MOSUL, IRAQ - “At first, I didn’t want to take off the veil at the checkpoint,” said Dhoa, 32, cuddling her infant daughter to her chest. “But then after soldiers told me to remove it a few times, I thought: Why bother wearing it at all?”
Since Iraqi forces recaptured this part of Mosul in November, the military has encouraged women not to wear veils that cover their faces because Islamic State militants are hiding among them dressed as women.
Less than two weeks ago, the ban became official, and soldiers spread the word on the streets that burqas are no longer allowed.
IS militants in women’s veils, wearing suicide vests and moving among refugees fleeing the city, have been caught approaching Iraqi forces.The Iraqi forces also are searching for militants who have stopped fighting and are lying in wait as “sleeper cells.”
“They wear women’s clothes outside and when people figure out they are men in hiding, they move to a different neighborhood,” said Hassan Bashar Abbass, a fighter in the Iraqi forces’ SWAT unit.
“Just a few weeks ago we arrested two militants in veils over there,” he added, pointing across the street.
Many locals support the ban, saying it is a welcome safety precaution as suicide bombers continue to target eastern Mosul and IS militants flee Iraqi forces in western Mosul. When asked about the measure by VOA, most respond, “It’s better.”
But some, like Dhoa, are more cautious, saying they abandoned their veils in support of Iraqi forces, which currently have strong positive relations with the Mosul population. If things go back to the way they were before IS, though, when the military and the population lived in deep distrust, some say dress codes dictating how they honor their faith will be as unwelcome as IS draconian rules.
“It’s a personal private freedom to wear or to not wear a veil,” said Dhoa. “This interferes with that choice a little bit. But we also want to be safe. So it’s good and bad.”
One of Dhoa’s sisters-in-law, Farah, 26, cast off her burqa before the ban became formal, having worn it only to avoid punishment from IS. Like many Mosul residents, she now dislikes face veils because the militants liked them.
“When we were liberated, the Iraqi army told us to take off the burqas. At first it was strange and some husbands didn’t approve,” she said.
“But women encouraged each other in the first two months,” added her sister, Zainab, 40. “We would say, ‘Why are you still wearing this?’ ”
The women say that as IS militants retreated, they scrawled on city walls “We will be back” in Arabic. But their ongoing long and slow defeat in Mosul has boosted the confidence of residents, and habits banned by IS are more popular than ever before.
A few women are wearing jeans and T-shirts in public, as an act of rebellion against extremist ideology, Zainab said. Young people are more likely to take up smoking, and almost all beards have been shaven.
“Now we love everything they hated,” she said.
But a third sister, Safana, 29, still veils her face when she goes out, despite the ban, removing it only at checkpoints. Technically, this is not allowed under the ban, but no one has complained.
"Lots of women removed their burqas," she said. "But some are still wearing full veils with gloves and socks, like we did under IS."
Military community relations
In June 2014, IS took over Mosul with very little resistance or even objections from the people. In fact, some people called the early days of IS "paradise" as checkpoints came down and the military — then viewed as heavy-handed and often disrespectful — left the city.
“When they first came, it was like they were wearing masks,” said Zainab. “They said they were saviors, and most people thought they were good.”
In the months that followed, however, strict rules were enforced by harsh punishments, and IS ordered Christians and Shi’ite Muslims to abandon their homes and all of their valuables. Mobile phones and satellites were banned, the city was cut off from Baghdad, and the local economy crashed.
Dhoa offered a reporter a seat in the room’s single orange plastic chair, saying apologetically, “When IS was here, my husband sold all the furniture for food.”
It is true that hatred for IS has fueled affection for Iraqi forces, added Dhya Habib, a father of three who was a water engineer before IS closed his office two years ago. But military forces in Mosul also operate differently these days, despite similar levels of danger in the city long besieged by extremists, he said.
There are fewer checkpoints then before IS, and soldiers on the streets are generally polite or even generous, sometimes sharing their food with the hungry.
“We feel safe as long as the people and the army get along,” he said at a small grocery store not far from the women’s home. “Right now the army loves us and soldiers are not allowed to harass people. If they do, we can now complain and they will be punished.”
The burqa ban, said Abbass of the SWAT unit, is partially intended to maintain the military’s current reputation by removing faith from community relations. Soldiers on the streets now carry out already-in-place security measures without delving into the world of respecting — or disrespecting — anyone’s religion.
“Sometimes people would be angry when we told women to remove their burqas,” he said. “But now it’s an order and the people know the soldiers have no choice.”