QAYYARAH, Iraq ― For over two years, heavily armed men from the so-called Islamic State dictated nearly every aspect of life for women in this northern Iraqi town.
Women were forced to hide themselves from the world: Their bodies, cloaked in billowing black fabric. Their hands, encased in gloves. Their eyes, lowered, or hidden entirely under a black face veil. Their voices, muted.
School was out of the question for girls. And no woman was to leave the house without a male guardian.
That all changed just over a month ago, when Iraqi forces successfully drove the extremist fighters out of Qayyarah.
“We had no freedom,” recalled Umm Tarek, an outspoken middle-aged mother of 10, as she stood outside a small, bustling medical center. “We didn’t want ISIS, but what could we do?”
The hardliners are still nearby, just one town over ― but the men, and perhaps most dramatically, women, here are reclaiming their lives just the same.
At least some of these women now seem to speak freely and from the heart about their lives under ISIS. When interacting with a reporter inside the town’s medical center, one group of women loudly shared a flurry of damning testimony, erupting into laughter at the commotion they caused. There was no holding back.
“ISIS brought us back to the olden days,” said Hind, a 22-year-old nurse wearing a bright pink headscarf. “Now, you’ll find a generation without education.”
Her energy filled up a tiny room packed with female nurses, patients and an Iraqi official who kept urging The WorldPost to leave, later citing security reasons. The women ignored him and only talked louder and over one another, eager to tell their stories.
Some schools here ― previously replaced by so-called Islamic educational courses, which were filled with violent ISIS propaganda ― will soon be reopened, at least the ones that weren’t destroyed in airstrikes. That can’t come soon enough.
But the schools still need books, salaries for teachers and backing from organizations who can help them rebuild their curriculum, says Hussain Ali Hachim, the mayor of Mosul, the district in which Qayyarah is located. Some youngsters who haven’t been to school in over two years almost inevitably don’t know how to read or write, let alone do math or science.
One shy 6-year-old girl beamed when asked what she loved most about school. “Studying!” she answered, her unabashed joy shining bright even as thick black smoke clogged the air around her. Oil wells lit ablaze by ISIS in their retreat still burn ferociously, months later.
But this smoke ― an ever-present reminder of ISIS’s scorched earth tactics ― doesn’t keep young boys and girls from walking the streets, hand in hand, giggling and goofing off. For years, children were cooped up inside while others trained to be child soldiers. Not anymore.
Their mothers, too, are celebrating newfound freedom. Getting dressed in the morning is no longer a dreaded act. It’s a chance to express themselves, to take back control of their own bodies.
“If Daesh saw my eyes, they would force my family to pay 100,000 Iraqi dinar,” boomed Hind, using the local name for ISIS. The amount is equal to about $86. Hind went on to say the militants fired her as a nurse after she challenged them. “How could I work with my eyes covered? We cannot see!”
Inside the town’s health center, none of the women interviewed by The WorldPost donned the stereotypical garb seen in ISIS-controlled areas. Instead, there were leopard-print headscarves, bedazzled dresses and white lab coats worn by confident medical professionals tending to those in need.
Under ISIS, women were often forced to give birth at home, according to locals, for lack of ISIS-approved female nurses to tend to them. Male doctors were not allowed to treat women, no matter the severity of their condition.
In camps for internally displaced people, too, women who fled places like Qayyarah and neighboring towns rejoice in wearing colors again. Reds, oranges, yellows, greens ― all banned under ISIS for being too provocative.
“If they saw those colors, they might kill you,” said Marwa, magenta and blue-colored bejeweled bracelets jingling on her wrists. She would have been in tenth grade if ISIS hadn’t forced her out of school.
Gone are the days when wearing the wrong outfit could mean a hefty fine ― impossible to pay for many cash-strapped families ― or worse. Jail time and lashings are commonplace in ISIS-held territory for transgressions as minor as smoking cigarettes, watching television, playing soccer or ― for men ― sporting a close-shaven face instead of a beard.
For crimes ISIS deemed most egregious, grisly executions are filmed and edited into widely disseminated propaganda videos.
The hardline fighters turned one Qayyarah home into a prison, its second story transformed into a nightmarish space filled with cramped, filthy, windowless cells. Taped onto one cell door was a list of names ― the unfortunate souls previously locked inside.
Another woman, Amal, shook her head angrily, recalling the group’s twisted, violent version of Islam that emboldened ISIS to enforce a strict lifestyle largely foreign to this town’s mainly Sunni Muslim residents.
“It’s not right,” she said. “This is not in Islam.”
While local women say life was hellish under ISIS, it was the Yazidi women and girls who suffered the unimaginable. Fighters kept members of the religious minority, whom they deem heretical, as sex slaves in Qayyarah, as they do across other parts of Iraq and Syria.
The militant group overran Mount Sinjar in August 2014, massacring thousands and taking thousands more hostage as slaves, child soldiers and human shields.
Hind says she recalls seeing a pregnant Yazidi woman bleeding badly between her legs. She managed to help her get medical attention, at least temporarily saving her life. But Hind never saw her again.
She was likely among the other Yazidi women dragged off by ISIS when the group retreated. As far as the locals can tell, no Yazidis were left behind. They’re far too valuable, sometimes earning thousands of dollars each when sold off to other men, or released back to their families for steep ransom payments.
Control of Qayyarah was tight ― the extremists fearing losing citizens of its “caliphate.” Yet some Qayyarah residents who were bold, desperate or wealthy enough paid smugglers $200-500 per person to escape and made their way to already-packed refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.
More than 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced since ISIS took control of large swaths of Iraq in 2014. Experts believe that number will likely swell, potentially driving at least another 1.5 million men, women and children to flee once the U.S.-backed battle for Mosul begins. That massively coordinated, complicated and likely messy operation,― complete with Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militias and other groups taking part ― could begin as soon as this month.
The World Food Programme distributed a month’s worth of emergency food aid in early September to some 30,000 people in the Qayyarah area, who, according to WFP Country Director Sally Haydock, were suffering “extreme hunger with scarce access to food supplies.” It was the first time aid groups could reach civilians there since June 2014.
ISIS gained momentum in 2014 largely due to Sunni grievances against then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, slammed as authoritarian and brutally sectarian by many Sunnis.
But that support waned as the months dragged on and the group’s brutality outweighed hope that ISIS could offer locals a better future.
Tensions are still high Qayyarah, where Iraqi security forces are rounding up those who they say are suspected ISIS supporters.
Security forces recently detained 65 Qayyarah residents, including several women and young boys, on suspicion of supporting ISIS, according to one Iraqi official who asked not to be named. Human rights groups have raised the alarm over Iraqi forces detaining and reportedly killing Sunni Arab locals and barring others from returning home.
Much of the town remains damaged or looted, and residents still cannot easily leave in search of supplies. Some neighboring villages are entirely abandoned, with front doors left eerily ajar. ISIS-dug trenches and burnt out cars line the road leading into Qayyarah, where, up until recently, improvised explosive devices dotted the earth.
But the dire situation doesn’t stop Umm Tarek from embracing her newfound sense of agency.
“Now, we are free,” she said, grinning widely. And with that, she lifted her arms to show off her dress, the colorful beads twinkling in the afternoon light.
Kamiran Sadoun contributed reporting from Qayyarah.