The road to Raqqa was paved with black cloth. Scores of niqabs, the spartan black veils ordered by Islamic State, littered the desert floor alongside hijabs and abayas, all flung from the shoulders of women escaping the city the moment they had crossed no man’s land and were certain that their flight had succeeded.
“You can see what the women think of daesh [Isis] rules by what they throw on the ground here,” said a young fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces militia (SDF), as he stirred the material with his boot.
The fighter stared uneasily out across the front beyond the village of Ruwayyan, 20 kilometres northwest of Raqqa, to where a sandstorm approached, stretching from ground to sky. “The first thing they do when they see us is tear off their veils.”
Thousands of women have crossed these lines, fleeing Raqqa and its surrounding villages as the so-called caliphate begins to collapse. Local authorities in Rojava, Syria’s self-administered northeast, say that more than 100,000 people have escaped in the past three weeks alone — an exodus all but unseen by the outside world.
Once they are a safe distance from the caliphate, women discard their niqabs The desert north of Raqqa is filled with these displaced, escaping on foot or by tractor, pulling their most treasured belongings, seizing the chance to escape caused by recent SDF advances and Isis’s weakening grasp.
Many have moved numerous times during Syria’s six-year conflict, smuggling themselves and their families across one front line after another as each new sanctuary becomes riven with violence. The lives of the women became ever more restricted the deeper into Isis territory they traveled.
Few of these women waste any time, and hurl away their dark clothes as soon they reach the first positions of the SDF, the American-backed units now approaching Raqqa from three sides.
“The niqab came to symbolise the suffocating feeling we had of life under the daesh,” Um Lamis, a 33-year-old mother from Raqqa, told me as we sat in the shade of a tree discussing her flight across the lines two days earlier.
“The veil removed me from my sense of engagement with the outside world. It is something Raqqa women grew to hate more than anything else. So I ripped it off as soon as I reached the SDF front line.” She ululated with delight. “It was like breathing again!”
The accounts of the Raqqa women escaping one of the most hermetically sealed and stifling environments on Earth illuminate a system whereby Isis not only repressed women but delighted in the cruelty of that repression.
Um Ali watched her daughter beaten for going unveiled. “I was forced to watch more beheadings than I care to remember,” Um Lamis told me, cradling her three-year-old daughter. “You don’t ever expect — not as a man nor woman — to see anything like that. Yet we were repeatedly forced to watch it.” She described seeing one man, accused of collaboration with the coalition, crucified.
“I was ordered out of the back of my husband’s car to watch the man tied to a cross. He was begging for forgiveness but an emir stabbed a knife into his chest and then shot him in the head. He was left on the cross for three days as an example. The image was burned into my brain. I thought I would never sleep again.”
An older woman, Um Ali, 60, who had fled across the front line a week before, was forced to watch her son beat her daughter in a village south of Raqqa. The incident began when a patrol of Isis religious police, Hisbah, noticed that the daughter had taken off her niqab. They rounded up the family, ensured the daughter was wearing the niqab and marched them to their headquarters in the village.
“First they beat my 20-year-old son with 70 lashes across his back with a cane,” Um Ali told me, “as punishment for allowing his sister to sin. Then they sat my daughter in a chair, a guard either side, and ordered my son to beat her outstretched hands with the same cane used to beat him.”
At first she said that her son, his own back thick with weals, tried to avoid hurting his sister. “So the Hisbah told him, ‘Beat her strongly or we will punish you again’. He gave her 50 strikes. My daughter flinched with every blow. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or not as the niqab covered her face.”
The codes Raqqa women had to abide by under Isis rule were similar to those of the Afghan Taliban. No woman could go out unaccompanied. The chaperone must be a direct male family member — father, brother, son.
Even sunlight became restricted, as windows were ordered shrouded so that passers-by could not see women inside their houses. Clothing transgressions were punished either with 15-day re-education courses or beatings, dependent largely on the scale of the offence and whim of the local Hisbah.
The women regarded the female branch of Hisbah, the al-Khansaa brigade, with particular fear. Their numbers included the wives of foreign fighters, radicalised local women, and impoverished recruits who joined because they had little other choice. “They were cruel, and stole from our homes during searches,” Um Lamis said. “And they seemed to enjoy issuing beatings.”
Yet there was a realistic acceptance of Isis widows who had escaped among them. Um Lamis told me that many had no choice in their husband’s decisions, or else that their dead husbands joined Isis as an alternative to poverty.
To compound the shock of their flight from Raqqa and sudden freedom, many of the women said that the first fighters they had seen across no man’s land had been Kurdish women from the YPJ, the all-female units fighting as part of the SDF. “One minute I lived in Raqqa, a city ruled by men,” Um Lamis laughed, “where women had not even the power to show our faces. The next I am greeted by armed Kurdish women, faces bare and their hair uncovered, guns in hands, fighting the daesh. They welcomed me as a sister! I bow to their courage!”
Contact with these YPJ cadres, each highly versed in the rights of women as a central part of their own ideology, has left an indelible impression on many Raqqa women. The system of local governance is remarkable for its difference, too. Typically, the Rojava territory is governed by local assemblies and communes, all chaired by women.
“At first some of the men in my village had a problem when I was elected co-chairwoman to my local assembly,” said Amina al-Hassan, 30, a Sunni Arab woman, who had lived for three years under Isis rule until her village was liberated by the SDF.
“They said it wasn’t my place as a woman,” she said. “So I said to them, to their faces: ‘You didn’t dare say a word when the daesh were in charge. Now they have gone you want to deprive women again of their rights?’ The men hung their heads.”
Whatever the future of Raqqa’s women, and however male-dominated the society to which they return after the defeat of Isis in Raqqa, each woman I spoke to from the city said that the experience of life there, and their escape into a more egalitarian society, had irreversibly altered their perceptions.
“Under the rule of daesh our husbands and sons lost their rights too — they were afraid and unable to protect us,” said Um Lamis. “So now our men must realise that when all this is over and the daesh are defeated things will not be as they were before: women have not gone through so much at the hands of men to remain disadvantaged in the future. It will never be as before.”
This article was first published in The Times, May 8, 2017 and was written by Anthony Loyd, Ruwayyan