The one-time al -Qaida affiliate declared the city its Syrian capital, issuing new laws and religious edicts that forced citizens to follow conservative Islamist practice.
Residents say that ISIS vandalized a church in the downtown area before turning it into an Islamic religious library. The extremist group also detained and kidnapped activists, flogging them in public squares and publicly executing them on charges like treason or blasphemy.
Throughout the ordeal, civilians in Raqqa have risen up to protest — with women in particular raising their voices, as their lifestyles are gradually hampered by ISIS rule.
Infighting between ISIS and rebel groups from the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army exploded in January, threatening its position in Raqqa and reportedly leading the group to use more force to tighten its control.
“After that, ISIS started fighting all moderate brigades in the city. They launched several suicide attacks using rigged cars to sow terror in the hearts of the residents,” says Fadiya, a student at the Itihad Private University in Raqqa. Like all city residents who spoke to Syria Deeply, she asked us not to use her full name. “They also enforced their own rules. In the beginning, they banned smoking and punished smokers. They hung up pictures of women in niqab and gave out a manifesto forcing women to wear the niqab.”
“They also reprimanded all unveiled women, and I was one of them. I was reprimanded several times until I was threatened by an ISIS member who put a gun to my head. They would flog the father or brother of any unveiled woman, and several times they stopped men and youth and whipped them in public under the pretext that their sisters or wives were unveiled and did not wear the niqab.”
Towards the beginning of the group’s rule, “we tried to denounce the decision and protested against them,” she says. “They broke up the demonstration with live ammunition. They followed women that day and painted the city black. My father is deceased and I only have one brother. I feared for him so I decided to wear the niqab.”
Rima, another young female resident, always wears a veil — but not a black niqab. She says that despite the head cover, she has been harassed, reprimanded and threatened by ISIS members. Rima finally decided to wear the niqab after fearing for her father’s life.
“In the beginning, we thought that what was happening in the country was liberation,” she says. “We then realized that it was nothing but handing over the city to these organizations. Everything is forced at gun point: wearing the Islamic garb, praying, banning smoking.”
“Anyone who refuses to submit will suffer severe punishment, from flogging to detention to execution, either by a fire squad or by beheading. My sister is on their wanted [list] and her husband has been in detention for five months now. I decided to wear the niqab as I fear for my family and I don’t want to subject them to whipping or detention. Flogging, detention and fear has forced residents to follow orders.”
Rima describes the changes in Raqqa by saying it has become a “black city.” She says the only flag allowed to fly now is the Tawhid flag, an ISIS symbol, which is black, and that clothing shop owners are forced to place plastic bags and fabric over the faces of mannequins which ISIS views as provocative.
“The ISIS police women, most of whom aren’t even Syrian, carry out arrests and flog guardians,” says Hiba, a resident of the city who fled in February. “The niqab helped me a lot because I can do many things without people recognizing me,” she laughs.
But wearing the niqab “has made me hate myself, only fueling my insistence not to wear it and having me demand my rights. This is why I left Raqqa 10 days ago, because I couldn’t [stand to] wear the niqab. In any case, the niqab was never a requirement in Islam; rather it’s been a tradition. It has been forbidden in many developed countries, such as France and Belgium and even on university campuses in Egypt.”
Hiba, like many female residents in Raqqa, says she “hopes that all women in Syria will maintain this courageous spirit in which they would defend their freedom and dignity in the face of ISIS’s injustice.
“These injustices have nothing to do with us, with our religion or our traditions. Similar to the people in other liberated areas, the residents of Raqqa will rise against ISIS to rebuild our country and to partake in guiding Syria back to the road of freedom and dignity.”