Married to The Organisation 

How IS changed everything for three young women

By AZADEH MOAVENI in Southern Turkey
  • Published 23.11.15
A migrant who had applied for asylum in Cyprus arrives with her belongings at a refugee camp last week. Most people in this group are Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Syria and are not associated with the events recounted by Dua, Aws and Asma. In the absence of pictures from the IS-held Raqqa, this AFP photograph is being used to illustrate the plight of refugees 

Dua had only been working for two months with the Khansaa Brigade, the all-female morality police of the Islamic State, when her friends were brought to the station to be whipped.

The police had hauled in two women she had known since childhood, a mother and her teenage daughter, both distraught. Their abayas, flowing black robes, had been deemed too form-fitting.

When the mother saw Dua, she rushed over and begged her to intercede. The room felt stuffy as Dua weighed what to do.

"Their abayas really were very tight. I told her it was their own fault; they had come out wearing the wrong thing," she said. "They were unhappy with that."

Dua sat back down and watched as the other officers took the women into a back room to be whipped. When they removed their face-concealing niqabs, her friends were also found to be wearing makeup. It was 20 lashes for the abaya offence, five for the makeup and another five for not being meek enough when detained.

In the short time since she had joined the Khansaa Brigade in her hometown, Raqqa, in northern Syria, the morality force had grown more harsh. Mandatory abayas and niqabs were still new for many women in the weeks after the Islamic State had purged the city of competing militants and taken over.

At first, the brigade was told to give the community a chance to adapt, and clothing offences brought small fines. After too many young women became repeat offenders, however, paying the fines without changing their behaviour, the soft approach was out. Now it was whipping - and now it was her friends being punished.

The mother and daughter came to the house of Dua's parents afterwards, furious with her and venting their anger at the Islamic State.

A lifelong friendship, with shared holiday gatherings and birthday parties, was suddenly broken. "After that day, they hated me, too," she said. "They never came to our house again."

Dua's second cousin Aws also worked for the brigade. Not long after Dua's friends were whipped, Aws saw fighters brutally lashing a man in Muhammad Square. The man, about 70, frail and with white hair, had been accused of blasphemy. As a crowd gathered, the fighters dragged him into the public square and whipped him after he fell to his knees.

Today, Aws, 25, and Dua, 20, are living in a small city in southern Turkey after fleeing Raqqa and its rulers. They met Asma, 22, another defector from the Khansaa Brigade, here and found shelter in the city's large community of Syrian refugees.

Raqqa is widely known now as the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate and as the focus of heavy airstrikes by a growing number of countries seeking revenge for the group's recent terrorist attacks.

But the city in which the three women came to adulthood used to be quite different. Identified here by nicknames, the women spoke for many hours over the past few weeks, recalling their experiences under Islamic State rule and how the extremists had utterly changed life in Raqqa.

Charming city

All three described themselves as fairly typical young women of Raqqa. Aws was more into Hollywood, Dua into Bollywood. Aws's family was middle-class, and she studied English literature at a branch of Euphrates University, a three-hour bus ride away in Hasaka. She devoured novels: some by Agatha Christie, and especially Dan Brown books. Digital Fortress is her favourite.

Dua's father is a farmer, and money was tighter. But her social life was closely intertwined with Aws's, and the cousins loved their charming city. There were long walks to Qalat Jabr, the 11th-century fort on Lake Assad; coffee at Al Rasheed Park; and Raqqa Bridge, where you could see the city lights at night. In the gardens and amusement park in the town centre, there was ice cream and communal shisha pipes to gather around.

The women keep pictures of their old lives in Raqqa on their cellphones, scenes from parties and countryside outings. Aws's gallery includes days on the lakeshore, her friends in bathing suits, dancing in the water.

Asma, with a bright gaze, was another outward-looking young woman, studying business at Euphrates University. Her mother was a native of Damascus, the capital, and Asma spent some of her teenage years there seeing friends, swimming at pool parties, going to cafes. She too is an avid reader, fond of Ernest Hemingway and Victor Hugo, and she speaks some English.

All three belonged to a generation of Syrian women who were leading more independent lives than ever before. They mixed freely with young men, socialising and studying together in a religiously diverse city with relatively relaxed mores. Women were going to college in greater numbers and getting married later. Most men and women chose their own spouses.

Enter, IS

When the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began rippling across Syria in 2011, it seemed distant from Raqqa.

At the start of 2014, everything changed. The Islamic State wrested full control of Raqqa and made the city its command centre, violently consolidating its authority. Those who resisted, or whose family or friends had the wrong connections, were detained, tortured or killed.

