On Women, Al-Nusra, Idlib and the Revolution: a Report with Female Activists from Idlib

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

This report aims to shed light on some of the aspects of life in Idlib, a city that has been out of the control of the Syrian regime for about 4 years, and currently suffers from the woes of war and authoritarianism. Although this report contains some heavy criticism of the way the city is being administered by those who installed themselves as guardians of the people, of its lives and its religiosity; yet it certainly does not aim to justify or facilitate any military invasion or operation in the province primarily for the sake of preserving the lives of civilians, but with the same emphasis, the report calls for ousting the regime of the demigods and establishing a free civil rule which would represent a small scale model of the Syria we are seeking for.

For security reasons, all names mentioned in the report are pseudonyms. The mosaics are the work of a girl from Idlib.

Once, after being stopped by the Husba[religious police], she was taken for investigation accompanied by her mother. She was released after pledging to wear what pleases god, the Prophet and the Emir [the religious commander of the region].

The city of Idlib is situated in north-western Syria, and is out of the control of the Syrian regime. In addition to its own indigenous people, Idlib includes a mix of people from other Syrian areas who emigrated to it. More than half of the current population is constituted of women and children. One third of the women are widowed according to a recent statistic. The political situation in Idlib was formed as a result of several regional and international initiatives since the year 2015, wherein agreements started to emerge under De Mistura plans of political solution for the Syrian crisis, which imposes on rebels to surrender their weapons and retreat towards Idlib. After three years of retreat and movement to the north, and of displacements carried through the notorious green buses, the population of Idlib doubled, reaching about 3 million.


Islamist factions control the city of Idlib. Lots of the factions that went to the north maintained their ideology and system. Some have merged in one body like Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq Al-Rahman did. Green Idlib today does not look very much the same as the green flag of the revolution, it is rather more the case that Islamist factions are copying Assad regime’s style in repression, authoritarianism and torture, as activists report. Still There has tried to communicate with girls from Idlib and some activists to get a close glance on the situation there.

Green Idlib today does not look very much the same as the green flag of the revolution, it is rather more the case that Islamist factions are copying Assad regime’s style in repression, authoritarianism and torture, as activists report.

Lubna—25 years old—went to Idlib with her family about two years ago. Her father decided to leave Hama and go north, a move that frightened his daughter. The plan was to settle in Idlib for a while then to migrate somewhere else. “I was very afraid, I had some expectations that the situation was fearful for I hear lots of things about it”. Lubna reached Idlib and found that the situation according to her judgment was indescribably frightening. Girls do not dare to talk about their rights or their repression. Even this conversation with Still There is said to impose danger on her. I reassured her that I’ll be using a pseudonym. Our correspondences were via e-mail.


Before starting my questions, Lubna told me that the situation of women in Idlib is very bad, and that talking about repression is not possible except in very small groups and among close ones. Lubna adores music, she finished her high school in Hama and started to learn foreign languages in Idlib in preparation to migrate. Things didn’t go according to plan, deterioration of the situation in Idlib and insufficiency of money to make a travel transferred Idlib for her from a crossing bridge to a place of a seemingly long-term settlement. “The damned Islamist factions have turned our lives into hell, even the Niqab, I have been forced to wear it, those who tell you that we want to wear it are liars.”


All synonyms of the word “fear” was present with each answer, the situation is frightful, the future is dreadful, objecting is fearsome.. talking, dressing, living. I asked Lubna about the presence of organizations that support women, she replied with sorrow: “some movements have been made calling for respect of other opinions, but have been repressed, and their founders were arrested and never heard of again”.


We talked with Sana who lives now in Idlib. Sana felt insecure when she knew that we are talking with her from Germany. Germany does not hold good reputation in Idlib. We corresponded via a social networking app that doesn’t require phone numbers for identification. Sana, of 23 years old, has lived synchronically with the Great Siege of Homs. At these times, her father feeling danger, decided to leave for Europe. Blood was all over the place, Sana and her family were running in fear from one shelter to another. At the Great Siege, she lost her father and her brother joined the FSA. Later, they had to leave Homs to Idlib, “only a couple of days, then we will return” says her mother. But those “couple of days” continued until today in Idlib.


“Everything is surrounded by blackness here” Sana describes Idlib under the control of Islamists. She hates them, but knows that her judgment of them is not caused by her hate but by their repressing behaviors. One day, while Sana was in a knitting course, troops from Al-Nusra broke into the place to do a sudden inspection. They found a girl bearing the flag of the revolution, with music coming out of a recorder in her hand. They went crazy, they broke the recorder, cut the flag into pieces, and told her parents that their daughter is committing sinful acts. Sana made hidden laughs that day.


“There is no hope in anything” the Homsian girl states. She asks us to forget about Idlib and the women in Idlib, no one can change anything she says. “The lives of those who work in any organization that contradicts them becomes black, they consider you a Kafir[infidel], they accuse you of treason and collaboration with the regime, and they go after your honor”.

What do you dream of Sana?
“I dream of studying abroad, to live in a house where I can play music loudly, without fear, I dream of becoming a teacher responsible for little children”

What do you dream of Sana? “I dream of studying abroad, to live in a house where I can play music loudly, without fear, I dream of becoming a teacher responsible for little children, you have no idea of how much I wish to be a teacher of little children and to sing with them”. She then goes to tell me the story of her close friend Wahaj, who dared pronounce her dream out loud, her dream was to establish an organization called “Wahaj” to be a shelter for everybody who needs support and care. Her parents absolutely refused the idea and warned her from doing so. Wahaj choked in her dream, she tied a rope around her neck and let it go until she died.


Trying to tap on the situation even more closely, we talked with the Syrian activist Nour Al-Khatib. Nour is a member of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, she oversees the department of detainees and the forcibly disappeared, contributes to the documentation of violations against women and issues a yearly report about it. Nour finds the situation in Idlib uneasy for activists, especially female ones, more specifically ones who don’t adopt the ideology of the controlling party, so much so that her house was previously shot at by Al-Nusra troops. Lots of circumstances make the continuation of activism of women hard “In spite of this, there are active women who challenge the surrounding circumstances and break through ranks of sectors traditionally considered monopolized by men, like in the case of local councils”. Nour finds that Idlib is not empty of organizations concerned of women issues, but such organizations seem to repeat themselves, with unsustainable projects, for instance, a workshop which takes some days to complete, and whence finished life gets back quickly to like it was; zero progress. These projects mostly target certain segments of society and are considered reparations and emergencies, without a comprehensive change philosophy, yet it is wise to know that efficient and sustainable change requires stability, which is lacking in Idlib.

Pressure of Society and Factions

Although the Idlibi society itself is welcoming, hospitable and tries not to cause alien-like feelings in the minds of expats, lots of girls feel lack of belongingness, foreignness, and strangeness towards [the new] Idlib. Julia, of 18 years old, reports that she left her city at the banks of river Barada two years ago, when the regime army after having controlled the area gave them the option to make reconciliation or to leave for Idlib. Her family decided to leave, and thought like many others to migrate later in the wide earth of god, yet god’s earth seemed too narrow for them, and the family had to stay put in Idlib. Julia finds life in Idlib rough, dry and doesn’t look like the soft life she used to have in Wadi Barada. Once, after being stopped by the Husba[religious police], she was taken for investigation accompanied by her mother. She was released after pledging to wear what pleases god, the Prophet and the Emir[the religious commander of the region].

Al-Nusra is not the only problem in Idlib. Julia lives with two faces among her acquaintances there. She doesn’t dare to tell her friends or neighbors that she went to a gender-mixed school in her original city. As for the fact that she still talks with her male friends, that is a secret she has to hide, since no one wants to be accused of debauchery and suffer from the ostracization of society. As for Sana, she once tried to go out with a Hijab but not a Niqab, yet her brother’s beatings were waiting for her, “does god exist?” Sana asks herself while her brother kicks and punches her, is it plausible that he exists and allows this to happen? Is it plausible for her to be humiliated and insulted for this piece of fabric while god watches?


On another level, violence against women is common in Idlib according to Jana, who works in psychological support for women. She reports that women suffer daily from domestic violence, swallowed bodies and blue eyes visit her in the support center every day, her mind finds the accounts of women out of the ordinary. “My husband didn’t beat me 7 years ago, but today I don’t sleep without having my share of the beating”. Jana thinks that men displace their own suffered violence and cruelty onto women. The greater portion of those who ask for support is of expat women. “Maybe some expats feel safer if they share their pains with strangers, a thing city women don’t dare to do since everybody knows everybody there, and the good woman for them is one who doesn’t disclose her household’s secrets”.

Ahmad, who comes from Damascus, finds that pressuring women is not only carried by Islamist factions, and we should not tag the ills of society to Al-Nusra alone, in fact pressuring women in many cases stems from society, while the factions’ blessing and support come later.

The countryside in Idlib enjoys some openness and freedom in comparison to the city of Idlib, and in spite of Al-Nusra’s control of some countryside areas, yet its intervention in people’s lives is less than that of the city, since Al-Nusra’s concentration in the city decreased the pressure on the countryside.

The Countryside differs from the City

The countryside in Idlib enjoys some openness and freedom in comparison to the city of Idlib, and in spite of Al-Nusra’s control of some countryside areas, yet its intervention in people’s lives is less than that of the city, since Al-Nusra’s concentration in the city decreased the pressure on the countryside. Al-Nusra fears assassinations, which can take place in villages whose people know inch by inch, therefore Al-Nusra leaves them.


Naya is active in the field of journalism and media, she prefers along with her cameras to have a distance from the eyes of the city. Bearing cameras there is an accusation, and photographing requires a permit. Using cameras means exposing oneself for integration and countless questions and accusations, so much so that one’s name can become on the blacklist of Al-Nusra. Even more, showing mobiles is not safe, Naya fears that Al-Nusra confiscates her phone. Al-Nusra employs technicians who know how to recover data including deleted ones, and through this they were able to arrest lots of activists and youth.


One day, Naya went out of the countryside and was riding public transportation heading for a workshop in the outskirts of the city of Idlib. All passengers got off the bus along the stations of the road, and the bus was not inspected on checkpoints all the way in the countryside. Al-Nusra stopped them when she reached Idlib city and saw her alone. Skeptical questions showerd her at the time of Ramadan while the weather was unbearably hot. Al-Nusra refused to converse with the girl, she shouted at them that she has no choice, it is either them who deliver her and consequently be alone with her, or they let her continue her way in the bus, but as for continuing the way walking on foot that was unreasonable under the burning sun! Two men rode the bus and sat near the driver to make sure that she is really heading towards a workshop. They didn’t leave the driver until making him sign on a paper where he pledges not to drive his vehicle if it has a woman without Muhram[a male relative] in it.


Some activists find that the city of Idlib didn’t go through the labors of the revolution or the experiences of a free civil life like many liberated cities had, it immediately went from the regime’s control to Al-Nusra’s.

Al-Husba Al-Nisa’iya [the Women Religious Police] is part of Sawaid Al-Khayr [Forearms of Welfare] apparatus, a repressive body concerned in Islamic preaching (or Da’wah). These female preachers or proselytizers are based in Idlib and concentrate their effort on its universities with the aim of applying what they consider the law of god [Sharia] in it.

Female Tunisian Torturers

Repressing women is not limited to men, women also impose oppression on other women in Idlib; cursing them, bringing them to security branches, and torturing them. Al-Husba Al-Nisa’iya [the Women Religious Police] is part of Sawaid Al-Khayr [Forearms of Welfare] apparatus, a repressive body concerned with Islamic preaching (or Da’wah). These female preachers or proselytizers are based in Idlib and concentrate their effort on its universities with the aim of applying what they consider the law of god [Sharia] in it. They move in patrols at other areas like in Sarmada, Dana and Saraqeb, they wear certain kind of clothes that is special to them, and have ribbons dangling from their necks that end with their IDs. Their power comes from the direct connection they have to Al-Nusra.

One activist, a friend of Naya, was wearing like the rest of her family; a local costume they used to wear back when they were in Homs countryside. Their dress didn’t meet the likeness of the preachers and the zealous Husba. The latter warned the family first then they started to annoy her. Finally, the preachers raided the house claiming via an informer that the family listens to religiously prohibited songs on TV “If this is confirmed, we have female Tunisian torturers who will know their way to reach your backs” they threatened the family.


Damage is not limited to beatings and arrestments, but also includes banishment to other areas like Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas. Even more, lots of kidnappings take place, which Al-Nusra usually conducts in order to attain ransom money. Al-Nusra works with the principle of Ihtitab [lit. to collect wood. An interpretation in Islamic jurisprudence which allows Islamic governance to obtain the wealth of Muslim subjects under their control] which postulates that you and your money are permitted for Al-Nusra’s trespassing, under the justification that this money will be used to support the Mujahideen. The ransoms reach large numbers, up to 100 thousand dollars. “Everything can be justified by religion whenever we want to” says Ahmad.


Although Idlib is relatively conservative, yet movements and popular protests against the practices of Al-Nusra take place each time and a while. The women of the countryside got used to a simple life that lacks limits or regulations. Countryside women sit on their house doors with their colored village-costume, they didn’t get used to wearing black.

Yet, protests were mostly forcibly suppressed, and consequently people settle down and protests recede. Nour says: “Al-Nusra’s entry to newly conquered areas after fights with other rebels was combined with shelling the area using heavy artillery and random firing, this is a strategy similar to that of the Syrian regime’s. But even that didn’t facilitate Al-Nusra’s imposition of its opinions except to a like-minded segment.”


Women’s Presence in Idlib

Representation of women in Idlib is very weak, sometimes can be nominal, and some other times non-existent. Some local councils don’t allow women to participate, but some others do, even then women’s involvement in active political participation is very limited.


Muhammad, an activist from Idlib, finds that the presence of women today in Idlib is obvious and strong in comparison to what it was like before the revolution, even though women didn’t fill positions in the Syrian Interim Government, yet their representation in committees or local councils is evident, so much so that the position of Council in the Syrian Interim Government is filled by a woman. Before the revolution, the feminist movement in Idlib was nominal and marginalized, except to some Ba’athist women, but it increased in intensity after the revolution and women became partners in all aspect of peaceful activism, coordination and media.


Black in Black

“The Syrian North is not the Syria we dreamt of” Ahmad finalizes. Naya says in sorrow “They have stolen our joy and the joy of our revolution”, she adds that Al-Nusra is the other face of Assad. Activists are laboriously trying to prove to the world that their society is not a terrorist one and that civilians are not followers of Al-Nusra. Provide for them stability and security then see how people will exit this Al-Nusra cult en masse. The principle of Taqiya [nominal denial of belief to avoid prosecution] forces many people to wear the mask of Islamism, to chant Islamist slogans, and to put a mask even bellow the mask. Yet, all of those who possess the ability to think freely are against these factions, they curse them before sleeping and after waking up. It is true that Al-Nusra has brainwashed the minds of some simple persons, but don’t stab the activists in their backs and wash your hands from Idlib.

It is true that Al-Nusra has brainwashed the minds of some simple persons, but don’t stab the activists in their backs and wash your hands from Idlib.

Nour Al-Khatib says: “Although there are many dangers and difficulties, we shouldn’t feel desperation or that the picture is always bleak. There are parties and activists who struggle to make an effect. They succeed in this even though on a limited basis. The presence of people who have the will and energy to change; taking into consideration all the security and field-work risks like shelling, assassinations, difficulty of mobility, in-fights between factions, kidnaps, and loss of safety; means that there is hope. If Idlib stabilizes, organizations allowed to work freely, and activists are allowed to do their work democratically, then the situation of women will become much better”.

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