Invasion, occupation and Islamic State: How four Iraqi women's lives have changed in 15 years

Invasion, occupation and Islamic State: How four Iraqi women's lives have changed in 15 years
6 min read
26 April, 2018
Feature: Marta Bellingreri speaks to the documentary makers of 'Women out of Darkness,' telling the story of four women by intertwining their lives in Iraq at different times and stages.
At the safe space for mental health and psychosocial support in Mosul [Arianna Pagani]
Hero, Amena, Raja, Zaynab: Four women, four languages, four communities, four professions. Four wonderful courageous stories in four different cities in one country: war-torn Iraq. 

At the heart of the web documentary Women out of Darkness - the trailer for which you can watch at the end of this feature - are the stories of these four women told by journalist Sara Manisera and photojournalist Arianna Pagani.

They perfectly intertwine these women's voices and lives in Iraq at different times and stages, from memories of Armenians' genocide, when the displaced found refuge in Iraq, to the recent occupation of the Islamic State group, where millions of Iraqis once again became refugees and displaced in their own country.

The webdoc released on March 20, a significant date that marked the 15th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq

"We chose stories where women are first of all the protagonists of their fate and not just mere victims," Sara Manisera told The New Arab.

"We want to give a voice to different communities, even if they are not featured in the documentary, from Sunnis to Shias, to Christians and Kurds. We want to send the message that not only one community is suffering," Sara adds, noting the suffering of the Yazidi community, as well as the Mazdean, Turkmen and Shabak communities.

We chose stories where women are first of all the protagonists of their fate and not just mere victims

Sara and Arianna, both contributors to The New Arab, first worked together in 2015 in Bosnia, 20 years after the end of the conflict there.

"Even there we wanted to talk to and about women who wanted to cooperate and interact with people of different religions and communities after the war. We again wanted to focus on women out of the darkness of four different communities in the Balcans," Arianna Pagani told The New Arab.

The journalist and the photographer, both from Italy, travelled together to Iraq in 2016 to cover the long battle for Mosul between the end of 2016 and 2017.

Iraqi forces launched their campaign to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State group in October 2016. It was declared liberated in July 2017, after eight months of fierce fighting by Iraqi forces and a US-led coalition to oust the militants from their final stronghold in the country. 

The defeat was considered the biggest yet for the Islamic State group three years since it seized Mosul in a lightning offensive across much of the country's Sunni Arab heartland and proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria.

Read more: The Islamic State group is not finished - yet

The two journalists chose the format of a webdoc to allow readers and viewers to deepen their knowledge about Iraq.

"Through videos, photos, texts, graphic maps and timelines, we encouraged readers to take their time and reflect on what they were reading. We wanted them to go back to stories and be able to learn more about what they were seeing," Sara said.

"We also think this format is the future of journalism," she added. 

Shorja market, the biggest open souq in Baghdad [Arianna Pagani]

The voices 

Sara and Arianna first met Raja in December 2017 at a civil society conference in the capital Baghdad.

The 42-year-old lawyer works for the Sharazade centre, listening to female victims of domestic violence and trying to empower women by informing them about their rights.

Raja herself defied the norms of society and her family by divorcing her husband and instead choosing to dedicate her life to her daughter and her work as a lawyer. Together with the other women featured in the documentary, she is very active in Iraq's civil society, showing how wars, dictatorship, invasion and brutality has not prevented the people of Iraq from working together for a better common future.

The women also spoke about living in constant vicinity of death due to the frequent explosions in Baghdad and in all Iraq.

"A glass of water saved my life," Raja says. "I went back inside my home to get a drink when an explosion took place. If I had not gone back inside, it would have killed me." 

Sara and Arianna created a crowdfunding campaign to help them pay for their documentary expenses, including travel. Italian NGO Un Ponte Per [A Bridge To, or UPP] supported them in the development of their website and their travel to Mosul to meet Zaynab.

UPP co-operated with the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA] to implement a project in October 2017 in Mosul guaranteeing mental health and psychosocial support to women and girls who suffered gender based violence during the three years of the Islamic State group's occupation. It also aimed to support displaced women who have recently returned home to Mosul after the end of the battle.

"In the first six months of the project, we were able to reach 2,500 women with the help of the local staff, including a psychologist and psychiatry," said Luigi Giorgi, project manager for UPP. "We will continue to enforce this." 

Zaynab is part of the UPP team and welcomes the everyday "safe space" created by the organisation. An informatic engineer graduate from the University of Mosul, Zaynab has survived three years under Islamic State rule, spending weeks in an underground refuge with her family during intense battles as the city was being devastated by coalition airstrikes.

In the video documentary, she speaks in English, as she voices her enthusiasm for the future reconstruction of Iraq.

At the UPP and UNFPA safe space for mental health and psychosocial support in Mosul [Arianna Pagani]

"In Women out of Darkness, we travelled through different generations in Iraq," explains Sara, "From Amena in Qaraqosh, speaking Syriac, to engineer Zaynab, speaking in English."

Amena is the daughter of an Armenian who escaped the genocide at the beginning of last century and found refuge in Qaraqosh, an Assyrian city in northern Iraq within the Nineveh Governorate.

Amena lost her husband in the eight yearlong Iran-Iraq war, but said her grief ended when Saddam Hussein died. She then experienced her first displacement in old age when Islamic State group members invaded the city during the night of August 6, 2014.

"Amena is part of the older generation and part of the Assyrian Christian ethnic minority. She decided to go back home to Qaraqosh after three years of displacement in Erbil, even though her sons are no longer there with her," explained Miriam Hayyate, another UPP project manager who has been working in Iraq since 2016.

The documentary also takes viewers to Iraqi Kurdistan. Thirty years ago Saddam Hussein’s war planes and artillery pounded the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq with mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin, killing thousands of people.  

Both Sara and Arianna visited Sinjar, in the north, where thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped and enslaved by the Islamic State group in 2014.

"The media talks a lot about female Kurdish fighters. We also met them and told some of their stories," Arianna said. "But for our webdoc we met and interviewed Hero, a woman from Halabja who before being Kurdish and representing Kurdish autonomy or their cause, represents the will of dialogue, desire of peace and coexistence of different communities," in Iraq. 

Even if tragic events like war, dictatorship and massacres have destroyed their lives at different times, for Raja, Zeynab, Amena and Hero there is only one country: Iraq.  

These four voices are bringing hope for the future. They believe that by re-building the mosaic of communities in Iraq together, such darkness will never overcome them again.

Women out of Darkness: Trailer on Vimeo

Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer, with a PhD focused on gender studies in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne