ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape


By AZADEH MOAVENINOV
New York Times
Nov 21, 2015

SOUTHERN TURKEY — Dua had only been working for two months with the Khansaa Brigade, the all-female morality police of the Islamic State, when her friends were brought to the station to be whipped.

The police had hauled in two women she had known since childhood, a mother and her teenage daughter, both distraught. Their abayas, flowing black robes, had been deemed too form-fitting.

When the mother saw Dua, she rushed over and begged her to intercede. The room felt stuffy as Dua weighed what to do.

“Their abayas really were very tight. I told her it was their own fault; they had come out wearing the wrong thing,” she said. “They were unhappy with that.”

Dua sat back down and watched as the other officers took the women into a back room to be whipped. When they removed their face-concealing niqabs, her friends were also found to be wearing makeup. It was 20 lashes for the abaya offense, five for the makeup, and another five for not being meek enough when detained.

The three Syrian women interviewed for this article, all former members of the Islamic State morality police who escaped to Turkey this year, met with a reporter in a southern Turkish city for hours of interviews, together and separately, over the course of two multiday visits.

The names Aws, Dua and Asma are pseudonyms used for their protection, but they fully identified themselves and their family connections.

Their accounts of working for the Islamic State, of their lives and of events in Raqqa, Syria, in recent years were consistent with one another and with interviews and accounts of other former and current residents of Raqqa.

The women also shared cellphone images of locations in Raqqa, and of their lives there, that were independently confirmed.

In the short time since she had joined the Khansaa Brigade in her hometown, Raqqa, in northern Syria, the morality force had grown more harsh. Mandatory abayas and niqabs were still new for many women in the weeks after the jihadists of the Islamic State had purged the city of competing militants and taken over. At first, the brigade was told to give the community a chance to adapt, and clothing offenses brought small fines.

After too many young women became repeat offenders, however, paying the fines without changing their behavior, the soft approach was out. Now it was whipping — and now it was her friends being punished.

The mother and daughter came to Dua’s parents’ house afterward, furious with her and venting their anger at the Islamic State.

“They said they hated it and wished it had never come to Raqqa,” Dua said. She pleaded with them, explaining that as a young and new member of the Khansaa Brigade, there was nothing she could have done.

But a lifelong friendship, with shared holiday gatherings and birthday parties, was suddenly broken. “After that day, they hated me, too,” she said. “They never came to our house again.”

Dua’s second cousin Aws also worked for the brigade. Not long after Dua’s friends were whipped, Aws saw fighters brutally lashing a man in Muhammad Square. The man, about 70, frail and with white hair, had been heard cursing God. As a crowd gathered, the fighters dragged him into the public square and whipped him after he fell to his knees.

“He cried the whole time,” Aws said. “It was lucky for him that he had cursed Allah, because Allah shows mercy. If he’d cursed the Prophet, they would have killed him.”

Today, Aws, 25, and Dua, 20, are living in a small city in southern Turkey after fleeing Raqqa and its jihadist rulers. They met up here with Asma, 22, another defector from the Khansaa Brigade, and found shelter in the city’s large community of Syrian refugees.

Raqqa is widely known now as the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate and as the focus of heavy airstrikes by a growing number of countries seeking revenge for the group’s recent terrorist attacks. But the city in which the three women came to adulthood used to be quite different. Identified here by nicknames, the women spoke for many hours over the course of two visits this fall, recalling their experiences under Islamic State rule and how the jihadists had utterly changed life in Raqqa.

All three described themselves as fairly typical young women of Raqqa. Aws was more into Hollywood, Dua into Bollywood. Aws’s family was middle-class, and she studied English literature at a branch of Euphrates University, a three-hour bus ride away in Hasaka. She devoured novels: some by Agatha Christie, and especially Dan Brown books. “Digital Fortress” is her favorite.

Dua’s father is a farmer, and money was tighter. But her social life was closely intertwined with Aws’s, and the cousins loved their charming city. There were long walks to Qalat Jabr, the 11th-century fort on Lake Assad; coffee at Al Rasheed Park; and Raqqa Bridge, where you could see the city lights at night. In the gardens and amusement park in the town center, there was ice cream and communal shisha pipes to gather around.

“In the summer, everyone went out at night and stayed out late, because it was so hot during the day,” Dua said.

The women keep pictures of their old lives in Raqqa on their cellphones, scenes from parties and countryside outings. Aws’s gallery includes days on the lakeshore, her friends in bathing suits, dancing in the water.

