Today I visited Manbij city with a few friends. Manbij consists of about 80% Arabs in northern Syria, and is a surprisingly bustling and industrious city considering it has only been about 4 months that it was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces from ISIS. Unlike Kobane it did not suffer significant damage to its infrastructure and the city has managed to retain its equilibrium since liberation. The city is a hub of noise, honking cars, speeding motor cycles, street sellers, kebab and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Manbij had been under ISIS control for over two years and the people of the city had suffered horrendously during that period. Most specifically, women were most in danger because ISIS thugs were known for forcibly taking young girls, women and wives and marrying them off or worse. Regular beheading, public floggings and other terrible crimes were daily occurrences in the city.
In my previous visits to the city I had only seen women wearing the full Burka, with an additional cloth covering even the women’s eyes; I must admit that there was a certain degree of culture shock as women across Rojava wear various degrees of the hijab but never had I seen the Burka nor to that degree. The problem was not the Burka itself but the degree and consistency of the Burka with the only distinction being that some women’s eyes could be seen, or they were not wearing gloves.
This time however, I witnessed something wonderful. During lunch time we visited a restaurant where a young girl by the name of Dinah was serving us. I couldn’t help beaming with pride as soon as I saw her. She was full of energy and obviously took great pride in her job. During lunch we communicated with each other with broken Kurdish on her part and broken Arabic on my part- and with the help of our friends who translated. She spoke of her happiness to not only be able to work but the fact that she could leave the house freely with only a scarf rather than clad all in black. She mentioned that under ISIS she would literally be beheaded if she was seen outdoors with her simple sweater and scarf, let alone work in a restaurant. She told stories of how all clothing in the market had to be black even though the women already wore the black burka over their clothes… She told stories of stonings of women who had refused to marry ISIS “fighters”. I watched her and saw a young girl who was full of energy, and hope and expectation for her future. Someone who had options and choices over her life and her body. Of course, there is a long way to go but still it was beautiful to watch her and to see her as a symbol of the changes that are occurring now that ISIS has been eradicated.
Still, as we sat there speaking the villages around Manbij were experiencing clashes between SDF and ISIS, while Bab which is about 30kms away from Manbij was also experiencing clashes between Turkish forces and other terrorist groups. It is difficult to determine what exactly is the future, and where Dinah will be in a year or two. Will she still be working in the restaurant? or will the changing tide of politics force her back into her home and her burka, or across oceans as a refugee? instead I hope that all the women in Manbij and across Syria gain a sense of control and autonomy over their lives and bodies and live liberated from terrorism and authoritarianism . I hope they will be able to go to work and study and live a life with dignity and freedom in a society that recognizes their worth. A society that is democratic, a society that is striving towards change and progress. A society that creates energy, motivation and hope in young women rather than apathy, fear and death. I hope Dinah lives in such a Syria and grows old having experienced the full wonderful spectrum of beauty, love, happiness, and prosperity that a free life can offer.
Dr. Hawzhin Azeez