Butterfly Effect: Raqqa women resist three powers, seek difference

A Syrian woman from the city of Raqqa - 2020 (Getty Images)

Butterfly Effect: Raqqa women resist three powers, seek difference

A Syrian woman from the city of Raqqa - 2020 (Getty Images)

A Syrian woman from the city of Raqqa - 2020 (Getty Images)


Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

“We have been subjected to great injustice during the past years in Raqqa. We have remained governed by the thought of the dominant party and subject to men’s authority and outdated social habits,” the 30-year-old Raghad portrays the lives of women in the northeastern Raqqa governorate.

The quest to ideologize women in a past ruled by the Islamic State (IS) group, and a present disputed by the role of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the restrictions of tribal customs and traditions, seems to be elusive as long as women in Raqqa struggle to preserve their identity and to have the right to choose their own path without being led by the ruling authority.

The governing power plays a major role in protecting and empowering women socially and financially through the laws in force that protect them and by prohibiting any abuse by the executive authority and the society as a whole, according to Saba Abdulatif, an assistant social researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies.

Black rules women in Raqqa

Until its defeat in a major military campaign by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2017, the hardline IS group imposed its “black” ideology on every detail of a woman’s life in the Raqqa region and worked to stereotype her as a human being for pleasure, not to mention the degrading descriptions, Raghad told Enab Baladi.

“Walking in the street turned into a horror episode, for that I spent most of my time inside the house, fearing that I would commit what they consider a sin, or that I would go out to the street and catch the eyes of their women (the women’s religious police, or al-Hisbah, who coordinate IS fighters’ marriages),” she added.

Single women were subjected to great pressure, and the beauty of their body or face was considered a charge that falls by marrying the men of the group, Raghad reveals, recalling “the numerous demands to accept marriage proposals submitted by women in the name of IS fighters.”

Linda, 27, another traumatized woman from Raqqa, told Enab Baladi that her life was ruled by the color black, which dominated her dress and extended to her view of the future at that time.

“Even colored shoes were a sin,” Linda added.

The social expert Eva Atfah told Enab Baladi that the IS’s policy worked on characterizing the role of women as a “sexual object,” limiting their role within the home, and stripping them of their freedom and all their basic rights.

Women were condemned to a fixed lifestyle restricted by the Islamic “Sharia,” as the radical group imposed a certain dress code on women, prohibiting them from leaving the house without a ‘Mahram’ (member of one’s family), and deprived them of most community activities, according to a research by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies entitled “Changes to Women’s Roles during the Syrian War.”

IS also used several methods to suppress and intimidate women and their families, by interfering with the smallest details of women’s dressing to their social status, according to the social researcher Saba Abdulatif.


IS stripped women in Raqqa of all their rights in terms of education, medical care, work, and freedom and aimed to strip them of their status in society.

“The biggest violation committed by the IS group against women was to strip them of their freedom and turn them into slaves,” Raghad said.

“I was a working and independent woman until the IS group took control and turned me into a human being run by laws whose first goal was to take off my freedom,” she added.

“Even knowledge was in their dictionary a crime, I was deprived of completing my university studies, and when I tried to educate children to contribute to saving the generation from death, the organization punished me with more restriction of freedom and fear,” Linda spoke of stripping her and all the women of the region of their right to complete their education.

For her part, Maryam, 39, a teacher in Raqqa city, was forced to quit her job and chose isolation at home to escape IS organization’s ideology and punishments that could end her life.

In the absence of female medical professionals in Raqqa, the need for medical treatment has turned into a torment for women in the area, according to Raghad.

“My sister needed an operation by a specialized doctor, and because a woman’s visit to a (male) doctor was forbidden in their ‘Sharia,’ she had to endure the pain for a long time,” Maryam said.

The biggest violation of women’s rights in the “IS era” was forcing women to get married to IS members and the methods of forcing them to have children, which the group practiced systematically, social expert Atfah said.

According to the Harmoon Studies Center, 80 percent of women in northeastern Syria did not work during the period of IS control, and women were not able to complete their education during the same period.

Autonomous Administration’s openness vs. tribe restrictions

The lives of the people of Raqqa are dominated by the clan pattern, which did not accept the “openness” policy that the “Autonomous Administration” has followed since the beginning of its control over the region, which has imposed on women a new conflict between tribal traditions and the new lifestyle, according to women interviewed by Enab Baladi.

Raghad says that most of the women of Raqqa consider the control of the “Administration” a re-birth and a new life after being dead during the IS control of Raqqa, but they are still governed by the authority of customs and traditions.

“Although (the Administration) granted women many of the privileges they were deprived of during the IS period, it did not avoid activities that aroused the outrage of conservative Arab tribes,” said Maryam, criticizing the Administration’s policy.

