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Syria: Extremists Restricting Women’s Rights - Harsh Rules on Dress, Work, School

Monday 13 January 2014, by siawi3

Human Rights Watch, January 13, 2014

Photo: Syrian refugees stand in line as they receive humanitarian aid in
Darashakran refugee camp, on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq Kurdistan
region on December 28, 2013.

(New York) – Certain extremist armed opposition groups are imposing
strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls that have no basis
in Syrian law, Human Rights Watch said today. The harsh rules that
some groups are administering in areas under their control in northern
and northeastern Syria violate women’s and girls’ human rights and
limit their ability to carry out essential daily activities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 43 refugees from Syria in Iraqi
Kurdistan and conducted telephone interviews with two refugees from
Syria in Turkey in November and December 2013. The refugees
interviewed said that the extremist armed groups Jabhat al-Nusra and
the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) have enforced their
interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, by requiring women and girls
to wear headscarves (hijabs) and full-length robes (abayas), and
threatening to punish those who do not comply. In some areas, the
groups are imposing discriminatory measures prohibiting women and
girls, particularly those who do not abide by the dress code, from
moving freely in public, working, and attending school.

“Extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are undermining the
freedoms that Syria’s women and girls enjoyed, which were a longtime
strength of Syrian society,†said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights
director at Human Rights Watch. “What kind of victory do these groups
promise for women and girls who are watching their rights slip away.â€

معارضة الداخل The Woman in Pants from abou naddara on Vimeo.
The Woman in Pants is a documentary production of the Damascus-based
Abounaddara Films, a collective of self-taught Syrian filmmakers
involved in emergency cinema.

The regulations imposed on women by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have a
far-reaching impact on women’s and girls’ daily lives, affecting their
ability to obtain education, provide for their families and even
procure basic necessities crucial to survival. Some refugees reported
abductions of women by these groups, and one refugee said that a
widowed neighbor and her three young children died during fighting
because a prohibition on leaving her home without a male guardian left
her afraid to flee the area.

The refugees from Syria in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey told Human
Rights Watch that, between September 2012 and November 2013, Jabhat
al-Nusra and ISIS imposed restrictions on women’s and girls’ dress and
movement in the Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood in the city of Aleppo, the
towns of Afrin and Tel Aran in Aleppo governorate, the city of
Hassakeh, the town of Ras al-Ayn in Hassakeh governorate, the city of
Idlib, and the town of Tel Abyad in Raqqa governorate. These areas
include religiously diverse communities of Sunni Muslims, Shia
Muslims, Alawites, Syriac Christians, and Armenian Christians.

Interviewees said that members of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS insisted
that women follow a strict dress code that mandated the abaya and
hijab and prohibited jeans, close-fitting clothing, and make-up.
According to interviewees, members of these groups forbade women from
being in public without a male family member in Idlib city, Ras
al-Ayn, Tel Abyad, and Tel Aran. Women and girls who did not abide by
the restrictions were threatened with punishment and, in some cases,
blocked from using public transportation, accessing education, and
buying bread.

Interviewees from Idlib city, Tel Abyad, and Tel Aran also said that
Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS banned women from working outside the home in
these areas.

While interviewees were not always able to distinguish among members
of various extremist armed groups with absolute certainty, reports
from media sources and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights support
the refugees’ contentions that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have imposed
these restrictions. Human Rights Watch cannot confirm whether other
extremist armed groups present in the areas mentioned were involved in
imposing restrictions.

Syria does not have a state-mandated religion and its constitution
protects freedom of religion. While the Syrian penal code and personal
status laws, which govern matters such as marriage, divorce, and
inheritance, contain provisions that are discriminatory to women and
girls, the Syrian constitution guarantees gender equality. Public
protests in June 2009 led the government to abandon an effort to
introduce more regressive personal status laws. Interviewees told
Human Rights Watch that, in the past, women and girls were largely
able to participate in public life, including work and school, and
exercise freedom of movement, religion, and conscience.

Refugees said that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS also imposed limitations
on male dress and movement in the village of Jindires in Afrin and in
Ras al Ayn, Tel Abyad, and Tel Aran, but all said that greater
restrictions were placed on women and girls. Former residents of Tel
Abyad and Tel Aran said that the armed groups did not permit males to
wear jeans or fitted pants, but that the groups imposed a less
specific dress code on males than on females.

Interviewees said that restrictions on movement for men and boys in
the village of Jindires in Afrin and in Ras al Ayn, Tel Abyad, and Tel
Aran were part of universal restrictions on movement, such as evening
curfews; they said that, in October 2012 in Ras al Ayn and July and
August 2013 in Tel Aran, armed extremist groups including Jabhat
al-Nusra exerted control by announcing that no one could go out in
public after 5 p.m. In no cases were limitations on dress or freedom
of movement applied solely to men and boys.

While unjustified restrictions on dress and freedom of movement for
anyone violate their rights and should be rescinded, restrictions that
apply to and affect women and girls disproportionately are

Commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS should immediately and publicly
rescind all policies that violate women’s rights, including mandatory
dress codes and limitations on freedom of movement. The groups should
cease punishing and threatening women and girls whose dress or
behavior does not conform to the strict rules imposed by these groups.
They should also halt unlawful interference in women’s and girls’
rights to privacy, autonomy, and freedom of expression, religion,
thought and conscience, enforce adherence to international human
rights law, and punish those under their command who restrict women’s
dress and access to work, education, or public space. Any concerned
governments with influence over these groups should also press them to
put an end to these discriminatory restrictions on women, Human Rights
Watch said.

“Groups like ISIS and al-Nusra claim to be part of a social movement,
yet they seem more focused on diminishing freedom for women and girls
than providing any social benefit,†Gerntholtz said. “As we have seen
in situations in Somalia, Mali, and elsewhere, these kinds of
restrictions often mark the beginning of a complete breakdown of
women’s and girls’ rights.â€