Iraq’s Female Citizens: Prisoners of War

In our western media, Middle Eastern women are often depicted as passive victims needing our rescue; indeed in 2003, the defense of women’s rights was presented as a justification for the US invasion of Iraq. The occupation, however, intensified religious extremism and resulted in massive violence against women. Jennifer Allsopp’s interview with Iraqi human rights defender Yanar Mohammed examines how war has impacted women in her country, while documenting the resistance of Iraqi women and their efforts to respond to the new threats posed by ISIS.


Jennifer Allsopp: What is the situation of women’s human rights in Iraq right now?

Yanar Mohammed: The new update of 2014-2015 is, of course, the attack of ISIS. But this is rooted in recent history. It is the direct result of all the politics that came into Iraq with the occupation. The US empowered the Shi’a Islamic political groups and marginalised a big part of the country who were recognised as Sunni people. It was only to be expected that the next step would be for the sectarian religious dynamics to surface, for one religious group to be fighting another religious group. The leading members of ISIS were either tortured in US military prisons or in the prisons of the Shi’a government which the Americans put in place. When you torture a person for long periods you might get a very passionate human rights defender but most probably you will get a beast whose only concern is to seek his revenge in the best way possible. And that’s what happened with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was in Bucca prison, being tortured by the Americans and being prepared for his next role in life, head of ISIS. Before 2003, none of us knew which part of the country was Sunni and which part was Shi’a. This was something new to Iraq and we are reaping the results at this point. Women’s wellbeing has paid the price.

As well as the crisis of ISIS we’re dealing with other fallout from the last war, like the ongoing crisis of Iraqi orphans. There are 5 million Iraqi orphans of war, and tens of thousands of them have been trafficked in the last decade. Five million orphans growing into teenagers is a very big difficulty for any society. Young women growing into situations with no parents are usually material for exploitation in the brothels. Many do not have proper identification papers. Although the law is not against giving them papers, whenever they go to any governmental establishment and ask for them they are asked to bring their father or their brother, when they don’t have anybody. They reside in the worst houses in Iraq and they are exploited on a daily basis because they do not have access to citizenship. It’s been more than 10 years since this started. The exploited female teenager’s right to citizenship is a major, major issue.

JA: Before the emergence of ISIS, were things improving at all for women in Iraq?

YM: We saw some relative peace in the previous years, relative in the sense that the capital was in control and the major cities had peace, but the religious parties always held the upper hand. They didn’t let a single year pass without surprising us. The last time was in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced their intention to introduce the Al Jaafari law, which is the Shi’a Islamist law for personal status that rules family life. This law would allow the marriage of a 9 year old girl, the humiliating treatment of women in matters of marriage and divorce, and generally to treat women like objects, not as human beings. This law is hundreds of years old and they wanted to make it a reality for us now; they want to abort hundreds of years of improvement in Iraq.

JA: How did the women’s movement respond?

YM: We demonstrated. We spoke over our radio. We have a community radio in Baghdad called Al Musawat, which means Equality radio. We spoke out very strongly. We had slogans that said “we will not allow you to rape our young daughters”. We explained to the public what the law means and we were able to gather quite some opposition against it so that the government eventually had to announce that it will not be passed “at this point”. They say it needs to be amended, but this is an excuse for them to hide the draft of the law. Eventually we were ordered to close the radio on the pretext that our “registration was not complete”. So yes, even before ISIS, the government’s attack on women’s rights and women’s status in law kept us busy.

JA: How has the women’s human rights movement in Iraq evolved in response to ISIS?

YM: When ISIS took over the Northern city of Mosul in June last year, which is the second biggest city in the country, that was a landmark for us all, that really was a landmark. We felt: the government is not the only oppressor of women, there is a new group which has emerged and which has turned gigantic, which is claiming a big part of the country. We were aware that the political situation was not secure and that our safety was not guaranteed. Many of us have our families in the parts of Iraq which ISIS has taken over. My father’s family is from the city of Telafar, which was taken by ISIS, and I have thousands of relatives who are homeless now.

And what has ISIS done to the women in the cities they have conquered? Direct enslavement, humiliation and turning women into concubines to be bought and sold. This was something nobody expected to see in Iraq. In the beginning, in 2003, there was the Iraqi resistance, which didn’t want the US occupation, then they developed Al Qaeda, but even then it was never this monstrous, this inhumane and as misogynistic as what we’re seeing now under ISIS.

We began immediately contacting the women in Mosul and in the other cities that were occupied. We set up a network of women in that city to whom we speak continuously. We try to be in touch with their difficulties and to be of use to those who face direct attacks. We also set up a coalition for ending the trafficking of Iraqi women and we came up with two recommendations. The first one was to gain legal status for our shelters for women and the second recommendation was that the Iraqi government recognise the Yazidi women’s enslavement and their status as prisoners of war who have been tortured by the enemy, and to give them benefits as such. We have had many wars with other countries and when a prisoner comes back they get many benefits: they get a house, they get a salary and we want the Iraqi government to do this for the Yazidi women so that they can have the social status that would allow a good future, a good family and a good status in society.

