The woman and her three young children sat in the house, growing more anxious every time the sounds of war echoed around their walls. As her neighbors fled, she knew it was time to seek safer ground.
But she couldn't leave the house. Women are forbidden to go out in public without a male relative, and she was a widow with no other male family members around. If she left, she could be beaten or abducted, like some of the other women who defied the restrictions.
So she stayed. The fighting intensified, and grew closer, until a shell hit their home. A neighbor told human rights watchers that their bodies were trapped in rubble for four days afterward. They all died.
The family lived in the town of Tell Aran in northern Syria’s Aleppo Governorate. It’s part of the bigger story of how draconian restrictions on women—implemented by extremists in the country’s ongoing civil war—have curtailed freedoms and changed their lives dramatically.
Trapped indoors: They can’t go where they want, when they want
Life before the war wasn't perfect, but Syrian women had relatively reasonable levels of independence in society, especially compared with their counterparts in the Arab world. The government boasted reduced penalties for honor killings targeting females, and women had to get permission from a male relative to travel abroad. But there was participation in public life through schools and working outside the home.
Ever since armed extremist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham took control of the country’s north and northeastern areas, refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey told Human Rights Watch in interviews, major changes have occurred.
Women could not go outside in public on their own—even to buy essentials such as food—without a male relative to escort them. Those who showed up solo to markets and bakeries were turned away by armed extremists.
One refugee told Human Rights Watch: “It was like we were in jail. We couldn’t even go outside near our house. If we went outside, Jabhat al-Nusra would tell us to go back in our houses.”
Some women were barred from driving and prevented from taking public transportation.
Going to work or school is not an option
In some places in Syria, women were prohibited from working outside the home and getting an outside education.
One 20-year-old refugee said that extremists prevented her and other female students from signing up for university exams. “They refused to talk to me, even though I was wearing a head scarf,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I was wearing Western clothes, and they said this was not acceptable.”
Another young refugee reported that she and her friends decided to stop going to school because they were afraid of the extremists.
In other areas, they were barred from going to work and school as a punishment for not following strict Muslim dress codes.
The lack of male family members makes the restrictions even more punishing
Given that 85 to 90 percent of the approximately 130,000 who have died in Syria’s civil war to date are men, said Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, the restrictions on women’s movement are especially damaging.
“A lot of men are either fighting, away, or have died,” she said. “So now, many households are headed by women who don’t have male relatives around.”
Even access to essential survival items has been limited.
All the restrictions have a domino effect. Women have a tough time buying food for their family or accessing health care.
According to two refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, some women would go to villages far away where extremists were not present. This way, they could buy food and other necessities without fear.
Forced to cover and conform to Islamic dress
Islamic law, known as sharia, requires women to cover their hair and most of their bodies and dress modestly—and has been enforced by the extremist groups. Makeup, close-fitting clothing, and jeans are prohibited. The groups announced these requirements at mosques and via posters and pamphlets, but thuggish enforcers got more personal if they didn’t see women comply.
One refugee told Human Rights Watch that fighters from the extremist groups would visit homes and threaten the males of the household as a way to get the women to wear head scarves and full-length robes.
“They would say, ‘This time we are saying this to you; next time we will take action,’ ” the man told Human Rights Watch.
The climate of fear keeps them from defying orders
Reports of beatings and threats of violence against women who didn't comply—as well as abductions of women who were alone in public—has made them feel that they have no choice but to obey.
Extremist leaders declared it "halal" (OK under Islamic law) to take women as property, according to six refugees from the towns of Ras al Ayn, Tel Abyad, and Azaz.
While these restrictions have played out with some variation across in the north and northeastern regions of Syria, the women and men Human Rights Watch interviewed reported that they were fairly widespread in these areas between September 2012 and October 2013, according to Gerntholtz.
Though she said that it’s difficult to say whether these restrictions are representative of conditions across the entire country, she added that Human Rights Watch has no reason to believe that the other parts of the country held by extremists are handled differently.
Gerntholtz warned that these restrictions could be just the beginning of a downward spiral for the freedom of Syrian women and girls.
“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.”