Souad Nawfal remembers when the anti-Assad protests gained traction in Raqqa. It was March 15, 2012, shortly after the death of Ali Babinsky, the first resident of the eastern province of Syria to be killed by regime forces. He was 17 years old. “We buried him and then when we had a funeral and protest on his behalf, they fired on us and killed sixteen of our people.”
She also remembers when she started protesting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – albeit the one unsanctioned by Ayman al-Zawahiri – which today rules Raqqa. “I started demonstrating because they took Father Paolo,” she said, referring to the Italian Jesuit priest who for decades ran a parish north of Damascus and supported the Syrian revolution from its inception. After joining protests in Raqqa in late July, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State and has not been heard from since. “Paolo was my guest,” Nawfal, a short, 40-year-old, hijab-wearing former schoolteacher told me during an hour-long interview on Skype. “He used to come to break the fast at Ramadan in my house. He was coming to speak out against ISIS. He wanted to stop the killings and secrecy, all the stuff the regime does. He went in to speak to ISIS but he never came out.”
Nawfal has recently become a hero to Syrian activists, who loathe both Bashar al-Assad and al-Qaeda, as well as a minor internet celebrity for a four-minute video she made in which she lambasts the latter for their draconian rule and religious obscurantism. The video is titled “The Woman in Pants” in reference to her refusal to accommodate the Islamic State’s dress code for women. Nawfal said that she’s spent the last two months protesting the new ideologues of her province, whom she sees as not only tarnishes of Islam, but also as the mirror-image of the very totalitarians she and her fellow activists wanted to be rid of in the first place. “They treat people horribly. They’re exactly like Assad’s regime. They scare people into submission.”
“They grab people off the street and imprison them and no one can ask where they are or what happened to them. During Ramadan, someone wasn’t fasting – he was eating freely in the street – and they arrested this man and locked him up until Eid. They took a journalist, Ziad al-Homsi, three days ago. They have taken a lot of the revolutionaries.” Prisons, she said, are many and scattered throughout the province, and the Islamic State headquarters has its own detention facility.
Much like the mukhabarat during the early days of the protest movement, the Islamic State has also banned civilians from taking photographs or making any recordings of provocative behavior in Raqqa. “ISIS would beat people in the street with leather. If anyone was going around taking ‘illegal’ pictures of this with a camera, they’d be taken into custody. In the month and a half I was protesting in front of the headquarters, no one would take my picture because they were scared.”
The jihadi movement has succeeded, Nawfal believes, by preying upon the poverty, illiteracy, and wartime exigencies of this province to curry favor with the population. An especially effective tactic has been the brainwashing of Raqqa’s children. “People that are poor and uneducated and not paying attention to what their kids are doing, their 10 year-olds will go out and then ISIS will promise the family food and money. They elevate these kids and call them ‘sheikhs’ and give them weapons and power, turn them into child-soldiers. But these are 10-year-old boys who have never studied theology and now they’re sheikhs! I am worried that this is really ruining the idea of what Muslims are and what Islam is.”
Nawfal has had plenty of nasty run-ins with the Islamic State herself. She’s become a daily fixture in front of the group’s local headquarters where, she told me, she’s been cursed at, spit on, manhandled, and even run over. “I was standing out in front of this place and there was an ISIS man with a long white beard who wanted to park his car there. But it’s a huge area. He told me I had to move. I told him ‘no.’ So he started swearing at me, berating me but I still wouldn’t move. So he hit me with the car twice. It wasn’t that hard but more for him to make a point.”
“Every day they’d point a Kalashnikov at my head and threaten to shoot me. I’d tell them, ‘Do it. If you kill me first, then the second bullet has to go to Bashar’s head.’ That’d irritate them.”
Where her chutzpah may discombobulate the takfiris, the fact that she’s both a small, middle-aged woman and more or less a solo act in defying them, likely accounts for her survival and precarious freedom thus far. Nevertheless, she insists that she’s narrowly escaped the Islamic State’s distinct brand of social justice more than once, the last time after standing up for the rights of Raqqa’s Christian community.
In late September, the Islamic State attacked and burned two churches in the province, removing their crosses from the spires and replacing them with their black flag of global jihad. On September 25, it did this to the Sayidat al-Bishara Catholic Church, after which around two dozen people turned up at the site to protest. “I told them, ‘What are you doing here? Go to the headquarters.’” She led a march and some of the protestors did indeed begin following her, but by the time she reached the headquarters, she found that she was all by herself. Everyone had dropped out of the retinue out of fear. A day later, another church was stormed; Nawfal again went to demonstrate after she heard that people had been arrested. This time she carried a sign that read “Forgive me.” The message was intended for her family because she was certain that that day she’d either be killed or abducted. “First they tried to scare me away. They let off a bomb near me. I was there for ten minutes and a 16-year-old old member of ISIS came to me and called me an infidel and turned to the other ISIS men and said, ‘Why are you letting her live?’ He was about to kill me, but apparently he got orders for no one to talk to me.”
“Five minutes later, a car came with guns and weapons. Somebody jumped out and started grabbing at my arm, hitting me on the shoulder. Another person was spitting at me, swearing at me. I thought I was finished at this point. I started to call the Syrian people around me. I shouted, ‘Are you happy, Syrians? Look what they’re doing to me. Look at your women, how they’re getting raped, how they’re getting attacked, and you’re just sitting there, watching.’”
The Islamic State fighters threatening Nawfal were four Tunisians, she said, and after she exhorted her compatriots to intervene, two Syrian members of the group got up and tried to pull the foreigners off her. “They came up to the Tunisians and said, ‘Nobody is allowed to touch her.’ But they ripped up my sign and told me to go home and forget about everything. I told them, ‘You guys are agents of the regime, you guys embarrass Muslims.’”
Now, Nawfal said, she’ll only go outside to protest so long as no one on the street recognizes her. The minute an Islamic State militant sees her, she leaves. She doesn’t stay in one place anymore but moves from house to house, a fugitive in her own city. She doesn’t believe the current situation will change in the near future. “If people have fear, Raqqa will not have freedom from ISIS. As long as ISIS continues to use the tactics of the regime, it’s not going to become free.”
I asked her if she’d ever consider leaving.
“I love Syria, and my soul is here. We didn’t start the revolution so that we can up and leave, but when it gets to the point where they’re going to kill my whole family and I am the reason why, I would leave my mother but I will never forget her. And my mother stays inside my soul until she is free. And my mother is Syria.”