In Syria, where four years of civil war have polarized the country, many groups are coercing people not only to support them but to adopt a new appearance altogether.
Ammar, a 38-year-old salesman from the Barza neighborhood of Damascus, has changed his outward appearance in order to disguise his involvement in activism against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “In order to give the impression that I am a playful young man, I replaced my car with a sports car, shaved my beard, pierced my ear and wore baggy pants and T-shirts,” he told Syria Deeply.
Ammar says these changes help him and others avoid raising suspicion at the many military checkpoints that have popped up across the capital since the uprising started in Syria more than four years ago. Explaining that the regime targets people it perceives as having a religious appearance, Ammar commented, “The [soldiers] serving at the checkpoints believe the regime’s propaganda and pay more attention to those who look religious. Thus, my new style facilitated my movement and lessened the chances of being searched at checkpoints.
“Thanks to my new style, I smuggled a lot of medicine into the neighborhood,” he added, noting that many supplies were hard to find in besieged communities across the country.
Elsewhere, in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, 24-year-old Rama had to flee the area with her family as the security situation deteriorated. A student at Damascus University, Rama recalled moving from neighborhood to neighborhood before eventually resettling in al-Mazzah 86, a stronghold for the Assad regime.
Rama, who wears a head scarf, says she is discriminated against at checkpoints in the predominantly Alawite neighborhood. “Although no one else on the bus has to do it, I have to show the rental agreement every time I enter the neighborhood,” she told Syria Deeply. “My head scarf shows that I am from the Sunni sect and automatically raises suspicion.”
Rama also takes measures to avoid harassment by regime forces or supporters. “I wear a bracelet with the Syrian flag [the regime’s flag] on it just to send a message that I am neither Islamist nor a member of the opposition,” she explained.
Jameel, a 27-year-old sergeant in the Syrian army, defended the practice of subjecting veiled women and bearded men to lengthy searches at checkpoints. “Our work at checkpoints relies mostly on suspicion,” he told Syria Deeply. “We have no solid way to know if a person supports an armed group.”
Claiming that “90 percent of those who fight against the regime follow jihadist ideologies,” Jameel said that Christians “are not suspicious to us.” Nonetheless, he says protocol varies from one area to the next. In some cases, a secular appearance raises more suspicion than a religious one.
Duma, a city close to Damascus that is no longer controlled by the Assad regime, is an example, according to Jameel. “When it was [under regime control], the protocol at the checkpoints was actually the opposite [of other areas],” he said. “The majority of the population in Duma is religious, so a woman without a scarf or a guy with pierced ears would absolutely raise suspicion.”
Nonetheless, the sergeant maintains that most of the searches are conducted as a result of intelligence gathering. “We are usually provided with names or descriptions of wanted people, and we search those who match the description,” he said.
In al-Mazzah 86, , where Rama lives, Jameel says that many of the checkpoints are operated by the local branch of the National Defense Forces –part-time volunteer units of the Syrian army. “It is a matter of protecting their neighborhoods from intruders,” he argued. “That has nothing to do with the government or the military. It depends on the demographic makeup of each neighborhood.”
Yet, the discrimination is not unique to regime-controlled parts of Syria. Rania, 22, recently moved back to eastern Ghouta after briefly living in Egypt. Having grown accustomed to not wearing a head scarf while in Egypt, she found that she was required to wear it again. “No woman here can leave the house without covering her hair,” she told Syria Deeply, “and in some areas, we have to wear a burqa.”
Not wearing a head scarf can result in punishment in Ghouta, Rania says. “I felt more comfortable than other women because many of the Free Syrian Army leaders in our neighborhood are my relatives,” she added, explaining that being caught unveiled can result in being taken to an Islamic court and potentially imprisoned.
Many of the fighters do not support strict measures such as enforced veiling, according to Rania, but they avoid speaking out “because they don’t want a conflict with the Sharia [Islamic law] court and those who support it.”
In areas of the country controlled by Islamist factions of the Syrian opposition, the restrictions on men are much less severe than those endured bywomen. Ahmed, a 29-year-old grocery clerk from Irbin, an opposition-controlled town in southern Syria, says men are rarely arrested for their clothing.
He recalled once being stopped by fighters for wearing shorts. Although he was not arrested, the men warned him to dress more conservatively. “One fighter asked me to be more careful next time and to make sure that my knees aren’t visible,” he told Syria Deeply.
According to Ahmed, many local men grow their beards long to avoid potential problems at opposition checkpoints. “I recently grew out my beard,” he said. “It doesn’t make me a fighter, but it definitely makes my life easier and saves me time at checkpoints.”
The Islamic State – the hard-line Islamist group that controls more than half of territorial Syria – imposes harsh restrictions on female attire. In most ISIS-controlled areas, women are required to wear the niqab, a black covering that masks the entire face.
A video recently published by the Daily Mail depicted Syrian women shedding their burqas as they escaped areas controlled by ISIS. Women who recently spoke to Syria Deeply expressed relief as they left behind the strict restrictions of daily life in ISIS-controlled areas.
Jinnan, a 38-year-old teacher, spent two weeks in Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in northern Syria. She had sought refuge in Turkey but had to return to Raqqa to gather documents and belongings she had left behind. Explaining that she already wears a head scarf, Jinnan said, “In order to get into the city, I had to wear a full-body burqa and cover my face.”
Jinnan says that it is not only ISIS officers who can stop civilians for violating clothing rules. “Any member of the Islamic State can stop you and give you orders,” she told Syria Deeply. “One time, a fighter who looked [foreign] was yelling at a woman in a foreign language. A few minutes later, an Arabic-speaking fighter came and clarified to the woman that she had to cover her hands with gloves.”