Asma, with a bright gaze, was another outward-looking young woman, studying business at Euphrates University. Her mother was a native of Damascus, the capital, and Asma spent some of her teenage years there seeing friends, swimming at pool parties, going to cafes. She is also an avid reader, fond of Ernest Hemingway and Victor Hugo, and she speaks some English.

All three belonged to a generation of Syrian women who were leading more independent lives than ever before. They mixed freely with young men, socializing and studying together in a religiously diverse city with relatively relaxed mores.

Many young women dressed in what they called sport style, baring their knees and arms in the summer and wearing makeup. And while Raqqa’s more conservative residents wore abayas and veils, women were going to college in greater numbers and getting married later. Most men and women chose their own spouses.

When the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began rippling across Syria in 2011, it seemed distant from Raqqa. As news of fighting and massacres started filtering in, it was mostly from faraway cities in the country’s west, like Homs. Even as displaced people began appearing in Raqqa and the city’s young men started to sign up with anti-Assad groups in the area, including the Nusra Front and what is now the Islamic State, the fabric of life seemed intact.

At the start of 2014, everything changed. The Islamic State wrested full control of Raqqa and made the city its command center, violently consolidating its authority. Those who resisted, or whose family or friends had the wrong connections, were detained, tortured or killed.

The Islamic State has come to be known around the world by names like ISIS and ISIL. But in Raqqa, residents began calling it Al Tanzeem: The Organization. And it quickly became clear that every spot in the social order, and any chance for a family to survive, was utterly dependent on the group.

Not only had Raqqa residents become subjects of the Organization’s mostly Iraqi leadership, but their place in society fell even further overnight. As foreign fighters and other volunteers began streaming into town, answering the call to jihad, they became the leading lights of the shaken-up community. In Raqqa, the Syrians had become second-class citizens — at best.

Dua, Aws and Asma were among the lucky: The choice to join was available to them. And each chose to barter her life, through work and marriage, to the Organization.

None of them subscribed to its extreme ideology, and even after fleeing their homes and going into hiding, they still struggle to explain how they changed from modern young women into Islamic State morality enforcers.

In the moment, each choice seemed like the right one, a way to keep life tolerable: marrying fighters to assuage the Organization and keep their families in favor; joining the Khansaa Brigade to win some freedom of movement and an income in a city where women had been stripped of self-determination.

But every concession turned to horror before long, and the women came to deplore how they were pitted against their neighbors, part of a force tearing apart the community they loved. Only months in, widowed and abandoned and forced to marry strangers again, would they see how they were being used as temporary salves to foreign fighters whose only dedication was to violence and an unrecognizable God.

Each of them was driven to the conviction that escape was a last chance at life. And each joined the flow of Syrians abandoning their country, leaving a void to be filled by the foreigners who held nothing of Syria in their hearts.

The Betrothals

The day Abu Muhammad, a Turkish fighter for the Islamic State, walked through Aws’s front door to seek marriage, she made her first concession to the Organization.

Her father and grandfather met with Abu Muhammad in the living room, telling Aws that she could see him at a second meeting if he offered a suitable dowry. But Aws was too much of a romantic, and had seen too many Leonardo DiCaprio films, to agree to marry a man whose face she had not seen.

When she knelt down behind the living room door to leave the thimbles of coffee she had prepared, she peered in for a moment and caught a glimpse of him. He had winged eyebrows, light eyes and a deep voice. As she waited for the discussion to conclude, she tried to imagine what their life together might be like. By the time her father called her in, she had already nervously decided to say yes, for her family’s sake.

After their wedding, she was surprised to find that the marriage felt real — even affectionate. Abu Muhammad liked to trace the two moles that made a constellation on her left cheek; he gently teased her about her accent when she tried to pronounce Turkish words.

But he often did not come home at night, and was sometimes gone for three- or four-day stretches to fight for the Islamic State. Aws hated being left alone and would pout about it when he finally came home; he answered with silly jokes, cajoling her into forgiveness.

She tried to keep busy by socializing with other fighters’ wives. Among them, she felt fortunate. Some were married to men who were abusive.

Everyone had heard of Fatima, who had killed herself by slitting her wrists after being forced to marry a fighter, and there was the Tunisian girl next door who burst into tears every time someone mentioned her husband’s name. And even they were considered luckier than the captured women from the Yazidi minority, who were being smuggled into town as slaves for other fighters.

