Syria: Islamic Rules Enforced in Raqqa

Hard-line group forces women, and men too, to comply with rules of dress and behaviour.

New Islamic regulations are being imposed in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and they are keenly felt by the students who make the daily bus trip out to the private Ittihad University in the suburbs.

Male students sit at the front of the bus while the girls are at the back, because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has prohibited them from sitting together. There is an ISIS checkpoint between the suburbs and the city. Before the bus reaches it, driver Abu Muhammad asks women to cover up so they can get through without problems.

The fighters at the checkpoint will prevent a car from proceeding if the women inside are “uncovered”. That included Ittihad University’s female students, who are forced to put on a “niqab” veil before reaching the ISIS checkpoint twice a day, coming and going back. They remove the niqab once they have passed through.

ISIS is currently in control of Raqqa, after a battle that ousted the Ahrar ash-Sham and al-Nusra Front from the city at the beginning of January. Three kilometres north of the city, the Hudhayfa bin al-Yaman battalion is taking part in the siege of the headquarters of the Syrian army’s 17th Division.

Even before gaining full control of Raqqa, ISIS had begun dictating behavioural codes to Raqqa’s residents. Some have to do with appearance, others with aspects of daily life. In addition to imposing the “niqab”, ISIS also encourages sales at reduced prices at an outlet called Al-Durra al-Massuna, or “The Protected Gem”, which replaced a mainstream clothing shop.

Enforcing the niqab at security checkpoints was just the first step. Men, too, were about to be subjected to ISIS scrutiny.

Raqqa resident Muhammad al-Huweidi, a 25-year-old student at Ittihad University, recalled, “They once stopped us at a checkpoint, and after ensuring that all the women were wearing the niqab, they turned to some of the men who they deemed to be wearing clothing that was ‘too tight’, or wearing their hair in unconventional ways.

“They [the men] were warned that this clothing was ‘haram’ [forbidden], and that they should be wearing looser clothing.”

Under Baathist rule, even a small beard could cause problems, since the regime feared any manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nowadays, a beard, particularly a long one, conveys the impression that the owner is a devout Muslim, so that Islamist militiamen are less likely to hassle him.

This has led many young men to grow beards, not necessarily out of religious motivations, but to better blend into the new social order and to make it easier to get through the many security checkpoints scattered across the city and its outskirts.

Women, too, have modified their behaviour to make life easier.

“Most female university students don’t wear veils,” said al-Huweidi. “But before they arrive at the checkpoint, they put on a veil that covers their bodies and faces. Fifty metres beyond the checkpoint, they take it off.”

But this ploy is no longer enough – it is now impossible for women to be on the university campus without covering their heads at the very least.

Al-Huweidi recalls how ISIS representatives visited the campus on December 29, 2013, and after seeing many of the women unveiled, forbade them all – students, lecturers and administrative staff – from returning to campus.

The teachers refused to hold lessons until the women were allowed back, and this prompted a delegation of students to seek an audience with the head of the ISIS advocacy office, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who told them that the women could return to the university on January 5, provided that they wore the veil.

ISIS now forces the female students to wear the full veil, covering both face and body, as a condition for continuing their studies. They have also given several lectures at educational institutions on the importance of Islamic dress.

“After one lecture conducted by some of the women from the ISIS advocacy office, they handed out some CDs,” said Suad, 22 (not her real name), a mathematics student. She never looked at the CD, but says she is very well aware of the content.

Damascus Bureau obtained a copy of this CD, which is aimed at women in particular. It includes e-books and fatwas on women, warnings against practicing witchcraft and sorcery, Islamic songs, and recitations from the Koran.

Another source of problems is “unlawful meetings” between men and unaccompanied women in public spaces like cafes or parks. It is prohibited for any man to meet with a woman classed as “forbidden”, in other words not related to him by blood or marriage.

“I was walking with my cousin on the periphery of the Rashid Gardens when we were stopped by a patrol,” said 18-year-old Ahmad. “ They ordered my cousin to leave on her own, and then took me to one of their headquarters where they beat me before letting me go.”

Several similar cases have been publicised on Facebook, including one involving allegations of an assault by Ahrar al-Sham members on a group of male students from the Faculty of Literature whom they caught standing and talking to female colleagues on the university campus.

Until this winter, interference by the ISIS, and before that, the Sharia Committee – made up of several Islamic factions – was restricting to matters of appearance and dress. Shops were not forced to close during prayer time, nor was there a punishment for people caught wandering the streets during prayer time.

But this week, ISIS issued new regulations including a ban on playing music and selling tobacco, and a requirement for shops to close ten minutes prior to the five daily prayer times.

Car owners have also had to remove bumper stickers and emblems containing expressions of love or tenderness, and replacing them with jihadist or revolutionary slogans. The songs that once spilled out of shops and cars have been replaced by Islamic or revolutionary anthems, although they remain as loud as ever.

In the view of one imam at a mosque in Raqqa, who refused to give his name, the authoritarian imposition of Islamic strictures has been counterproductive.

“Some women are applying cosmetics much more thickly now that they’ve been forced to wear the veil,” he said.

The imam believes advocacy and awareness-raising for girls and women and parents would be more effective. Otherwise, if society is “forced into everything Islamic, it will come to reject it”.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.