The Women Who Escaped ISIS

From Abused to Accused

Veiled women sit as they chat in a garden in the northern province of Raqqa, March 31, 2014. ISIS imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms in the northern province of Raqqa. Among the restrictions, Women had to wear the niqab, or full face veil, in public or face unspecified punishments "in accordance with sharia" or Islamic law. Reuters

Dressed in fitted slacks, a satin bomber jacket with a fake fur collar, and a black scarf that loosely framed her face, Nadia, 22, spoke in a dull monotone of her journey from life under the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to life in a Kurdish prison. She said she had not seen her three-year-old daughter since she fled her abusive husband, a fugitive ISIS member, in March. 

A Sunni Arab from the Salahuddin Governorate in central Iraq, Nadia—whose name has been changed to protect her identity—was married off to a local farmer in 2012. Although their marriage was arranged, they got along at first, she told me from the visiting room of an Erbil prison. But everything changed for the worse when ISIS took over their village for two months in 2014.

What happened next underscores the serious challenges the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) faces as it seeks to identify security threats among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis streaming across its borders from ISIS-held territory and to prosecute those who were part of the extremist group. During this difficult process, there is a risk that the KRG may be arbitrarily branding many women and even children who lived under ISIS as guilty by association—including those who had not welcomed the extremist group or were abused during its harsh rule.

Many residents fled Nadia’s village when ISIS took over. But Nadia said that her husband insisted they remain to care for their cattle. After Iraqi forces routed ISIS a few months later, village elders returned and banished them and others who had not run away, accusing them of being ISIS sympathizers.

Yazidi sisters, who escaped from captivity by Islamic State militants, sit in a tent at Sharya refugee camp on the outskirts of Duhok province, July 3, 2015. Ari Jala / Reuters

The couple moved with their infant daughter to Mosul, and there her husband, unable to find other work, did join ISIS as a checkpoint guard. Although he initially joined

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