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.

Related Publications

Iraq’s Protests Show the Fragility that Gave Rise to ISIS Remains

Iraq’s Protests Show the Fragility that Gave Rise to ISIS Remains

Thursday, July 19, 2018

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqis in southern provinces of the country took to the streets to demand action over the lack of basic services and jobs. The protests began in the oil-rich Basra province, where people struggle with lack of clean water and electricity—amid temperatures exceeding 120 degrees—and economic injustice, among other challenges.

Democracy & Governance; Fragility & Resilience

USIP-Commissioned Research Among Iraqi Minority Communities

USIP-Commissioned Research Among Iraqi Minority Communities

Friday, June 29, 2018

USIP has produced five studies of minorities’ perceptions on reconciliation in the Nineveh province, including, Christian, Eyzidi (Yazidi), Sabean-Mandaean, Shabak and Turkomen communities. These assessments provide insights into conflict drivers and demands of these communities and include key findings, which have been shared with international and national stakeholders including the U.S. Government and the Government of Iraq.

Religion

Iraq’s Election Leaves Iran’s Influence Intact

Iraq’s Election Leaves Iran’s Influence Intact

Thursday, May 31, 2018

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun

As Iraq shapes a government from its May 12 election, the indecisive electoral outcome again will leave Iran in a position to affect both the choice of a prime minister, and the tenor of the underlying administration. How Iran wields that influence is likely to depend on how well the European Union is able to defend the Iran nuclear accord following the United States’ withdrawal.

Democracy & Governance

Sarhang Hamasaeed on Iraq’s Elections

Sarhang Hamasaeed on Iraq’s Elections

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

By:

Following the surprise win by controversial Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon coalition in Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections, a new coalition government has yet to form. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed analyzes what led to al-Sadr’s victory, low voter turnout at the polls, the state of the political process in Iraq, and Iraqis’ expectations for meaningful reform from the next government.

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications