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Raqqa's "Merciful" Morality Squad

Woman detained for “crime” of sitting next to male bus driver.
By Leen Ahmad
  • Hisbah cars patrol the streets in search of anyone who violates the regulations. Photograph: Badeeh Mohammad
    Hisbah cars patrol the streets in search of anyone who violates the regulations. Photograph: Badeeh Mohammad

One morning in mid-November, Bushra left the house as she did every day at seven am.

She heard Abu Saad, who drove the service minibus taking her and other teachers to a school in the Kassarat area, close to Raqqa, sound his horn.

As she did every morning, Bushra crammed herself into the rear of the van. Although there was barely enough space in the back, the front seats next to Abu Saad remained empty, reserved for any men they might pick up along the way.

Bushra, 30, had no idea that this day would be different from normal.

The mother-of-three had been living at her parents’ house since her husband travelled to find work in Turkey. She insisted on continuing to work as a primary schoolteacher long as Islamic State (IS) allowed the schools to remain open.

On the morning in question, the teachers spent the journey deep in conversation until they reached the Old Bridge checkpoint close to their school.

As usual, a fearful silence descended on the minibus, broken only by questions from the militant who was inspecting IDs at the checkpoint. When he finished, he gave the teachers a final, stern look before slamming the door shut and yelling, “Move on!”

When the vehicles was out of sight of the checkpoint, Bushra, tired of being crushed in the back, asked Abu Saad to pull over so she could move to the front. As he moved off again, Bushra pressed herself to the window, careful to keep as much distance as she could between herself and the driver.

“Careful you don’t fall out!” called one of the teachers, and they all broke into laughter – until they heard the shouting of the checkpoint guard as he rode up on his motorbike and forcing the minibus to pull over.

“Well, well,” said the militant, his features partly hidden by a scarf. “You think I don’t see you? Get out of the car, you and her, on the double.”

Bushra froze, her heart hammering in her chest. Her first thought was of her husband, who would divorce her immediately if he heard about this.

“Calm down, son,” said Abu Saad. “It’s just that….”

“Is she related to you?” the militant interrupted.

“No, my son,” replied Abu Saad.

“Well,” the militant said, “we’ll have to call the hisbah [morality police] and they’ll decide what to do with you.”

During the short wait for the hisbah patrol, Bushra thought she might be sick from fear. She could think of nothing but how angry her husband would be if he heard about this. When the patrol vehicle arrived, two bearded men got out and ordered Abu Saad to follow them to the hisbah office, leaving no room for argument.

Bushra was in floods of tears all the way to the hisbah headquarters. She felt completely helpless and could not do anything except whisper over and over again, “Please God, please God, please God.”

When they arrived at the hisbah head office, one of the men ordered Bushra and Abu Saad out of the van. The rest of the teachers stayed behind so that their clothing could be inspected by one of the female militants.

Bushra heard but the sound of her pounding heard as she and Abu Saad followed the man to a room where a cleric known as the “sharee” was waiting for them.

A 40-something Saudi man with very dark skin, he sat behind his desk, stroking his long beard.

“Is this man related to you?” he asked Bushra.

Bushra answered with difficulty, the words sticking in her throat. “No.”

“Why were you sitting next to him, then?” the sharee asked. “And why would you let her?” he asked Abu Saad. “Don’t you know this is considered a mortal sin?”

Bushra cried even harder when she heard this. She felt terribly weak and powerless, unable to defend herself.

Abu Saad’s protestations fell on deaf ears. The sharee interrupted him immediately and cried, “Shut up!” before instructing one of the militants, “Give him 40 lashes and then let him go.”

Bushra realised that punishment for her was nigh, and tried to save herself by speaking up as the tears flowed behind her niqab.

“Please, sheikh, I’m a married woman with children and I swear I want nothing but respectability and the ability to earn my daily bread in a decent manner,” she said.

“You’re married, huh?” the sharee said. “Give me your home phone number.”

“My husband is away in Turkey, sheikh,” Bushra said. “If he found out about this he’d divorce me. I’m begging you.”

“Give me the number of your guardian, then,” the sharee said.

Bushra gave him the number of her parents’ house and he called them.

As she waited for her father to arrive, a militant went through her bag, pulling out her mobile phone and searching through it while Bushra stood in a corner of the room, feeling that she was amongst monsters who might turn on her at any moment.

She wanted to die when she saw her elderly father entering the room, his hands visibly trembling as he leaned heavily on his cane. She desperately wanted to ask him to forgive her, but to forgive her for what?

“Are you pleased, hajj, that your daughter is behaving this way?” the sharee asked.

“No, my son,” Bushra’s father replied, avoiding her gaze.

Bushra listened as the sharee accused her of being a woman without honour, and her tears fell faster with every curt reply from her father. She felt utterly broken.

After a series of accusations, the sharee ended the conversation.

“This time, just for your sake, hajj, we’ll let her go,” he said. “Next time we won’t be so merciful.”

“God bless you, my son,” Bushra’s father replied.

Bushra and her father left the room where she had been held for the last two hours. When they were outside the headquarters, her father began to wail loudly. She threw herself into his arms. Both of them were wracked with sobs, unable to do anything but cry.

Leen Ahmad is the pseudonym of a Damascus Bureau contributor in Syria.

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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