What It's Like to Teach in Syria Under ISIS Rule

PHOTO: Children carrying school bags stand near the Nabaa Al-Hayat center for education and psychosocial support for children in places undergoing a crisis, in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, Oct. 21, 2014.Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Children carrying school bags stand near the Nabaa Al-Hayat center for education and psychosocial support for children in places undergoing a crisis, in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, Oct. 21, 2014.

In its takeover of eastern Syria, the Islamic State, or ISIS, has reformed every aspect of society according to its strict interpretation of religious law. The reform of the education system has been especially intense. ISIS has banned any trace of the secular curriculum that used to be taught in local schools. Residents say they have burned old schoolbooks, which were considered a violation of divine law.

Some students have fled ISIS territory to regime-held areas, seeking ways to continue their studies in the system they’ve always known. Others who’ve stayed behind are subject to the ISIS education system, shaped by ISIS authorities and ideologies.

The al-Khansaa brigade, an all-women’s branch of ISIS that enforces moral behavior, recently ran a retraining seminar for teachers in Raqqa. In it they outlined the rules, regulations and teaching stipulations that would govern ISIS schools.

Balqis, a lifelong teacher in Raqqa, explained the training course:

For six months now we teachers haven’t received our salary from the government. Meanwhile my husband has been under arrest by ISIS. I decided to join the ISIS teaching staff for two reasons: the first was that maybe if they saw me working among them, they would set my husband free. The second was to earn a living for my family and my children. Everything has become so expensive, especially since the start of the coalition strikes on ISIS.

I went to our local Education Center, which has now been renamed the Institution of Ayesha Om al-Moamneen [after the wife of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam]. Once you enter the place you get a little dizzy because of the heavy smell of incense. Nothing in the center is the same; all books have been taken away, everything is draped in black and the only books you can find are about Islamic jurisdiction and other religious issues. But these books are nothing like the religious books I have ever known; most of the books do not have solid covers, as they are photocopies of original books. And there are lots of copies of one book called The Believer’s Guide, which they distributed to us for free along with other religious booklets.

In what used to be a cultural theater space, there is a big table with many similar booklets on it, such as booklets on monotheism, jurisprudence and other Islamic subjects. After 10 minutes a group of women entered the place wearing chadors, a full-body covering like the ones they used to wear in Afghanistan. It was not like the veil that we are used to wearing in Syria. Then one of the women lifted the cover off her face. She put down her gun on the table; the rest of the women remained armed and stood close by. They did not show us their faces.

The whole situation was kind of creepy and scary for us. Then one of the women gave us printed papers, which had the instructions and directions to be followed in the school.

She started her speech with some verses from the Quran. I felt like I was watching one of those plays that the Baath Party used to carry out in the past in this very theater, which used to talk about the great role of the Baath Party in saving Arab nationalism. Nothing had changed except for the customs and the names. She was speaking in classical Arabic about the role of ISIS in raising the name of Islam and the big responsibility that ISIS is taking to stand against the West and the infidels.

Then she spoke to us about the duty that we as teachers have in the schools. Her tone became sharper and more of a shouting voice when she spoke about the blasphemy that was in our previous curriculum. Our books had poetry, songs and ideas glorifying our country, in addition to the science books that she said contained a lot of lies and blasphemy and manipulation in God’s creations for worldly purposes, such as the breeding of cows to make more milk and gain more weight so that we could benefit from their meat. She also mentioned an example about chicken, and said that genetics and Darwinian theory have nothing to do with the truth whatsoever; they’re merely there to question and weaken our belief in God.

The same thing went for physics and chemistry, as they contain many [unholy] laws. We had to be careful not to corrupt the minds of the children under ISIS rule, she said.

Sometimes I felt like laughing, but I was too scared to do it. The speaker’s voice echoed, and everyone was as silent as the black we were wearing. She was the only one talking. She spoke about our duty to separate the males from the females, to force the full-body covering on girls, and to ban cosmetics and any kind of perfume. She said that teachers must never take off their veils in school. She also insisted that we pay attention to the lessons and prepare them well so we wouldn’t miss any of what she mentioned.

After four hours the first day of the teacher training course was over. The same scenario played out every day for a week, from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon. The speaker always lectured about what to delete from the teaching programs, material that used to be part of our schooling before.

After the course was over we would be distributed to schools for girls, and the other male teachers who also had a course of their own were transferred to schools for boys.

I couldn’t go on like this but I was so scared that if I didn’t go to school I would be arrested. So I decided to run away with my children to Turkey. Luckily I found a job in a Syrian school in Gaziantep, Turkey. Some of my friends told me that the number of children in schools back in my town is now no more than 30% of the entire eligible pool; nobody wants to send their kids to school anymore because they would probably be recruited to fight and kill in the ISIS army. Some of the teenagers were given classes in the use of weapons, which scared the families and caused them to worry even more about their kids.

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply.