“I Wish I Had Been Asked”: Removing Gender Barriers to Coping Supports Among Displaced Women of Faith

By: Kathleen Rutledge

September 11, 2023

Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: Gender, Religion, and Displacement

She remembers what he was wearing.

“He put on his clothes, black trousers and a white shirt,” she said, trailing off. She looked off in the distance, over my shoulder as she spoke, seeing her son again in her mind’s eye. Fifty-one-year-old Jinan had been preparing the evening meal for her family in their home in Mosul, Iraq, as her son readied himself to go outside to meet a friend. It was 2016 and the city was under ISIS control. The Iraqi army-led battle to liberate the city from its nearly three-year occupation was in the early stages. And when Jinan’s eldest son left their home that summer evening, it would be his last time.

He was gone just for a moment and was sitting close by, in the doorway of the house. “[Then] I heard something very loud,” Jinan recalled. “It was a mortar shell.”

Jinan’s son was hit by the blast. She rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. He died during surgery; he had lost too much blood. Given the periodic airstrikes and stray mortars falling on the city, it was not safe for her to organize a formal burial. “He is buried in a school till now, not in a grave.”

In the months that followed, further calamity struck. On a day when Jinan was away from her home for just a short time, a bomb fell directly on her home. Two of her other sons were killed instantly. She and one surviving child fled Mosul not long after, leaving her home in ruins, her once thriving vegetable business defunct, and the bodies of three of her children behind.

For Jinan, she feels she would not be able to cope with all that she has lost and the seemingly endless years of displacement in a camp with decaying tents and declining daily provisions in Northern Iraq, where she has lived since leaving Mosul in 2016, without her faith (or diyana, in local terminology).

“It’s just like pouring water on fire,” she said, reflecting on how she feels when she prays to Allah, reads the Quran, and fasts in the camp. “I pray…and cry and after I feel much better. Without the patience that we get from Allah we will be mad.”

Jinan is one of nearly 1,400 adult women living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) one hour outside of Mosul, where a research study was conducted in 2019 with findings published in 2021 and 2022. The mixed methods study—on the role of faith in coping and recovery in humanitarian contexts—included 160 surveys, 50 interviews, and four focus group discussions with women in the camp, in addition to 19 interviews with local and international aid personnel, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) responders, and informal and formal faith leaders in the camp.

The study found that most of the women had experienced acutely distressing losses and combat exposure similar to Jinan’s, with 39% of the women experiencing the death of a family member, 59% witnessing human remains, and 88% surviving direct exposure to gunfire, shelling, artillery bombardments, and other combat situations.

Further, the conditions of displacement—such as reduced and insufficient household food allocations due to funding cuts, feelings of hopelessness due to financial and security barriers to rebuilding homes and restarting lives outside of the camp, and the suffocating heat (up to 115°F) endured in aging and moldy canvas tents (with no public shaded areas anywhere in the camp)—were profound drivers of high distress levels. At the time of the study, nearly two years after many of the women had first arrived in the camp, 74% of study participants were shown likely to have moderate or severe anxiety disorders and/or depression.

However, the study also showed that faith practices were measurably associated with changes in distress and relief levels. All of the women in the study were Sunni Muslim, and 78% of the respondents shared that they felt their diyana—often defined by the participants as fulfilling the obligatory and/or voluntary religious practices of Islam, in addition to having a sense of proximity to Allah—was “high” or “very high.”

Their beliefs, however, regarding the nature of Allah’s care and role in their lives, in addition to the perception of their ability to fulfill their faith practice as desired (and directed by the sacred teachings of the faith) were related to both higher and lower feelings of distress in a statistically significant way. For example:

  • Beliefs regarding God’s care for their life and situation significantly influenced mental health. Those who believed that the survey statement "God cares about my life and situation" was "not at all true" had the highest distress scores of any other group in the study, indicating a higher likelihood that the women were suffering from severe mental health disorders. Women who felt it was “very true,” however, had markedly lower indications of anxiety and depression.1
  • Prayer, Quran reading, and fasting were widely reported as means of comfort, stress relief, and divine protection. However, perceptions of faith decline post-ISIS—including, among other definitions, decreased religious practice due to lack of space, time, and energy in the camp to fast, pray, and read the Quran—were strongly associated with anxiety and grief and measurably elevated distress levels.2
  • Suffering was primarily seen as a test of patience, according to God’s will, with endurance facilitating attainment of paradise after death. This appraisal of suffering was linked to comfort and strengthened resolve. Appraisals of suffering as punishment, however, were statistically associated with higher distress.3

The distress in relation to the faith concerns—such as perceiving faith decline, wondering if the suffering they had experienced is divine punishment, and/or perceiving that Allah was more distant from them—was often described with acute anguish. For example, the intensity of those feelings caused 39-year-old Hakima, a widow and mother of four, to consider suicide. And many women placed their faith concerns at the heart of their overall decline in well-being. “It’s the center,” said Hosa, believing her grief regarding her faith was the main cause of her extremely “tired soul” (a local idiom for distress akin to depression). “Why before the events I felt God near me and now when I need him, I do not feel this?” the 32-year-old asked bitterly. “It adds sadness on my sorrow.”

The experiences of Hakima and Hosa and the wider findings of the study reinforce the existing, extensive body of evidence indicating that for many populations of faith globally, the processing of potentially traumatic events is linked to religious convictions, and that engaging with spiritual support in times of crises can boost coping capacity and promote resilience.4

In the context of the camp itself, however, poor responsiveness—from aid workers, MHPSS providers, and the local faith leaders in the camp—to the needs and coping strategies identified by the women like Hakima and Hosa in relation to their faith undermined the women’s capacity to cope.

Many of the women in the study shared a desire, for example, for access to a specific range of spiritual supports to help strengthen their ability to cope. These included resources such as professional counseling to discuss their concerns about their faith, support networks with respected local women of faith who could provide consolation and guidance, copies of the Quran, and a gender-segregated place in the camp for women to gather for meetings and prayer.

International human rights laws and humanitarian standards direct aid and MHPSS responders to facilitate access to such assistance, with global guidelines advising practitioners working with such populations to facilitate conditions for appropriate communal cultural, spiritual, and religious healing practices (IASC 2007), provide spaces for religious practice in displacement camps (CCCM and IOM 2021), engage with trusted faith-leaders and include faith-sensitive considerations in programming across multiple sectors (SPHERE 2018).5

At the time of the study, however, many of the types of support requested by the women and set forth in global standards were unavailable to them in the camp. Additionally, there was a difference in the level of spiritual support provided based on gender. In other words, men in the camp had received greater support for their needs related to faith than women.

A key example of this relates to the communal prayer space. Two years into the camp’s operation, at the time of the study, there was no communal space available for the women to gather to pray, despite the global directives that such a space must be provided. There was a tented prayer space in the camp, but for men only.

This was due almost entirely to poor understanding among responders of the way in which gender norms that restrict the access of women to public spheres (such as prohibitions from attending religious spaces where men are present and communicating with men who are not family members) collide with three realities:

  1. The aid community often assumes faith needs will be met by local faith leaders. On limited occasions when external agencies do engage directly in facilitating access to faith-related support, the formal faith leaders are nearly always the selected partners.
  2. Nearly all formal faith leaders in traditional societies are male.
  3. In displacement contexts globally, it is common that there are more female-headed households than would be the norm outside of such contexts. In the camp, for example, at the time of the study 34% of the households were headed by women, while in the wider Iraq context just one in ten households were headed by women.6

In the case of the camp prayer space, the vulnerability of women of faith was heightened as these approaches related to gender and faith intersected. For instance, private donations from external religious communities had been made to the camp to construct a space for men with the camp management stepping out of involvement, mistakenly7 believing it was not the purview of the aid community but of the local imam in the camp to provide for the faith needs of men and women. However, because gender norms in the local culture restrict women from communicating directly with men outside of their family, the male imam was not aware of the needs of many of the women in the camp.

When asked directly during the study, the imam said that while he did not think women would wish to attend the mosque (65% of the women in the study disagreed), he would support such a space for women. Likewise, the Iraqi camp manager had no objections to such a space being constructed. However, no one had asked women in the camp what they wanted at the time when funds were available. Thus, no dedicated prayer space for women was constructed.

