Defectors from ISIS' female morality police tell of anguish

Defectors of the all-female Khansaa Brigade said that after ISIS militants invaded Raqqa (above), 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. Joining the uni
Defectors of the all-female Khansaa Brigade said that after ISIS militants invaded Raqqa (above), 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. Joining the unit was a way to win some freedom of movement and an income in a city where women had been stripped of their rights.PHOTO: REUTERS

Women who joined unit for survival grew to hate the horrors that befell their home town

SOUTHERN TURKEY • Dua had been working for only two months with the Khansaa Brigade, the all-female morality police of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), 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.

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 veils, they were also found to be wearing make-up.

It was 20 lashes for the abaya offence, five for the make-up and another five for not being meek enough when detained.

NO MORE HOPE

Syria will become like Palestine. Every year, people think, 'Next year, it will end. We will be free.' And decades pass. Syria is a jungle now.

ASMA, a defector from the Khansaa Brigade, ISIS' all-female morality police

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 heard cursing God. 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 militant rulers. They met up with 22-year-old Asma, another defector from the brigade, and found shelter in the city's large community of Syrian refugees.

Raqqa is widely known now as the capital of ISIS' self-declared caliphate. But the Syrian 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 two visits, recalling their experiences under ISIS rule and how the extremists had utterly changed life in Raqqa.

ISIS has come to be known around the world by acronyms like IS and ISIL. But in Raqqa, residents began calling it Al Tanzeem: The Organisation.

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 who began streaming into town became the leading lights of the shaken-up community.

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

None of them subscribed to its extreme ideology, and even after fleeing their homes and going into hiding, they struggle to explain how they changed from modern women into ISIS morality enforcers.

At that 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 their rights.

But every concession turned into horror before long, and the women came to deplore how they were pitted against their neighbours, part of a force tearing apart the community they loved.

In July last year, Dua's husband Abu Soheil did not return for three nights.

On the fourth day, a group of fighters knocked on Dua's 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.

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

That was the moment that broke her.

She knew she had to escape.

The news came for Aws not long after it did for Dua. Her husband Abu Muhammad had also killed himself in a suicide operation.

Dua, unable to bear another forced marriage, left first.

When Aws decided to leave four months later, it was harder to cross the border because Turkey had started tightening security.

By early spring, Asma was agonising about whether to flee as well.

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

After their shame and disappointment, none of the three said they could imagine going back, even if ISIS fell.

The Raqqa that was their home exists only 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.

"Syria is a jungle now."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'Defectors from ISIS' female morality police tell of anguish'. Print Edition | Subscribe