Life Under ISIS and the Choice to Fight It

Impossible Choices

O On June 12, 2014, I was sitting in London’s Gatwick Airport staring at a mute TV with images repeating over and over on the BBC. I was visiting friends in Manchester, where I did my Ph.D. in American Literature in 2011 and which I consider my second home. Yet all I could think about while I was waiting to board were those images on TV: black flags, masked men and a foreboding sense of disaster. A couple of days before, ISIS had taken control of Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq. They were saying Baghdad was next. With my horror and shock came my uncertainty: Should I get back to Iraq or just stay in the U.K. until the situation was more clear? But even while I was asking myself that question, I knew that I had to go back. My family was there, my job, my students at Baghdad University where I lecture, and my life—if you can call it that.

It seems to me that the “no-choice” clause is a staple of my life in Iraq, a substantial part of a sad reality that sets in with the brutality of living in a war zone. And yet the question of choice (and lack thereof) invites an even more complex set of issues: power, helplessness and hope. On a first glance, it might appear to be an odd mix especially when you see the bigger picture: a life that consists of both the ruthlessness and the absurdity of violence encountered on a daily basis. But through the perspective of a woman living in Iraq, one who had seen the possibility of life without war, even if for a few years in the U.K.—a luxury that many Iraqis of my generation have not experienced—every element of that reality is magnified. It is seen and lived through struggles and challenges, through contradictions that are sometimes hard to summarize or even put into words. These contradictions are narratives of women’s simultaneous marginalization and empowerment, where sterotypes are faced with resistance and courage.

Every day I see the violence against women—myself included—whether it is sexual harassment or religious and societal containment. But I also see women standing up for themselves, fighting with awe-inspiring courage. I see the presence of my female students at the university, young women carving a future for themselves and in numbers that far surpass those of young men. It is amazing to see the astounding number of working women in Iraq, whether in schools, hospitals or academic institutions. In a country that has been in a perpetual state of war for decades, a lot of women are also leading families; the stories of widows who raise children on their own, often under very trying circumstances, are both hard to imagine and inspiring. With the threat of ISIS looming, women are fighting, quite literally, to protect themselves, their families and their towns.

However, it is not a happy or romantic narrative for women in my country. The present is just that; you are alive now, while the future is nearly impossible to conceive of or imagine. Nothing is taken for granted, even your next breath. So while I was looking at the horrific images on TV at Gatwick Airport and contemplating my choices, I realized that I did have a choice after all. It is just that “choice” is defined differently in a war zone. The reality, as sad and challenging as it may be, is what you make of it. For me, it is an opportunity to embrace these contractions, and to find hope and power in impossible choices.

This essay is part of a series written by female academics from Europe and the Middle East. After completing the same doctoral program at the University of Manchester in England, their lives took significantly different turns. Their thoughtful reflections on the future offer deep and varied insights into personal, professional and global matters. Edited by Irene Huhulea.

“Women in Iraq: Impossible Choices” was published in the Future issue in Fall 2015.

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