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Voices from 'the Caliphate' – Deir al-Zour Open in fullscreen

Farah Nasif

Voices from 'the Caliphate' – Deir al-Zour

Illustration: Claudia Mateus

Date of publication: 7 January, 2015

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In Deir al-Zour, the Islamic State group's rule has been particularly restrictive for women. Some cope. Some don't. Most simply adapt.
Editor's note: These are perspectives collected from three Islamic State group strongholds in Syria and Iraq: Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Mosul. All identities have been withheld or changed.
People adapt. Sometimes adapting means coping. Sometimes it means capitulation.

Drive through one checkpoint. Assume one identity. Drive through another. Assume a second identity. Hide your hair, hide your face. Feel your soul slip into the dark.
     People respond to IS rule by adapting, pretending piety, staying home or even travelling to regime-controlled areas.

The Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) has held Deir al-Zour, the largest city in eastern Syria, since July 2014.  IS rule has brought more stringent regulations than even those enforced by al-Nusra front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, which was in control of the city before the IS group ousted it.
This is especially true for women. A strict dress code is in force – fully covered, with the niqab, the full face veil – starting at the age of 11. Women are not allowed to move or travel alone unless accompanied by a mahram, a male relative to whom no marriage can be entered into.  There is strict segregation, in schools and workplaces.

READ ALSO: Voices from the Caliphate – Mosul

Fatima is capitulating. The former primary school teacher no longer goes out. There are the public executions. There is the black gown she now wears that, “covers my soul… Why should I go out? Why work?”
Zeina’s marriage is feeling the strain. Once she went to the local market, with a head scarf but no veil. She was surrounded by IS members who called her names. Some even threw rubbish at her. To make matters worse, her husband told her it was her own fault. She should have covered her face. She knew the rules. “I hated him. I didn’t want to look at him.”
Are these deep-rooted complexes against women? Real and virtual, IS members have persecuted women. Samiya’s facebook page was hacked into, her photos taken and then doctored to show her semi-naked. She was then asked to “use her education and knowledge” in the service of the IS group. She ignored the messages. They sent the doctored pictures to her brother and other family members. Her relatives beat her. “I kept asking myself why.”
But the restrictions affect everyone. IS has banned cigarette smoking and even their sale. As a result, addicted smokers, mostly men, are open to blackmail from smugglers who are often also IS informers. The virtual world is not safe either. Mahmoud was imprisoned for four days and lashed twice when a picture of him smoking appeared on Facebook. After a religious lecture he signed a document undertaking not to smoke again. His habit, however, didn’t leave him. And the regime-controlled areas of Deir al-Zour now seem attractive. “Sometimes I go there just to smoke freely.”

Drive through one checkpoint. Assume one identity. Drive through another. Assume a second (Illustration: Anas Awad)

But there is support for IS as well. Ragheb wonders what all the fuss is about. IS, he said, “is only implementing God’s sharia and the Prophet’s sunnah. We are Muslims, after all”.

However, strict enforcement can backfire. Prayers are now obligatory. IS men will ensure that shops are closed and men have performed their ablutions and are going to the mosque at prayer times. Tardiness or absence will be punished.

READ ALSO: Voices from the Caliphate – Raqqa
Force brings with it resistance. Khaled used to pray. Now he resents being forced to pray. He has become disruptive. One time he accidentally broke wind while at prayer. He remembers with a laugh how it prompted one IS member to interrupt the prayer to ask who was the culprit. “They made us perform wudu [ablutions] again. Now I’ve started to pass gas almost every time I pray.”
Under such rule, with its restrictions and public executions, people might naturally welcome the US-led airstrikes on the IS group. But few would say so openly. Some fear retribution. Some also believe that airstrikes will only kill more innocents. Hassan says the IS has brought the strikes on itself. But he also believes they have been inefficient. Certainly, there has been no change in IS behaviour towards the civilians under its control.
Still, life goes on. Coping is hard, but reality is what it is. People respond to IS rule by adapting, pretending piety, staying home to look at the world through the virtual world or even travelling to regime-controlled areas.
This, however, demands preparation. Nahla lives in IS-controlled Deir al-Zour. To get to regime-controlled areas, she and her husband must pass two checkpoints.
“At the IS checkpoint, our vocabulary changes. We use religious words. Rashed [her husband] calls every IS member ‘my brother’. We carry a prayer mat. Our mobiles are free of banned photos or music.”
But they keep a memory card with music hidden in the car. It comes in useful at the other checkpoint.
“Once we arrive at the regime checkpoint, we get the memory card out and turn on the music. I take off my niqab. We smoke. And, of course, we curse the IS.”
People adapt.
All views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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