A group of women who fled ISIS rule in the western countryside of Tel Abyad have removed their veils upon reaching the city of Kobani, invoking astonishment and acceptance among locals.
Surviving two years of oppression, tyranny, exploitation and denial of basic rights, the women were not permitted to leave home or visit family without tough restrictions, often refusing to walk around out of fear of arrest or kidnapping by ISIS fighters.
Umm Marwan spent three days travelling with women and children through the desert of Tel Abyad without water or food. The mother of six girls lived through two years of oppression and humiliation in the remote countryside trying to avoid ISIS militants. ISIS forces occupied Tel Abyad and it made its fighters marry the daughters of respectable clans and families in order to gain the trust of the society and penetrate it.
When an ISIS prince chose one of her daughters as a wife, Umm Marwan decided to escape with her children.
As soon as Umm Marwan saw a checkpoint brandishing the Kurdish and Free Syrian Army flags, she realized she had reached safety. Marwan stopped to take off her hijab, removing two years of oppression, humiliation and fear. She raised her hands, thanking heaven, blessing the fighters who greeted her. Minutes later, other women began applauding and waving, realizing they had also reached safety.
The story of Umm Marwan is not so different from the story of Murjanah, who lived with her husband in one of the villages of Tel Abyad, unable to flee with the other residents as they were Kurds. Despite ISIS’ repeated demands to evacuate the village, they refused to be forced from their homes, hoping the war would soon end. The couple do not have money, but her husband owns a piece of land with some agricultural machinery and some sheep. This is his only income to feed his eight children, his wife and his mother.
But with the fighting intensifying, and ISIS’ branding of any Kurd in its regions a spy that must be killed, remaining in the village would be suicide. Their journey took two days, and when their safety was guaranteed, Murhanah removed the black hijab she had been wearing for two years, she raised it up, waiving to the Kurdish fighters she saw from a distance – declaring her freedom and the safety of her family, declaring the end of months of tyranny imposed by ISIS.
Women's rights in the age of ISIS
Syrian women suffer under the rule of ISIS from deprivation of their civil and religious rights in an unprecedented manner. Women in this society are treated as a means for fun and reproduction, a policy of systematic persecution, deprived from their cultural, humanitarian and social role.
ISIS forbids women from travelling or walking around without the company of a close male relative, and they are required to wear full black dress and a "shield" that obscures the shape of a woman’s body. It is also forbidden for women to wear high-heeled shoes, as well as open, or decorated hijabs. Women who do not observe to these rules face arrest, being beaten and whipped or even executed in public.
Under ISIS rule, women are confined only to their homes. Beauty salons have been closed, the display of mannequins is now forbidden, the seller of women’s clothes must be a female, and it is now forbidden to sell women's underwear to men. Women are also forbidden to sit on public chairs or go to health clinics where male doctors work. Women routinely face murder, rape or kidnapping in ISIS-controlled areas, in addition to the forced marriage of girls to ISIS fighters. The educational system also suffers intervention by ISIS through the selection of male religious teachers, while random patrols arrest any female student who does not adhere to ISIS laws.
These rules imposed on women by ISIS and the Nusra Front have a profound psychological effect on the daily lives of women and girls, drastically affecting their ability to receive education, support their families or provide the basic necessities of life.
Women are exposed to all kinds of exploitation and harassment, in addition to forced marriage of underage girls, which often results in destructive consequences. The effects of these policies are psychologically devastating and will have a profound effect on children, families and the community at large.
Human Rights Watch Report
Human Rights Watch confirmed in a report published on January 13, 2014, that the strict rules imposed by some groups in the north and northeast regions of Syria violate the human rights of women and girls and limit their ability to carry out their key daily activities. The two extremist groups the Nusra Front and ISIS have imposed their interpretations of Sharia law, forcing women and young girls to wear the hijab. In some areas, these groups have imposed discriminatory measures that prohibit women and girls, especially those who do not comply to the rules of clothing, from moving freely in public places, working, and from attending school.
The organization calls on the Nusra Front and ISIS to end their backward policies that violate women's rights, including the enforced clothing laws and restrictions on freedom of movement. The two groups must cease the punishment of women and girls and the threatening of those who wear clothes or behave in a way not consistent with their strict rules. Both groups should stop their illegal interference in womens’ and girls' rights in privacy, independence, freedom of expression and religious belief, thought and conscience. Both groups must show their commitment to international human rights laws, and hold any fighter accountable who restricts women's clothing or their ability to work, learn or access public places.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer