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

Women Told to Hide "Shining Eyes" in Raqqa

A trip to the shops turns into an ordeal in an Islamic State stronghold.
By Leen Ahmad

One day in late December, Yara and her cousin decided to go tothe nearby grocer’s shop to buy a few items. It was a rare outing they looked forward to as a way of relieving some of the frustrations of a life increasingly restricted for women, especially in a small town like Tabaqa, part of Islamic State-controlled Raqqa.

The girls were careful to put on full “sharia-compliant” dress that concealed their entire bodies apart from their eyes. The street was empty of mujahedin fighters, which slightly eased their nervousness. Their trip to the shop passed without incident, but things took a turn for the worse as they made their way back home.

They were surprised by the sudden sound of a car pulling up nearby.

“You and her, stop!”

Yara froze on the spot, pulling at her cousin’s hand. Two men in Afghan-style dress and carrying automatic weapons got out of the car. They had long hair and beards and spoke with Saudi accents.

“Where have you been?” one asked.

The question both stunned and frightened Yara. The men’s intimidating appearance added to her nervousness, and she was reluctant to reveal that they had been to a shop.

“We were at our aunt’s house,” she said.

“At your aunt’s house, huh?” said one of the men. “Where are your deraas?” A “deraa” is a piece of black cloth worn over the “abaya” cloak as further concealment of a woman’s figure.

Stuttering, Yara answered, “Our house is close to here, Sheikh.”

The armed men continued to fire off questions. “I swear your eyes are shining… how dare you greet men with such an appearance?” one said.

Yara and her cousin clutched at each other’s hands and cast about them with frightened looks, searching for someone to save them. Although the street was full of passers-by, they felt utterly alone and abandoned.

Then the bolt descended from the blue – the sheikh had made his decision. “Get in the car, now,” he said.

“Why, where are you taking us?”

“To the hisbah [morality police].”

“Sheikh, please, we swear we just went to the shop to buy some things.”

“You’ve just said you were at your aunt’s house, and now you were at the shop? Go on, into the car.”

“We won’t go with you,” the girls said.

It was as if they had slapped him. He cocked his weapon, ready to fire, pointing it at their faces.

“Into the car!” he screamed.

Oh God! Was he really pointing his weapon at their faces? They could hardly believe what was happening, and clutched one another in abject terror.

“Sheikh, please, we haven’t done anything wrong.”

“The hisbah will decide when your guardian arrives.”

These words gave Yara an idea. She remembered that her house was nearby.

“We won’t go with you without a mahram [close male relative]” she said. “Our house is nearby. Take us home.”

They climbed into the car and headed to Yara’s home, the girls’ tear-filled eyes cast down and their movements shaky with the humiliation. The trip home did not take very long, but the terror and worry they felt, and the hate-filled looks they were getting from the mujahidin, made it feel like an age.

Yara’s older brother was outside, standing next to the front door. When the car stopped, they got out and stood behind him.

“What’s going on, Sheikh?” he asked.

“Are you their guardian?”

“I’m their brother.”

“This won’t do at all. How can Muslim women go out like that?”

Yara, sobbing, interrupted him, “We were at the store buying some things. Here they are!”

She pulled the groceries out to show everyone, but her brother began admonishing her in front of the mujahidin, making her cry even harder. She justified his behaviour to herself by thinking that he didn’t want to enter into an argument with the mujahideen and make the problem worse. But she wanted him to take her side and fight for her rights, because she had done nothing wrong.

“Next time, they should not be allowed out into the street unless they’re wearing a deraa and their eyes are covered up,” said the mujahed, ending the conversation and climbing back into the car.

A painful silence descended on Yara as her brother screamed at her, ordering her back into the house. Her heart was brim-full with sadness.

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