Iraqi university students decry gender segregation

University of Mosul students are not the only ones complaining. Their compatriots at the University of Anbar are unhappy, too.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Down in the dumps. Iraqi students in the University of Mosul, January 16. (Moamin al-Obeidi)
Down in the dumps. Iraqi students in the University of Mosul, January 16. (Moamin al-Obeidi)

MOSUL, Iraq - Iraqi university students said they fear, although the Islamic State (ISIS) has been dislodged from Mosul, that extremist ideology lingers in the country.

More than 380,000 people are reportedly displaced in and around Mosul and the city is littered with 8 million tonnes of debris. Nevertheless, Iraqis in the city are trying to move.

The University of Mosul was shut down after ISIS took control of the city in 2014 and destroyed thousands of books and manuscripts in the university library. ISIS used university buildings as weapons manufacturing facilities.

The university reopened in March 2017 after campaigns by student activists to clean up rubble and rebuild labs and classrooms. However, the university had not reached its pre-ISIS glory, when it boasted of being the second largest university in Iraq.

“It was not merely a university, it was a home of knowledge for all ages,” said Sally Hanna, a 20-year-old student at the University of Mosul.

Students at the university said they have little to be optimistic about after the university’s so-called follow-up committee banned mixing of the sexes. They called on authorities to act but nothing has changed.

One of the stated goals of the university is to promote religious, moral and national values but the students compared the segregation of the sexes to ISIS’s morality police.

“It is not a goal, it is a step for the ‘ISIS-isation’ of the university’s society,” said a female student who requested not be named for fear of being punished by the committee.

“We are university students, not kindergarten students. I feel upset when I see those who disturb us every day,” she added, in reference to the committee members.

Khaldoun Salih, a 25-year-old student who studies economics at the university, said the follow-up committee confiscated identification cards of two students because they were holding hands in the university. They told the students they would get their IDs back after they signed a document promising not to hold hands again, said Salih.

“I felt anger that moment,” said Salih. He said he decided to lash out against the action on Facebook, where he compared the committee to ISIS’s morality police. As a result, Salih claimed, the university investigated his Facebook post, not the actions of the committee.

“I’m still under the threat of being expelled from the university,” said Salih.

The actions of the follow-up committee drew condemnation from activists. “Such activities will obstruct students from completing their education properly,” wrote Fahad al-Yousif, a 31-year-old blogger.

University of Mosul President Obay al-Diwachi did not respond to questions, although he asked for the names of students interviewed.

University of Mosul students are not the only ones complaining. Their compatriots at the University of Anbar are unhappy, too.

“I felt like I was in a military base not in a university campus, I was disciplined because of my haircut style and uniform… Even ankle socks were forbidden,” said Omar Zaid, a 24-year-old student at the University of Anbar. “I am going to move to Baghdad to look for a job.”

Similar complaints were heard in universities across Iraq.

“We have documented such violations at the universities of Falluja, Kufa and Basra,” said Ali al-Salami, a human rights activist in Basra. “There is no law prohibiting the mixing between male and female students but some universities are making these decisions on individual basis.”

“Universities in Iraq have become like mosques, where those running them are imposing religious rules. It is a huge mistake,” he said.

Damyaa al-Rubaie, head of public relations at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said the ministry does not advocate separation between male and female students.

“If students faced such problems then it is because of individual cases with follow-up committee members,” she said. “Many security authorities in universities are not interested in personal freedoms.”