When the Islamic State took control of eastern Syria in June 2013, it imposed its laws on all residents – but it is the women who have been most affected. The most obvious outward sign has been the imposition of the burqa, the long black garment that covers the body and veils the face. Women must now wear the burqa whenever they appear in public and face stiff penalties such as detention and whipping if they appear without it. If they disobey, their father or husband may also be whipped.
Syria Deeply talked to two women who fled ISIS-controlled areas of Syria to find out what wearing a burqa meant to them – and why they are happy to leave it behind.
Hannan, 21, never imagined herself enveloped in a black burqa. She had always dreamed of becoming a news anchor. But the conflict meant she had to leave Damascus, where she had been studying. On returning to Deir Ezzor to live with her family, her dream of becoming a news anchor vanished.
Hannan told us that she was very happy when she learned that Deir Ezzor had been liberated by the Islamic State, but that she was shocked at the way it dealt with people. “I never imagined that I would wear the veil one day. I don’t believe that God gave us hair in order for us to cover it.”
She had to stop studying journalism and return home from Damascus because her father, who works at an electricity company in Deir Ezzor, could no longer cover her expenses. Hannan describes her first encounter with the Islamic State’s forces when she was on her way home:
“When the bus entered the governorate of Deir Ezzor, I saw the black flags. I had heard that the Islamic State was in control of the area, but I thought it was an empty rumor. Then, at the first checkpoint, I realized the nightmare that the people of Deir Ezzor are living in. One of the Islamic State’s men, who had a Moroccan accent, pulled me out of the bus and kept hitting me with his belt, yelling, ‘Where is your veil, you slut?’ He did not stop until an old lady intervened, giving me a cloak to cover myself with. I cried nonstop until we arrived to the city. I was shocked with how my parents looked – my father had a long beard, and my mother, who had always been a progressive woman, was wearing a burqa. I will never forget that day.”
Life under the Islamic State’s rule is like living in hell, says Hannan. “The situation in al-Matar neighborhood, where I lived, was extremely bad: explosive barrels falling from the skies and Hisbah forces [religious police] on the ground. It is like a black comedy. Women can go shopping if they want, but there is nothing to buy. Men are not allowed to sell women’s clothes, and women are not allowed to work. And when we’re outside, we are required to wear the burqa, which must be black, thick and long. Wearing the burqa felt like I was locked in a tight, dark, hot box. It was too much for me, so I stayed home all summer long.”
Hannan and her family left for Turkey. When she reached Tal Rifaat, to the north of Aleppo, she felt as though she had been released from prison.
“We left Deir Ezzor and headed toward Raqqa in a taxi. When we arrived, my father didn’t want to waste any time, so we went to the bus station immediately. Everyone on that bus to Aleppo was scared. At the checkpoints, we all avoided looking in the faces of the Islamic State’s men. When the bus entered the city of Tal Rifaat, I saw the flags of the Syrian revolution and of Jabhat al-Shamiyya [the Levant Front rebel group] and I realized that I was finally free. I took the burqa off and started singing. The bus driver asked me to stop because, according to him, one never knows what might happen. So I stopped singing and kept the burqa on my lap until the bus stopped.
“Once in Aleppo, my father asked a taxi driver to take us to the Bab al-Salamah border crossing in order to enter Turkey. The driver said that the Bab al-Salamah border was closed, but that he could help us enter Turkey. He asked for 1,000 SYP [$4] per person. When we got in the car, the driver said that I didn’t have to wear the burqa, but that I should cover my hair because men from Jabhat al-Nusra [Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate] were going to help us cross the border. A few minutes after taking it off, the driver stopped the car and addressed a man approaching the car as ‘Sheik.’ Sheik asked my father where we had come from. ‘From Deir Ezzor,’ I quickly replied, but he completely ignored me. My father paid him 6,000 SYP [$24] – 1,000 SYP for each of us – then we got in a small truck and departed. We kept going until we arrived at a trench that was two meters deep. As soon as we crossed it, I took my head scarf off and threw it with the burqa back at the Jabhat al-Nusra men. ‘If this is your Islam, take it. I don’t want it,’ I screamed.”
Hannan is currently learning Turkish and applying to schools in order to continue her studies in Turkey. She still wants to become a news anchor.
Um Sami’s Story
Um Sami, from the city of al-Tabaqah, is a mother of three in her late 30s whose eldest child is 10. Her husband was recently killed in a bombing, leaving her without any source of income; her husband’s family is very poor, and her own family moved to Damascus long ago. Since the Islamic State prevents women from working, Um Sami and her children have been depending on assistance from friends. She used to work as an Arabic language teacher in the city of al-Tabaqah, but the Islamic State does not allow women to work at all – not even as a tutor.
Um Sami feared that the Islamic State might force her son to join the fighting, so she moved to Tal Abyad. She explains, “I was very scared that the Islamic State might force my son to fight with them, so in November 2014, I left al-Tabaqah for Tal Abyad with my three kids – Sami, Mais and Hasnaa. I had friends living in Tal Abyad, but when I told them I wanted to move there, they didn’t encourage me because the Islamic State is also in control of the town. However, they said that I might be able to cross into Turkey or other places from Tal Abyad, so we moved there and stayed at a friend’s house for seven months. Not once did I allow Sami to go out on the street. My son is tall and burly for his age. He would draw attention right away.
“When the fighting between the Islamic State and Kurdish groups intensified, it was rumored that the Islamic State was going to arrest all males and force them to join the battle. That was when my husband’s friends and I realized that we had to run away as soon as possible. We followed the news for a week, and then we read on Facebook that the Turkish government was allowing Syrians into Turkey. We left immediately and waited with thousands of other families at the border.
“Finally, last week, we crossed and entered the Turkish city of Sanliurfa. We had spent eight days waiting at the border, and not one of the women had the courage to take off her veil. The Islamic State’s men were close, and they often searched and questioned those who strayed a little way from the border. We stayed right at the border’s barbed-wire fences, since the Islamic State’s men tended to avoid them. Despite knowing this, I did not dare to lift the veil off my face to breathe.
“When the Turkish officers finally informed us that we could cross into Turkey, I could not believe it. When I was crossing, my burqa was ripped by the barbed wire. An old man standing next to me said, ‘It is God’s will for this darkness to be torn apart.’ When we entered the city of Sanliurfa, some women were still too scared to take off their burqas. A woman asked, ‘What if the Islamic State’s men enter the city?’ I ran to a police officer who was standing there, and I asked him if the Islamic State could reach us here. He laughed and told me in broken Arabic, ‘Take this black thing off if you wish. You are in Turkey. No one can reach you here.’”