Erbil, Iraq – When fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a number of other rebel groups captured much of northern and central Iraq last summer, 50-year-old Sidiqa* – a resident of Mosul – reacted with euphoria.
Sidiqa, like many of her neighbours, initially viewed the fighters as liberators who broke the grip of a government they considered oppressive. But since ISIL’s black banner was hoisted over the city – Iraq’s second-largest, with nearly two million people – life has become much more difficult.
“I could not even go out on my own to get groceries,” said Sidiqa, who now lives in the Kurdish-controlled city of Erbil. “As a woman, I was not allowed to go out without the company of a male family member.”
Sidiqa, like all of those interviewed for this article, declined to give her real name for fear of reprisals against relatives living in areas under ISIL control.
Billboards across the city instruct women what to wear, recommending long gowns, known as abayas, gloves and a piece of cloth fully covering the face. But women are not the only ones suffering from ISIL’s draconian interpretations of Islamic law.
“We could no longer go out to coffee shops or recreational places to have fun, as simple as playing pool or smoking hookah,” said Faris*, Sidiqa’s 18-year-old son. “We soon realised they were very interested in recruiting young men, and this meant we were targets. So, we decided to stay indoors as much as possible so as not to attract their attention.”
It was this fear of forced conscription – two of Sidiqa’s three sons are in their early teens – that prompted Sidiqa and her family to leave Mosul.
Their fear was not unfounded. ISIL has been proudly showing its child soldiers in gruesome roles, such as executioners or suicide bombers. With each passing day, life in Mosul became more difficult, Sidiqa said.
“We only had around half an hour of public electricity by the time we got out of Mosul,” she recalled. Instead, the residents relied on private generators that provided around eight hours of electricity a day.
ISIL’s hardline ideology has also caused a radical reshuffling of the school curriculum.
“They removed biology, chemistry, history and even Islamic studies lessons from our school,” said Faris, who quit in frustration after a month of attending his junior year of high school. “They kept math and put heavy emphasis on Arabic and [introduced a new version of] religious studies.”
“They want to brainwash our kids,” interjected his mother.
One night, his home was raided by ISIL and he found himself in jail with people charged for a variety of crimes, from drinking alcohol to robbery to collaborating with anti-ISIL forces. A judge told Mutasam that his previous line of work was unacceptable, because he had been “helping displaced non-Muslims and Shias” in his work.
They are the biggest enemies of Muslims. They destroyed our holy sites such as the tomb of Prophet Jonah and blew up mosques.
“I was blindfolded, but raising up my head a couple of times I could see beneath the blindfold the bearded judge and a guard with a rifle and a sword,” Mutasam told Al Jazeera. “As the judge tried to argue that my work was un-Islamic, I recited some verses from the Quran that speak of helping those in need.”
In the end, he was only forced to pledge that he would not return to his former job. Eager to get out of jail, he immediately signed the papers and was released the next day. Now, Mutasam is one of the tens of thousands of former Mosul residents currently living in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
He recalled that a neighbourhood barber had his shop closed for awhile and was forced to pay a hefty fine because he gave his customers hairstyles that ISIL deemed un-Islamic.
“It was the ‘Marines style’ that he had done for some people, and ISIL police didn’t like it,” said Mutasam.
This hairstyle, also known as “high and tight”, has become popular among some young Iraqis, and could be a legacy left behind by members of the US military who fought in Iraq.
“Men have to trim their moustache, and using razors [for shaving] is banned,” explained Mutasam. “People are told to grow beards.”
Growing increasingly unhappy with the many restrictions on their lives, Mutasam and his middle-class family decided to leave their home and head to Erbil in October.
“They are the biggest enemies of Muslims,” said Mutasam, displaying a deep sense of frustration. “They destroyed our holy sites such as the tomb of Prophet Jonah and blew up mosques.”
ISIL’s destruction in July of the tombs of Jonah and a shrine to Seth – whom several religions say was the son of Adam and Eve – was the turning point in many Mosul residents’ attitude towards ISIL. “It was like a public mourning,” Sidiqa said.
Worried that functioning telecommunications systems might help its enemies reach out to dissidents within Mosul, ISIL also shut down telephone and internet services in December. That deepened the sense of isolation that many residents already felt.
Meanwhile, ISIL’s extremely strict form of governance continued.
“If you happened to be on the streets during prayer times, especially in busy market areas, Hisba [ISIL’s police force] would force you to go to mosque,” recalled Faris. “Of course, we didn’t feel we were praying from the heart any more.”
In its propaganda videos, ISIL has boasted of how crowded mosques are in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria and how people leave behind their businesses unattended to go for prayers.
“There is very little crime,” said Mutasam. “But it’s a false sense of safety. Informants are everywhere. It’s just like the days of Saddam [Hussein]. They watch everyone and everything.”