a lawyer and former member of the Hashd al-Shaabi's women support committee.

Human rights groups have alleged that Hashd al-Shaabi troops committed vast human rights abuses during the assault on the city of Fallujah, including carrying out summary executions of civilians or torturing and humiliating other residents.

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