BEIRUT – The gunmen came to the all-girls’ elementary school in the Iraqi city of Fallujah at midday with a special delivery: piles of long black robes with gloves and face veils, now required dress code for females in areas ruled by the Islamic State group.
“These are the winter version. Make sure every student gets one,” one of the men told a supervisor at the school earlier this month.
Extremists are working to excise women from public life across the territory controlled by the Islamic State group, stretching hundreds of kilometres from the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo in the west to the edges of the Iraqi capital in the east.
The group has been most notorious for its atrocities, including the horrors it inflicted on women and girls from Iraq’s minority Yazidi community when its fighters overran their towns this year. Hundreds of Yazidi women and girls were abducted and given to extremists as slaves. A report by Amnesty International released Tuesday said the captives – including girls as young as 10-12 – endured torture, rape and sexual slavery, and that several abducted girls committed suicide.
In day-to-day life, the group has also dramatically hemmed in women’s lives across the Sunni Muslim heartland that makes up the bulk of Islamic State group territory, activists and residents say. Their movements are restricted and their opportunity for work has shrunk.
In Iraq’s Mosul, the biggest city in the group’s self-declared caliphate, “life for women has taken a 180-degree turn,” said Hanaa Edwer, a prominent Iraqi human rights activist. “They are forbidding them from learning, forbidding them from moving around freely. The appearance of a woman is being forcefully altered.”
At least eight women have been stoned to death for alleged adultery in IS-controlled areas in northern Syria, activists say.
At least 10 women in Mosul have been killed for speaking out against the group, Edwer said. In August, IS detained and beheaded a female dentist in Deir el-Zour who had continued to treat patients of both sexes, the U.N. said.
Relatives of women considered improperly dressed or found in the company of males who are not relatives are lashed or imprisoned. In the IS-controlled town of al-Bab in Syria’s northern Aleppo province, an activist described seeing armed militants walking with a stick in hand, gently whacking or jabbing at women deemed inappropriately dressed.
“Sometimes they follow the woman home and detain her father, or they confiscate her ID and tell her to come back with her father to pick it up,” said Bari Abdelatif, now based in Turkey.
Enforcement varies from one place to the other, much of it depending on the whims of the Hisba, or vice police enforcing those rules. Most of the areas taken over by IS were already deeply conservative places where women had a subordinate role in society, but the extremists have sharply exacerbated the restrictions.
Abdelatif said women in al-Bab are harassed for venturing outside their home without a “mahram,” or male guardian. In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital, activists said women were allowed to leave their homes on their own, but needed a male companion or permission of a male relative to leave the city.
An IS all-female brigade, called al-Khansa, patrols the streets in some areas to enforce clothing restrictions.
Across the territory, women now have to wear the “khimar,” a tent-like robe that covers the head, shoulders and chest. The khimar leaves the face exposed but very often the militants go ahead and force women to put a niqab veil over their faces as well, leaving only the eyes visible.
In the Iraqi city of Fallujah, an elementary school teacher said militants recently dropped by the school to deliver the niqab, robes and gloves for the students to wear.
“I used to wear make-up on occasion but I don’t anymore,” she said, speaking by phone on strict condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The militants have segregated schools and changed the curriculum. In some cases they shut schools down, summoning teachers to take a course in their hard-line version of Islamic Shariah law before reopening them. In many instances in both Iraq and Syria, parents have opted not to send their children to school to avoid IS brainwashing them.
Hospitals have also been segregated. A woman has to be seen by a female doctor, but there are very few women doctors left.
Early marriage is on the rise because parents want to find husbands for their daughters quickly for fear they will be forced to marry Islamic State fighters, according to the U.N.
“The psychological and physical harm caused by ISIS’s treatment of women, the onerous instructions imposed on their dress code, and restrictions on their freedom of movement demonstrate discriminatory treatment on the basis of gender,” a United Nations panel investigating war crimes in the Syrian conflict said last month.
It said the killings and acts of sexual violence perpetrated by IS constitute crimes against humanity.
While the Islamic State group imposes its extremist vision of Islamic law on Sunni Muslim women under its rule, it went further when it overran the Iraqi villages of the Yazidi minority in early August. The extremists consider followers of the Yazidi faith as infidels – and thus permissible to enslave.
Amnesty International interviewed more than 40 former captives who escaped the militants and described being abducted, raped and being “sold” or given as “gifts” to Islamic State fighters or supporters.
One girl told how a 19-year-old among them named Jilan committed suicide, fearing rape.
In the bathroom, “she cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful,” the girl quoted in the report said. “I think she knew she was going to be taken away by a man.”