In the first of a five-part series of accounts exploring what life was like for women living under the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, two women who worked as torturers for ISIL’s religious police share their stories.
Aisha’s story – Raqqa, Syria: ‘That was our job, torturing people’
My name is Aisha. In ISIL, they called me Um Qaqaa. I lived in Raqqa.
I went to ISIL to explain my situation to them. My husband was a martyr. I had no more money. I had no choice but to work for them.
I started the paperwork to join but they said first I needed training in Sharia law. During the training, they taught us to recite the Quran. There were about 30 or 40 women. The mosque was full of trainees. And you had to recite it again and again until you passed the exam. It took me three months to pass.
Some of the women were illiterate. They did not know how to read or write. They flogged them to make them learn. Some of them never succeeded so they kept them in prison.
One day, two men from ISIL came to my house and said: “Tomorrow you start working.”
When we signed up, they gave us guns. My unit consisted of 10 women. Three were assigned to the van, and the other seven were at the station in the torture room. They chose tall, huge, imposing women to scare people. They chose the cruellest women. Women who had no mercy for anyone.
If a woman walked down the street unaccompanied, she was arrested. She had to be accompanied by her brother or husband. If a woman walked alone or took a taxi without them, she was arrested.
We were supposed to patrol the neighbourhoods, the markets, to look for women whose clothes did not conform to ISIL’s laws.
All of this was so ISIL could sell their own clothes. They arrested women and forced them to buy a set for 6,000 or 7,000 Syrian pounds [$12 to $14]. Only then would they let them go.
Even little girls had to wear Sharia-compliant clothing.
When we signed up, they gave us guns. My unit consisted of 10 women ... They chose tall, huge, imposing women to scare people. They chose the cruellest women. Women who had no mercy for anyone.
We were supposed to go back to the police station with the bus full of women. Sometimes we had 30, 40 women, sometimes 10 or 20. It depended on the number of violations. But we never came back empty.
Once they arrived at the station, the women were flogged. They were kept in prison for a few days. Then they made the women buy regulation clothing from them before releasing them.
One day, we arrested a woman who was wearing nail polish. They used a pair of pliers to pull out her nails.
My worst memory was when we arrested a woman who was not wearing a niqab. It turned out she was a mute. She could not talk. She was tortured. I felt especially bad for her. They discovered she was mute while they were torturing her.
Some women were in the early stages of pregnancy. The torture caused them to miscarry. A woman gave birth in the offices of the religious police. She was on the way to the hospital with her mother because she thought her baby was coming. She had not covered her eyes, so they arrested her. She gave birth at the station while they were torturing her. A lot of women had miscarriages there. They had no mercy.
That was our job, torturing people. We tortured a lot of people. I cannot even tell you how many.
We were under surveillance. There was a colleague whose job was to watch us.
If I failed to arrest a person because I knew him or her, that colleague would immediately report it. There was nothing I could do.
One day, one of the women saw her cousin or neighbour, someone she knew. She asked us to act as if nothing had happened. But the one who was in charge of monitoring us reported her. They punished my colleague and fired her. She was imprisoned, flogged and tortured.
The women who were members of ISIL banned everyone from smoking, but they themselves smoked. In fact, I would buy their cigarettes for them. They banned alcohol but they drank. It was fine for them, but a sin for everyone else.
The most popular form of torture was flogging.
The head of the religious police would come to see the woman and, if he liked her, he would offer her marriage. If she agreed, he would sign the wedding papers and take her home. If not, she would stay in prison and be tortured.
It was brainwashing. They would not let people go until they convinced them. There are women who joined them in battle. Real women fighters who took up arms and were on the front lines like men. They held on because they were there with their husbands. They said to themselves: ‘My husband went into battle, so I’ll fight alongside him.’
There were also widows of martyred fighters. They took up arms to avenge their men. Other women were convinced that they would go to heaven.
I stopped working when the bombing started in Raqqa. My colleagues continued working but I took my children and left because of the air raids.
I would tell people not to make the mistakes I made. I tortured people. Do not make that mistake.
Um Farouk’s story – Deir Az Zor, Syria: ‘She bit a woman’s chest and did not let go until she died’
I am Um Farouk, I live in Deir Az Zor, ‘the Province of Plenty’. I am 45 years old. When ISIL arrived, I swore allegiance and worked with them in the religious police.
We were happy when they arrived. We hoped that religion would improve the country. That everything would go back to the way it was. They treated people well. So we stayed and worked with them for a while.
Bay’a is the oath you take to swear allegiance. That is how you become one of them. Mere supporters were not considered part of the group. They feared they would betray them. Whereas those who swore allegiance became full members.
I was called and had to go to court. Abu Omar was the one responsible for the oaths. I said: “I’m with you, brother. I will do whatever it takes.” That is how I swore my allegiance. As simple as that.
We had to wear a wide abaya with a cover on top. At first, they allowed the eyes to be uncovered. But they changed their minds. You had to be fully covered and even wear gloves. Those were their rules. Anyone who did not comply and wore an abaya that was too tight or had something sparkly on it broke the rules.
One day, a little girl about 10 years old, was wearing pyjama bottoms and her prayer clothes on top. She went into a store to buy something. As soon as they saw the little girl, the car of the religious police stopped. They saw that she was wearing pants and a sweater and her prayer clothes on top. A man got out of the car. He was a Kuwaiti or a Saudi. I recognised his accent. He said: “Why did you go out in those clothes, you whore?” The little girl was so scared she peed herself.
For those who had committed minor moral offences, there was the so-called ‘biter’. She would bite women. Once, she bit a woman’s chest, and she did not let go, did not stop torturing the woman, until the woman died.
They view women with contempt. It is like a prison. Whether she is a civilian or a member, the woman lives in a prison, suffocated. Whether at home or outside, it is a prison. Women are oppressed.
There was also the story of this woman who had just given birth. Her son had a fever. She went out in a panic to get medicine at the pharmacy. A religious police car drove by, they arrested her. They said, “Why did you go out, you whore?” Using that kind of language. “Why did you go out in that outfit?” It was a Lycra abaya. She should not have worn Lycra. They showed no mercy. She said, “I just had a baby”, so the biter would only use her teeth. The biter would sometimes use her teeth, other times electrical pliers.
They view women with contempt. It is like a prison. Whether she is a civilian or a member, the woman lives in a prison, suffocated. Whether at home or outside, it is a prison. Women are oppressed. It is impossible to breathe. Even at home, she has to be careful what she says. In the religious police too, we knew nothing about each other. I was not allowed to know anything about my colleagues, and they were not to know anything about me. Everyone worked in secrecy.
I saw strange things when I worked with them there. Once I was told that there was a midwife coming. I went with them to get her. She was supposed to help their wives give birth. She helped give birth a few times. Then I discovered she was not coming to deliver their wives’ babies. She was coming for the female prisoners of war; they could be the wife of a member of the Free Syrian Army or his daughter or the wife of an “infidel”. Men came to rape them. They were getting pregnant, and so the midwife had come to administer abortions.
When I found out about this, I swear it drove me crazy. I did not know anything about that. These people have no humanity or religion.
I am not just tired mentally. They tore our hearts out. We were forced into it. God alone will judge.
I told them that my husband had heart disease and that he had gone to Iraq for surgery, to run away from them.
I address all free women who fear God: Do not join this organisation. They are unjust and cruel. They do not fear God. They have nothing to do with Islam. They are criminals.
These accounts were gathered for the documentary ‘Women of ISIL’ by filmmaker Thomas Dandois. They have been edited for clarity and brevity.