The women of Yazidi faith in my country have witnessed the most horrific practices, things that not many women in modern times have seen. A few months ago, I made a trip to the Kurdish part of the county, to where the women who were enslaved by ISIS had run away. I sat down with women in the Kadhiya camp and asked them about their experiences. A girl as young as 15 had been bought and sold more than ten times, from one ISIS fighter to another. She was raped by all those men. I asked her, “what was your most difficult moment during those two months that you were detained there?” She said, “it was the moments when one man would be selling me to the other and they would stand around me and look at me as a piece of meat on which they would be jumping the next day”. She told me that one of the fighters who had bought her would pray daily; after he finished prayer he would come and rape her. She told me stories that I would never expect to hear in a country where people were used to living peacefully with each other. We did have dictators, we did have times of war but it never reached the point where one person, or a group, would be attacking another group and would be enslaving all the women of that group.

JA: Are your recommendations being recognized, is the coalition having an impact?

YP: We’re still working on it. We started the coalition in its embryonic shape last September but in January and March the campaign picked up and we are beginning to see some results. The campaign has many aspects but the shelter is the most important one. At the very start of the war on Iraq our organisation made it known that we intended to start a shelter for women at risk, but the government did not allow us to do that; they said it was illegal. But from that time until now, with the support of our sisters in the international community and with the support of some actors like the Dutch government and the EU, we have been able to do it anyway. We’ve set up three women’s shelters in Baghdad and two in Karbala for the refugee women who are escaping ISIS, in addition to one LGBT shelter in Baghdad. So although they try to illegalise our sheltering activity, in practice we’ve persevered and we’ve been able to multiply them. This is crucial. It means that, at this moment, when a woman feels threatened by honour killing, by domestic abuse and political oppression, they are knocking on our doors and they know there is the network that will protect them and be there for them.

We see different kinds of things. Two months ago a woman came to me, her name is Zainab. She was in charge of a meeting hall in Baghdad and she’s extremely good looking. She was accused of being corrupt and of taking bribes by some officials who wanted to have sex with her. So they put her in prison, they made her go through very humiliating treatment, and when she left prison she felt she was threatened. She came and knocked on our doors and asked if we could protect her. So she is staying with us in one of our shelters and her daughter comes to visit her from time to time.

JA: And what’s the next step for you? What would you like to see happen in the next year?

YM: In the next year I would like to see a law legalizing women’s shelters in Iraq. I would like to see our radio being opened again as a result of the pressure that we’re putting on the governmental body that could allow this. I would like to see the Iraqi government guarantee social insurance for the Yazidi women who were enslaved and to recognize their status as prisoners of war.


Jennifer Allsopp is a regular contributor and commissioning editor at openDemocracy 50.50. She has worked on a number of research projects at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Oxford on asylum, youth migration, gender and poverty. She has also worked with a range of refugee and migrant organisations. She is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Yanar Mohammed graduated from Baghdad University in 1984 and received a Master’s degree in Architecture in 1993. Her family came to Canada in 1993, but she returned to Iraq after the US occupation to work on women’s rights. She is co-founder and director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq whose work includes advocating against honour killings and child marriages, and has received several prestigious awards for her work.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, reconciliation and peacebuilding. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at . All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.

, , ,

11 Responses to Iraq’s Female Citizens: Prisoners of War

  1. Angelo November 25, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

    I think that that Middle-Eastern women are presented as victims in western media is a reality. The fact that torture and violence will only result in more violence was well shown through the story of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I was completely stunned by the sheer number of Iraqi orphans: 5 millions is an insane number. I was not surprised, however, to hear that women and girl’s wellbeing has paid an enormous price. I was saddened to here that the old ways of treating women in the laws could be implanted again. I was glad to read that the women’s movement was able to prevent the government from establishing the Al Jaafari law. This shows how by standing up for what is right people can make a difference. What ISIS has done to women; direct enslavement, humiliation and turning them into concubines to be bought and sold horrified me. I couldn’t bear reading about the young girl who had been sold and bought over 15 times! The article made me aware and angry about what is going there.

  2. Coral Rajchgot November 30, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    This article brings to light the harrowing but important issue of the net result of the Iraq War being the opposite of its intended effects, particularly where Iraqi women are concerned. While one of the projected justifications of the 2003 occupation of Iraq was the liberation of the supposedly oppressed women, the Shi’a government instituted by the US military is responsible for even more oppressive laws for women that strip them of their agency and citizenship. What is worse is that the torture of Suni Muslims helped to create ISIS, a paramilitary anti-government force that additionally treats women as objects, leaving the country with two powerful groups that seek to hurt and oppress women. I was unsurprised by the amount of female war orphans who are affected by the fallout of the war and the patriarchal requirements to regain citizenship. However, I was very shocked that feminist groups in Iraq have managed to create women’s and LGBT shelters despite the illegal nature of these institutions under both government and ISIS regimes. This risk is extremely brave given the dire circumstances for women and LGBT people described in the interview, and if the West absolutely must once again intervene, the focus should certainly be at least partly dedicated to the funding and protection of these shelters.

  3. Yolanda Gualdieri December 2, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

    The women living the Middle East have always been perceived as victims by the rest of the world. They have been tortured and beat for a long time. But, don’t the abusers realize by abusing and hurting people will only result in more violence and war. It will never end. This was proven in Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi story. I was mad about how that the laws of treating women extremely poorly aren’t in-forced and that there is over 5 million orphans in Iraq because of the war, this is extremely sad. I was very happy that I read that the Al Jaafari Law did not go through. This shows that when women stand up together for a good cause they can do something to help the future women and young girls. I always knew that ISIS treated women horribly but after reading this I was extremely saddened and disgusted by there behaviors, by rapping, abusing and using women for slavery. Overall this article made me very aware about the events that are happening.

  4. Gabrielle Messier December 4, 2015 at 10:31 am #

    I was shocked by the negligence of the Iraqi government concerning the laws about women. ISIS men are disgusting and violent, this makes me feel very bad about the condition of these poor women who can’t do anything to defend themselves. Hopefully, a women movement prevented the establishment of the Al Jaafari law, which is a great thing. It’s a good thing that women are able to put themselves together and defend their rights as civilians and gain some benefits from it.

  5. Lorane Nercessian December 9, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    The fact that this is happening in the world and not many people know about it makes me very sad. Woman are being used as a weapon of war and it has to stop. Were in the twenty first century i can’t believe governments like this still exist. We have fought for women’s equality and gained most rights 70 years ago in Canada, but here are women still fighting for those rights in their own country. I knew ISIS was pretty bad but i never knew what was happening to the women. Reading the part where the little girl who was only 15 and had been sold and bought for more than 10 times and had been raped by each of the buyer, broke my heart. I can’t help but to put myself in her shoes, how horrible it must feel to live a life that way. This article has made me more aware about what’s happening in the world. These stories have to be heard, i’m glad i took the time to read.

  6. Romina Filippelli December 9, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    Women in these parts of the worlds are always perceived as victims. Instead, they are very strong. This is demonstrated through their work on women’s rights and women’s status even before ISIS. This article made an interesting connection between the takeover of Islamic State and the women’s rights movement in Iraq. Overall, I find it very important for women to speak out when peace is threatened, especially in the case of ISIS.

  7. Frederique Rondeau Sweeney December 10, 2015 at 12:34 am #

    I find it interesting that women in Middle Eastern countries are constantly labelled as the defenseless, oppressed victims of violent extremist groups. Although it is true that they are mistreated by those groups, we fail to recognize the actions and movements they have created to fight against those groups. Reading this article, I was surprised by the high numbers of orphans and girls that were forced into human trafficking. Furthermore, I also find it interesting that the solutions women have come up with are what work the best but are simultaneously ignored by the other countries that try to help.

  8. Simona Santorelli December 10, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

    Middle East women have been abused violently and so the women are seen as victims. The consequence of mistreating women results in the continuation of war and an increase in violent actions. Statistics show that there are over 5 million orphans in Iraq which is due to laws concerning women’s violent abuse not being re-inforced. A women’s voice can be heard which prevented the formation of the Al Jaafari law. This article points out some positive and negative points on the women in Iraq. What really caught my attention is how women in Iraq were treated; abused violently. ISIS disgusts me in ways I cannot express.

  9. Kassandra Napolitano December 12, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    It is interesting to see how abuse was proven – with the Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi story – to result in more violence and war. With this being said, the laws about abuse toward women are not enforced in almost all cases and this results in a mass number of orphans due to war. I was pleased to hear that a movement started by women had stopped the Al Jaafari Law to be established. It shows that women do have some amount of power and are trying to better the future for their daughters, granddaughters and all young women.

  10. Darie P December 15, 2015 at 1:01 am #

    After reading this, I realized how badly Iraqi women are treated by their own government. Having their whole society against them, I admire the women who decided to stand up against the oppression. These are courageous women who will definitely change their situation in Iraq. From my point of view, I feel like the media has portrayed Iraqi women as helpless, oppressed women but the fact is (and this article proves it) that they aren’t helpless. They stand up against injustice and the disgusting laws the government wanted to pass. They will not stand by while the younger girls grow up in an oppressive society and seem to do their best to change their situation.

  11. Nicolas Laporte February 27, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    This article paints a bleak picture of the situation of women in Iraq. The origin of ISIS can be traced back to the American occupation of Iraq, and the preferential treatment given to the Shi’a Muslims. This planted the seed for the religious conflicts that ravage the country today that are particularly devastating to the local women. Indeed, young orphan women cannot gain access to citizenship, and many are forced into selling themselves to survive. In regions controlled by ISIS, girls as young as fifteen have been “[turned] into concubines to be bought and sold.” Nevertheless, the women of Iraq persevere, setting up shelter camps for refugee women or LGBT individuals. In response, the government of Iraq has made these shelters illegal. Sadly, there seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel for the women of Iraq.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes