Iraqi women tell of Harsh Mosul rule
By Margherita Stancati | Photography by Monique Jaques
KHAZER, Iraq—To earn extra income for her family, Iman Iraqi set up a home business
doing wedding makeup for brides in the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul. She lived
to regret it.
When the extremist group’s religious police found out, they stormed her house,
confiscated her equipment and detained her and her brother. They made Ms. Iraqi sign
a pledge she wouldn’t reopen the salon, or her brother would be lashed.
“After that, I never wanted to leave my house again,” said Ms. Iraqi, who is 21. She was
trembling as she spoke last week at a camp for displaced people east of Mosul, on the
same day she escaped Iraq’s second-largest city.
Ms. Iraqi is among more than 50,000 civilians who have fled the city of over 1 million
people in the weeks since Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched an offensive last month to
retake the city.
Women who fled Islamic State rule in and around Mosul traveled by bus to a camp for
displaced people in Khazer, Iraq.
She and about two dozen other women recounted living like prisoners in their
homes for more than two years under a system that made them invisible.
Women weren't allowed to go out on their own. Most working women quit their
jobs and most students dropped out of school.
Girls as young as nine were forced to comply with a strict all-black dress code:
head-to-toe gowns, gloves and two layers of face-covering veils—one that left a
slit for the eyes, and a thinner one over that. Those who violated the code could
be fined about $40 or their male relatives could face 40 lashes or more, residents
The clothes were the most visible symbols of oppression for many women, who
are casting the garments off the moment they reach safety to declare their
“I want to take this niqab and stuff it down the throat of ISIS,” said Amina, an
elderly woman who was clutching the black face veil in her raised fist. She and
many other women interviewed asked to be identified only by first names for fear of
On a bus carrying civilians to camps for displaced people, several women described the
lives they just left behind. All had removed their face veils.
“They saw women as shameful, as something that shouldn’t be seen in public,”
said Fawziya Diab, who was traveling with her two daughters. “We have found our
A woman who recently escaped Islamic State rule in Mosul showed how to put on the
veil the militants demanded that women wear.
The revulsion with Islamic State’s rules is one indication of how civilians, women in
particular, have turned against the militants in a city that only a few years ago welcomed
“When they arrived in Mosul, they behaved well, and were nice to the people,” Azhar, a
mother of five, said at a camp near the village of Hassan Shami, where black robes and
gloves discarded by women were piled outside the gate. “It was only once they
realized they were in full control that they started imposing their harsh rules.”
Azhar’s teenage daughter was out shopping when a female member of the religious
police, or Hisbah, pulled her hair, which was in a bun protruding from under her hijab—
an unacceptable fashion statement in the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“She started reciting religious verses and told me: ‘Don’t you know that in the Islamic
State you are not allowed to seduce men?’” the daughter recalled.
Several women said they tripped and fell to the ground multiple times because of
the vision-obscuring face veil.
I want to take this niqab and stuff it down the throat of ISIS
—Amina, one of many women who fled to the Khazer camp.
Women arriving at the Khazer camp cast off the black garments that Islamic State
required women in Mosul to wear.
Death by public stoning was a common punishment for women accused of sex
outside marriage. Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters have notoriously raped
captive women they declared sex slaves.
The group detailed its rules on female enslavement in a pamphlet, a copy of which was
found in a town near Mosul that was under the extremists’ control until recently.
“It is permitted to buy her, sell her and give her away as a gift. They are just a
possession, and you can do whatever you want with them,” says the pamphlet,
which provides answers to questions such as: “Can I have sex with a slave who
hasn’t reached puberty?”
Weddings were sober affairs. There were no street celebrations, no music. In
public, brides had to wear head-to-toe black over their white wedding dresses.
“I wanted a perfect wedding,” said Howazen, 17, who got married in Mosul this year.
“But I cried all night. There was no one there, just our immediate families. Not even our
neighbors. It hurts to remember.”
At home, women were cautioned to stay away from rooftops, balconies and windows so
they wouldn't risk being seen by outsiders. Their voices should not be heard either.
“The message was that women were not wholly human—they need a male guardian for
everything,” said Rahma Mohammed, 16, who attended an Islamic State-run high
school for a month before quitting, her family horrified that students were taught to hate
Christians, Shiites and Jews.
Not everyone was equal under Islamic State’s iron-fisted rule. Two months after Ms.
Iraqi’s beauty parlor was shut down, an Islamic State fighter turned up at her house.
“They forced me to go to a house to put makeup on an ISIS bride,” she said.
The only moments of relief for Ms. Iraqi came in the evenings, when she climbed onto
her rooftop and spent hours in conversation with her neighbor and best friend.
“We would meet every night. We would fantasize about the day when Mosul will be
liberated. We would say: ‘Tomorrow is the day, tomorrow is finally the day Mosul will be
free,’” said Ms. Iraqi.
She said she dreams of becoming a pilot. She wore a pair of canvas sneakers,
knockoff Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, forbidden in the caliphate because they are
“I have been saving them for this day,” she said.