On Both Sides of War

Syrians’ Clothing… Following whose religion?

On Both Sides of War

Syrians’ Clothing… Following whose religion?



Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team

In an attempt to reach Turkey from Damascus, Rym, aged 24, had to choose between two paths. The first one is to cross areas controlled by opposition’s factions in northern Syria and reach the border to enter through smuggling routes. The second is to be obliged to travel to Lebanon in order to obtain an appointment with the Turkish Embassy and apply for visa.

Clothing style reveals Political Difference

“I had to abide by Shariaa dress code to cross illegally and break it in order to obtain a visa and arrive legally to Turkey.” Rym sarcastically uttered this statement during an interview with Enab Baladi when she was speaking about her attempts to get into Turkey. Now, geography in Syria determines the dress code that the population has to abide by, especially when travelling between a military checkpoint and another.

In the city of Idlib, where Rym had to spend two nights before the smuggling passage to Turkey failed, the girls were forced to wear an Islamic dress. Despite the problematic nature of the description of “Islamic”, the new custom imposed by some factions defined it as “Abaya”. The long coat is accepted too but reluctantly as it is most likely to “shape the girl’s figure”, in addition to the veil, which should preferably be uncoloured.

This clothing culture can be described as becoming widespread at opposition factions’ held areas in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, and although it does not differ much from the pre-revolution pattern, even though clothing didn’t convey it in general, and it can be turned into a form of “compulsion” as described by Dr. Ranya Qayser, director of Shine organization, which is operating in Idlib.

Qayser did not wear the veil before, but now she is wearing Abaya in Idlib to follow what has been imposed. She hasn’t been bothered by this because she wants to help her countrymen and “achieve a noble goal during her presence in Idlib.” She stressed that the girls are abiding by the prevailing clothing pattern in order to “avoid getting into trouble”. Women Advocacy Office are patrolling the city and some surrounding villages and towns to alert the girls in case they are not wearing  a long-coat or putting up a raised veil, which can bring them to disciplinary detention.

Nur al-Tal was one of the women who have been alerted by Women Advocacy Office, when she left Turkey during Eid holiday to meet her relatives in Idlib. Although she took a coat with her to avoid remarks, she was prevented from entering the public park because her clothes were ” inappropriate” as the coat ” was not long enough,” according to what she confirmed to Enab Baladi, and this led her to be considered as a “half dressed half naked” woman, as she said.

Pressure on women comes despite the control of the “religiously committed” society in the Syrian governorates, where a large proportion of girls are wearing the veil, but the concept of “commitment” differs from the prevailing concept in Syria from one faction to another. Other girls and women show a sense of satisfaction with this situation, as they consider it as taking the right path toward true Islamic dictations.

Coercion and imposition of a certain dressing code differ from one province to another according to the Faction which controls the village or city. According to Enab Baladi’s reporter in Idlib, Women Advocacy Office was established by Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly al-Nusra front, which makes its activity concentrated in the faction’s deployment areas.

On the other hand, in regime held areas, the change in clothing patterns has become noticeable in a way that breaks away with tradition and exaggerates the dissemination of Western patterns. In this case, there is no side which dictates the type of the clothing style, but rather a social environment that is assisting the break of customs because of the variables of war. This break with tradition is supported by the regime which is trying to draw a picture of Syria as “free from Islamic militancy and close to secularism.”

Considering that “circumstances alter cases,” some western patterns started to spread all over the regime-held areas. Rym, who asked not to be fully named for security reasons, insisted that the girls are now wearing clothes that were not acceptable in Syrian society before. She also stated that “last year I had to wear my most fashionable clothes in order to facilitate my passage to Lebanon and to convince the public security that I was not an extremist. Today, I have the same problem with some Syrians in the workplace.”

