After long years of displacement, Syrian families who have moved to Idlib, now under the control of the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, face a challenge: they are not considered to be religious enough.

For the young women of these families, marrying men in neighboring Turkey was their escape from the conservative Idlib, a way out that could be approved by their families who would not have let them leave on their own. 

Rola, a 31-year-old woman from the coastal province of Latakia, had to deal with new gender-based constraints when her family fled to Idlib three years ago.

The young woman who graduated from the fine arts school in Damascus told Asia Times: “I lived in Latakia with my family where I taught children art, but after the Syrian security forces arrested my brother in 2016, we had to sell our home to use the proceeds as bribery to get him [my brother] out of jail. After his release, we were afraid he would get arrested again, so we headed to Idlib.”

Idlib has been controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Levant Liberation Front, since July 2017 when all the other opposition factions were sidelined.

HTS, which at one point pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, imposes strict Islamic law on residents, especially women, who have been banned from several mundane activities such as wearing make-up and dressing ‘inappropriately.’

Women in Idlib now must wear loose, long and plain dresses known as the abaya. In today’s Idlib, women are not allowed to show their eyes from under the niqab. They are asked to adhere to an ‘Islamic dress code’ as part of any job requirement.

To impose these rules, the Islamist faction created an agency tasked with supervising adherence to its dress code, sending monitors to the streets, markets and universities. Facing immense pressures from the strict religious codes, families have increasingly resorted to marrying their daughters off at a young age to offer them male protection.

Other women, however, have sought to escape the province completely.

Escape from ‘hell’

Rola’s suffering began when she arrived at the borders of Idlib and was asked about her religious background by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham men, who were incredulous that Muslim women would not be wearing the abaya. 

Rola said her family was shocked by the constraints. For she and her mother, it was their first time donning the black garment. 

“My life utterly and immediately changed. The HTS men made us wear abaya and questioned us to make sure we were Muslim. They told my father and my brother that they have to marry me and that they had the appropriate match for me,” said Rola.

The men eventually let them pass, but life in Idlib would not get easier.

Several months later, Rola decided to look for a job but failed, finding no place for art in the conservative provincial capital.

“I was extremely frustrated. I could not get out of the house without a man accompanying me and I did not want to marry an uneducated armed militant. So I told my family that I planned to leave for either Turkey or Damascus.”

But her family would not agree to their daughter living on her own, insisting she marry first. Rola added that this was when she considered “running away,” a thought that became recurrent for her.

“But my parents are old and suffered from illnesses. This is why I looked for a young man who could help me,” she said.

Through acquaintances, Rola met 33-year-old Omar, a Syrian journalist living in Istanbul with his wife. Omar agreed to help Rola travel through a fake marriage to begin a new life.

“When I heard Rola’s story, it made me sad for her and I wanted to help her, especially since she is living in an environment that does not suit her,” Omar told Asia Times.

“So I told my wife the story and we decided to help Rola escape from this hell.”

Omar’s wife assisted in making this fake marriage happen, convincing her own mother she had found a wife for her brother as a cover. 

“I trusted Rola and knew she won’t cause me any troubles. So I called her mother and we agreed on everything and decided that the marriage will be through a sheikh and that it will be validated later on in Turkey,” said Omar’s wife.

Rola managed to go to Turkey and begin a new life. After a while, she found a reasonably paid job in a real estate company and found the courage to take off her veil.

Several months later, she told her family that she asked for a divorce and that she was currently happy. The financial independence and the monthly assistance to her family in Idlib also helped her case to stay.

First man to knock

At first, Alaa’s fate was similar to Rola’s. The 30-year-old woman also sought a fake marriage to escape the ‘hell’ she went through in Idlib, as she described it.

Alaa graduated from the Economics school in Damascus and, along with her family, was one of many families displaced from Qaboun municipality in the outskirts of Damascus. Alaa’s tragedy began with the death of her brother in a Syrian army airstrike during the early years of the conflict.

“After migrating to Idlib, we did not have a source of income, and I lived with my elderly parents. Our financial situation was very difficult and I could not find a job. So my parents decided they would marry me to the first man who knocked on the door in fear that I would live alone after their death. This prompted me to consider running away,” Alaa told Asia Times.

Alaa was able to find a young man living in Turkey to agree to a fake marriage with her, and after a while she took the dangerous path of illegal migration across the border and all the way to Istanbul. At the time, she did not consider that she might be taken advantage of by this young man.

“As soon as I arrived at the young man’s house, he told me he needed a girl to live with him to avoid any suspicions of him, as he sells drugs. I refused and decided to run away, but he prevented me from leaving the house and took my phone and threatened to tell my family the truth if I left,” she said.

Four months later, Alaa found her chance to escape. 

“One time, this young man told me to go to Esenyurt district to get him drugs. I agreed.”

Instead, she fled to the far east of the country to a town bordering Syria. She had initially planned to return home, but instead decided to make a new life, informing her family that she had asked for a divorce.

“Later on, I found a job in a clothing store. I became financially independent, and I also found absolute freedom in how I dress and live, so I preferred to stay in Turkey.”

For women, she said, living in Idlib is akin to servitude.

Syrian women during the opening ceremony of a dressmaking workshop established by the Turkish Red Crescent in Khan Shaykhun, Idlib, in northwestern Syria on December 1, 2018. Photo: Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency

Finding freedom

Before the war, Sakeena, 35, worked as a physical education teacher in Aleppo.

Like Rola and Alaa, she decided to escape from her family, in this case because of the constraints imposed on her by her two brothers, former prisoners of the Syrian jails.

“In 2017, my brothers were arrested and a year later they were released, but they had utterly changed,” she told Asia Times. 

“They became Islamic extremists and made me and my mom wear a veil and had me quit my job. So our lives became hell at home where everything was forbidden including the television.”

A year later, Sakeena managed to escape to Istanbul in the hope of making a new life, but she met with endless difficulties. On her first day, Sakeena says she was scammed by a Syrian broker who took all her money with the claim he would find her appropriate housing.

“I lost all of my money and had nothing left with me. I had to sleep in public parks,” she said. 

But Sakeena persisted, quickly finding a job in a sewing workshop, where the owner allowed her to sleep at night.

After getting back on her feet, Sakeena found a better job in a real estate office with a monthly income that allowed her to rent her own home and achieve her long-awaited dream of independence.

“I am happy now with my new life despite the difficulties, especially because I am now completely free.”

This article was translated from Arabic by Waad Ahmed