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Erdogan-backed Free Syrian Army, forces Kurdish women in Afrin to cover up

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Rebel group Ahrar al-Sharqiya is trying to encourage more modest dress in the former Kurdish stronghold - and it's going down badly.

Earlier this year, the tree-lined streets of Afrin in northern Syria witnessed ferocious battles and a weeks-long offensive. Today, three months after hostilities ended, they are subject to a new conflict – one based on morals, religion and women's dress.

Across the city, posters have been erected instructing women to take the Islamic veil and wear modest clothing, a shock for many residents for whom such religious conservatism is a departure from Afrin's more secular tradition.

Afrin City, for much of the Syrian war felt relative security under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

This all changed in January, when the Turkish military and some 25,000 allied Free Syrian Army rebels began a two-month operation known as "Operation Olive Branch" to take the city.

Three months after Afrin fell under Turkish and FSA control, some of the city's previous stability has begun to return. Yet in swapping secular-minded Kurdish rule for that of more conservative FSA groups, Afrin is experiencing a clash of cultures, one that has spilled visibly into the streets.

Veil a red line

Posters in the streets address women directly, calling them the granddaughters of the Prophet Muhammad's companions.

They tell Afrin's women that the veil is a "red line," and that they should wear loose clothing and avoid those that are translucent or figure-hugging.

A man gestures as he sits next to a Turkey backed Free Syrian Army fighter

"Choose your appearance freely but without disobedience," some banners read.

The initiative belongs to Ahrar al-Sharqiya, an FSA rebel group that has gained prominence in the northern Aleppo countryside and helped Turkey take Afrin from the YPG.

Ahrar al-Sharqiya, formed in early 2016, is a collection of various brigades, mostly from the eastern Deir Ezzor province, opposing the Syrian government.

In August of the same year, the rebel group joined Turkey in its first operation in northern Syria, known as "Euphrates Shield," which targeted Islamic State (IS) group fighters and the YPG along the Turkish border.

Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose militants have been waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey's south.

Culture shock

The Turkish-led assault on Afrin is estimated to have displaced at least 137,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.

Afrin - Syrian Kurds demonstrate against Turkish military operation

Weeks after the operation concluded in March, the Syrian government's own offensive on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta suburbs in the Damascus countryside sent a separate wave of displacement towards Syria's north.

Many of those displaced from Ghouta settled in Afrin, where rebels have reportedly offered newcomers the houses of Kurdish residents that fled the city during Operation Olive Branch.

Human Rights Watch said FSA groups had looted and confiscated many of Afrin's deserted properties.

The wave of displacement from Ghouta has only exacerbated the social juxtaposition Afrin witnesses today. Most of Afrin's residents are Muslims, but there are followers of other faiths too, such as Yazidis and Christians.

Under Kurdish rule, the communities largely existed beside one another peacefully, despite Syria's war taking an increasingly sectarian complexion over the seven years it has raged.

During this period, women in Afrin also found increasing prominence, rights and respect. They began to see greater participation in politics, civil society and services, with some even serving in the city's Asayish police force.

Last year, Kurdish authorities introduced a law promoting "equality between men and women in all aspects of social and political life".

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