Mostly, though, Aws’s days became an intolerable void. Sociable and lively, with long, curly black hair and a gamine face, she was bored and thoroughly unhappy. She finished her housework quickly, but there was nowhere to go. New books were nearly impossible to find after the jihadists banned almost all fiction, purging the bookshops and local cultural center.

The Organization also cast a long shadow over her marriage. Though Aws had always wanted a baby, Abu Muhammad asked her to take birth control pills, still available at Raqqa’s pharmacies. When she pressed him, he said his commanders had advised fighters to avoid getting their wives pregnant. New fathers would be less inclined to volunteer to carry out suicide missions.

This was one of the early, devastating moments when Aws saw that there would be no normalcy or choice; the Islamic State was a third partner in her marriage, there in the bedroom. “At first, I used to keep bringing it up, but it really upset him, so I stopped,” she said.

For Dua’s family, money had always been an issue. Her father was still farming, but many lawyers and doctors who had lost their jobs when the jihadists took over had also started selling fruits and vegetables to get by, creating new competition. The Organization imposed taxes, which cut further into the family’s income. When a Saudi fighter came to ask to marry Dua, in February 2014, her father pushed her to accept.

The Saudi, Abu Soheil Jizrawi, came from a wealthy construction family in Riyadh and promised to transform Dua’s life. She deliberated and eventually agreed. She met him for the first time on their wedding day, when he arrived bearing gold for her family. She liked what she saw: Abu Soheil was light-skinned with a soft black beard, tall and lanky, with charisma and an easy way of making her laugh.

He set her up in a spacious apartment with new European kitchen appliances and air-conditioning units in each room — almost unheard-of in Raqqa. She eagerly showed off her new home to friends and relatives. Her kitchen became the place where the other fighter’s wife in the building — a Syrian who, like Aws, had married a Turkish recruit — stopped in for coffee. Each morning, Abu Soheil’s servant shopped for them and left bags of meat and produce outside the door.

In the evenings, the couple lingered over dinner, and he complimented her cooking, especially when she made his favorite kabsa, a spiced rice dish with meat and eggplant. Abu Soheil did not even mind the little rose tattoo on her hand, though permanent tattoos are forbidden in strict interpretations of Islam.

“He changed my life completely,” Dua said. “He persuaded me to love him.”

Filling Empty Hours

While a little light, at least, had come into the lives of Aws and Dua, Asma’s living room in Raqqa was perpetually dark and stifling. She kept the curtains drawn and windows closed so that no one would know she had her television on inside. Television, music, the radio — everything was kept at the lowest volume she could hear.

Even that escape was becoming scarce for Asma as electricity in Raqqa dwindled to two, sometimes four, hours a day. She certainly could no longer go to the salon to fill the time.

The Organization decreed that the Internet could be used only for critical work, like that of the painstaking recruiters who went online to woo new fighters and foreign women to Syria. Asma, who had previously been on her laptop a few hours each day, found herself disconnected from the world.

“But it was O.K. for them, contacting all those girls to bring them in,” Aws recalled later, as the three women sat together here in Turkey. They all rolled their eyes. “That was work.”

In February 2014, two months into her marriage and unable to persuade Abu Muhammad to let her get pregnant, Aws decided to join the Khansaa Brigade. Dua joined around the same time, and they started their compulsory military and religious training together.

The cousins had their misgivings about joining. But they had already married fighters, choosing to survive the occupation of Raqqa by aligning with the Organization. Working with the brigade was a chance to do more than just subsist, and it paralleled their husbands’ work. And the full extent of the brigade’s oppressiveness would only emerge with time.

A number of Asma’s relatives had already started working for the Islamic State in various ways, and she deliberated carefully before joining in January 2014. With her family already enmeshed with the Organization, it seemed the most logical choice.

“For me, it was about power and money, mostly power,” Asma said, switching to English to describe those motivations. “Since my relatives had all joined, it didn’t change a great deal to join. I just had more authority.”

Though the women tried to rationalize their enlistment, there was no way to avoid seeing the Organization as the wanton killing machine it was. But all of Syria, it seemed, had become about death.

At night, Aws and Dua heard attempts at self-justification from the husbands they had waited up for and would go to bed with. They had to be savage when taking a town to minimize casualties later, the men insisted. Mr. Assad’s forces were targeting civilians, sweeping into homes in the middle of the night and brutalizing men in front of their wives; the fighters had no choice but to respond with equal brutality, they said.

