She made herself small in a corner of the room, away from the window, in case of shrapnel. Next to her was a pair of lovebirds, their delicate song lost in the noise of the rockets as battle raged in her city between the Iraqi military forces and the militants of Daesh (the Islamic State).
That's how Ru'a Mohammed, a 30-year-old computer engineer, described that day to Raseef22 – a day in January when her neighbourhood, in the eastern side of the city of Mosul, was liberated. She had spent the last ten hours learning a new programming language, having mastered a dozen or so in the years since 2014, when under Daesh rule, she had been prohibited from having a job.
These days she runs a small business that she had been planning during that time. “My dream of three years has become a reality, and I will see it through. Despite the societal challenges that are starting to reappear - starting from objections to the way I dress and resistance to my presence in a gender-mixed field, and by no means ending there,” she told us.
Eastern Mosul has largely come back to life since Iraqi forces announced the success of their operations in January, and Mohammed thought that she would be free of the restrictions that Daesh militants had imposed on dress and movement. She was shocked to find that there were still some in Mosul’s street that wanted to control women's clothes, and – once the majority of women had stopped wearing the face veil (niqab) and black jilbab –objected to their appearance in public.
It's clear to her that some of the city's residents were influenced by the ideas of the extremist group, even while they rejected its presence.
“We are acting like Daesh”
Opinions varied on whether women's clothes were a matter of personal freedom. Some even went as far as to describe what is happening in the public space today as “post-Daesh moral degeneracy.”
But Ammar Salam, the owner of a women's clothes shop in al-Zuhour neighbourhood in eastern Mosul, said “Why should we restrict people's freedoms? Today we ourselves are acting just like members of the Hesba that used to implement Daesh rules.”
Mohammed Omar, 20, also prefers women to be freed from the black jilbab and niqab that were imposed on them. “I see it as an opportunity to appreciate beauty” he said, leaning on a corner wall at Nabi Yunis market. He added that he came to the market "to while away the time, instead of sitting at home with no work.”
In some of Mosul’s streets, there are still people that want to control women's clothes, and objected to their appearance in public
“I thought people would change… but there is still a prevailing culture of shame. Women are surrounded by it everywhere they go.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Sajee Salam, a female student of Arabic literature, believes that “there is no such thing as freedom of dress for women or men. We must stick to the religiously sanctioned dress, that is the jilbab. Fear of God is what's at stake here.”
Daesh is gone but the niqab remains
Since the rise of radical Islamic elements in the centre of Mosul, which began after 2006, leading up to the events of 10 June 2014, when Daesh seized control of the city, people noticed that the number of women wearing niqab was on the rise – in public places, schools, and universities. That was in contrast with the nineties, when there was only a very small number of niqabis, who usually belonged to families known for their strict religiosity.
Laila Ghali, who stopped wearing the niqab as soon as Iraqi forces had regained control of Mosul, said she found it ridiculous that “some women still insisted on wearing it after all we’ve been through.”
But Salma, a 35-year-old who preferred to withhold her full name, is of a different opinion. She recounts how, when she accompanied her husband in eastern Mosul after its liberation, a security officer told him that members of the extremist group had used the niqab as disguise to carry out assassinations in the city, and that it had thus become a source of suspicion. “All I could do then was take it off and go home without it,” she told us. “But,” she added, “I don't want to go through another uncomfortable confrontation with the security forces.” In a low voice she explained how much removing her niqab distressed her. She is religiously observant and used to wear it before Daesh came along.
Professor Faisal Jabr, explaining people's adherence to some of the external formalities imposed by Daesh, said, “the group's powerful propaganda spread the idea that the customary hijab alone was not enough. If a woman really wanted to be religiously and morally committed, the niqab was the only choice.”
He added, “the niqab is no longer linked to Daesh's presence, but has become a social norm, tied even more to public morality and family honour than it is to religiosity.”
