Life in Mosul , one of the most important cities in Iraq, in the north of the country, is slowly returning to normal. It has been more than three years since the city was liberated from the terror that the Islamic State (ISIS) implanted since it ruled the city between 2014 and 2017 .
After the bombs, destruction, fear and the radical Islamist dictatorship, the city has needed several years to recover. Life in Mosul passes between countless checkpoints,military, debris and a chaos formed by thousands of cars driving in all directions while pedestrians try to avoid them.
In the midst of this slow return to normality, they have been opening a series of businesses created by women, something unthinkable just a few years ago in this conservative and Sunni city, in a country with a Shiite majority.
During ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Mosul, women went through a dark and hard-to-forget time. Time stood still for them for three years. For the younger girls, their studies came to a standstill and their role in society was reduced to being at home, getting married and having children.
The simple fact of going to the market alone was an extreme danger, since the punishment could be going to prison or receiving a severe punishment translated into whipping, among many other risks. The niqab , a veil that covers the entire face, and the jilbab, a very loose garment for the body, were mandatory for all. Even his eyes were not legal, as they had to use a black cloth to cover them under the niqab. The hands also had to be covered with gloves.
After this “hell”, as many of them call it, some have put all their efforts into carrying out projects that they have always wanted to do. Hiba Sabhan has started selling dresses that she made herself during those years.
He sells them through social networks, but dreams of having a store soon. Sahar Shakir decided to open a Turkish food bar. Dania al Salam took the risk of setting up her own flower shop and after the success, in a few weeks she will move to a larger store.
These are the stories of three young Mosulis who, after years of subjection, have decided to risk starting a business and show that despite everything, women in Mosul are talented and do not give up.
Hiba al Sabhan’s house in New Mosul is elegant and neat. His brother Abdelrahman is in charge of serving the guests in the lounge with rich delicacies typical of the area such as sesame or date cream, accompanied by bread and sweetened tea. Meanwhile, the Sabhan prepares and grooms himself; always likes to be flawless.
A few minutes later, this 33-year-old girl appears carrying several colorful silk and satin dresses. With one of them he dresses a mannequin and places it in one of the corners of the room. Gone are the days when the only clothing that he could use to go out on the street was the niqab, a garment that he has thrown away and that he is horrified to see because it reminds him of when ISIS terrorists took over his city.
The dreams of this young woman with a degree in English studies from the University of Mosul and a master’s degree in Agriculture evaporated during the three years of a sad and gray time in her city. After leaving those times behind, she has finally managed to carry out her project: launching her fashion collection, online for the moment.
It was 2015 when al Sabhan discovered his talent. “When ISIS came to Mosul everything came to a complete stop. I saw myself at home alone, with nothing to do. I was afraid to go out. I realized that I had a talent for fashion and I thought why not? So I started making dresses by hand, from home ”, explains the young woman. Al Sabhan always hoped that everything would change.
In June 2017 the city was liberated from the terrorists, but normality in the city was still far from coming. Mosul was devastated and between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed in the battle for liberation, according to the Associated Press and Amnesty International.
Al Sabhan and his brother look at each other and list the people they lost. “Ahmed, Mohamed, cousins, our uncles … We lost friends, relatives and many colleagues who fled and will never return,” they lament. After liberation, the young woman decided to go to Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan , just over an hour from Mosul, to teach at the Adam Academy fashion workshop.
After gaining experience in fashion and after years designing and manufacturing “secretly”, al Sabhan decided at the end of 2020 to launch the collection of all the dresses he had made through his social networks.
“I wanted to show the world that I had talent and, the truth, it was a success,” she says proudly. Since then the Sabhan has been in high demand, mostly called for weddings, but she still can’t afford to have a venue.
“I would like to have my own shop, but unfortunately I don’t have enough money. I’ll go step by step ”, he explains. Al Sabhan has also incorporated masks into its models “to raise awareness” in society about its importance in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic .
The city, according to the young woman, has been liberated and after some dark years, the population has had a great open mind. “It is even better than before the Daesh era, so we have now seized the opportunity to start projects. It is not normal to see women creating businesses in Mosul. Even before ISIS, the only ones who worked did so in the mayor’s office, but not in private projects, ”he argues.
Fahid and Omar are focused on making the best bread for their customers. In a white suit and matching hat, they look like two chefs from any fancy restaurant. The first, 26, prepares the dough for future savory cakes on the terrace of the bar.
The second, 24, starts the machine to make the sajj, an unleavened bread, very fine, large and widely used in Turkish cuisine. In a few minutes the customer will be able to try an authentic lamb, chicken, potato or mozzarella cake typical of any corner of Istanbul, but they are in Mosul and the small place is called Fatira ua Chai, Pastel y Té, in its translation from Arabic.
The owner of this establishment located on the left side of the Iraqi city crossed by the Tigris River is Sahar Shakar. At 28, she has a degree in Art from the University of Mosul, works in a child protection organization and combines her studies for a second career, Law, which will finish next year, with the management of her Turkish bar , opened 10 months ago.
The first thing Shakar emphasizes from a restaurant in Erbil is that his home and family are in Mosul, but that he resides in Iraqi Kurdistan due to his studies and work. He arrived in this city with his people in 2016, after two years under the yoke of ISIS. After liberation, his family returned and that is why he travels every weekend to Mosul, which he says is changing.
“The city is developing very fast and people now accept different ideas. The situation is very good and people are growing in many ways, ”says the young woman.
When she decided to open the restaurant, many recommended that, instead, she bet on a clothing or makeup store, since in Mosul, as she explains, it has never been normal for a woman to run this type of business.
“At the beginning it was difficult, but finally I decided to ride it because I really wanted to and it is going very well thanks to the support of mine,” he says with a smile. Fahid himself already subscribed to the words of the businesswoman at the premises a few days ago. “I’ve been working in restaurants my whole life and I’ve never had a boss. It’s strange in Mosul, but Sahar is great, ”he says.
Fatira ua Chai, according to Shakir, is the only restaurant serving this type of Turkish food in Mosul, so he decided that after a few difficult years it was time to start this business so that Mosulis could enjoy it. “Travelers from different areas usually come, so it is already known, but with the arrival of the pandemic we have dropped a bit, like all establishments.”
In a small and tidy store opposite the University of Mosul is the 26-year-old flower shop Dania al Salam. Despite her youth, she is “happily” married and pregnant. This entrepreneur was studying agriculture until the arrival of ISIS in 2014. Just a year later, she decided to flee with her mother to Erbil. For more than two years his life was “very difficult”, he explains.
He had to leave his city and his friends and combine his studies at a new university in Kirkuk, just over an hour’s drive from Erbil, with a job he got at a flower shop in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, due to his family’s bad economic times at the time. The young woman became fond of her new trade and a year after Mosul was liberated she decided it was time to risk setting up her own flower shop.
“Here it is very rare for a woman to start a business, but since I proposed it, my close people have always supported me,” she explains to Salam smiling and sitting behind the counter. The florist, who has set up her own shop with her savings and without any government support, has an employee, Ahmed, and is open every day of the week from 10 in the morning to 10 at night.
“I am from here and I have always wanted to open a business in my city. A business for the Mosulis. I have no intention of moving to another place as long as things are going well here, ”says al Salam.
In the store you can get a wide variety of items. The main sale is the flowers, but there are also chocolates, purses and many decorative objects. “All kinds of customers come to buy gifts for weddings, anniversaries, Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day, so there is almost always a daily sale,” he explains.
Business was doing “really well,” according to his account, but since March, with the arrival of the pandemic and restrictions , his situation has started to worsen. “We have had a hard time due to the coronavirus, but now the situation is returning to what it was,” he says.
In fact, al Salam is already beginning the move to move its store to another location. “In a few weeks we will move to another larger and more spacious premises so that we can increase sales and customers feel more comfortable,” ditch.