All three women attended the training required for those joining the Khansaa Brigade. Roughly 50 women took the 15-day weapons course at once; during eight-hour days, they learned how to load, clean and fire pistols. But the foreign women who had come to Syria to join the Islamic State were rumored to be training on “russis,” slang for Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Religion classes, taught mainly by Moroccans and Algerians, focused on the laws and principles of Islam. Dua, for one, was pleased; she felt she had not known enough about Islam before the Organization took over.

By March 2014, Aws and Dua were out every day on the brigade’s street patrols, moving about the city in small gray Kia vans with “Al Khansaa” on the sides. There were women from across the world in the brigade: British, Tunisian, Saudi, French.

But both within their unit and more broadly across Raqqa, the Organization had issued a strict decree: No mingling between natives and foreigners. The occupiers thought gossip was dangerous. Salaries and accommodations might be compared, hypocrisies exposed.

Status within Raqqa — how it was derived and how it was expressed — was becoming a grievance. Dua explained openly, with a modest but satisfied expression, that she had enjoyed more status than most because of her wealthy Saudi husband, who was said to be high up in the Organization.

“As women, our status depended on his status,” Aws said, referring to husbands in general. Among the male fighters, this had been clear from the beginning: Salaries, cars, neighborhoods and housing were allocated in large part by nationality.

It soon became clear that the foreign women had more freedom of movement, more disposable income and small perks: jumping to the front of the bread line, not having to pay at the hospital. Some seemed to have unfettered Internet access, including multiple Twitter profiles.

“The foreign women got to do whatever they wanted,” Asma complained. “They could go wherever they wanted.”

“They were spoiled,” Aws said. “Even the ones that were younger than us had more power.”

“Maybe it’s because they had to leave their countries to come here — it was felt they should be treated more specially,” Dua said, as usual more reluctant to criticize.

“We couldn’t even say anything,” Aws said. “We couldn’t even question why.”

The Organization had no outlet for grievances. It seemed to operate by stealth, and being married to its fighters offered no real information about its operations and ambitions. Senior figures like the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were never seen in public. Even within Raqqa, he remained a shadow, the women said.

Asma’s role in the Khansaa Brigade involved meeting foreign women at the border with Turkey, 50 miles north, and accompanying them into Raqqa at night. With her smattering of English and cosmopolitan air, she was well suited to the task. She would receive a slip of paper with names, and the crew — two or three brigade women, an interpreter and a driver — would start up the highway.

Many women were arriving from Europe. One spring night this year, Asma and her crew received three British girls, dressed in Western clothes but with their hair covered. “They were so young, tiny, and so happy to have arrived, laughing and smiling,” she recalled.

She accompanied them to a hostel and helped them get settled. As with most of the foreigners she escorted, she did not see them again. It was only later that she saw their faces plastered across the Internet, identified as schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in London, migrating by choice to join the Islamic State.

Asma was bewildered by their decision to so cheerfully embrace a life that was sapping her every single day.

Before, Asma had a boyfriend from college. Their relationship was complicated: He had urged her to start wearing a head scarf and to dress more conservatively even before the Islamic State took control of Raqqa, but she refused to have her worth judged by the amount of skin she had covered. After the takeover, he moved to Jordan to finish his studies.

Now, she wore her hijab all day and enforced it for other women. But at night, she listened to the rock group Evanescence on her phone and mourned.

One spring day in 2014, the women in Dua’s police unit went to one of the city’s main squares to watch the stoning of two local women, supposedly for adultery. Dua refused to go. She did not like how the militants prized spectacle over correct implementation of Shariah law. “In Islam, you need four witnesses to the act to carry out such a punishment,” she said.

Within hours, word spread that one of the women had not been involved with a man at all. She was said to have shown up outside the city’s Police Headquarters holding a sign that read, “Tasqoot al-Tanzeem.” Down With the Organization.

By the time the trees blossomed that spring, it was common to see the heads of captured soldiers and people accused of treason hanging in the main square near the clock tower. But most who had stayed in Raqqa were either too afraid to rebel or had no desire to.

Horrified, the cousins kept trying to cope, soothing themselves with the thought that, though they had joined the Organization, at least they were not personally killing anyone.

“We saw many heads being cut off,” Dua recalled.

“You saw the heads — it was just the heads you saw,” Aws corrected her.

“Well, it is forbidden in Islam to mutilate bodies.”

“I saw bodies that lay in the street for a whole week.”

Asma, unsettled at the turn in the conversation, tuned out and started looking at Facebook on her phone. Of the three women, she was the only one who read Western news coverage online: She knew the world considered the Islamic State grotesque, and she was haunted by how she had tainted herself at the very outset of her adult life.

