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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 BrigadeISIS'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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