Women lashed for breaking dress code in Syrian city run by Islamists

The dark ages have returned to Raqqa, the northern Syrian city captured last year by the hardline rebels known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham [Syria], or ISIS.

Under the rebels’ draconian version of sharia, women are punished with the lash for the slightest transgressions of a strict dress code while those Christians who have not fled have been told to pay a tax in gold to buy their safety.

Since Isis drove other rebel fighters from the city in January, ruthlessly murdering members of rival militias, it has been intent on transforming the city into a mini Islamic caliphate, according to residents who have been secretly interviewed.

One young Raqqa woman was sentenced to 20 strokes of the whip after an ISIS morality patrol spotted her strolling hand in hand with her 25-year-old male cousin. Despite their pleas that the gesture was entirely innocent, they were both flogged.

Another woman aged 19 (their names cannot be used for their own safety) was given 40 strokes after an Isis commander saw her on Facebook wearing a short-sleeved blouse.

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Cross removed from church in Raqqa and replaced by black ISIS flag

In a city previously considered to be one of Syria’s most liberal, Isis insisted that all women over the age of 10 must conform to its new dress code. Advertising billboards were erected to proclaim the slogan “My modesty is my beauty” and commanded “sisters” to cover their body and face at all times in public.

The code decreed the traditional abaya or cloak and niqab, the face covering, and ordered that no features should be displayed that were suggestive, vain or attention seeking.

Women were banned from talking loudly in the street. They were not permitted to walk without a male guardian — either their father, brother or husband — and were told they must not leave home at night.

Sales of music, videos, musical instruments and posters of pop singers or any image showing men and women together were banned. Playing music in cars or any public place was declared sinful.

When the ISIS rebels arrived last year they were initially welcomed as a better disciplined alternative to other militias who had failed to bring peace to the city. But life started to change as they tightened their grip.

They outlawed smoking and hookah pipes. A decree was issued ordering all men to attend prayers five times a day in the mosque or face punishment. Churches have been burnt and desecrated. Last week ISIS announced a tax on Christians and banned them from displaying any symbol of their faith under threat of the sword.

Video footage secretly recorded by an activist showed shops shuttered and streets deserted as the male population was forced to pray.

A taxi driver and two housewives spoke on camera of the hardship of their lives under Isis. The cabbie objected to the ban on music. “It should be me who chooses whether I want to listen to music or to the Koran,” he said. “It’s an ultimatum: listen to the Koran or face being whipped.”

Video footage secretly recorded by an activist showed shops shuttered and streets deserted as the male population was forced to pray.

A taxi driver and two housewives spoke on camera of the hardship of their lives under Isis. The cabbie objected to the ban on music. “It should be me who chooses whether I want to listen to music or to the Koran,” he said. “It’s an ultimatum: listen to the Koran or face being whipped.”

For one of the women from the city’s Tawsea district it was the dress code that she found odious. “It’s true that in Islam the veil is a must, but Islam doesn’t impose the niqab,” she said.

She said the new restrictions have not only changed the face of the city, which before the war had a population of 300,000, but have also forced hundreds of Christian families to flee. “We’re not used to this kind of stuff. It’s not how we used to live,” she added.

The other woman, from the Mashle district, talked of the punishments imposed on people.

“There have been whippings of women because of this. Some women have even been executed. It’s become a case of living under the sword. Either one has to dress in the niqab by force or be executed,” she said.

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