When Islamic State stormed her town, Layla Mohammed fled, but she is now back and determined to rebuild against the odds
TAL ABYAD, Syria – For more than a year, women in the Syrian town of Tal Abyad were forced to abide by the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of Islam.
They were not allowed to work, smoke, go to restaurants or fraternise with men who were not their direct relatives and those who disobeyed the rules were often punished and beaten. Some were even killed, beheaded and crucified, and their headless bodies were displayed in the centre of the city.
Since Syrian Kurdish forces forced IS out of Tal Abyad in June of last year, things have taken a drastically different turn. The small town in eastern Syria – a one hour and a half drive from the de-facto IS capital Raqqa – is now being co-run by a young female mayor.
At just 27, Layla Mohammed is not only the first woman to rule over Tal Abyad, but she is also one of the youngest people to be given the reigns in what has traditionally been an ethnically mixed yet relatively conservative and tribe-dominated town where women were discouraged from pursuing higher education and did not play any role in local politics.
The challenges ahead for Mohammed are daunting as many local residents admit that having such a young woman in charge is strange. More worryingly, the Islamic State group has continued to mount resistance and has carried out a string of attacks on civilians and prominent activists.
On Wednesday morning, a suicide bomber killed seven people and injured 10 more. With many sleeper cells still believed to be operating in the town, few think the attack will be the last, but Mohammed says she will not be deterred.
“I know my life is at risk, but I believe in my job,” she told Middle East Eye.
“There is no need for [militants to issue] direct threats [against me]. If I was planning to kill you, why would I come to tell you before? I would simply slaughter you. But I have received some indirect threats.
“My friends told me not to go back, but if someone is controlled by fear, you cannot do anything.”
Mohammed was born in Tal Abyad, a strategic key town with easy links to Turkey that before the war was made up of around 70 percent Sunnis, 30 percent Kurds, as well as a sprinkling of Christians and Turkmen.
Due to a lack of higher education opportunities nearby, in 2006 Mohammed left to study engineering at the university of Raqqa where she stayed until the revolution started. When it did, she says she felt lost.
She wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone, but was worried that the opposition was too weak and divided to offer a real alternative. Her first reaction was to try and ride it out in Raqqa, but in 2013 Raqqa fell to al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and Mohammed decided to leave.
“Nobody resisted in Raqqa, neither the regime nor the other [moderate Syrian opposition] factions,” she said. “It was in the middle of the night that the Syrian regime evacuated from the city. Raqqa was sold.”
She fled to the border town of Kobane but returned a few months later only to find the strength of IS had swelled significantly. By 2014, the city had fallen under IS control entirely.
“I was shocked, I didn’t know it was under the control of IS,” she said. “Everything was covered in black.”
As a single Kurdish woman, Mohammed’s situation was particularly perilous and it became immediately apparent that she had to escape IS rule. She took her documents, paid a smuggler and fled.
With Tal Abyad now also fully under IS control, and the town emptied of most of its Kurdish and Christian residents who were either made to swear allegiance to IS or pay hefty taxes to the militants, Mohammed escaped to Qamislo, in the province of Hasakah to the north.
While many of her friends and family fled for Europe, Mohammed stayed, and when IS was finally ousted from Tal Abyad, she shocked many by deciding to go back.
Syrian refugees sit on the side of a road that leads to the Akcakale border gate as they wait to return to their home in the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad, in Sanliurfa province, on 18 June 2015 (AFP)
She says her family was encouraged and wanted her to use her “independent personality” to break traditional boundaries and felt galvanised by the democratic ideas promoted by the Syrian Kurds that include giving more rights to women. She wanted to make a change.
Shortly after her return, local tribal leaders put her forward as a co-mayor and in October Mohammed was chosen alongside a local Arab tribal leader Mansour Saloum.
In part, she owes her election to the new system introduced by the Kurds which dictates that any institution must have both male and female leaders, but she says her university degree and work with local institutions like the People’s House that deals with social problems and acts like a regional council, helped her win respect quickly.
The shift in attitudes toward women has been so radical that it has shocked many, including Mohammed.
“It's very strange for people to build a new system after they were suppressed by the [Assad] regime and it was difficult for them to accept one woman who would govern them,” she told MEE. “In the past, whether in military, politics, or even on the social side, women were not allowed to participate.”
A resident said that it was “difficult for us to accept this system”. Another told MEE that it has been “strange for us”.
Despite the kickback, many insist there is an overwhelming feeling that change is here to stay.
“They were very surprised [when Layla became the co-head], but now it's somehow normal,” Hamdan al-Abad, 51, who later replaced Saloum as co-chair, told MEE after Saloum left to lead a separate assembly.
Abad jokingly added that things were so different now that men did not have rights anymore.
“The women are not just 50 percent of society, they are 100 percent,” he said. “They have a international mother day, and a women day, but we don’t have one day for men.”
Abad says that IS made life impossible for women and he was thrilled to see the militants ousted.
“Women couldn’t walk alone in the streets, and if they were not fully covered, they could receive punishment,” he said. “We lived like animals.”
A new world
While IS have been driven out, however, memories of their rule may prove difficult to erase. The town’s Armenian Church was turned into a prison and torture centre and its schools were used to train militants how to shoot and fight.
Layla Mohammed lights a candle in the Armenian Church to remember the scores killed by the IS (MEE / Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
Tal Abyad was also one of the main IS trade centres with goods, fighters and oil all flowing through here. With the town expected to be a key base of operations for any anti-IS efforts to retake Raqqa, IS is likely to keep launching attacks.
But it's hard to miss the drastic changes that are already underfoot.
The 178-member higher council that governs Tel Abyad and elected Mohammed is made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and Abad says that it will “represent all ethnic groups in the town”.
Security conditions made it impossible to hold elections, but council members say they are determined to follow a multi-cultural ideology, called a “democratic nation”. This was first introduced by Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and argues that all ethnic groups must participate in local government.
Currently Arabic and Kurdish are taught in schools and there are plans to introduce Turkish. Mohammed also says that she will fight to break old boundaries and allow more women access to higher education. She says that Kurds, but also increasingly Arab residents, are starting to agree with her.
“If we can’t raise free women, we can’t raise a free society,” she said. “But now people are accepting us somehow, and this motivates us.”
She says that the Kurdish Women Protection Units (YPJ), the all-female Syrian Kurdish fighting units, continue to act as source of inspiration.
“If they [the media] can show that one woman can lead an army, they can also show those who lead society [and politics],” she said. “We cannot build a free society without giving women complete freedom.”
There are already some decent service provisions; the streets are largely clean; there is food and shops and restaurants are all starting to open up their doors again. Mohammed says this is only the start for Tal Abyad.
“The more I do, [the more I think] that I have not done anything for my country, but I will [keep trying to] do my best,” she said.