The liberation of Mosul and the Islamic State’s rollback in the rest of Iraq means urgent questions about the nation’s future are quickly rising to the surface. Among the pressing concerns that had been subordinated to the military fight is the prospects for women in a post-ISIS nation. Commendably, these issues were included on the agenda of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS during its meetings in Washington this week.

Girls wait to head to their classrooms at a school in Sadr City, the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006. Six million students nationwide returned to school on Wednesday morning after three months of summer vacations, according to Iraqi ministry of education.
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Shawn Baldwin

The key question is whether women will be able to—or be allowed to—play their rightful role to help construct a sustainable peace? A measure of help from the international community may tip the balance.

The war against ISIS, which ravaged Iraq’s towns and cities throughout the Sunni heartland and caused harm far beyond, exploded traditional social structures, especially for women, with unpredictable results. The effects run on two tracks—violence and political action.  

Women have been empowered in unprecedented ways as combatants against ISIS, from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militias in Syria. At some stages of the fight, some Sunni women in areas like Anbar fought to defend their families. And 3,000 women reportedly have joined the Popular Mobilization Forces, in non-combat roles, fielded by Iraqi Shia leaders.

Women from the Yazidi minority group also volunteered as combatants, after the Islamic State’s horrific abuse of females, including the sexual enslavement of 3,500 Yazidi women and girls .

At the same time, ISIS enticed women to join its ranks with promises of power and influence that they, too, had never experienced before. Women served in the morality police, enforcing the extremists’ ideology, including physically abusing other women. They worked as recruiters of foreign fighters and became suicide bombers.

Yet overwhelmingly, women have played a growing constructive role in building Iraqi civil society, even during the ISIS years. In April 2014, at the urging of women’s organizations, Iraq became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to approve a national action plan to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. The resolution calls for countries to protect women and girls in conflict and involve women in peace and security decision-making.

After ISIS’s rampage across Iraq began two months later, an alliance of 33 civil society groups, supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace and other organizations, led in developing an emergency action plan for implementing the U.N. resolution, especially supporting displaced women and minorities. But implementation has been limited.

The violence and dislocation spurred by ISIS also forced male leaders to rethink deeply held cultural assumptions. Tribal heads from the town of Hawija, for example, recently agreed that once ISIS is driven out, women and girls will not be used as compensation to settle disputes stemming from the extremists’ occupation. The unprecedented step took place in USIP-supported negotiations among 114 sheikhs seeking new ideas for establishing peace, security and stability.

Yet threats to the advancement of women remain. It is critical that the U.S., the U.K., Canada, the Netherlands, the United Nations and other international organizations sustain support for initiatives such as the national action plan, as Iraqi women find their way in the new landscape shaped by the war against ISIS.

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