As for Linda, she chose to avoid any activity that might violate the customs and traditions of the region for fear of the consequences of ignoring the gap between customs and the “Administration” policy.

Raghad also confirmed that the “Autonomous Administration” did not succeed in dealing with the nature of society, as it imposed laws that contradict religion and traditions, most notably the law that says men and women inherit equally in conflict with Islamic law, which created a real crisis in society.

Raqqa is a conservative society governed by a tribal nature, but it did not treat women with the “extremism” that the IS treated them with and did not accept the laws enacted by the “Administration” due to their distance from the social reality of the region, according to Saba Abdulatif, the assistant social researcher at the Omran Center.

According to the study of the Harmoon Center on Syrian women in wartime, the rejection of the ideology and policy promoted by the “Administration” by the society, which considered it “odd,” has pushed it to commit violations against the indigenous people, following a policy of intimidation through arrest and torture of women and men without discrimination.

Propaganda of women’s freedom

Several studies focused on the role of the “Autonomous Administration” in improving the educational process for women and the effort to give them political representation. But, according to what Enab Baladi has monitored, many women in the northeastern region considered the “Administration” agenda as “propaganda” and shallow slogans not related to the actual reality.

Researcher Saba Abdulatif told Enab Baladi that the Administration’s policy in dealing with women’s issues is still slogans and the positions granted to women are a matter of formality, as there is no real power for women in local councils or the “Administration.”

The sociologist also considered that the openness of the “Administration” is a formal one which was designed with a holistic thought similar to that of the Syrian Baath Party, as women advocacy being used as a decoration or a field for ideological intromission and thus profiling with a “Marxist” nationalist thought.

The periodic report of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Administration’s military wing, had committed numerous violations against women between March 2011 and March 2022.

About 19 women working in women’s empowerment activities and centers were intimidated by the SDF, in addition to the killing of 165 women and the arrest of 522 women, during the same period.

The report documented many acts of discrimination against Arab women on the ethnic ground, represented by depriving them of equal opportunities to work and restricting their freedom of movement.

According to the Harmoon Center, the Administration’s efforts do not play an active role in empowering women in the true sense of the word, as most of the female workers in affiliated positions are subject to a strict ideological context amid a preconception of women and their roles that the Administration is working to impose on them.

It has also worked to involve women in various governance and administrative institutions, but all of them are “fake rights,” and the aim is not to enable women to obtain their rights, but rather to exploit women to spread the thought of the “Administration” and conduct its policy, by attracting loyal women and men, according to the study.

The study considered the presence of women in political positions within the “Administration” institutions as nothing but a media front.

Woman and Man: relationship governed by power

The relationship of a woman in Raqqa with her family members, especially with men among them, was affected by the ruling authority in the region, as IS played a major role in dismantling the family and manipulating the man’s view of women, and the “Administration” tried to transform the relationship between them according to its policy.

Under IS mantle

The IS group was able to influence the role of women in society and succeeded in stereotyping her image inside the home through the authority of the man, either out of fear for her or out of a desire to impose greater control.

The women, whom Enab Baladi spoke to, agreed that most of the men have changed the way they treat their women for fear of being arrested by the IS organization’s members.

“The fear imposed by IS led many men to practice violence against women, out of fear of punishment for them and themselves, until the group’s punishments became a pretext for men to hold women accountable,” Linda said.

Raghad’s father also dealt with her differently during the IS’s control, as he started watching all her details and going-outs, fearing that someone would see her and force her to marry one of IS fighters.

She continued, “My father repeated a lot: Would you be satisfied if they (IS) flogged me?) to force me to abide by the laws of the IS group, whose punishments were not limited to women when they erred, but also extended to the man as her guardian.”

Raghad justified her father’s position, saying that the humiliation and punishments by IS were capable of changing the character of any person and instilling fear in him.

The stereotypes of the traditional patterns of the roles of Syrian women continued in the Syrian social system, and even increased in strength in the areas controlled by the organization, as the IS group took a conservative or hostile stance to any women’s role, to emphasize that women need the care and protection of man, and they must obey and submit to his authority, according to Harmoon Center’s paper entitled “Contiguous Syrian Perceptions of Stereotyped Roles for Women.”

However, the IS group’s authority differed according to the “governors, or Emirs, in the region, as the organization followed a softer policy in Raqqa compared to the rest of the areas of control, and there was a kind of sympathy on the part of men in Raqqa towards their women, but a small percentage of families adopted the IS’ policy, according to the study “Changes in the Roles of Women in the Syrian War.”

According to the study, IS worked to perpetuate patriarchal authority in society, even by punishing the man instead of the woman when she performed an act that resisted or violated his authority as her guardian.

