On January 31, members of the Idlib city religious police, al-Hisba, marched unannounced into the al-Orouba School for Girls.
The all-male patrol gathered together the women—schoolchildren, teachers and administrators—and began an impromptu inspection of their clothing. Living in Idlib, traditionally a conservative city, the women all wore long, loose-fitting attire.
But this was not enough for the religious police. The men singled out a handful of girls whose overcoats were more than five centimeters off the ground, ordering them to leave the school immediately.
When one of the girls spoke back to the religious police, she was arrested. When her father came to the school, he too was arrested. After the girl’s classmates formed an impromptu protest, demanding their release, the religious police let the two go.
As Idlib’s political and security problems worsen, “Sharia-compliance” inspections are taking on a new importance for the ruling Victory Army—a rebel alliance led by the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—that took control of the city in 2015. In October 2015, the Victory Army—and by extension its religious police—ordered all women in the densely crowded provincial capital to abide by their strict standards of dress, both in schools and in public areas.
An all-girls school in Idlib province, February 2017. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Media Center.
“Female students know what it means to wear Sharia-appropriate clothing, and they were already dressing modestly,” a young teenage student from the al-Orouba School for Girls, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.
The religious police “have such exacting standards that it’s ridiculous…and things like this really upset people.”
Q: Tell me about what happened when the religious police entered your school on January 31.
The religious police [al-Hisba] entered the school, and they started reading off the names of some of the girls who would be kicked out. They said this was because these girls were not wearing Sharia-appropriate attire. One of the girls objected to this decision, and she was arrested. Her father then came to see what was going on, and he was then arrested too. The rest of the schoolgirls, however, kept shouting and protesting until the father and the girl were finally let go.
Q: Were your classmates who were kicked out of school because of their attire expelled, or where they allowed to come back?
The girls were kicked out of school, and that decision was final. However, the school would allow for them to return if they began wearing Sharia-compliant clothing.
Q: How do you feel about somebody telling you what you can and cannot wear?
In reality, female students know what it means to wear Sharia-appropriate clothing, and they were already dressing modestly. Women here wear long clothing. It’s not tight fitting. But [the religious police] have such exacting standards that it’s ridiculous. They say clothing must be no more than five centimeters from the ground, and things like this really upset people.
The war has made just getting by extremely difficult, and most families don’t have the money to buy their daughters more clothing. So it’s not the fact that the girls object to wearing Sharia-appropriate clothing but rather the ridiculous, excessive way that [the Victory Army] has gone about it. They don’t have any consideration for the position that families are in and the ways they’ve been affected by poverty.
These days you aren’t going to find a manteau [Ed.: A long, loose coat often worn by Muslim women] for less than SP30,000 (approx. $140). So who’s going to go out and buy a new one over just a few centimeters.
There’ve been a lot of people—teachers included—who have protested against this and expressed their anger multiple times. As a result, [the religious police] have become relatively more lenient in terms of enforcing attire rules in the streets. They’re still, however, just as strict when it comes to the schools and educational institutes.
Idlib schoolchildren in northwestern Syria. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
In my opinion, what you wear is a personal decision. Nobody can tell you otherwise. Sure, people can offer their advice in a kind and generous way, but they can’t force you to wear anything, and they especially can’t do so in such an offensive way. It’s so important to bear in mind where everybody is coming from, and, most importantly, to be patient.
The female school teachers in the institutes have even begun telling their students that they shouldn’t bother coming if they’re not wearing the proper Sharia attire. We’re afraid. We’re afraid that our schools will close. We’re afraid that we’ll lose our way of life because of this.
A lot of girls have actually chosen to leave school and either sit around at home or go get married with the mentality that this is the preferred option. This matter profoundly affects female students, teachers and even families.
Q: Do the students know when the religious police are going to conduct inspections in the school, or is it unannounced?
The religious police will enter the school at any time. They’ll inspect the girls and the female teachers. Other times they’ll stand by the entrance of the school. It’s also possible that there are some girls among us who are secretly collaborators we’re not aware of.
The religious police are part of the executive body of the Victory Army. They’re the ones who are responsible for all of this. They inspect the schools as well as the private and public institutes. They inspect everyone, even the female administrators and teachers. There are also groups of female religious supporters [of the Victory Army] who will patrol the streets for this same purpose; however, you’ve started to see these women far less in the streets recently.
Q: Are girls of all ages subject to these inspections?
Inspections of Sharia-appropriate clothing first start taking place in preparatory school for girls who are about 12 years and older.