Under ISIS rule, abandoned Syrian women face set of challenges

Sunday 13/11/2016
Most of the displaced have not eaten in a day

AIN ISSA (Syria) - Prevented from reuniting with their husbands and fending off marriage proposals from jihadist fighters, women living alone under Islamic State jihadist group rule in Syria face a special set of challenges.

Huda, who speaks using a pseudonym, is one of thousands of Syrians who have fled ISIS territory since a Kurdish-Arab alliance began a campaign to capture the group's Syrian stronghold of Raqa.

Like many others, she is now stuck in a temporary camp on the outskirts of Ain Issa, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Raqa, after fleeing her village of Al-Heisha with her five-month-old son Nur.

"Daesh (ISIS) destroyed our families," says Huda, whose village fell to fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance on Friday.

"My husband works in Lebanon and hasn't seen his son except once, in a photo sent on WhatsApp, because ISIS prevented all communication," she says.

"I desperately wanted him to see his son, but ISIS prevented him from returning to the village," she says, without explaining why the group insisted on preventing contact.

Her tired face suggests the separation has been taxing.

"He was not at my side during the most difficult moments," she says.

The camp is dominated by women, some pregnant, and children, with relatively few men among them.

All around, women sit on the dusty ground, some breastfeeding babies, while older children with dirty, matted hair play.

Most of the displaced have not eaten in a day and are waiting for aid, while a few have beans they were able to grab as they fled towards Ain Issa.

Huda and many of the women around her didn't hide their rancour when describing their absent husbands.

"Most of the men who left to work in other countries never came back and abandoned their children," she says.

Nearby, 35-year-old Maram speaks bitterly about life without her husband, her face wrapped with a scarf that leaves only her eyes uncovered.

"I have five children. My husband works in Lebanon and remarried there, and I live in difficult conditions to provide for my children," she says.

At the entrance of the camp, members of the Kurdish Asayesh security forces inspect belongings, looking for weapons or documentation that could indicate ties to ISIS.

"Everyone undergoes this inspection because Daesh is trying to infiltrate among civilians and we will not allow that to happen," one officer says.

The women are interrogated about their ties to ISIS, with some villagers suggesting locals were lured into matrimony with extremist fighters.

"Most of the women in our village were married to jihadists from ISIS, who seduced them with money," says Fatima Abbas, a 38-year-old from Al-Heisha, balancing her son on her knees.

"They would pay a dowry of a million Syrian pounds ($2,000) and they pampered them," she adds.

Roqaya, 25, also from Al-Heisha, says she was the target of one ISIS fighter's affections but fended off his offer of marriage in return for money.

"I refused, I hate them," she says.

In the village, the rumour spread that "when ISIS fighters go on a suicide mission, they ask their wife to marry a jihadist friend," she says.

"Otherwise they won't be pardoned for their sins... when they're in heaven," she says mockingly.

ISIS has reserved some of its harshest restrictions for women, forcing them to stay largely at home, moving around outside only fully covered and in the company of a male guardian.

The group has also gained notoriety for sex slavery, particularly of women from the Yazidi minority captured in Iraq and traded in ISIS strongholds including Raqa by the Sunni extremists who consider their sect to be devil worshippers.

ISIS now faces the prospect of losing both its remaining strongholds, as fighters target Raqa and the group's Iraqi bastion Mosul.