WMC Women Under Siege

Councilwoman urges ‘no fear’ for girls in post-IS Fallujah

Fallujah, Iraq—Little girls returning to school in Fallujah “have nothing to fear,” said Nahla al-Rawi as a few security officers dusted off a chair for her in the partially rehabilitated main hospital. Al-Rawi, 48, is a member of the Anbar provincial council, which is tasked with inspecting and overseeing public facilities such as schools and hospitals.

Children at a school in Fallujah that reopened this month, almost five months after the city was retaken from the Islamic State. (Shelly Kittleson)

Blackened walls, bullet holes, and blown-out windows mark the hospital corridors where I spoke to Al-Rawi on November 9 about her province, the security situation, and the condition of women after years under Islamic State rule.

Rubble from the fighting to free the city of just under 300,000 inhabitants from IS in June has been cleared from central streets, but many half-crumpled buildings lie in ruins alongside them and a lack of electricity and water keeps many displaced inhabitants from returning. The group took control of the city in January 2014, some six months before they took Mosul. During the fight to free the city from IS control, at least 1,800 militants were killed, according to CNN, and more than 350 girls who had been abducted by IS freed. In recent days, however, violence has yet again shaken the city, with two car bombings killing dozens, according to news reports.

Originally from Al-Qaim, farther west along the Syrian border and still under IS control, Al-Rawi said that with the defeat of IS, she feels that all other problems in her country for women and girls can be overcome. “The only major problem women have in Iraq is the Islamic State,” she said.

Some Iraqi activists, however, say that other armed groups, including the Iraqi military, also pose a major threat to women. For years there have been signs of growing fundamentalism in laws proposed, if not passed. For instance, in a March 2014 report, Human Rights Watch pointed to a draft law that would legalize child marriage and “severely affect women’s rights in matters of divorce and child custody” as well as permit marital rape. One article of the draft, according to HRW, “would allow a woman to divorce her husband only if he were impotent or his penis had been amputated, whereas a man could divorce his wife for six reasons, two linked to her having a skin rash.” The draft law never made it entirely through parliament.

Several individuals I have spoken to in Iraq say that tribal traditions are one of the most significant obstacles to the recognition of women’s rights, and that forced marriages and other human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated in some places in the name of “tribal custom.” Anbar province continues to be significantly influenced by tribal ties and traditions. But this is something that girls and women can overcome, Al-Rawi implied.

Two female members (Nahla Al-Rawi, right, and Amera Al-Dulaime, left) of the Anbar provincial council are escorted by security forces during a November 9 visit to recently reopened schools and the main city hospital in Fallujah. (Shelly Kittleson)

In a positive development, Fallujah Mayor Issa Saer al-Assawi said that about 30 schools had reopened in the city this month. Still, Al-Rawi and other members of a delegation visited some of these schools in mid-November and found a dire need for books and other supplies. Reliable water and electricity was also lacking.

As a former teacher who never married and who entered politics some eight years ago, Al-Rawi said that she had been able to study and work unhindered, and that for Iraqi society to move forward, the most important thing is that these little girls be given similar opportunities. There is work to do, clearly, as the city slowly recovers and endures occasional violence still. But most of all, she emphasized, the girls of Fallujah, and the whole of Iraq, must not be afraid.

More articles by Category: Girls, International, Violence against women
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