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No Holding Hands
Echoes of Extremist ‘Morality Police’ On Mosul University Campus

Special Correspondent
Students at Mosul University report a disturbing trend, where campus security report on and harass male and female students sitting together. It reminds them most of the Islamic State group’s morality patrols.
27.12.2018  |  Mosul
Male and female students clean up the damaged university in Mosul.
Male and female students clean up the damaged university in Mosul.

“I don’t want a scandal,” Samir’s female companion told him as the university security staff arrived. The two students at the University of Mosul, in northern Iraq, were sitting side by side talking in one of the gardens on the university grounds. The security men wanted to know why they – male and female – were sitting next to one another in such a ”provocative” manner.

Samir ended up arguing loudly with the men and wanted to fight them. Eventually the men took the pair’s student IDs and marched them to the campus security office, where they were questioned further.

Afterwards Samir posted messages about the incident on Iraqi social media and was surprised to be joined by dozens of other students, who all had similar tales to tell. Many of them likened the incidents to being harassed by the Hisbah, the ”morality police” belonging to the Islamic State, the extremist group that had controlled the city between 2014 and 2017.

An appeal to parents. Visit your daughters in their colleges and universities! You will be shocked.

The hisbah used to punish women who left their homes without veiling their faces and a male guardian, as well as men who shaved their beards or smoked. They also prevented the genders from mixing.

When the Islamic State, or IS, group was eventually expelled from the city, a lot of the local youth, aghast at the way religion had been used to curtail freedoms, began to demand more personal liberty. But there are still plenty of staunchly religious people in the city and they warned about the trend toward atheism, seeing it as an attack on Islam as well as the local culture and social traditions.

Life has returned to the University of Mosul and already over 30,000 students from all over Iraq and from various different ethnic and religious groups attend lectures here again. It is one of Iraq’s most important educational institutions and religious and political leaders have always tried to influence what happens here.

In less than 24 hours, it was possible for NIQASH to collect nine stories similar to Samir’s.

”I was sitting with my girlfriend in the faculty of education when a security man asked to see my ID,” a graduate student told NIQASH. ”He took me aside to tell me that somebody told him I’d been sitting here for two hours, with a woman, laughing loudly. He asked me to go to the administration offices with him. I refused and told him that he was meant to maintain security not track down vice and uphold virtue. I asked him to prove that I was doing anything wrong and he told me he could not because he had only been told about it, but had not seen it with his own eyes.”

”I was sitting with my husband and holding his hand when the security staff descended upon us,” says Hanan. ”They asked to see our IDs and we told them we were married. But this was not enough for them. They demanded to see a copy of the marriage certificate. My husband thought this was ridiculous and got into a quarrel with them, that almost ended in a  fight. When he eventually left the campus, he was in a really bad mood. As I said goodbye to him, I told him we would keep the romance inside our home from now on.”

There has also been some concern about the clothing that students wear. One university employee related plans for a committee at the university called the Make-Up Committee, whose job it would be to rebuke female students whose clothing was too tight or too short, or who wore too much make-up.

The head of the university did not grant an interview but another senior staffer on the campus, who was not authorised to make official statements, confirmed that there are no university rules about genders socialising, as long as the practice did not violate public standards of morality (which are fairly strict compared to European tertiary institutes). If the security staffers were patrolling for this, it was because they were driven by personal concerns, the employee said.

”Their work is to stop any fights or quarrels on campus and to prevent non-students or unauthorised people from entering,” the employee explained.

 The episode would be construed as an illicit affair by conservative parents.

Most of the students who had knowledge of the morality policing said they believed that it began around two months ago, at the beginning of the term. Rumour has it that security staff stopped a male and female student sitting together outside the College of Pharmacy on campus and asked the girl for her ID, then summoned her for further questioning.

Not all of the students or staff NIQASH spoke with had personal experience of the morality policing. Many said they had only heard about it on Facebook. One professor at the Faculty of Arts said he had seen some male students harassing some female students but that he had never heard any complaints about the security staff.

However the head of another university department recently wrote a message on his personal Facebook page that perhaps indicates the depth of divisions on campus.

”An appeal to parents,” he wrote. “Visit your daughters in their colleges and universities! You will be shocked. There are shameful relations, male and female students touch one another, there is laughter and disrespect. Female students wear cosmetics while they’re in class and then take it off when they leave for home. Graduation ceremonies and field trips are a disgrace.”

He finished his post with religious verses and a final observation: ”There is a decline in public morals and if you saw what was happening you would not believe it.”

As for Samir and his companion on that day, they ended up arguing with the security staff inside their offices. ”I told them that we were just friends, we were just talking and that we were sitting together in a public space: What was so wrong with that?”

The staff began shouting at the pair and refused to give back their student IDs. They then threatened to bring the young woman’s family to the university and tell them “what was going on”.

“I turned and saw my friend start crying out of fear,” Samir continued. The episode would be construed as an illicit affair by conservative parents, the way the security men were telling it, and Samir’s friend was worried that her parents might prevent her from going to university. Despite growing freedoms in places like universities, there is no doubt that many Iraqi parents are still religious and conservative, especially when it comes to genders mixing in public.

Luckily at that stage, Samir and his companion’s ordeal came to an end. One of the other staff members saw the situation was getting out of hand and returned the ID cards to the students. “Still, ever since that day, we have not met on campus again – now we’re too worried about the security guys,” Samir notes.