Syria Crisis

Why ISIS Won't Let Young Women Leave Raqqa

ISIS imposes harsh morality codes on women and girls in Raqqa, Syria. Now females under 45 are not allowed to leave, and one mother of a teenaged daughter says she knows why.

In Raqqa, Syria
In Raqqa, Syria
Kinda Jayoush

RAQQA — Dalia, a school education supervisor, spends many of her days thinking about how she can smuggle her only daughter, 14-year-old Salma, out of Raqqa. She fears for Salma's future after the Islamist terror group ISIS instituted a ban on women under 45 years old from leaving the city. The purpose, she says, is to force young women to marry ISIS fighters.

Dalia, 44, and her daughter now rarely leave the house. They have heard the horrifying stories of their female neighbors who were raped by ISIS members or lashed because they didn't wear the niqab. Dalia is also a mother of two boys, 19-year-old Samer, who is stuck in Raqqa, and 21-year-old Fadi, who has been in Damascus for two years with Dalia's parents. She hasn't seen him since he left.

SYRIA DEEPLY: When did you learn about the travel ban, and what are the conditions?
DALIA: We learned about the decision in late November when women with identity cards showing their age as less than 45 years old were turned back at checkpoints. My neighbor was 10 days short of being 45, and she was sent back. Soon after, we learned of the new decision when it was publicly announced in the city. Now women under 45 are not allowed to travel anywhere.

Have you heard of any exceptions?
People who were turned back at checkpoints were told that in case of a medical emergency, women under 45 are allowed to travel, but only in the direction of Turkey. They must be accompanied by a first-degree male relative: a father or sibling, for example. Those over 45 can travel if they are accompanied by a first-degree male relative in any direction — that is, Turkey and areas under regime control.

Turkey is very expensive for us. Many have traveled in the direction of areas under regime control in the past, as it is more affordable in terms of medication and hospitalization. But now we are all scared of these decisions. I cannot stop thinking about my daughter's fate.

What was the reaction of the people in the city?
Everyone is thinking of ways to smuggle their daughters outside the city, but it is almost impossible. My husband cries all the time. He is crying now. He fears for our kids.

Did ISIS tell the people of Raqqa why they made this decision?
We were told that the women of ISIS are their property, and so they should start thinking of getting married to members and fighters.

Are they forcing women to marry ISIS fighters?
They use pressure tactics to force women to marry the fighters. They have asked women who are not married to wear a white scarf under the face niqab so that the al-Khansaa Brigade ISIS's all-female moral police recognize them. When the female police spot the white scarf, they approach these women and their families, and often harass them, to ask for their hands for the Arab and foreign fighters who are looking for wives.

Not many Raqqa families have married their daughters to ISIS fighters, but the ones who did got many privileges. Families that didn't accept were picked on and punished for the slightest mistake. ISIS fighters are rich and drive expensive cars. Some poor families in the city have agreed to marry their daughters to ISIS fighters. ISIS has even been distributing niqabs at very cheap prices for women, including this white scarf. The whole niqab costume costs about $3. Women have been buying them as cheap clothing.

How do you feel about this decision and about living in Raqqa?
I am terrified for my daughter. My heart aches and breaks when I look at my daughter and think about what is happening in Raqqa. I am a mother. I think so often of Salma's future and my sons' future. They were always at the top of their classes, and look where they are now? I cry so often. I feel the pain in my heart. I try not to look at them, sometimes, in order not to realize what they are going through. I cannot take the pain.

They do not go out. Their schools were forced to shut down by ISIS. My daughter and son spend most of their day in front of the television or the computer. No schools, no work, nothing.

Raqqa has become a big prison for all of us. We often don't have water or electricity. We depend heavily on generators for power. We fear punishment and harassment in the street by ISIS police for both men and women. And on top of all that, we can't leave the city. We are choking. It's a slow death.

Do you know any women who have been punished by ISIS for breaking the rules?
The women of Raqqa have been humiliated and punished by ISIS. The ISIS police pick on women for the slightest reason. One of my neighbors was walking with her husband, and she had forgotten to wear the "shield," a rectangular piece of thick material that stretches from eyes to knees. It was recently imposed in addition to the niqab. The ISIS police arrested him and his wife. They punished him with 100 lashes and forced him to pay a 25,000-pound ($137) fine. He divorced his wife out of anger at the same place where ISIS punished him.

A more sad experience that frightened us all occurred several months ago. My neighbor Lina was arrested in the street for a similar niqab and dress code violation. Her husband was not around. The ISIS police freed her after three days. Her husband got suspicious. He asked her if ISIS fighters or police did anything to her. She said no. A few days later, he was not convinced, so he demanded she swear on the Koran that she was telling the truth. She could not lie. The truth was a horrifying story. She said that she was raped repeatedly every hour by a different ISIS fighter. Her husband divorced her on the spot.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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