Women living under Islamic State’s control in Iraq and Syria are facing increasingly harsh restrictions on movement and dress, which are rigorously enforced by religious police and are leading to resentment and despair among moderate Muslims.
Residents of Mosul, Raqqa and Deir el-Zour have told the Guardian in interviews conducted by phone and Skype that women are forced to be accompanied by a male guardian, known as a mahram, at all times, and are compelled to wear double-layered veils, loose abayas and gloves.
Their testimonies follow the publication this month of an Isis “manifesto” to clarify the “realities of life and the hallowed existence of women in the Islamic State”. It said that girls could be married from the age of nine, and that women should only leave the house in exceptional circumstances and should remain “hidden and veiled”.
Sama Maher, 20, a resident of Raqqa who has been detained several times by Isis religious police, known as Hisbah, for violating Isis rules, said: “It is prohibited for a woman in Raqqa or Deir el-Zour to move anywhere outside without a mahram, a male guardian. It is a big problem as I do not have any, we are only five sisters.”
Isis has closed universities in areas under its control, she added. “I had to quit my university studies in Aleppo because I’m not allowed to cross the checkpoints without a mahram and leave the city by myself like before.”
Male guardians are subject to punishment if women are not complying with the prescribed dress code. In Mosul, Isis published a charter within weeks of taking taking control of the city, restricting women’s movements and imposing dress requirements. Women were instructed to wear a Saudi-style black veil of two layers to conceal their eyes and a loose robe designed by Isis after it said some abayas revealed body outlines.
Many women initially objected to the Isis order but complied when they realised they could be beaten, humiliated and fined, and their husbands might be punished. Men are now forcing their wives and daughters to stay at home to avoid confrontations with Hisbah, which issues orders via the internet or by posting written statements at shops warning against violations of Islamic rules in the city.
“They forced women of all ages to wear a veil, even though the majority of the women in Mosul wear a hijab,” paediatrician Maha Saleh, 36, said. “The Hisbah would hit a woman on her head with a stick if she was not wearing a veil.
“At the beginning, some female doctors refused to wear veils and went on a strike by staying at home. Hisbah took ambulances and went to their houses and brought them by force to the hospital. One of my colleagues was alone in her clinic in the hospital and thought it was all right to strip off her veil. All of a sudden, two Hisbah broke in her room and reproached her for not wearing the veil and warned her not to do that again.”
In Raqqa, the Isis “capital” in Syria, women were initially ordered to wear a black abaya covering the entire body. Soon after, a command to wear a veil was issued, then a third ordered a shield on top of the abaya. Women are also instructed to wear only black, including gloves and shoes. Isis subsequently ordered women to hide their eyes, requiring a a double-layered veil.
I was shocked to see that women in labour were denied access to the hospital unless they put veils on
Mosul resident Sabah Nadiem said: “I went once with my wife to one of the old souqs to do some shopping, and after a short while I lost her among the crowd. The problem was that all the women were wearing veils and it was hard to know who was my wife. I was utterly scared to make a mistake and go for the wrong woman. It would be a disaster to fall into Hisbah hands. I could not even use my mobile as the network was down.” Nadiem said he called out his wife’s name loudly in the souq until she heard him and they were reunited.
Hisbah patrols tour Isis-controlled cities to ensure that women and men are behaving in accordance with Islamic rules. If they spot a woman in the street not wearing a shield or gloves, sometimes they offer her “Islamic dress” with a pair of gloves and advise her not to go out again without them, or they take her to Hisbah headquarters and keep her there until her mahram arrives. The mahram may be fined or could be subjected to lashes.
Children are not exempt from strict dress codes. When schools opened in Mosul last October, Samar Hadi, a mother of five, sent her two daughters – Hala, six, and Tiba, seven, – to school without a hijab, as she had the year before.
“After two days, the headmistress told them that they all have to wear the hijab when they come to school. So I made them wear the hijab. Then an Isis order came to stipulate that only girls in 4th, 5th and 6th class in primary school have to wear hijab, not 1st and 2nd classes.”
In Deir el-Zour in Syria, the rules for female pupils and students appear to be stricter. “Little girls in primary schools have to wear an abaya until the 4th class, when they have to wear a veil too,” said Sali Issam, 15, a secondary school student. “Though all the teachers in girls’ schools are female, neither students nor teachers are allowed to lift the veil of their faces inside the classroom.”
Many families stopped sending their children to school after recent air strikes by the Syrian regime army, she added. “Families are scared of Hisbah and Assad’s warplanes.”
Women in labour in maternity hospitals in Mosul are forced to comply with dress codes. “When I was in labour, I went to the hospital wearing a veil though it was too hot. Isis Hisbah were at the front door of the hospital. I saw some women in labour who seemed to be in a panic and did not have time to wear a veil. I was shocked to see that they were denied access to the hospital unless they put veils on their faces,” said Salah.
Women over the age of 45 are exempted from the order to wear the veil, but often find themselves in difficulty. On a routine trip to Mosul University where she teaches, Saleh shared a taxi with an older woman who was not wearing a veil. “The taxi driver turned to the woman and said: ‘Why are not you wearing a veil?’ She told him that Isis said the veil was imposed on women who are less than 45. The driver answered: ‘I’m afraid if I have you in my car, Isis Hisbah will stop me at a checkpoint and fine me.’”
Buses are also stopped for passengers to be checked. If a woman is found without required dress or mahram, all passengers are forced to disembark and the bus is refused permission to proceed. “If Hisbah spot a woman without a mahram in a bus, the whole bus is evacuated and sent back because the driver accepted her,” said Maher.
In Mosul, single women are not allowed to be the last passenger on a bus, alone with the driver. Women are forced to get off buses before their destination if there are no other passengers present. Bassma Adel, 35, who works in a bank, had to get off a bus to avoid being alone with the driver even though she was not near her home.
“I had to walk to my house though the distance was long in inclement weather. One of my male colleagues passed by his car and offered to give me a lift. We drove for a short distance before we were spotted by Hisbah. They asked us for a document that proves my colleague was a mahram to me. When we failed to do that, they reproached us for being together in the car and humiliated us and ordered me to step down.”
Hospitals in Raqqa are almost empty of female doctors, according to residents. The few female nurses are forbidden from lifting their veils or wearing anything but Islamic dress. All woman visiting doctors must be accompanied by a mahram, who has to wait outside the clinic. If Hisbah discovers a man inside a clinic, he will be arrested. A woman is permitted to be checked by a male doctor but is not allowed to lift her veil during examination.
Recently Isis ordered all female hairdressers to be shut down in Mosul. Samah Nasir, 43, had her own hairdressing shop for more than nine years – the only source of income for her three children as her husband is ill and unable to work. “I decided to reopen my shop despite the Isis embargo because I had nothing to feed my children and pay for my husband’s medications.”
Shortly after, Hisbah broke in her house and took her and her husband to a sharia court. “The judge ruled that I should pay $1,500 [£977] as a fine and get 10 lashes on the bottom of my feet in one of the rooms in the sharia court. I have not been in such a situation all my life.” Now Nasir rarely leaves her house.