Brave Iraqi schoolgirl delivers defiant message to ISIS in viral classroom video

Across the Muslim world, young women and girls are speaking out against corruption and oppression. Some, with videos that spread like wildfire, are drawing mass audiences


Many political and religious Arab leaders made congratulatory statements for women on International Women’s Day earlier this month, but their statements were taken with much cynicism by women in most countries. It was a big deal for the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, one of the most prominent religious institutions in the Muslim world, based in Cairo, to articulate that “Azhar stands against all forms of practiced violence against women and endorses women’s empowerment and respects their rights guaranteed by Islam before they were advocated by human rights organizations.” Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb continued in his statement that “Islam honored women, putting them in a higher position than they were, making them equal partners to men with the same rights and duties, and recognized the importance of their key role in building nations.”

The statement may be accurate in principle but not in practice as it impacts women’s lives today. For Lamya Lutfi, a mother who is campaigning against forced hijab (headscarf) for girls who attend school in Egypt, this statement has little weight. When asked to comment on the statement on Al-Hurra TV, she said, “It is like they beat us at night and in the morning they smile and tell us good morning.”

Though there is no law in Egypt requiring girls to wear a hijab to school, many teachers and sometimes headmistresses are enforcing their own views of religion and what they think is “proper behavior” on schoolgirls and forcing them to cover up their hair throughout the country. “We live in a society where patriarchy rules and many feel they have the right to enforce their views in the name of religion,” Lutfi explained. She started her campaign against forced hijab when the teacher of her elementary schoolchild tried to force her to wear a hijab in the classroom and punished her for not doing so.

While it is indeed not the law in Egypt for women to wear a hijab, it is the law in Sudan to whip women in public for not wearing “appropriate clothing,” which calls for wearing pants. Lubna Ahmed Hussain, a Sudanese activist talks about how Sudan once was ruled by queens who led their armies 2,000 years ago, while the women of today have no decision-making power and are whipped in public. “If a woman cannot have the right to choose her clothes how can she be expected to be voting for her parliament?” Lubna asks as she commemorates what she is calling the “women martyrs” who were killed in Sudan for basic women’s rights.

Miriam Al Otaibi is another women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia who is campaigning to stop male authority and guardianship over women. According to Al Otaibi, male guardianship holds men responsible for women’s mobility, education, work, residency, marriage, and any matter that relates to her life. She explains it by saying “Men think it is their responsibility and when they see women able to make their own decisions, some men think of it as an insult to their authority.” Al Otaibi talks about the challenges she is facing for her advocacy including being beaten by her own brother in the past. “But I no longer care about what is done to me. I care that we must stop oppressing women. I will not give up.”

None of these women, however, are as charismatic or are capturing a mass audience as much as viral videos that are coming from high school girls in newly-liberated areas from Daesh(ISIS)-controlled territories in Mosul, Iraq. 

In one video, a girl in what seems to be a high school classroom, disguises her face by covering it as she recites a withering poem attacking ISIS. “You have changed our religion, our prophet’s saying and even the Quran. You have made people hate Islam for what you have done in its name. You told us we were not real Muslims. I tell you no. We were already Muslims. It is you who changed the religion and ruined it. You claim you are pious and yet you harass us in the streets, and whip us for walking with our men. You claim the prophet did not have radio so we can’t listen to music. I tell you the prophet did not have a car either. So if you don’t like technology, go somewhere where you can isolate yourself from the world. You are the problem. You have brainwashed our children’s minds. You claim that you are Muslim but your actions show that you are simply thugs and have nothing to do with any religion.” 

As the girl recites the poem for the class, a group of other girls hold a banner for unity among girls. This home video is circulating like wildfire in Iraq and the region, along with other viral videos of teenage girls challenging authorities and calling out their financial and moral corruption. 

In the meantime, Suha Oda, a young journalist and activist from Mosul, launched the Shehrazad Campaign against violence of women and is warning that there are no services to help the 31,000 Iraqi women who have been impregnated, raped, and forced to marry ISIS members. According to Oda, the women are not only Yazidi women but also Sunni Arab Muslim women, whose stories are only beginning to emerge from some of the newly-liberated areas. “We are suffering now,” Oda said. “We have women without shoes, without food, without water. Women are suffering in Iraq,” Oda appeals as she explains how women are backing off from engaging politically as most political parties in Iraq are religiously controlled at the moment.

It has always been said that women in the Middle East will ultimately change the region for the better. As one encounters these women and hears their voices, it is clear that they are not willing to accept oppression and they have no intention to stop their activism even if it entails risking their safety and wellbeing. Until change comes to the region, though, it is important to support them and protect their voices however one can do so — even by simply hearing them out.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *