Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Shopping Trip in Raqqa

Women face great perils just to go about their business in an Islamic State stronghold in Syria.
By Haya Mohammed

After several days of discussion and debate, my mother eventually allowed my sister and me to go to February 23 Street, a large thoroughfare in Raqqa’s city centre where we do most of our shopping.

My mother was determined to keep us at home as she was afraid we might run into the Islamic State’s religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who punish anyone violating the rules of “hisbah”.

Although we promised to wear full Islamic dress, my mother was afraid we would be picked out by the “mujahidat”, women who follow hisbah and look for anyone breaching the regulations. She was scared they would detain us and sentence us to a flogging.

At the front door, my mother checked over our “uniform”, one after the other.

“Are you wearing your socks?” she asked. “Let me look at your niqab. Make sure the headscarf won’t fly off and show your neck.”

Once our mother is satisfied, we set off. I turned my head to look up to the balcony to see if she was there.

“She might appear on the balcony with more things for us to be careful of,” I told my sister with a stifled laugh.

We took a taxi into town and headed for a shop where we needed to buy spectacles before it closed for prayers.

“It’s mandatory for shopkeepers to close during prayer times, or else they’ll be punished,” I told my sister.

But when we reached the shop door, we were out of luck. “Oh God, it’s closed! We’ll have to wait for prayers to finish before it opens again. What bad luck!” I said.

“Let’s check in another one,” my sister suggested, and we started looking for another shop.

While we were walking, three women in full Islamic dress appeared in front of us. They were distinguishable by the  wide piece of cloth they wore over their cloak to cover their chest and waist.  This outfit sets the mujahidat and wives of the mujahidin apart.

“They’re their wives! Probably hisbah people! Let’s get away before they charge us with something,” my sister cried.

Frightened, we started walking quickly towards the next shop.

When we got there, I asked the owner to give me a pair of glasses to try one.

“Is it possible to try them on in the shop, and raise my veil?" I asked him.

"You can,” he replied. “But be careful, they are out in force in this street, and you might get us in big trouble.”

“My sister will warn me if one of them shows up," I answered confidently.

I began trying on glasses. I lifted my veil to put them on, and quickly put it back in place again. Of course, the shopkeeper kept his back turned, for fear that we would both be flogged if someone suddenly came in.

“Put it down quickly! It’s a sheikh!” my sister cried.

A sheikh who looked around 40 years of age suddenly appeared in front of the shop window. He was dressed in Pakistani clothing with a robe down to his knees and short trousers. He had a black beard and a round white hat. Fortunately, he did not see my face.

"It could have been a disaster but for the grace of God,” I whispered to my sister.

The shop did not have the glasses we wanted, so we went to another one that was open for ten minutes before closing for prayers.

The owner asked me to go into a small room to try on the glasses. Meanwhile he stood in front of the shop door, scared that someone might come in and cause trouble.

I hurriedly tried to choose a pair of glasses as the owner began closing down the shop.

After buying the glasses, we left the shop and decided to return home on foot since we had not been out of the house in two months. As we walked along, the shops were closing for congregational prayers and shop owners lined up along the streets.

The streets emptied out. Uncomfortable and scared of running into the hisbah enforcers, women could be seen rushing and stumbling in their heavy clothing. Others sat in front of shops, waiting for the owners to return after prayers.

A "hisbah car" suddenly drove up on the road parallel to the one we were on.

"It's a hisbah car... no, no! Don’t turn back… thank God, it’s gone a different way.”

On our walk home, we saw members of the mujahidin of various nationalities. Here were people in our own city giving us strange looks.

Some of them were injured and others were using walking sticks. One was standing at a checkpoint searching passing cars. Another was in military uniform.

We felt as though we were walking the streets of a city we were visiting for the first time.

On our way home, we were more afraid and anxious than we had been earlier. We kept looking behind us  for fear a sheikh would charge us with some offence at any moment.

We were afraid just to walk in the streets of Raqqa. This is one of the most basic rights for any human being. If we let just a small part of our bodies show by accident, we might be humiliated and even flogged by a woman, who might not even be from Syria.

This is the situation we are in now – we women in a small city covered in black.

Haya Mohammed is the pseudonym of a student from Raqqa currently in Aleppo.

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

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