Two Syrian women have used hidden cameras to make a short film on everyday life in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s “caliphate”, documenting the horrors of the brutal regime led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The video, commissioned by the Swedish tabloid Expressen, features Oum Mohammed and Oum Omran – the pseudonyms used by the women – as they shop for hair colour, take taxis and walk around the city.
At all times, their bodies are fully covered by burqas and their faces veiled. The women’s voices were electronically altered so that no one can identify them, and Expressen said both knew they would be “stoned to death if they are exposed”.
The footage, shot over the course of several weeks in late winter, shows the streets of Raqqa being patrolled by armed men and women of the Islamic State. One sequence features what looks like a normal couple walking with a child in a stroller till the camera focuses on the barrel of an assault rifle sticking out of the woman’s burqa.
“We want the world to know,” the women say, talking about a brutal beheading and an execution of a gay man that they have witnessed.
“They execute with bullets, desecrate the body, decapitate it, stick the head on a spike and put it on display at the roundabout,” one woman say. “Or they will put the body on the road and force cars to run it over until nothing is left.”
In one sequence, the women are stopped by the Hisbah or the female religious police force and one of them is asked to fix her veil.
Even shopping for hair colour becomes an excursion into the bizarre, as the faces of models on the packages have been scribbled over with black markers – because of the strict rule that the uncovered faces of women can’t be seen in public.
A taxi driver tells the women about IS members wanting to flog his daughter after she was caught without a ‘niqab’.
The film also shows the women walking past the rubble of the Uwais al-Qarni shrine, which was blown up by the IS, the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs, which has been turned into the Islamic police’s headquarters, and a section of the city that was once home to the wealthy but has now been taken over by foreign fighters from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, France and Afghanistan.
The civil war in Syria, which began five years ago, has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced more than 10 million, according to the UN. The IS captured Raqqa in 2013.
The film ends with Oum Mohammad, shot from the back, removing her veil and exposing her hair. “All women like to show their faces. We’ve lost that option. We’ve lost our femininity,” she says.
“I long to take off the niqab and the darkness that cloaks us,” she adds. “Nothing matters more than freedom.”