Turkish-backed jihadi militiamen, who seized the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria earlier this year, have put up posters carrying instructions about obedience to sharia law beside the outline of a woman wearing a full niqab – a black garment shrouding the body and face.
The posters sparked angry street protests by Kurds, who are mostly Muslim but have a secular tradition and have remained in Afrin since the invasion by the Turkish army and Syrian militiamen, often members of jihadi groups, of which Isis and al-Qaeda are more extreme examples.
The posters were taken down after a few days by Turkish military police, but are only the latest sign of pressure on Kurdish women by the jihadis to accept second-class status and to wear the hijab (headscarf) or the niqab.
Gulistan, 46, a teacher from Afrin, told The Independent that the aim of what she described as “the wearing-the-hijab campaign” is to force women to stay in their homes and not to take part in public life as Kurdish women have traditionally been able to do.
“Just because I wear jeans, I always hear words such as ‘whore, disbeliever, dogs of Assad and the Shia’ from strangers in the street,” she says.
“A group of women held protest vigils to demand the removal of the posters,” she adds, explaining that the wearing of the niqab is a social rather than a religious custom and not one that is part of Kurdish tradition.
The demand that Kurdish women, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, wear the hijab or niqab comes from Arab militiamen and from settlers with similar fundamentalist Islamic beliefs who have been forced out of eastern Ghouta by a Syrian government offensive.
Reported to number 35,000, they have taken over Kurdish-owned houses and land abandoned by some 150,000 Kurds who fled the Turkish invasion that began on 20 January and ended with the capture of Afrin city on 18 March.
The United Nations says an estimated 143,000 Kurds remain in the enclave.
Bave Misto, 65, a farmer from the town of Bulbul, north of Afrin city, confirms that Kurds are under pressure to abandon secular practices.
His family is one of less than 100 Kurdish families ho remain in Bulbul, compared to 600 before the invasion.
He says only older people are being allowed to return to their homes and that Arab militiamen, who say they belong to the Free Syrian Army, are barring young men and women from doing so.
Mr Misto says the militiamen are calling on the Kurdish inhabitants of Bulbul to attend mosque, and Arab families displaced from Damascus and Idlib are praying there to five times a day and are “asking our women to put on the hijab”.
He was told by one of his new neighbours, Abu Mohammad from eastern Ghouta, to get his wife to wear the hijab, saying: “It is better for this life and the afterlife.”
Many Kurds in Afrin suspect that the enforcement of fundamentalist Islamic social norms on secular Kurds is intended to encourage the ethnic cleansing of Kurds from Afrin.
During the invasion, several Arab militia units filmed themselves chanting sectarian anti-Kurdish slogans commonly used by Isis and al-Qaeda.
Kurds in Afrin face extreme difficulties in making a living.
Mr Misto owns a small field on the outskirts of Bulbul, in which there are olive and cherry trees, but when he tried to enter it he was told by Arab militiamen that it was full of mines planted by the PKK (the Turkish Kurd organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), though he was sceptical of this because the militiamen were grazing cattle there.
Mr Misto was able to recover his house from an Arab family who had taken it over with the help of local police, headed by a Turk.
This may be an indication of divisions between different parts of the Free Syrian Army, which is an umbrella organisation, about how to treat the Kurds and whether or not to confiscate their property.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi movement closely allied to Turkey, has evicted at gunpoint seven families of displaced people from eastern Ghouta, who had been living in houses in Afrin, because they insisted on paying rent to the Kurdish owners.
The displaced people from Ghouta, who were brought in convoys to Afrin, said that they themselves had been dispossessed of their homes by the Syrian government, but did not think it right to take the homes of others.
SOHR says that Ahrar al-Sham has threatened to imprison the evacuees from eastern Ghouta if they return to the houses they had rented, on the charge of “dealing with Kurdish forces”.
Although there is sporadic guerrilla warfare waged by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Afrin, it is unlikely that the demographic changes that followed the Turkish invasion will be reversed.
Gulistan says that life for Kurds who have stayed in the enclave is chronically insecure because they are at the mercy of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham.
She says that her uncle owns a grocery store but this is heavily taxed by the militias, who often take goods without paying for them.
When he appealed to the police, the militiamen then mistreated him even more.
She says one of her neighbours was kidnapped three weeks ago and his wife and brother received a demand for $50,000 in ransom for his release.
SOHR confirms that there is widespread looting and fighting between militia factions, and that one Kurdish official has been tortured to death.
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