Within the brigade, women had started using their authority to settle petty quarrels or exact revenge. “Girls who were fighting would go to the Organization and accuse their enemies of some infraction,” Aws recalled. “Even if they had done nothing wrong, they would be brought into headquarters.”

Their job, inflicting fear on their neighbors, was agony. That everyone was probably two-faced was the only reliable assumption.

“Many times, I saw women I knew smiling at me when they saw I’d joined,” Aws said. “But I knew inside they felt differently. I knew because before I joined myself, when I saw a girl I knew had started working with ISIS, I resented it.”

Wives of Martyrs

As with Aws’s husband, Dua’s, Abu Soheil, did not want children. But Dua was not in a rush, and she did not press him.

One week in July 2014, he did not return for three nights. On the fourth day, a group of fighters knocked on her door. They told her that Abu Soheil had blown himself up in a battle against the Syrian Army at Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey.

Dua was devastated, especially when the commander told her Abu Soheil had requested a suicide mission. He had never told her about such a plan, and she broke down, shaking and sobbing, at the men’s feet.

She tried to console herself with the thought that it was honorable to be a martyr’s wife. But days later, she learned a fact that made things even harder to bear: Abu Soheil had killed himself in an operation not against the hated Syrian Army, but against a competing rebel group that the Islamic State was trying to wipe out.

“I cried for days,” she said. “He died fighting other Muslims.”

Just 10 days later, another man from her husband’s unit came to the house. He told Dua she could not stay home alone and would need to marry again, immediately.

Again, the Organization was twisting Islamic law to its own desires. Under nearly universal interpretations of Islam, a woman must wait three months before remarrying, mainly to establish the paternity of any child that might have been conceived. The waiting period, called idaa, is not only required but is a woman’s right, to allow her to grieve. But even in the realm of divine law, the Islamic State was reformulating everything.

“I told him that I still couldn’t stop crying,” Dua said. “I said: ‘I’m heartbroken. I want to wait the whole three months.’ ” But the commander told her she was different from a normal widow. “You shouldn’t be mourning and sad,” he said. “He asked for martyrdom himself, and you are the wife of a martyr. You should be happy.”

That was the moment that broke her.

The Organization had made her a widow and wanted to do so again and again, turning her into a perpetual temporary distraction for suicidal fighters. There was no choice left, no dignity, just the service demanded by the Islamic State’s need to feed men to its front lines.

“I had a good marriage to a good man, and I didn’t want to end up in a bad one,” Dua said. “I knew it would be painful for me to marry someone only to lose him when he goes on a martyrdom mission. It’s only natural to have feelings and grow attached.”

She knew she had to escape, even though it would mean leaving the house that should have been her inheritance.

The news came for Aws not long after it did for Dua. Abu Muhammad had also killed himself in a suicide operation. There was no funeral to attend and no in-laws to grieve with. She was devastated.

She had no time to recover before the Organization came knocking. “They told me that he was a martyr now, obviously he didn’t need a wife anymore, but that there was another fighter who did,” Aws said. “They said this fighter had been my husband’s friend, and wanted to protect and take care of me on his behalf.”

She agreed reluctantly, despite being one month short of her three-month waiting period. But things did not click with this new husband, an Egyptian who turned up at home even less than Abu Muhammad had. Everything about him — his personality, his looks, their sexual relations — she shrugged off with a sour expression and a single word: “aadi.” Regular.

When he ran off with his salary two months later, without even a goodbye, Aws was left abandoned, denied even the status of widow. Back at her parents’ house, she wandered from room to room, grieving for the life she had had before and stunned by how far away it seemed from where she had fallen.

Departure

To the outside world, the territory controlled by the Islamic State might seem to be a hermetically sealed land governed by the harshest laws of the seventh century. But until relatively recently, the routes into and out of Raqqa were mostly open. Traders would come and go, supplying the Organization’s needs and wants — including cigarettes, which some fighters smoked despite the fact that they were banned for Raqqa residents.

Dua, unable to bear another forced marriage, left first. Her brother made calls to Syrian friends in southern Turkey who could meet her on the other side, and the siblings boarded a small minibus for the two-hour ride to the Tal Abyad crossing early this year. The flow of refugees into Turkey was still heavy then, and the two passed through without being stopped.

When Aws decided to leave four months later, it was harder to cross the border because Turkey had started tightening security. She contacted Dua and was put in touch with the man who had helped Dua get out.

