48-year-old Ibtisam Muhammad Sa’eed al-Hayu lived in a society in which the most a girl can aspire to is finishing 12th grade. But she was among the few who shattered the stereotype of Turkmen women in the Tal Afar district of Nineveh province.
She has overcome all the hurdles and completed her university studies, gained a Master’s degree, and is now in the process of preparing a doctoral thesis in educational psychology.
She was motivated by a moral and patriotic responsibility and took the initiative to establish a civil society organization as ISIS took control of Tal Afar and forced the displacement of its people to other cities, and then began the travel abroad to participate in international conferences.
Ibtisam told KirkukNow: “I strive to put my expertise and education in the service of society, especially in areas related to the rights of women. I got the opportunity to participate in the Arab women’s community leaders’ course, in which I represented Iraq and received the title ‘Nineveh Women’s Champion’ from the American Department of State in support of my humanitarian activities.”
I strive to put my expertise and education in the service of society, especially in areas related to the rights of women
“My motivation through my initiatives is to promote the role of Turkmen women in Tal Afar, as they are extremely marginalised and are deprived of assuming administrative positions. There is no female director of a department in the entire district. Although women’s involvement in working with some international and local organizations recently is a positive and remarkable step.”
“In recent years we begin to see Tal Afari women in positions that she was not accustomed to, and that is, of course, a positive thing and we seek to promote it."
Ibtisam is currently working as a representative of the Turkmen minority in the Committee for Investigating ISIS Crimes, and seeks to reach 460 women and girls who were kidnapped from her town.
The exceptional security conditions in Tal Afar district in the past two decades, along with social customs and traditions, have limited the role of women and the extent of their activities.
Although civil society organizations that defend women’s rights have been established in the district lately, women have not yet been able to explicitly claim their rights due to social concerns and constructs that compel women to stay home and prevent them from continuing their studies in most cases.
Najla’ al-Musawi, the first Turkmen woman to ascend the poetry platform in Tal Afar
33-year-old Najla’ al-Musawi can be considered the first Tal Afari female poet to recite her poetry to an audience face to face. She has published several poetry collections.
This period is the appropriate period and a good opportunity for the Tal Afari woman to broaden their horizon
Al-Musawi told KirkukNow: “Yes, it was a wonderful feeling, and that was the archway of success for me. And I do not forget my brother when he encouraged me from behind the curtain, and told me, ‘this is a bridge for you; your either fail or succeed, but I am certain of your success.’ And the response from the audience was strong and encouraging, as they expressed great admiration and encouragement at the time."
“This period is the appropriate period and a good opportunity for the Tal Afari woman to broaden their horizon and play an active role, especially after the exposure of our conservative society to other societies during displacement. As for the mechanism of this advancement, it lies in the determination that emanates from the woman themselves, and the support of organizations has a great role in that."
Another woman drives her in the centre of Tal Afar
It was not a common for a woman to drive her car in the centre of Tal Afar two years ago, but um-Haider started to break that restriction, and two other women followed suit, as they drove their cars to and from their workplaces, and were able to change the view of many in the matter, while others say they are willing to consider doing the same when they afford buying a car.
50-year-old um-Haider recalls the first days she started driving in Tal Afar, as she tells KirkukNow with a smile on her face: “All eyes were on me from the moment I started driving until my return. Everyone was surprised, but some were so angry to the point they had to utter words or make gestures indicating ridicule and objection. However, I was obliged to endure for a while, but now it seems almost usual for me and for them.”
All eyes were on me from the moment I started driving until my return
In September this year, a committee named ‘Committee for Empowerment of Women in Tal Afar’ was formed. It is an organ of the Nineveh province local government and undertakes work to advance the role of women in various areas of life, but it lacks funding, and is based on voluntary work.
The Centre for Female Creativity in Tal Afar was also established with funding from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It is meant for supporting female talents, meeting their psychological and social needs, and enhancing their participation in cultural and humanitarian activities.
Women in Tal Afar now have a presence in civil and political work
Turkmen women in Tal Afar have played a role in restoring life to their disaster-stricken town after its liberation from ISIS, as dozens of them participated in volunteer campaigns to clean up the district, plant trees, remove slogans of hatred and violence, and paint schools and public places.
Four women from Tal Afar have entered Parliament in successive electoral rounds: Iman Muhammad Yunis al-Salman, Nahla Hussein al-Habbabi, Sajida Muhammad Yunis al-Afandi, and Layal Muhammad Ali al-Bayati.
According to official estimates by the Central Bureau of Statistics at the Federal Ministry of Planning from 2018, of the 511,004 population of Tal Afar, 250,236 were female.
Tal Afar is located in north wester Iraq, about 70 km west of Mosul, and is inhabited by a majority of Turkmen. It fell under the control of ISIS in 2014, and the security forces took it back in August 2017.