The social researcher Eva Atfah confirmed the impact of the group’s policy on the relationship of women and men within the same family, as the man’s fears of harming women turned her into a “heavy burden” on him.

Despite the increase in violence cases as a result of men’s authoritarian nature or their fears of the IS group, women did not find a law that protects them, given that the violence that IS can practice is worse than any violence perpetrated by men, according to Atfah.

The society turned into a cycle of violence in which women were victims, noting that the pressure exerted on men outside the home was reflected in his dealings with women inside the home, Atfah added.

Under ‘Autonomous Administration’ mandate

The conflict between the customs and traditions of the clans in the region and the policy of the “Administration” has mainly affected the relationship of women with men, who are still trying to adhere to the authoritarian role granted by the IS organization and the culture of the region itself.

According to Raghad, the Administration’s policy has often reinforced men’s violence towards women in light of his inability to show his rejection of the emancipation demanded by the Administration.

“The man is afraid of the danger of rejecting the Administration’s policy, but he is still able to impose his authority on women, as they fear society, Raghad said.

In addition to the rift between the IS group and the “Administration,” the preservation of the image of women by many men imposed by the IS group, and their complete rejection of any change that might occur in the status of women, created a greater rejection to the “Administration” work-plan and the freedom and empowerment of women in society, according to Raghad.

Male power continues to dominate the nature of society and women’s decisions as men try to maintain their power, according to social researcher Eva Atfah.

Self-defense against three authorities

The three authorities, the Islamic State, Autonomous Administration, and Patriarchy, have had a major impact on the lives of women in Raqqa city, leaving many women in turmoil and rejecting any form of power, or in some cases rejecting their own ​​intellect and essence.

“IS described women as commodities, seduction, and awrah, and other descriptions that stripped them of their value and reduced their role in society, during their period of control, even after they left the region,” Linda said.

For Raghad, she believes that the isolation that continued in her life long after the exit of IS is the result of fear, much of which still exists due to IS sleeper cells in the area.

Seeing Sabaya (women sexually enslaved by the Islamic State group) who have been subjected to the most severe form of psychological and sexual violence has also sparked many questions, the most important ones “What if I were her?” This placed women in the context of disability, weakness, and fear of being the next captive woman,” Raghad said.

“I was able to overcome that feeling by conducting support activities for women and children of IS fighters in the al-Hol camp near al-Hasakah city, and I now feel that I got my old self back, perhaps because I am able to see the impact of IS extremism, without being unable to change it,” Raghad added.

Social researcher Saba Abdulatif said the demise of the IS group does not mean the demise of its impact, as the exclusion of women remains part of their current reality, noting that many of the details of life imposed by the group remained the same for fear of its cells, which continue to pose a major security threat to the region.

The three authorities seriously affected women in their resistance to violence, as they lived within an integrated system of “perpetrators” of violations against them.

Sociologist Eva Atfah stressed that many women remained subject to the authority imposed on them even with an opportunity to protect them, for fear that they would be overcome by the great power, explaining that the great power in the tribal society remains for its customs and traditions.

Psychiatrist Ismail al-Zalaq told Enab Baladi that a negative self-perception can be the result of conditions experienced by a person, such as being subjected to injustice, or a negative outlook can be part of a larger psychological disorder such as depression.

Dr. al-Zalaq added that lack of self-esteem or negative self-perception affects human dealings with their rights, as they hesitate from claiming their rights as they consider themselves “less valuable” than others to do so.

On recovery road

Overcoming the conflict experienced by women in Raqqa requires many basic ingredients and methodological plans that begin with reforming the status of women in society and clarifying their role to restore their true view of themselves and those around them, Raghad said.

Raghad works in providing psychological support to the survivors of the al-Hol camp, while Linda is involved in the work of organizations, and Maryam works in an association for the empowerment of women.

Raghad considered that her work to achieve peace in order to overcome the results of the war that dismantled the family and society plays a fundamental role in achieving her inner peace.

The entry of international humanitarian organizations into the region again contributed to the formation of a relatively large number of local organizations, in which women played a key role in their activities, which helped to strengthen their role in society, according to the study “Changes to Women’s Roles during the Syrian War.”

For his part, al-Zalaq considered that overcoming a state of lack of self-esteem depends on two basic steps, which are improving a person’s view of him/herself, and receiving messages from the environment that enhance his/her confidence.

The social researcher at the Omran Center, Saba Abdulatif, said that the steps necessary to rehabilitate women are steps that depend mainly on the security reality, protecting women from any danger that threatens their lives, and working to empower women economically to be able to provide for their basic needs and requirements.

The researcher concluded that a major part of the responsibility for re-empowering women lies with the civil society organizations present in the region.


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