The man is part of a network in southern Turkey that has made a cottage industry of extricating people from Islamic State territory. When Aws got to the border crossing, one of the man’s colleagues was waiting with a fake identity card that showed her to be his sister if she should be questioned.

Her heart was in her throat, but when the moment of crossing came, the men at the checkpoint never asked her to show identification, much less to remove her veil.

By early this past spring, Asma was agonizing about whether to flee as well.

Raqqa had been transformed. Before, she would see someone she knew every 20 paces; the city felt small. But those who could afford to had fled. On the job in public, she was surrounded by strange faces and foreign accents.

The Organization disapproved of young women’s remaining unmarried, and Asma’s situation had grown complicated. She became deeply depressed, her days stretching before her aridly.

“You couldn’t go to the doctor without your father or brother. You couldn’t go out to just take a walk,” she said. “I just couldn’t bear it anymore.”

She felt her identity was being extinguished. “Before, I was like you,” she told a reporter, waving her arms up and down. “I had a boyfriend, I went to the beach, I wore a bikini. Even in Syria, we wore short skirts and tank tops, and all of this was normal. Even my brothers didn’t care — I had no trouble from anyone.”

When she and a cousin plotted their escape, they told no one, not even their families, and took nothing but their handbags. A friend inside the Organization agreed to get them out, and fear for him made the night journey even more terrifying. The friend guided them through three checkpoints, and finally, just after 1 a.m., they arrived at the border crossing. They showed their ID cards and murmured goodbye.

“The guy at the checkpoint, I was convinced he knew we were trying to escape. I was so nervous and scared,” Asma recalled. “But then I realized it only looked suspicious in my head, because I was so scared.”

The car meeting them on the other side looked gray in the moonlight. They got in and drove away from the Islamic State, from what was left of Syria.

Little Syria

The Turkish city the three women now live in sits on a dry grass plain, its outskirts dotted with almond and plum groves, pine and olive trees. Low-slung apartment blocks were put up during a housing boom a few years ago, providing the cheap accommodation that has made it possible for many Syrian refugees to rebuild lives here.

There are scruffy Syrian children begging and selling tissues in the street, just as in Istanbul or Beirut, Lebanon. But there are opportunities for work, and the rent for a two-bedroom apartment is not staggeringly out of reach.

There are, by now, enough Syrians that the city center has its own Syrian restaurants and baklava shops. The merchants in the bazaar are now practiced in saying, in Arabic, “This price is just for your sake.”

But not all of the city’s Syrian émigrés were Islamic State collaborators, and Aws, Dua and Asma tightly guard their secret. They are stateless and dislocated, hiding pasts that could hurt them.

All three are taking English and Turkish classes, hoping that will someday help them chart a future elsewhere, perhaps in a more cosmopolitan part of Turkey. They live with Syrian families who are more established, whom they know from home or who had connections there. The families cover much of their living costs, and what they brought from home is enough for their language courses and daily expenses.

Aws wakes up and listens to the Lebanese singer Fayrouz as she makes her morning coffee. She is cagey about her social life, but she shows part of a new cellphone gallery that seems to echo her old life in Raqqa, before the Organization took over: handsome friends, endless shisha cafes. She speaks with her family by voice chat a couple of times a month over WhatsApp.

She wants to find a way to finish her university studies, and to feel normal. “But here, walking on the street, they never let you forget that you’ve had to leave your country,” she said. “Once, someone told a friend of mine, ‘If you were a real man, you wouldn’t have left your country.’ It killed me when I heard this.”

Asma is more fearful and rarely goes out within the town. She has severed contact with her family, worried that the militants will punish them for her escape. Once a week, she emails and calls a friend in Raqqa to complain that her family has spurned her. It is untrue, but she hopes that if she says it often enough, it will spread and perhaps even be heard by Islamic State intelligence, and that she will protect her family from any consequences of her departure.

After years of shame and disappointment, none of the three said they could imagine ever going back, even if the Islamic State falls. The Raqqa that was their home only exists in their memories.

“Who knows when the fighting will stop?” Asma said. “Syria will become like Palestine; every year, people think: ‘Next year, it will end. We will be free.’ And decades pass. Syria is a jungle now.”

“Even if one day things are all right, I will never return to Raqqa,” Aws said. “Too much blood has been spilled on all sides — I’m not talking just about ISIS, but among everyone.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 22, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: For ISIS Women, Fraught Choices . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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