Women in the study reported in fact that in two years of displacement they had never been asked during assessments, or at any other time, about spiritual concerns or faith needs of any kind.

This intersection of faith and gender creating barriers to support has been observed in other research among Muslim women of faith and among displaced women and girls in general (see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2016; Pittaway and Bartolomei 2018; Shaw et al. 2019; Pertek et al. 2022).

For Waheeda, Tamara, and other women in the camp, however, the lack of communal prayer space is not a theoretical concern. The denial of access to faith support for coping due to gender has added to feelings of exclusion and isolation. “I [wish] I am a boy, so I can go to the mosque,” said Waheeda, a young girl in her 20s, explaining that it is hard for her to watch her brother go to the mosque in the camp while she cannot. When you pray at the mosque, “you feel you are nearer to God, more than in the house,” added Tamara, who said she had attended her local mosque regularly before displacement, in order to feel connected with God and other women. She does not understand why she is now not allowed to attend services in the camp.

The reflection of 29-year-old Hana, however, perhaps best summarized the thoughts of many of the women in the study who felt there should be such a space and who were distressed that, in general, their faith needs had been overlooked since the time of displacement. She simply said: “I wish I had been asked.”

Author Note: The names of study participants have been changed to protect anonymity.


1 Women who responded that it was "Not at all True" that "God cares about my life and situation" had the highest distress scores of any sub-group assessed in the study (43 out of a maximum 50 on the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale); women who felt the same statement was "Very True" had distress scores that were 12 points lower. Scales: One-way ANOVA / F = 3.735 / p = .013; Kessler 10 Psychological Distress Scale (Kessler et al., 2002); Question adapted from the Multi-Faith Religious Support Scale (Bjork and Maslim, 2011).

2 One-way ANOVA / F=3.910, p=.022; Those who felt their faith (either beliefs, practices and/or perception of proximity and responsiveness of Allah) had declined since the ISIS conflict and subsequent displacement had distress scores indicating severe depression and/or anxiety, while women who felt the adversities had led to strengthened faith showed only moderate distress levels. Forty-one women (26% of the study group) felt that their faith had declined since before ISIS–with reasons given for the change including feeling abandoned by Allah, because of witnessing ISIS’ atrocities/religious oppression, or simply because of lack of space, time, and energy to conduct faith practices in their tents.

3 Statistical analysis of survey responses regarding Punishing Allah Reappraisal (a sub-scale of the Psychological Measure of Islamic Religiousness – Abu-Raiya 2008) identified a positive correlation between overall questioning regarding suffering as punishment and higher distress scores. Results of a Spearman’s rank order correlation test showed that the more the women wondered, believed, or felt that events happening in their lives were related to punishment, the higher their global Kessler distress scores (rs (157) = .277, p < .0005).

4Ano and Vasconcelles 2005; Prati and Pietranoni 2009; Salem-Pickartz 2009; Holton 2010; Koenig 2012; Sulaiman-Hill and Thompson 2012; Walker et al. 2012; Fletcher et al. 2013; Abu-Raiya and Pargament 2015; Ager et al. 2015; Ager and Ager 2015; Abdaleati et al. 2016; Ennis 2016; Thomas et al. 2016; Panter-Brick and Eggerman 2017; Snodgrass et al. 2017; SPHERE 2018, p.17; Eskin et al. 2020; Taufik and Ibrahim 2020; Lang et al. 2020; Park 2020; Rowlands 2020; Rayes et al. 2021; World Vision Iraq 2022.

5See also OHCHR; Core Humanitarian Standard 2014; WHO and UNHCR mhGAP-HIP 2015; UNICEF 2018; IASC 2019; IOM 2022.

6 Iraq: IAU 2012; UNDP 2013; REACH-CCCM 2019; Global: Oxfam 2019; IDMC 2020; OECD 2022; UN Women.

7 See UN-backed guidance on protecting human rights/engaging religious supports in aid responses and MHPSS (including but not exclusive to camp settings) - IASC 2007; IRW and LWF 2018; SPHERE 2018; and CCCM and IOM 2021.

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