Hanuf and her children waited nervously for their bus at the station in Qamishli in northeast Syria. They were on their way to visit her parents in Tal Hamis.
Tal Hamis, south of Qamishli, had fallen under Islamic State (IS) control three months earlier. Hanuf had not seen her family since then, so she had finally decided to embark on the short but daunting journey.
As she stood in line, a group of women struck up a conversation with her.
“Did you bring a niqab [face veil] with you?” one of them asked her.
“Why?” she asked, in some surprise.
“Haven’t you been watching the news?” another of the women asked her.
“Obviously not,” said a third. “Otherwise she wouldn’t have asked that question.”
Hanuf tried not to let what they were saying worry her, but as soon as she got on the bus, a large sign caught her attention – “Niqab available for female passengers.”
She automatically glanced at herself in the mirror. She was wearing the prescribed “hijab” headcovering. Why would she need a “niqab” – a piece of cloth veiling the entire face except the eyes – as well?
“Why did you put this sign up?” she asked the driver.
“Islamic State soldiers will be stopping us at checkpoints,’ he replied, “If they see a female passenger not wearing a niqab, they will hold us there while they lecture her on the importance of wearing it. So to save time and avoid the fuss, I keep some spare black niqabs on board. I also carry the IDs of my mother and sister, which I give to women travelling without a mahram [male relative].”
His words sent a shiver down Hanuf’s spine.
“You’ll see for yourself when we get to a checkpoint,” he said, taking the sign down. “Are you travelling alone?”
“I’m travelling with my children,” replied Hanuf.
He thrust an ID into her hand, “Take this – it belongs to my sister. If the ISIS people ask, we’ll both say we’re on our way to visit our parents. Got that?”
The driver tossed a bag to the passengers and asked all the women who weren’t wearing a niqab to take one out and put it on.
“Any of you ladies travelling without a mahram?” he asked.
An elderly woman in her 60s replied, “I am, but why would I need a mahram, son?”
The driver simply smiled and handed her his aunt’s ID.
Hanuf put the niqab on and looked at the ID the driver had given her. It belonged to a 20-year-old woman named Fatima.
The road to Tal Hamis was relatively quiet, but as they approached the town, the driver slowed down. They had reached an ISIS checkpoint.
Hanuf’s heart started racing and she hugged her children close.
Four ISIS soldiers approached the bus. Hanuf stole glances at them from underneath her niqab. One of them, a large man who looked to be in his 40s, came on board holding an automatic weapon.
“Any female passengers here travelling without a mahram?” he asked.
The driver broke the heavy silence inside the bus.
“All the woman have a mahram,” he said.
He pointed at Hanuf and said, “That’s my sister who is travelling with me to visit our parents, and that old lady is our aunt who misses my father.”
The man stared at Hanuf, who felt paralysed with fear. Eventually, he stepped off the bus, closed the door and signalled to the driver to move on.
A sigh of relief swept through the bus.
Hanuf was about to take her niqab off, but the driver called out, “Keep it on – we still have other checkpoints to get through. As I said, my spare niqabs will save us time.”
Hanuf chuckled at this, thinking how resourceful his plan was. But she still thought, “Why should I have to wear a niqab to satisfy ISIS?” It’s a question to which she has yet to find an answer.
Vian Mohammad is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor from Qamishli.
This story was republished in The Syrian Observer with the special approval of the Damascus Bureau