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Resisting ISIL In Ganous, Sawsan Wears The Veil In Freedom


It may seem contradictory, but Sawsan Ashraf has started to wear the veil since she managed to escape from the village of Ganous, near Haj Ali. For two years she resisted the militants, and refused to cover her face, but today is different.

Yalla met Sawsan (not her real name) in a primary school in Haj Ali, that has been repurposed as a temporary IDP shelter. It is Eid, and as she speaks, her children happily lick powdered candy from their palms. They arrived overnight Friday evening, Saturday morning, and have been fed and sheltered by the villages’ Sheikh Marwan.

Ganous remains under ISIL control, and Sawsan’s brother has not yet managed to escape. She fears he will be murdered if she is identifiable, and there are people taking photos nearby. She has already lost her husband. Hence the veil.

In April 2014 Hamid, her husband, was working for the government when he received an anonymous phone call ordering him to quit his job, or risk execution. At the time they suspected that al Qaeda in Iraq were responsible, and Hamid broke his contract the next day. He used family savings to open a small business, and they put the threat to the back of their minds.

Two months later, ISIL ripped through the district, and Hamid was arrested in October 2014. Their home was destroyed by the extremists. Sawsan received a letter from ISIL nine months on, telling her that Hamid was dead. They refused to release his body for burial, and militants often told her that it was halal to execute her too, as the wife of a spy.

Women in the village were ordered to cover their bodies entirely. Sawsan had never worn the veil before, and often went without in defiance of the occupiers.

“I had nothing to lose, I was so angry, so why should I obey them? They couldn’t scare me, I’d already lost my husband.” She was labelled awam – a non-follower of ISIL – and murtad – an apostate. As such, she had very few rights.

“‘Murtad don’t deserve food,’ they told us. They hated us because we didn’t follow the rules.”

Sawsan is clearly shocked that she survived the time in the village, and her escape. “They are not human, they would kill my brother. Everyone is hungry. We escaped by running in the middle of the night, while they shot at us. They shouted ‘It is shameful that you are fleeing.’”

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