In early 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) proclaimed the Syrian city of Raqqa as the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and from there sought to expand its control over northern and eastern Syria. In order to strengthen its presence and integrate itself with tribal societies, especially in the rural areas of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, ISIS sought to marry its fighters to women from those areas.
ISIS imposes an array of restrictions on women’s freedom – women must adhere to a strict Sharia dress code that, it claims, requires them to be completely covered. They are not allowed to go out without a mahram (their husband, or a relative whom they cannot legally marry), nor can they travel, unless it is an emergency.
“Schools, universities, public institutions, clubs and cafes are all forbidden territory for women. They have nowhere to go, and most women do not leave their homes,” said activist Hala al-Dieri. “Women are too scared to go out alone because ISIS soldiers harass them. ISIS patrols frequently stop women in the streets.”
“They insult these women and offer to marry them, offering high dowries. This is completely inappropriate, especially in such conservative communities, but, unfortunately, nothing can be done, because ISIS has the power,” she added.
Poverty Drives Marriages to ‘Immigrants’
In addition to a crippling drought in eastern Syria, where agriculture is a primary source of income, many people have lost their jobs. Also, because ISIS has prohibited relief organizations and humanitarian aid from entering these areas, many suffer from extreme poverty, especially the displaced peoples that moved to Raqqa two years ago, when it was still a relatively safe area.
“Hunger delivers a man to his enemy. Many families marry their daughters to the first man who proposes because they cannot afford to feed them anymore. Others remarry their divorced or widowed daughters as soon as they can, because they worry about their reputation in the new ISIS-imposed worldview. Keep in mind that this is a tribal society where conservative culture is deeply rooted. Marriage is also in the interest of some tribes as a political tactic – through these marriages, they strengthen their social position and avoid ISIS’s animosity,” Umm Ahmed, a resident of the Mayadin area, said.
Despite the general hatred and rejection that many segments of Syrian society demonstrate towards ISIS, there are some who welcome its philosophy, and see marrying their daughters to ISIS fighters as a good choice; others, meanwhile, do it out of fear. “After witnessing the massacres that ISIS committed against the Shuhail tribe, people feared for their lives, and began joining the ranks of ISIS or married their daughters to its soldiers,” said activist Omran.
Umm Ahmad said, “The presence of ISIS led those who were already strictly religious before the Syrian revolution to move into extremism. Those who now pledge allegiance to ISIS and marry their daughters to its soldiers are those whose daughters … covered their faces in public, stayed at home and were deprived of education.”
People are now accustomed to hearing new languages and dialects of colloquial Arabic for the first time in their lives. “These days, English, French, Pashtu and Russian are as commonly heard as Arabic is. That’s in addition to various Arabic dialects like Moroccan, Jordanian and Gulf Arabic. We are also used to broken Arabic, since most of the foreign fighters speak it. No one knows who they really are or where they are from,” said Omran.
“They go by nicknames like Abu Hafs, the Tunisian Kattab, the Afghani and many others. Most of them entered the country using fake IDs, which also makes any marriage contracts illegal,” he continued. “The marriage contracts are prepared by a sheikh and two witnesses from ISIS itself. For this reason, women lose their rights – if the ‘husband’ dies or divorces them, the children have no legal genealogy on their father’s side.”
Umm Ahmad said, “A lot of these fighters are married to many wives at the same time. Who knows how many? They have wives in every country that they have been to. I once overheard ISIS patrol officers talking. They were encouraging each other to get married and to have as many children as possible, so that they can provide the Islamic State with new soldiers.”
For Umm Ahmad, there are grave concerns over the effects of this, as the ISIS soldier’s goal is to die in battle or to move to a new place to fight for Islam: this is why they came to Syria in the first place.
When asked about Syrian women being married to ISIS fighters, Riyad Darrar, a former preacher at one of Deir Ezzor’s mosques, said: “As a principle, there is nothing wrong with that. Marriage is recognized when both sides are in agreement. However, I urge parents to be cautious, because the soldiers’ lifestyle and their constant travels make it hard for them to raise kids and take care of their families.”
In recent months, stories have spread among activists about women who have attempted suicide and young girls running way after their families forced them to marry ISIS soldiers. A woman who was formerly a nurse in a hospital in rural Deir Ezzor said, “There are many cases of sexual, physical and psychological abuse among women married to ISIS soldiers,” adding, “Women privately tell stories about bizarre sexual practices that are unacceptable in our society.”
“The different cultures and backgrounds of these fighters play a role in the spread of such practices,” psychologist Fatin al-Humsi explained. “Additionally, their lives are abnormal and unstable. Many of them, for example, spent years in isolated areas in Afghanistan. These circumstances generate behaviors that are foreign to our society. While many find such practices strange, they are actually common during war. After the American forces entered Iraq, the media highlighted various sexual abuses by the coalition’s officers.”
She added, “ISIS sheiks have issued many religious decrees that facilitate marriage to their soldiers. Money and power also facilitate these marriages, especially because many young Syrian men have left the country or been killed. Also, ISIS has outlawed any social organization that might provide protection to women,”
Al-Humsi suggested alternative solutions: “Local communities should help raise women’s awareness, even if it is through casual conversations.”
“Also, I noticed that people have access to the Internet and that social networking websites are very popular,” added. “For this reason, I think that activists should use online platforms to launch women’s awareness campaigns. They might fill the void that is left by the absence of community organizations.”
This article was originally published in Arabic at Suwar Magazine. Photos courtesy of Suwar.Translation by Syria Deeply.