Throwing Off the Veil of ISIS

Discarded abayas lay on the ground around the military trucks used to evacuate families from west Mosul

As we drove into west Mosul yesterday, we saw thousands of people being evacuated—packed into the backs of government trucks, fleeing their homes and the fighting that has swallowed their city. We stopped at one of the sites where they were letting people off the trucks, finally far enough from the fighting to safely unload, and one of the most striking things was the response of the women.

They were tearing off the heavy black veils that ISIS had forced them to wear for the last three years and throwing them on the ground.

There were black niqabs littered around the back of the truck, abandoned by their owners as soon as their feet hit the ground and they knew that they were finally safe.

These women were physically shedding their oppression at the very first chance they got.

When ISIS took control of Mosul nearly three years ago, one of their oppressive priorities was the erasure of women. The primary way they achieved this was by imposing a hyper-restrictive dress code on women.

At first, it was only an abaya (a long, shapeless cloak) and a niqab (a veil that covers the face below the eyes), both of which were required to be black. But as time wore on, the dress code became more restrictive, and in many parts of the city, enforcement became more and more unreasonable.

Women were not allowed to show any skin or any part of their body, including their hands or feet. In addition to their hijab and their niqab, they were required to wear a third black veil—one that covered their eyes, making it difficult to see. They were forced to wear long gloves so their wrists wouldn’t be exposed when they moved, and tall socks to prevent their ankles from showing when they walked.

And all of it was required to be black.

ISIS’s Morality Police were so unyielding in their enforcement—writing expensive tickets and sentencing women to brutal lashings for lifting her veil to take a bite of food in public, or for having a hole in her sock that revealed a bit of skin on her ankle—that women were too scared to leave their homes. Terrified of their own bodies because every single part of them was illegal.

When they did go out—always accompanied by a male guardian—women were not allowed to be themselves. They were not allowed to be women, or even individuals. They were just identical shrouds of black fabric.

Essentially, it became illegal to be female in any meaningful way that didn’t serve the men in power.

It wasn’t about modesty, and it’s not about women who freely choose to wear any of these garments on their own. It’s the fact that women were forced to wear those things under threat of punishment. Women should get to choose what they wear, where they go, and with whom. Under ISIS, women had no choices, and their dress code became a symbol of that oppression.

Fortunately, for the women we saw today, the fear didn’t stick. At the first taste of freedom, they threw off the veil of ISIS and reemerged as the beautifully strong and resilient people that they are.

They played by ISIS’s rules as long as they needed to, in order to protect themselves and their families. But they will not be kept down.

They will not be defined by ISIS’s oppression. They will continue to live up to the definition of strength written by their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

By throwing their abayas on the ground, these women were casting off the symbol of their oppression and claiming their freedom as individuals with a life to live and a future to build—however they want, wearing whatever they please.

Stand with women who have escaped ISIS oppression.