The Islamic State has come to be known around the world by names like ISIS and ISIL. But in Raqqa, residents began calling it Al Tanzeem: The Organisation. And it quickly became clear that every spot in the social order, and any chance for a family to survive, was utterly dependent on the group.

Not only had Raqqa residents become subjects of the Organisation's mostly Iraqi leadership, but their place in society fell even further overnight. Foreign fighters and other volunteers became the leading lights of the shaken-up community. In Raqqa, the Syrians had become second-class citizens - at best.

Dua, Aws and Asma were among the lucky: the choice to join was available to them. And each chose to barter her life, through work and marriage, to the Organisation.

None of them subscribed to its extreme ideology. They still struggle to explain how they changed from modern young women into Islamic State morality enforcers.

In the moment, each choice seemed like the right one, a way to keep life tolerable: marrying fighters to assuage the Organisation and keep their families in favour; joining the Khansaa Brigade to win some freedom of movement and an income in a city where women had been stripped of self-determination.

But every concession turned to horror before long. Only months in, widowed and abandoned and forced to marry strangers again, would they see how they were being used as temporary salve to foreign fighters.

The groom

The day Abu Muhammad, a Turkish fighter for the Islamic State, walked through Aws's front door to seek marriage, she made her first concession to the Organisation.

Her father and grandfather met Abu Muhammad in the living room, telling Aws that she could see him at a second meeting if he offered a suitable dowry. But Aws was too much of a romantic, and had seen too many Leonardo DiCaprio films, to agree to marry a man whose face she had not seen.

When she knelt down behind the living room door to leave the thimbles of coffee she had prepared, she peered in for a moment and caught a glimpse of him. He had winged eyebrows, light eyes and a deep voice. As she waited for the discussion to conclude, she tried to imagine what their life together might be like. By the time her father called her in, she had already nervously decided to say yes, for her family's sake.

After their wedding, she was surprised to find that the marriage felt real - even affectionate. Abu Muhammad liked to trace the two moles that made a constellation on her left cheek; he gently teased her about her accent when she tried to pronounce Turkish words.

But he often did not come home at night, and was sometimes gone for three or four-day stretches to fight for the Islamic State. Aws hated being left alone and would pout about it when he finally came home; he answered with silly jokes, cajoling her into forgiveness.

She tried to keep busy by socialising with other fighters' wives. Among them, she felt fortunate. Some were married to men who were abusive. They were considered luckier than the captured women from the Yazidi minority, who were being smuggled into town as slaves for other fighters.

Mostly, though, Aws's days became an intolerable void. Sociable and lively, with long, curly black hair and a gamine face, she was bored and thoroughly unhappy. She finished her housework quickly, but there was nowhere to go. New books were nearly impossible to find after the extremists banned almost all fiction, purging the bookshops and local cultural centre.

The Organisation also cast a long shadow over her marriage. Though Aws had always wanted a baby, Abu Muhammad asked her to take birth-control pills, still available at Raqqa's pharmacies. When she pressed him, he said his commanders had advised fighters to avoid getting their wives pregnant. New fathers would be less inclined to volunteer to carry out suicide missions.

This was one of the early, devastating moments when Aws saw that there would be no normality or choice; the Islamic State was a third partner in her marriage, there in the bedroom. "At first, I used to keep bringing it up, but it really upset him, so I stopped," she said.

Dua finds love

For Dua's family, money had always been an issue. Her father was still farming, but many lawyers and doctors who had lost their jobs when the extremists took over had also started selling fruits and vegetables to get by, creating new competition. The Organisation imposed taxes, which cut further into the family's income. When a Saudi fighter came to ask to marry Dua, in February 2014, her father pushed her to accept.

The Saudi, Abu Soheil Jizrawi, came from a wealthy construction family in Riyadh and promised to transform Dua's life. She deliberated and eventually agreed. She met him for the first time on their wedding day, when he arrived bearing gold for her family.

She liked what she saw: Abu Soheil was light-skinned with a soft black beard, tall and lanky, with charisma and an easy way of making her laugh.

Abu Soheil set her up in a spacious apartment with new European kitchen appliances and air-conditioning units in each room - almost unheard-of in Raqqa. She eagerly showed off her new home to friends and relatives. Each morning, Abu Soheil's servant shopped for them and left bags of meat and produce outside the door.

In the evenings, the couple lingered over dinner, and he complimented her cooking, especially when she made his favourite kabsa, a spiced rice dish with meat and eggplant. Abu Soheil did not even mind the little rose tattoo on her hand, though permanent tattoos are forbidden in strict interpretations of Islam.

