Even before its August defeat of Syrian government troops at Tabqa Air Base – conquering the regime’s last remaining stronghold in Raqqa province – residents here say that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) started clamping down on Syrian civilians living in their eastern stronghold. In the weeks that followed they imposed new, stricter rules on daily life, setting the pace for other areas under ISIS control.
Residents say that buildings used by ISIS have been painted black, while civilian women are now forced to wear black and to cover their faces. ISIS patrols have become more frequent, ensuring that civilians adhere to the group’s particularly harsh brand of Sharia law.
Residents have largely been banned from doing business, traveling or being in the streets during prayer time. Men and women are kept separate, even in cafes and schools. Women are more generally prevented from attending school if they don’t have a male companion accompanying them to and from the classroom.
ISIS has prohibited cigarettes, hookah and alcohol, locals tell Syria Deeply, and anyone caught in the act of consuming them will be punished. Executions and floggings are now common in the once-tranquil desert city’s public squares. ISIS justifies the corporal punishment under the pretext of delivering justice; they see offenders as law-breaking infidels and apostates who didn’t adhere to ISIS rules.
Mustafa al-Abed, an activist from Raqqa, says that the recent changes to his city are “undeniable.” He says residents now have limited access to markets, restaurants and public parks. With ISIS checkpoints blocking the roads, he says traveling in and out of the province has become extremely difficult.
Abed also says that women have been prohibited from addressing male vendors in the street, making the simplest transactions an ordeal, and that they are no longer allowed to travel without a male relative accompanying them. During prayers, shopkeepers are forced to close and everyone is expected to attend prayers at the mosque. Consequently, most residents, he says, scramble to run their errands between the five daily calls to prayer.
Local resident Abu Mohammad says that it’s been difficult getting used to his new life under ISIS.
“It is a life that prevents us from living freely,” he says. “We revolted against the Assad regime so that we could gain our freedom and dignity. Then along comes ISIS with its new rules, tightening the noose on us.
“I am a law-abiding citizen, but I want laws that do not take away my personal freedom or affect my family’s daily life. My daughter had to quit school because ISIS prevents women from traveling alone to another province, and my daughter’s university is outside Raqqa. I’m unable to travel with my daughter every day and wait for her until she’s done to bring her back home. With our hands tied, my daughter had to quit her course.”
He adds that all families have been impacted by the new constrictions, forced into place by ISIS.
“They have been imposed without thinking about the effects they have on our lives and our future,” he says. And it could backfire – more and more families, including Abu Mohammed’s, are planning to leave the province – and other areas under ISIS control – to lead a more normal life elsewhere.
“My family and I have decided to leave Raqqa as soon as possible so we can carry on with our lives,” he says. He wants to be “away from people forcing new rules on us that do not adhere to our traditions or customs and that take away from our freedom.”
But ISIS sees their rule of law differently. Fighter Abu Hashem, who is stationed in Raqqa, says that the Sunni militant group, which first gained power here last year, has “worked to bring people in Raqqa out of the darkness and into the light, thanks to the new Sharia laws we issued.”
His organization’s rules “do not restrict people,” he says, but rather they “help them organize their lives, making them in accordance with the Islamic Sharia.”
Edited by Karen Leigh.