Amid high unemployment, Daesh's system of morality persists
More than two years under the Daesh rule led to the creation of a unique system of morality in the Mosul society. New modes of behaviour were introduced, including new vocabulary that is still in use today, inside and outside the homes.
There is, for instance, the word "sister" that is used for women and girls in order to avoid saying their names, and "haji" which is used to address all men, both old and young. Although these terms are not new in themselves, they have acquired new, problematic connotations; they have come to be associated with the extremist group's members, who used to refer to the rest of the city's residents as “commoners.” Even that term is still in use, but then it is usually quickly retracted and replaced with “the people of Mosul.”
On the other hand, despite the rise of apparent religiosity and adherence to external manifestations of religions, some see a marked increase in sexual harassment, especially in markets and around girls schools. This development is considered by some to be a predictable one – what, they say, with the rising poverty, increased unemployment, deterioration of the education system, and most young people, both male and female, left with nothing to do. According to a book published by the Central Statistical Organisation, the poverty rate in Nineveh Governorate was at 34% in 2014, and in 2011, only 8.4% of the workforce were women.
Terrible suffering hidden in full sight
The woman of Mosul face many other challenges.
Chief among which is perhaps the difficulty of reintegrating into society, especially for those who were subjected to the experience of displacement and living in refugee camps, and those who lost family members, or lost the breadwinner of the family, during the war, which is still ongoing in the western districts of the city.
According to latest UNHCR census, the number of the displaced since the beginning of military operations in Mosul reached 368,707. After 128,881 people were screened, 50% were found to be women and girls. Another rough survey revealed that 1,859 families headed by women were displaced from Nineveh Governorate.
Beyond the city limits
Challenges are not confined to the city, but extend to the refugee camps where those who were displaced from Mosul lived during the war to liberate their city from Daesh rule.
Um Abir lives in Hammam al-'Alil camp (30 km south of the city). Her daughter is 40 and has lost her husband in the war. “She did not leave the house at all while Daesh was still in Mosul,” said Um Abir. Since the death of her husband, her daughter has refused to interact with people, and she still has not returned to her work and her former life.
To date, there are no accurate statistics of the number of widows in Nineveh. But the widows that Raseef22 met in Mosul face a similar situation to those in the camps. They are young women, mostly in their thirties, mostly married since they were underage, with no university degrees and no work experience. They all share the same fear of the unknown. They are burdened above all by their inability to support their children, and feel let down by government's institutions and the weak efforts of Nineveh Provincial Council.
Feeling unsafe in a culture of shame
“You don't see many women in the streets of Mosul nowadays. The restrictions imposed by Daesh for three years made women feel unsafe leaving the house, even today,” said Faisal.
Escaping the city provided some women with more opportunities to engage in civil society activism and free journalism, which in Mosul would have meant the threat of death or abduction by extremists, or of denunciation by the community. This has discouraged many from returning to Mosul, and pushed them to settle in the places where they had found refuge.
“The community was the main obstacle for me in Mosul, even though my work was in poverty aid,” said Mays Abdallah, a civil society activist who has lived in Erbil and worked under a pseudonym for the past three years. “Before I left,” she added, “someone had told me that my reputation was under threat, that people were badmouthing me because I was an activist.” However, Abdallah maintains that it’s “the unstable security situation, and the military proliferation in the city” that are the main factors preventing her from returning.
Back to Ru'a – she has survived the war and now runs her own design and advertising company. “I thought people would change,” she told us, “but there is still a prevailing culture of shame. Women are surrounded by it everywhere they go.”
Having to pick clothes with “modest” colours, being aware of the “shame” of being seen with a male colleague, having to obey societal restrictions in her comings and goings – all that, she explained, consumes a lot of her mental energy that should be directed towards advancing her business.
Letting out a long sigh, she said, “Sometimes I wish I had been born a boy. I would have certainly had better opportunities, and would have been able to travel without a male chaperon and follow my ambitions beyond Mosul.”