Women wearing colorful shoes in Deir Ezzor are enough to enrage the Islamic State’s religious police – known as the Hisbah – and prompt them to dole out punishments. That’s what happened to S., 22, who was in al-Bukamal market when a member of the Hisbah Patrol scolded her and beat her up. To defend herself and her dignity, she hit him back.
Yet, even if women adhere to the ISIS-imposed dress code, it may not prevent them being fined or lashed, especially if they breach one aspect, intentionally or otherwise. But this is only one of the basic violations taking place daily against women in and around Deir Ezzor since ISIS took control. Cases of child marriage or of forcing girls to marry ISIS migrants are also on the rise.
Worse still, little girls are being denied access to education, and women are being prevented from working – especially since ISIS rigorously enforces harsh restrictions on women’s movement throughout the city.
Living in poverty with her relatives, Shayma, a 16-year-old orphan, was eventually forced to marry a man 19 years older than her and become his second wife. She had already been forced to give up her education three years previously, and her future looked bleak.
Samar, 28, one of Shayma’s relatives, said: “Shayma is a child. She doesn’t know anything about this cruel life to the point where for several months she took every opportunity to play with her husband’s daughters from the other wife.”
“The child marriage phenomenon emerged before ISIS stopped the education system completely around three years ago,” Samar, who used to be a teacher, explained. “It happened for several reasons: as well as the cessation of education, there has been a revival of social traditions that have once again become ingrained, with a strong return to ideas that had vanished in the region such as the notion of girls having no place outside of the husband’s home – which has been taken as an excuse for child marriage.”
According to local parents, Deir Ezzor has witnessed an increase in the child marriage phenomenon in recent years, with brides ranging from 14 to 17 years. “Most married men are at least four or five years older than their wives. Some men are even 10 years older or more,” said Rashid, a 25-year-old activist in the Deir Ezzor local council.
“The marriage culture has changed for men and women in Deir Ezzor,” added Rashid. “Some men believe that by marrying a younger woman, you can raise her the way you desire – as if she hasn’t been raised properly at her parents’ house. It is sad and painful that ‘child brides’ and their parents accept this idea.”
Marriage to Migrants
The Sound and Picture Project for Documenting Violations, a local watchdog group, has recorded more than 166 cases of women marrying ISIS migrants since the group took over the Deir Ezzor province, which fell under ISIS control shortly after Raqqa.
Asked about the child marriage phenomenon, Sound and Picture Project activist Muhammad Hassan said: “The reasons for child marriage vary. Some parents are lured by the money offered by ISIS migrants to marry their daughters for financial reasons. Others do it because of their loyalty to ISIS.”
However, many of the women who have married ISIS migrants have become widows, as Deir Ezzor resident Ahmad explained. Most of the men die after a short period of time because ISIS puts them on the front lines.
Three weeks after ISIS took over the part of Deir Ezzor already controlled by armed opposition groups, it issued several rules, one of which forces women to wear a double-layered veil. It also restricts their movements, preventing them from going out unless accompanied by a male guardian, known as amahram, at all times.
Afraa, 57, was in one of the shops in her village, situated in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor, when she revealed her face to try on a shoe she wanted to buy. At the same time, an ISIS member was passing by. He scolded her in front of everyone, and gave a fine to her mahram.
“I was surprised at the fine, especially as the store had only women in it; even the workers at the store are women as well,” Aamer, Afraa’s son, recalled. “They did not respect her age when they scolded her and gave her the fine. When I went to the station to pay the fine, ISIS members talked to me as if we have no honor or dignity.”
Cities and big towns in Deir Ezzor are witnessing exaggerated restrictions by ISIS Hisbah on dress code, whereas ISIS has relatively less control in small villages and rural areas. Abdul Salam, an al-Bukamal-based activist, recalled more than 50 women being arrested in one instance by the Hisbah’s female unit.
“They put them all in one of the city’s mosques and they weren’t released until their parents came to pay the fine,” Abdul Salam said. “They had to sign a written pledge promising not to repeat the offense.”
Although ISIS is more effective at policing cities, it has still imposed its harsh restrictions on vast expanses of the countryside.
Punishment: Threat of Lashing
The women’s dress code imposed by ISIS consists of: abaya, niqab (a doubled-layered veil), khimar (to block the eyes and prevent them being seen) and gloves. To breach one of those items leads to punishment – which varies from a simple warning, written pledge or fine to detention, and could possibly lead to the woman or her mahram being lashed.
Bushra, 22, from the Deir Ezzor’s western countryside, was subjected to a lashing. “There was something wrong with her niqab, which resulted in her showing part of her face, but only for seconds, while one of the ISIS members was passing,” her cousin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “The incident blew out of proportion; she scolded him, because he talked to her in a very improper way. This led ISIS to lash her brother, and they then ordered her brother to lash her in public to ‘discipline her.’”
Samar, the former teacher, explained that because women in Deir Ezzor perceive ISIS to be newcomers, who will go sooner or later, this makes them less keen to implement their rules to the letter.
A version of this article was originally published in Arabic at Suwar Magazine. It has been translated, edited and republished with the original photos at Syria Deeply with permission.