Social media brings change

Social media has also had a major impact, they point out, by providing young people with a new way to make new friends in conservative Iraqi society. And since most people do not use their family names – which often reveals their sect – on social media, people don't actually know what religion their new friends belong to. By the time they find out, love may have blossomed.

Social media have also encouraged young people to be more critical, Al-Ani points out. "Both Sunni and Shia young people have grown critical of the role played by the religious political parties and by religion in our society." But even though mixed marriages "are very normal now" in Baghdad, as he says, they are less common in the more conservative and segregated regions outside the capital.

Amal Association head Hanaa Edwar in her office in Baghdad (photo: DW/Judit Neurink)
Freed from Islamic State repression: "it's the psychological effect of all those walls being removed," says Hanaa Edwar, who heads the Amal Association in Iraq. "Young women tell themselves that it's okay now, that they can live normally again. They drop the scarf and play a more active role in society. And their families are all right with that"

The marriage system is itself another impediment. A married couple needs to choose under which religion they want their marriage registered, as the different sects each have their own heritage and divorce laws. Though the Shia divorce laws are slightly better for women, the couple opted for Sunni laws. "The lady in the court advised against it," says Al-Khafaji, "but I really don't care." She is done with all the segregation, she implies.

Women reclaiming the public space

Hanaa Edwar, a respected activist who heads the Amal Association in Iraq, points to the improved security situation post-Islamic State as the main driver behind the change. "It's the psychological effect of all those walls being removed. Young women tell themselves that it's okay now, that they can live normally again. They drop the scarf and play a more active role in society. And their families are all right with that."

Parents understand that their children need more freedom, she says, which has led to mixed groups of young men and women in cafes, but also to the workshops her organisation stages becoming more mixed.

"Parents allow their daughters to travel alone to Basra or Irbil now." Before they would always have been accompanied by their father or a brother. "During the battle against IS, we saw young men and women teaming up to support civilians," she points out. These new developments also stem from the way Islamic State restricted the freedoms enjoyed by the young.

"Women are acting in the theatres again, which had become almost unheard of. They are publicly speaking out – for instance against forced marriages. They are breaking down the walls and even starting to shake the tribal traditions."

Judit Neurink

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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