Dr. Ranya Qayser believed that the process of clothes’ “westernization” which is widespread in the regime-held areas is more dangerous than the imposition of extremist clothing styles in some opposition factions’ held areas. She pointed out that “coercion” can’t change community because it is “temporary”. At the same time, she expressed her fear regarding “the collapse of the ethical system in Syria,” to which drastic effects no one is working to find a remedy.

The discussion of dress patterns may seem to interfere with individual freedoms and ways of thinking. However, considering it as a reflection of social variables turns it into a dangerous threat, for “extremism” has changed the intellectual attitudes of the Syrians and thus exacerbated the differences and created a complex Syrian society, which stood as an alternative to a society that was once closer to homogeneity.

Female students sitting for the special session exam at the University of Idlib - 22 September, 2017 (Enab Baladi)

Female students sitting for the special session exam at the University of Idlib – 22 September, 2017 (Enab Baladi)

Syrians “follow their ruler’s religion”

The rearrangement of citizens’ affairs and the organization of their civil life was one of the priorities of the conflicting forces in Syria immediately after they would take control over a certain area, as a form of legitimacy, so that each of the controlling party would have a special trait mainly reflected on the clothing style of the citizens’ living under its control.

Regime held areas have tended to be relatively liberal in clothing styles, in a way that the conservative Syrian community has never been accustomed to, as part of a plan that some describe as a “methodological” approach by which the regime seeks to absolve itself of “hard-line” and “religious extremism” .

Meanwhile the opposition factions tended to impose a dressing code that abides by Shariaa on citizens under the pretext of “combating moral corruption”, to prove to the conservative Syrian society that its goal is to reform what the regime has corrupted.

It seems that the Syrian citizens have long vacillated between emancipated and extremist dressing codes amid the unprecedented collapse of customs and traditions. However, most of them decided to follow the religion of the ruling authority and the orders imposed on them so as to preserve their security and safety and to shift suspicions away from them.

Preachers fight the “half dressed half naked” women

With the control of religious factions over areas such as Idlib, the main stronghold of the opposition, several resolutions and directives have been issued prohibiting women from being “dressed up” or wearing makeup and from going out without being dressed according to Shariaa, which is the dressing code that the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) has defined as loose and doesn’t include Abaya (long coat) unless it is long and uncoloured or ornamented.

It also required women not to raise the Abaya or open it, put perfume, pluck and draw eyebrows, and show the eyes wearing kohl or anything else through niqab.

“Commitment to Shariaa dress” became a statement added to “experience and degree” in women’s job requirements’ advertisements in opposition factions held areas, especially in women’s clothing stores, markets, and schools.

This is where the so-called “Women Advocacy Office” has emerged. Its mission is to monitor to which extent women are committed to the dress code imposed in accordance with the Jaish al-Fatah’s decision that was issued at the end of October 2015. The office implemented this through patrolling streets, markets, and universities under the slogan “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”

In case they found that a woman was not abiding by Shariaa dress code and she had been warned before for that, she will be subject to “disciplinary” imprisonment, during which she will receive religious advice and provide a written pledge, in which she vows not to repeat her deed again.

A sign calling for committing to wearing hijab in the city of Idlib - 2015 (Enab Baladi)

A sign calling for committing to wearing hijab in the city of Idlib – 2015 (Enab Baladi)

Shariaa dress between counselling and coercion

Jaish al-Fatah’s decisions did not force women to cover their faces and hands, said Um Mariya, a female employee at the Women’s Advocacy Office, who asserted to Enab Baladi that what was imposed was the long and loose dress.

Um Mariya, a religious education teacher in the city of Idlib, said that when many women did not respond to this decision, the Advocacy Office had to recruit female preachers in order to monitor women’s commitment to Shariaa dress in the streets, markets, schools, and universities.

In the same context, Um Mariya recalled several clashes that occurred between female preachers and women, attributing this to some of these preachers’ lack of soft-spoken style in advising women, for this task is new to them and they are not experienced enough, in addition to this “women were distanced from what Shariaa has imposed for a long time ”

“Here the society is divided, between girls who refused Shariaa dress because of some female preachers’ wrong attitude, and others who deliberately committed themselves to this dress thanks to the wise manner of some other preachers,” said Um Mariya.

This division of society led to a split among the female preachers themselves when some preferred to use force, while others opted for kindness, wisdom and counselling before imposition.

Ranya Qayser, director of Shine organization in Idlib, told Enab Baladi that many girls were forced to wear clothes they were not accustomed to before, noting that their life routine remained the same inside their homes while outside they had to change the way they dressed when leaving their houses in order to avoid any problem.”

According to Qayser’s opinion, when the war in Syria is over, these girls will return to their old clothing style if they were not really convinced by the imposition of Shariaa dress. She noted that this remains better than the “moral decay” that regime held areas are witnessing.

The Arabic language school teacher, Obayda Mahsy, believed that forcing girls to wear Shariaa clothing may distance them from what the religion has imposed on them and make them disavow advice, especially that some of the female preachers “did not enjoy the minimum features of a preacher, which is supposed to include good manners, Shariaa knowledge, and the use of arguments, proof, and evidence.”

Mahsy said that some girls took off Shariaa dress following the lack of surveillance. However, that phenomenon was decreasing because of the girls’ reliance on Shariaa science and proof in Shariaa institutions and mosques.

Men’s Clothing… invitations without imposition

Opposition factions did not impose specific clothing on men as they did to women. However, the general image of their held areas societies gradually began to follow a certain pattern in men’s dressing and overall appearance.

Mosque preachers often urge men to lengthen their beard and wear a white cloak (Jellabiya) without imposing it on them.

In addition, some men who live outside the religious factions’ control zones tend to grow their beards in case they needed to pass from these areas, as a result of their prior perception that this is obligatory, or to ensure their safety and security.

However, another type of responsibility burdens the man in the opposition-controlled areas, as he is responsible for his wife or sister and their compliance with Shariaa dress code, as he is often subjected to punishment in case his sister or wife is caught non-veiled or violating the Shariaa dress code.  A man is treated as a Mahram (unmarriageable kin with whom marriage/sexual intercourse would be considered haram/Islamically illegal) and is therefore responsible for his sister’s/mother’s “mistakes”.

Tendencies towards emancipation in the regime-controlled areas

Although the Syrian regime has not made any decisions or taken any action concerning the dress code that women have to abide by, there have been evident tendencies towards liberation from the constraints of the conservative society in recent years, from the stand pint of “personal freedom”.

In this context, there has been a remarkable role of local and international media that promoted liberal women who go to nightclubs and wear bikinis in the beach, in a way that serves the regime rather than defaming it, presenting it to the international community as a “secular” regime that fights “religious extremism”.

Lama, a lecturer at the University of Aleppo, says the girls’ dress has changed a lot in her regime-controlled city. She pointed to the veiled girls’ tendency towards wearing tight clothes as well as non-veiled girls’ “exaggeration” in their clothing style, in a way that the Syrian society has not been familiar with for the two categories.

Lama, 30, added that the customs and traditions’ vanishing vis-à-vis the Syrians’ suffering, in addition to the displacement movements the Syrian society has witnessed, were the main reasons for the tendency towards liberation taking no consideration of social ethics which used to be the Syrians’ greatest concern in their social behaviour.

As a matter of safety, women have started to avoid wearing the “niqab” in the regime-controlled areas in order to avoid suspicion when passing through military checkpoints and to avoid being labelled as “Daeshiyat” (part of Daesh/ISIS), as Lama says

Syrian female students at al-Baath University in Homs – March, 6, 2016 (AFP)

How did Syrian women’s clothing distinguish Syrian cities before the war?

In view of the clothing style as a picture that characterizes the habits and the social norms, before the Syrian revolution, the Syrian governorates maintained their own clothing style that can cope with the changes of international fashion and accept some changes while still being distinct and thus distinguishing the city it represents.

The outbreak of the Syrian war was accompanied by a change in social patterns, demographic shifts and differences in intellectual orientations. This was evident in the Syrians’ general appearance as a reflection of the security, living or intellectual reality. Thus, the difference of the clothing style is no longer linked to the governorates’ cultural idiosyncrasies this time, it rather has to do with the military control, and the mindset it imposes to restrict the general appearance or remove some restrictions that are imposed on it.

Although the differences in the clothing style between governorates are based on some details, the Syrians’ general appearance has long been characterized as “conservative” as it has been influenced by social customs prior to religious customs, which is evident in women’s dress in each governorate.

Although the Islamic trait has been prevailing with the widespread of the Hijab in the Syrian governorates, most cities and towns provided a favourable environment for non-veiled women. Therefore, the prevailing social custom, relatively urged one of the two sides to respect the other, in a way that makes the Syrian society closer to moderation and far away from extremism in physical appearance.

In the governorates of Aleppo, Hama and Homs, which have the majority of Sunni Muslims that are more committed to the Islamic appearance, the Manto and the black veil, have remained the most prevalent clothing styles. The situation is different for young women who often wear colourful Hijabs with long jackets or do not wear Hijab but still wear decent clothes.

The same thing applies to the Damascene society whose women are distinguished by white Hijabs with ties. This clothing style became widespread under the influence of the Qubaisiyat religious school.

The governorates of the Syrian coast were the most liberated areas from the religious influence on clothing, but were nevertheless controlled by “oriental” social customs that restrict the freedom of wearing clothes that seem to be unsuitable for the surrounding environment. This could also apply to areas where Kurds are concentrated in north eastern Syria.

Overall, the difference in the clothing style had not previously been a reflection of social splits, but rather a reflection of convergence and unity in the customs. The extremism in that difference at present reflects a mixture of repression and counter-reaction, and refers to the great state of separation and deep divisions characterizing the Syrian society nowadays.

Dean of Sharias Faculty in Idlib

Decisions to impose Shariaa dress code protect from vice

Enab Baladi conducted an interview with the Dean of Shariaa Faculty at the University of Idlib, Ibrahim Shasho, concerning the details of the imposition of Shariaa dress code on women in the city and its implementation procedures. The Dean also discussed several points of interrogation about the decision.

Sharia dress does not restrict the women’s work

Dean of Shariaa Faculty at the University of Idlib, Ibrahim Shasho (Enab Baladi)

Dean of Shariaa Faculty at the University of Idlib, Ibrahim Shasho (Enab Baladi)

According to the Dean of Shariaa Faculty at the University of Idlib, Ibrahim Shasho, the dress code imposed by the decisions of Jaish al-Fatah fulfils a divine recommendation and not “personal” matters since it aims “to reserve and maintain the society in the liberated areas from falling into  a labyrinth of vice”.

Shasho added that Islam requires women to wear Hijab, not to flaunt and not to show her body’s charms. The Islamic scholars’ rule is to follow up the extent of women’s abidance to this matter and to advise them. He added, “In this sense, the matter of following up women’s abidance to wearing Hijab in the streets, schools, universities and markets came as a way to follow God’s orders to women and to Islamic scholars to invite women to wear it”.

Shasho said that the Shariaa dress did not prevent women in the city of Idlib from studying and working in many fields, but it rather set “limits” for her so that she can preserve her dignity, as he said.

He added, “One of these limits is that, at their workplace, and at their universities, women must wear Shariaa Hijab that preserves their status.”

“The media are exaggerating”

Concerning young women’s being chased by female preachers from al-Da‘wah Department (Preaching Department) in the streets, the Dean of the Shariaa Faculty commented by saying that some media are exaggerating by circulating that female preachers bother and chase every young woman who is walking in the street.

Shasho denied what has been circulating concerning preventing female students from wearing colourful Hijabs, and confirmed that they wear blue, green, and other colourful Hijabs. He said: “Shariaa did not specify a certain colour for the Hijab, although the black colour is the best and the most decent.”

The dean also pointed out that the female preachers did not face any girl who did not cover her face, because this matter is not agreed upon by different Shariaa scholars, as he put it. The dean also confirmed that they “do not insist” on the colour of the Hijab and the dress, either.

Admitting the existence of “few” mistakes

The Dean of the Shariaa Faculty at the University of Idlib did not deny the existence of mistakes that some of female preachers commit in implementing the decision to impose Shariaa dress code. He added that these mistakes are “rare and not repetitive.”

He attributed the reasons for these errors to the different levels of experience and competence among the female preachers. He also stressed that they are being followed up by the special authorities, which are working on qualifying the female preachers to ensure their “wise and fair preaching “. They are also followed up by the judiciary, which works on prosecuting the offending party.

At the end of the interview, Ibrahim Shasho called to “not to underestimate the female preachers and deny their favour in applying the Shariaa rules, which is no less important than fighting in the front lines.”

Agreement on the impact…

“The Syrians will return to their former state”

Enab Baladi has conducted an opinion poll on the extent of the influence of the religious and political tendencies of dominant parties in Syria on the clothing style of the citizens that are under their control.

It was clear that the majority of respondents believed that the de facto authorities had a strong influence in imposing a certain clothing style on the Syrians, albeit in a non-public manner.

71 percent of the respondents, constituting 400 people, considered that the citizens’ clothing style changed according to the dominant party in their areas, whether the regime-controlled or the opposition-controlled areas, and even in the ISIS-controlled areas.

Ibrahim Kooky commented on the poll by saying that if the Syrians are liberated from these areas, they will return to their former clothing styles.

He wrote, “Subhan Allah (Glory be to Allah), our fitrah (primordial human nature/instinct/common sense) is clear and our people are religious despite all odds, but once they are liberated, our peoplewill return to their simple fitrah.”

Ahmed Adnan believes that there are things that are “implicitly” imposed on Syrian citizens that determine their clothing style. He said, “There is something that is almost imposed on the public, but it is not announced to avoid criticism from lean society circles.”

Amer Hadla rejected every specific dress or colour that has been imposed on the Syrians after the Syrian revolution, adding that the dominant parties badly affected the “Syrian civilization”.

On the other hand, 16 percent of the respondents said that those parties did not affect the clothing style of Syrian citizens’, while 13 percent of them did not know whether or not the dominant parties actually influenced the citizens’ clothing style or there were other factors that have played a role in influencing their way of clothing.

Mohammed al-Bannawi said Syrians of all religions and sects, especially Muslims, were allowed to wear their own clothes. He wrote, “For fifty years we have been raised on al Baath, nationalism and sectarianism. Doesn’t any Sunni have the right to wear whatever he wants? Or would he be judged as terrorist even based on his clothes?”

Shukran Orfali commented on the poll by saying “For fifty years, every farm had their own clothing style, and everything was okay, and nothing was wrong, everyone was living a good life,. However, nowadays, we keep criticizing and interfering in each others’ private affairs in a way that even harms our pleasure of life. .”

An opinion poll in the Syrian interior… They accept reluctantly or by conviction?

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll in Idlib in northern Syria, concerning the citizens’ opinion on the imposition of Shariaa dress on women in the streets, markets, schools, and universities.

Most of those Enab Baladi tried to record interviews with refused to talk about the topic, as it touches a sensitive matter in their lives, fearing that they will be criticized. Those who accepted to be interviewed said that women in Idlib have to abide by the Shariaa dress code that is imposed on them by Jaish al-Fatah, from the prospective of “protecting herself from moral decadence.”

Some of the male respondents considered that they were bound and responsible for the extent of women’s compliance with this dress code. They stressed the need to raise their women’s awareness of the Shariaa dress’s requirements.

Others, however, reluctantly supported the need to impose Shariaa dress on women, believing that it is better than what they called “the half dressed half naked women” in the regime-controlled areas.

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