"He changed my life completely," Dua said. "He persuaded me to love him."

Asma's dark room

While a little light, at least, had come into the lives of Aws and Dua, Asma's living room in Raqqa was perpetually dark and stifling. She kept the curtains drawn and windows closed so that no one would know she had her television on inside. Television, music, the radio - everything was kept at the lowest volume she could hear.

Even that escape was becoming scarce for Asma as electricity in Raqqa dwindled to two, sometimes four, hours a day.

In February 2014, two months into her marriage and unable to persuade Abu Muhammad to let her get pregnant, Aws decided to join the Khansaa Brigade. Dua joined around the same time, and they started their compulsory military and religious training together.

A number of Asma's relatives had already started working for the Islamic State in various ways, and she deliberated carefully before joining in January 2014. With her family already enmeshed with the Organisation, it seemed the most logical choice.

"For me, it was about power and money, mostly power," Asma said, switching to English to describe those motivations.

Although the women tried to rationalise their enlistment, there was no way to avoid seeing the Organisation as the wanton killing machine it was. But all of Syria, it seemed, had become about death.

At night, Aws and Dua heard attempts at self-justification from the husbands they had waited up for and would go to bed with. They had to be savage when taking a town to minimise casualties later, the men insisted. Assad's forces were targeting civilians, sweeping into homes in the middle of the night and brutalising men in front of their wives; the fighters had no choice but to respond with equal brutality, they said.

All three women attended the training required for those joining the Khansaa Brigade. Roughly 50 women took the 15-day weapons course at once; during eight-hour days, they learned how to load, clean and fire pistols. But the foreign women who had come to Syria to join the Islamic State were rumoured to be training on " russis", slang for Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Religion classes were taught mainly by Moroccans and Algerians. Dua, for one, was pleased; she felt she had not known enough about Islam before the Organisation took over.

By March 2014, Aws and Dua were out every day on the brigade's street patrols, moving about the city in small grey Kia vans with "Al Khansaa" on the sides. There were women from across the world in the brigade: British, Tunisian, Saudi, French.

Foreign bias

But both within their unit and more broadly across Raqqa, the Organisation had issued a strict decree: no mingling between natives and foreigners. The occupiers thought gossip was dangerous. Salaries and accommodations might be compared, hypocrisies exposed.

It soon became clear that the foreign women had more freedom of movement, more disposable income and small perks: jumping to the front of the bread line, not having to pay at the hospital.

"Maybe it's because they had to leave their countries to come here - it was felt they should be treated more specially," Dua said, as usual more reluctant to criticise.

The Organisation had no outlet for grievances. It seemed to operate by stealth, and being married to its fighters offered no real information about its operations and ambitions. Senior figures like the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were never seen in public. Even within Raqqa, he remained a shadow, the women said.

British girls

Asma's role in the Khansaa Brigade involved meeting foreign women at the border with Turkey, 50 miles north, and accompanying them into Raqqa at night. With her smattering of English and cosmopolitan air, she was well suited to the task.

Many women were arriving from Europe. One spring night this year, Asma and her crew received three British girls, dressed in western clothes but with their hair covered. "They were so young, tiny, and so happy to have arrived, laughing and smiling," she recalled.

She accompanied them to a hostel and helped them get settled. It was only later that she saw their faces plastered across the Internet, identified as schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in London, migrating by choice to join the Islamic State.

Before, Asma had a boyfriend from college. Their relationship was complicated: he had urged her to start wearing a headscarf and to dress more conservatively even before the Islamic State took control of Raqqa, but she refused to have her worth judged by the amount of skin she had covered. After the takeover, he moved to Jordan to finish his studies.

Now, she wore her hijab all day and enforced it for other women. But at night, she listened to the rock group Evanescence on her phone and mourned.

Heads in square

By the time the trees blossomed that spring, it was common to see the heads of captured soldiers and people accused of treason hanging in the main square near the clock tower.

Horrified, the cousins kept trying to cope, soothing themselves with the thought that, though they had joined the Organisation, at least they were not personally killing anyone.

"We saw many heads being cut off," Dua recalled.

"You saw the heads - it was just the heads you saw," Aws corrected her.

"Well, it is forbidden in Islam to mutilate bodies."

"I saw bodies that lay in the street for a whole week."

Within the brigade, women had started using their authority to settle petty quarrels or exact revenge. "Girls who were fighting would go to the Organisation and accuse their enemies of some infraction," Aws recalled. "Even if they had done nothing wrong, they would be brought into headquarters."

Death and shock

As with Aws's husband, Dua's, Abu Soheil, did not want children. But Dua was not in a rush, and she did not press him.

One week in July 2014, he did not return for three nights. On the fourth day, a group of fighters knocked on her door. They told her that Abu Soheil had blown himself up in a battle against the Syrian Army at Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey.

Dua was devastated, especially when the commander told her Abu Soheil had requested a suicide mission. He had never told her about such a plan, and she broke down, shaking and sobbing, at the men's feet.

She tried to console herself with the thought that it was honourable to be a martyr's wife. But days later, she learned a fact that made things even harder to bear: Abu Soheil had killed himself in an operation not against the hated Syrian Army, but against a competing rebel group that the Islamic State was trying to wipe out.

"I cried for days," she said. "He died fighting other Muslims."

Just 10 days later, another man from her husband's unit came to the house. He told Dua she could not stay home alone and would need to marry again, immediately.

Again, the Organisation was twisting Islamic law to its own desires.

Under nearly universal interpretations of Islam, a woman must wait three months before remarrying, mainly to establish the paternity of any child that might have been conceived. The waiting period, called idaa, is not only required but is a woman's right, to allow her to grieve. But even in the realm of divine law, the Islamic State was reformulating everything.

"I told him that I still couldn't stop crying," Dua said. "I said: 'I'm heartbroken. I want to wait the whole three months'." But the commander told her she was different from a normal widow. "You shouldn't be mourning and sad," he said. "He asked for martyrdom himself, and you are the wife of a martyr. You should be happy."

That was the moment that broke her.

The Organisation had made her a widow and wanted to do so again and again, turning her into a perpetual temporary distraction for suicidal fighters. There was no choice left, no dignity, just the service demanded by the Islamic State's need to feed men to its front lines.

"I had a good marriage to a good man, and I didn't want to end up in a bad one," Dua said. "I knew it would be painful for me to marry someone only to lose him when he goes on a martyrdom mission. It's only natural to have feelings and grow attached."

She knew she had to escape, even though it would mean leaving the house that should have been her inheritance.

New husband

The news came for Aws not long after it did for Dua. Abu Muhammad had also killed himself in a suicide operation. There was no funeral to attend and no in-laws to grieve with. She was devastated.

She had no time to recover before the Organisation came knocking. "They told me that he was a martyr now, obviously he didn't need a wife any more, but that there was another fighter who did," Aws said.

"They said this fighter had been my husband's friend, and wanted to protect and take care of me on his behalf."

She agreed reluctantly, despite being one month short of her three-month waiting period. But things did not click with this new husband, an Egyptian who turned up at home even less than Abu Muhammad had. Everything about him - his personality, his looks, their sexual relations - she shrugged off with a sour expression and a single word: " aadi". Regular.

When he ran off with his salary two months later, without even a goodbye, Aws was left abandoned, denied even the status of widow. Back at her parents' house, she wandered from room to room, grieving for the life she had had before and stunned by how far away it seemed from where she had fallen.

The escape

To the outside world, the territory controlled by the Islamic State might seem to be a hermetically sealed land governed by the harshest laws of the seventh century. But until relatively recently, the routes into and out of Raqqa were mostly open. Traders would come and go, supplying the Organisation's needs and wants - including cigarettes, which some fighters smoked despite their being banned for Raqqa residents.

Dua, unable to bear another forced marriage, left first. Aws followed four months later.

By early this past spring, Asma was agonising about whether to flee as well. "You couldn't go to the doctor without your father or brother. You couldn't go out to just take a walk," she said. "I just couldn't bear it any more."

When she and a cousin plotted their escape, they told no one, not even their families, and took nothing but their handbags.

Life now

All three are taking English and Turkish classes, hoping that will someday help them chart a future elsewhere, perhaps in a more cosmopolitan part of Turkey. They live with Syrian families who are more established. The families cover much of their living costs, and what they brought from home is enough for their language courses and daily expenses.

Asma has severed contact with her family, worried that the militants will punish them for her escape.

Once a week, she emails and calls a friend in Raqqa to complain that her family has spurned her. It is untrue, but she hopes that if she says it often enough, it will spread and perhaps even be heard by Islamic State intelligence, and that she will protect her family from any consequences of her departure.

After months of shame and disappointment, none of the three said they could imagine ever going back, even if the Islamic State falls. The Raqqa that was their home only exists in their memories.

"Who knows when the fighting will stop?" Asma said. "Syria will become like Palestine; every year, people think: 'Next year, it will end. We will be free.' And decades pass."