Rafel, who worked as an informant for the Iraqi army, had a harrowing encounter with ISIS militants.
It was her father who whipped her 30 lashes. She could hear him cry and sniff his tears throughout the process. She knew he was in pain for whipping his daughter. It was not his choice. It was his act to save her life. Rafel’s crime was sending a text message to her cousin saying, “I want liberation. I do not want Daesh.” Daesh is the slang reference to ISIS and between her usage of that term and her wish to be liberated, that was enough of a crime to get her executed during ISIS control of Mosul.
Rafel was 17 when ISIS stormed into Mosul. At first, neither she nor many people paid attention to them. She thought it is just one more militia taking control of the city as part of a pattern that pervaded Iraqi since the U.S. invasion in 2003. First Mosul was controlled by the U.S. Army, then the Iraqi army, then al-Qaeda started spreading its informal grip and power, and eventually ISIS, until this summer, when the city was reclaimed by the Iraqi army and placed back under government control.
But when ISIS started destroying historical sites, including mosques and churches, people started paying attention. For Rafel, ISIS’ destruction of the Yunus Mosque was the moment that turned her indifference toward the extremist group to anger. The historical mosque was known to have a particularly relaxed and spiritual feel to it. Rafel turned her anger to resistance.
At first she resisted obeying ISIS rules that every woman must cover her entire body, including her face when walking in the street. That meant she stayed holed up at home for a-year-and-a-half, without leaving the house. It was her own self-imposed house arrest that many women in Mosul did during ISIS control of the city — a way to avoid any encounter with ISIS members. Then she tried to find ways of leaving Mosul. She quickly learned that her family could not afford the $2,500 cost for each individual to be smuggled out of Mosul.
Then she started responding to appeals on social media by Iraqi military personnel for people of Mosul to give them hints and tips on ISIS militants’ whereabouts and their movements. That’s when Rafel began wearing the ISIS-imposed uniform for women, which is called a “khemar,” a black robe that covers the body head to toe, including the face. After a-year-and-a-half of staying at home, she wanted to get out in the street to understand ISIS locations and movements, so she could relay tips on private messaging to people she did not know but trusted were members of the Iraqi army to help them in the fight against ISIS.
Things took a turn when her cousin, Mahmoud, fell under a random mobile phone check that ISIS militants conducted by surprise as he was walking in the street. On his phone, they discovered a text message from Rafel saying, “I want liberation. I do not want Daesh. Inshallah the air raids intensify until we are liberated.” That was a crime that led to Mahmoud’s arrest and torture for a week. Militants tied his arms and his legs apart into a bed and whipped him day and night until he agreed to give information on Rafel and her whereabouts. A week later he broke down and gave them her address.
They sent a car full of ISIS fighters to Rafel’s home. They arrived and pointed machine guns at her and her family and ordered her to leave her room so they could search it. For a moment, she pleaded with them to allow her to put her head cover on, and in that minute she erased her Instagram account on her phone. She had been using the popular photo sharing platform to message information about ISIS militants to Iraqi army personnel. They confiscated her phone and ordered her to come to the prison the next morning at 9 a.m. “My family and I were shaking,” Rafel explains. “I couldn’t escape and I knew if I go to them I may not see my family again. If I ignore them, the whole family will suffer.”
The next day Rafel showed up at the prison, which used to be a church before ISIS’ occupation. Her father was with her, and they entered the office of the person who was to pass judgment on Rafel. The first thing he told her was: “So you want to be liberated from us? Ya? You will now see what it means to be buried in Khasfa.” Khasfa is a sinkhole in Mosul that ISIS turned into a mass gravesite where militants dumped all the executed bodies of victims. Many in Mosul believe that between 2,500 and 3,000 civilians are buried in that mass grave — from doctors to teachers to women, men and children.
But the “judge” changed his mind at the last minute and her looked at her father and told him, “You whip your daughter 30 lashes. If you don’t do it right, we will kill her and send her to Khasfa.” Both Rafel and her father agreed to obey. “I sat on the floor putting my forehead to the floor as if I was praying. My father begged for them to forgive me and not to have him whip me. They refused and threaten[ed] to kill me if he doesn’t give me really hard whips. He eventually obeyed and I could hear him crying throughout the process. He would sniff his tears and sobs as he send out his lashes. But I couldn’t cry and I have not cried ever since that moment.”
Rafel was released that day. ISIS militants confiscated her cellphone and made her sign a document stating that she would not watch any TV, would be denied internet service and never obtain a cell phone again. If she were to violate any of these rules, she would surely be killed. When Rafel and her father walked out of the prison, he looked at her, kissed her on her forehead and said, “Please forgive me for what I have done my daughter.” Rafel says she forgave her father immediately, for she knew he was trying to save her life. But something broke in her that day. “My father’s position broke me,” she said. “To hear my father’s cry simply broke me.”
Eight days later, Rafel’s father was arrested for eight days, whipped 300 lashes. ISIS militants confiscated his only car, the source of his income. He worked transporting vegetables and fruits between markets. Her father is still in a state of shock and depression as he has not been able to work since then.
As for Rafel, who is 20 years old now and ever stronger and determined to speak her mind, she was able to get herself another cellphone after her release, increased her messaging to Iraqi army personnel to help them in the fight against ISIS. And she was recently one of 180 people from Mosul who traveled to Baghdad, Babel and Najaf as part of efforts to hold exchange visits aimed at strengthening and uniting the Sunni and Shia’a populations. She wore a green thread tied around her wrist, symbols often taken by Shia’a Muslims after making visitations to holy shrines. Rafel is Sunni, though, and her act of tying the green thread is a symbolic act of solidarity with the Shia’a population of Iraq. “I am grateful for their sacrificing the lives of their beloved kids for me and the people of Mosul to be liberated from ISIS,” she says. She continues and describes how touched she was by the welcome she and her fellow people from Mosul were given during the visits to Baghdad and couple of southern provinces. “People were welcoming us in the streets and crying when they hear we just came from Mosul and showed us all welcome and love.”
Rafel, like many women in Mosul, no longer believes in wearing the hijab or any other forced covering of a women’s hair or face. She is testing the ground by letting some hair show from her headscarf. It has been only months since one part of Mosul been liberated, and weeks since the second part has. For many women who have taking off the black Khemar and are walking in the streets with colorful headscarves and a hint of hair showing, it is seen as a courageous act in the face of their fears after years of being punished for not complying with ISIS rules. As for Rafel, she is waiting for the moment where she can take off her hijab. “If the society allows me, I would take off my hijab immediately.” Though wearing a hijab is not a hard and fast rule in Mosul, the society there is in trauma from having had a severe form of Islam enforced, and people are slowly testing the ground for change in the streets.
“Peace can only happen when I as a member of society accept other views and opinions of others even when I don’t agree with it,” Rafel comments when asked about the meaning of her green thread around her waist. She continues and says, “This is my statement and my wish for the end of all wars in Iraq.” Rafel is getting ready to go back to school and resumes her studies after three years of not doing anything. She dreams of becoming a war correspondent.