Dispatch

The Women Who Could Save Mosul

The Women Who Could Save Mosul

BAGHDAD — Farah al-Sarraj thinks one of her neighbors led the Islamic State to her door.

The jihadis came at 2:30 a.m., during the early days of their conquest of Mosul. Sarraj, a parliamentarian from the city, had returned to her home to retrieve photographs showing her with American and British officials — photos that, if found, could amount to a death sentence for her family. The Islamic State fighters asked to see her husband, an advisor in the Iraqi president’s office, and she said he was not home. As she stalled them, he scrambled onto to the roof and jumped to the adjoining houses to evade capture.

“I thought to myself, ‘Who told daesh that this is the house of an advisor [to the president’?] she said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “So I think of my neighbors, I think of all my enemies, I might even think of some of my relatives.”

Iraqi government forces have now liberated the neighborhoods in Mosul that lie on the east bank of the Tigris River. But they are inheriting a fractured city: The two-and-a-half-year Islamic State occupation of Mosul has destroyed bonds of trust among the city’s residents, deepening rifts among sects and ethnicities that could take years to heal. The city’s economy lies in tatters, much of its infrastructure is in ruins, and its children have spent the past two-and-a-half years in an education system designed to imbue them with the Islamic State’s ideology.

That’s where Farah al-Sarraj comes in. While most of Iraqi officialdom is focused on the military operation to liberate the city, or who will maintain security afterward, Sarraj and eight other female parliamentarians from Ninewa Governorate, of which Mosul is the capital, are developing plans to rebuild the city’s social fabric. They are just beginning to come to terms with how daunting the task will be.

Some of the social problems the parliamentarians have set out to tackle are specific to the occupying force responsible for creating them, the Islamic State. Thousands of children, for instance, may have been born as a result of rape by foreign jihadi fighters — they now risk growing up fatherless, as social pariahs. The legislators have developed proposals to confer Iraqi nationality on the children and ease their transition into Iraqi society.

But other initiatives would not seem out of place in any city trying to rebuild after a devastating conflict. One of the parliamentarians’ most detailed proposals is to establish a “social committee” to resolve minor crimes committed under the Islamic State’s rule in order to take pressure off the burdened legal system. For instance, the committee could hear the cases of those accused of serving as informants for the Islamic State — such as the neighbors who might have pointed the Islamic State toward Sarraj — or impose punishments on residents found guilty of looting goods from evacuees. (Capital offenses like rape and murder would still be prosecuted through the existing court system.)

The parliamentarians are drawing up a census that they hope to present to each household in Mosul that will allow them to catalog the abuses that the population suffered under the Islamic State’s rule. They hope to enlist university graduates with law degrees to knock on doors throughout the city to go through the census with respondents, and inform them about their rights to restitution. If they agree to move forward with the process, the social committee will develop a reconciliation contract to be signed by both the victim and offender.

“Those who show forgiveness will be celebrated as heroes of the city,” Sarraj said. “It’s a way to stop acts of vengeance through social rather than legal methods.”

The sectarian and ethnic composition of Sarraj’s group was intended as a rebuke to the animosities inflamed by the Islamic State. The parliamentarians include representatives of the Kurdish, Turkmen, Shiite, and Sunni Arab communities, many hailing from political blocs that are often at one another’s throats on the political scene. They started meeting in early November, said Intissar al-Jaboury, another member of the initiative, and have exchanged ideas regularly ever since.

But the parliamentarians balk at any suggestion that their work has implications for politics in the city, much less the country. In the Iraqi press, their proposals are regularly described as focused on women’s and children’s issues — typical areas of concern for female legislators.

This framing, however, may allow the legislators to transcend the bitter, zero-sum nature of Iraqi politics. The Iraqi constitution grants women 25 percent of seats in Parliament, but Sarraj said their work is often seen as apolitical and unthreatening to the power of rival blocs. While a proposal by a male parliamentarian might instinctively be seen by his rivals as a way to boost his bloc’s power, the female legislators fall outside of this political warfare.

“We decided to be only women because there are deep-rooted political problems between the men,” Sarraj said bluntly. “Therefore, we left the political sphere and focused on the social one.”

When it comes to rebuilding Iraq, do women have advantages over their male colleagues? Jaboury laughs when I ask the question, as if uncomfortable with straying from the details of public policy. Then she became serious.

“First, women are more empathetic,” she said. “People are usually more comfortable talking with women. Just as daesh used women to disintegrate society, we want to use women to unite the society.”

There is still a long road to go before the legislators’ ideas are implemented. Waleed Bayati, an aide to the governor of Ninewa province, told Foreign Policy that he supports the social committee, but that all such initiatives would eventually go through the local government. He promised that his office would release a five- to six-page report outlining a strategy for reconstruction by the end of the month.

With the military struggle for the city still ongoing, however, there is a woeful lack of information on the scope of the reconstruction challenge. Bayati would not provide any specifics on the destruction of homes or public infrastructure, the level of unemployment in the city, or the amount of money that will be needed to rebuild. 

There is no denying, however, that the task ahead is daunting. Mosul’s mayor, in an interview with an Iraqi newspaper, estimated that 100 percent of police stations, 90 percent of roads, and 60 percent of government buildings in the eastern districts of the city had been damaged. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, meanwhile, projected that as many as 3 million people in Ninewa Governorate could require humanitarian support in 2017, and that it needs over $550 million to provide emergency aid to those affected by the Mosul operation just for the first six months of the year. And given President Donald Trump’s stated desire to seize Iraq’s oil, it’s unlikely he has any appetite for U.S. investment. 

With help from the outside far from assured, it will fall to those in Mosul to rebuild their stricken city — and prevent the Islamic State from rising again. And it may just be the women who take the leading role.

“In Mosul society, and Iraq in general, if a woman gets married, she unites two families, or two tribes,” Jabouri said. “So she is the center of affection and emotion — the center that unites those who are different.”

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