On April 20, members of Deir Ezzor’s Al Sharia Law Authority, a controlling Islamic party that uses force to implement the conservative law enforced by extremist groups who control Deir Ezzor city and swaths of the east, stormed an all-female wedding celebration at a private home.
Seventeen women were detained for several hours. The team of men who held them gave the reason as listening to loud music and not wearing Islamic dress.
“While we were having my cousin’s wedding party in her family’s house, a man entered our room – which had been marked for female guests only – cursing and swearing and hitting,” says Miriam, a 31-year-old housewife. “He accused us of being lewd because we were listening to music and not wearing the Islamic attire.”
The incident, she says, “is new to us. We are used to holding our parties and weddings in our own way – a way that does not even contradict the Sharia law these Islamists are demanding we uphold.”
With the near total absence of the Syrian government from most of Deir Ezzor city, the so-called “Sharia boards” have begun to enforce their own rules, using violence where necessary to force civilians, particularly women, to abide by them.
Activists say Abu al-Baraa al-Tunisi, the fighter suspected of bursting in on Mariam’s cousin’s wedding party, is with Jabhat al-Nusra, and is one of the al-Qaida-affiliated group’s representatives on Deir Ezzor’s Sharia board.
Though the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has imposed harsh restrictions on mobility and attire on women in neighboring Raqqa, the women present at the wedding are still baffled by al-Tunisi’s requests.
“What is the Islamic attire that we, as women attending a wedding, are supposed to wear according to the Sharia board?” says Amina, a guest. “And how could they allow themselves to enter a place when they know only women are present?”
Mohammad, a 32-year-old public servant who was near the home at the time, says he was “surprised” to see the force with which al-Tunisi and his men crashed the event.
“When I tried to intervene, a number of Sharia board members prevented me,” he says. “They had the place surrounded and were waiting for their colleague, who didn’t take to long to emerge, leading a number of women. He was ranting and raving that he would punish those lewd women for what they did, and that the fires of Hell will be more than pleased to receive their bodies on Judgment Day.”
Sheikh Khaled, a 70-year-old neighborhood dignitary, says the incident was the first of its kind in the area. “What has happened is a grave thing. We will prevent it from happening again, no matter the cost.”
Hours after the incident, residents’ frustration with the increasingly brutal tactics employed by local ISIS fighters was on display at a demonstration held near the wedding party house, with protestors calling to topple the Sharia board.
The demonstration was the first of its kind to be staged in Deir Ezzor city since extremists came to power following the withdrawal of regime forces two years ago.
Though the women were released, public anger against the extremist opposition in Deir Ezzor city spiked. Its officials huddled, but subsequent promises made – including an investigation into the al-Tunisi incident – did not happen.
Mouaz, a resident of al-Aredi neighborhood, says that expelling members involved in the incident is not sufficient punishment, as the incident was the culmination of dozens of violations committed by the board.
He also says that a member of the board stormed into a girls’ school three months ago, alleging that one student was not dressed in Islamic clothes, and threatened to punish and expel any girl who does not abide by the Islamic attire – with most of the face and body covered – dictated by Sharia.
The extremists are “never held accountable despite their repeated violations and the many complaints against them,” says Marwan, from al-Hamedyeh.
Marwan said another incident that aroused local ire took place in late April, when a member of the Sharia board halted the funeral of a child in downtown Deir Ezzor.
Mourners say the man claimed that the dead child had been the result of adultery, and that relatives tried in vain to remove the Islamist official and the his guards from what would have been, in earlier days, an intimate family occasion.