November 12, 2013 Special Dispatch No. 5517

Syrian Activist Su'ad Nawfal Wages One-Woman Campaign Against 'Islamic State in Iraq and Syria' Takeover Of Her Home Town

November 12, 2013
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 5517

In late April 2013, the jihad group "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) entered the city of Al-Raqqa in northeast Syria – after several opposition forces, some of them belonging to the Free Syrian Army and some of them Islamist, took the city from the regime forces – and since then it has been trying to take control of the city and subject the residents to shari'a law. To this end the organization has been waging intense battles with the other opposition forces, in which residents have been killed, and is limiting the residents' freedom while silencing human rights activists and carrying out arrests and abductions. Infuriated by this conduct, residents held several demonstrations outside the ISIS headquarters – until threats and attacks by ISIS caused them to cease their protests and even to sign a document promising not to renew them.

However, one woman – a local schoolteacher and activist in her 40s named Su'ad Nawfal – refused to be intimidated and continued the struggle against ISIS on her own, at a risk to her life.

The following are details about Nawfal's one-woman campaign, and excerpts from an Al-Sharq Al-Awsat column which responded to it.

Su'ad Nawfal: ISIS Is A Gang With A Distorted Perception Of Islam

For the last three months or so, Nawfal has been carrying out daily demonstrations against ISIS. Ignoring curses, threats and even physical attacks, every day at 17:00 she sets out from her home carrying a hand-written sign – the message of which changes daily – and marches towards the ISIS headquarters or through the main streets of Al-Raqqa to protest the organization's actions and urge the city residents to rise up agaisnt it. Nawfal, who dons a hijab but wears trousers, describes herself as "a simple woman who grew up in a conservative environment."[1] Her opposition to ISIS took on a personal dimension in July 2013 when the organization abducted her brother-in-law, who has been in its custody ever since.

Nawfal with her nephew, whose father has been abducted by ISIS (image:, October 10, 2013)

Nawfal is no newcomer to protest and activism. When the protests against the Bashar Al-Assad regime reached her area, she was among the first to join them and was arrested and questioned by the authorities. After the rebel forces took the city in March 2013, she applied the same standards to them, protesting their robbing of the city coffers and their persecution of residents. She claims that since ISIS took over, conditions have grown even worse, because, instead of routing out the regime's remaining strongholds in the area, ISIS began "forcing its rule [on the residents] through arbitrary arrests, abduction of activists, and daily attacks on the people."[2]

In July 2013, after ISIS broke up a demonstration of locals with gunfire, the protesters signed a document promising not to renew their campaign. This left Nawfal alone in the fray. Refusing to sign the document, she continued protesting and voicing her anger on her own, "so that people would realize that our revolution has been hijacked and see how we can act to take it back."[3] In a video that was posted on YouTube, she bluntly criticized ISIS and its leadership, saying: "Talk about a state! It's more like a small gang that takes advantage of people's fear and feels more and more powerful..." She added: "There are these so-called [ISIS] sheikhs. For me, a sheikh is supposed to be an eminent dignitary in Islam. It takes a lot of study to merit this title. But they give kids of 10 or 12 the title of sheikh. Most of the guards at the entrance are kids. And most of them are foreigners... The ones who curse at me the most are foreigners. It's not the Syrians."[4]

Nawfal even claimed that ISIS "collaborates with the Syrian regime, and everything about its conduct proves this. Why haven't they liberated the bases of the [regime's local] division and brigade, or the airport?... We are the ones who were beaten and persecuted in the days of the [Assad] regime, while they preached for Bashar from the pulpits..."[5]

Nawfal argues that ISIS has a distorted view of Islam. "It is God, not ISIS, who determines who is a believer and who is an infidel. Who gave them the right [to decide this]?..."[6] On another occasion, she said: "ISIS said, 'we want to establish an Islamic state.' We replied: 'first let's topple the regime throughout the country, and then we Syrians will decide the character of our [new] state... Are we not Muslims [just like ISIS]? I am a Muslim. I wear a veil and I have educated generations [of pupils]..."[7] Referring to the Islamists' displeasure with the way she dresses, she remarked in a YouTube video: "What bothers the people of ISIS most is my pants. As far as they are concerned... my clothes do not fit the religion. But that's how I dress at home, and I've been dressing like this for 30 years. This is how I dress. I don't ask you [ISIS members] why you dress like Afghans. I don't ask you why you grow a long beard. I don't ask you why you are wearing a mask. How can pants be sinful and not the mask? That mask behind which you hide your face...? "[8]

MEMRI-TV Clip About Nawfal And Her Campaign

Su'ad Nawfal: We Won't Allow A New Pharaoh To Rule Us; We Demand A Civil Democratic State That Protects The Rights Of All Its Citizens

In recent weeks, Nawfal has protested against ISIS with signs saying "Remove your scarves – we are the revolution. Who are you?"; "No to arrests, no to kidnapping, no to theft in the name of religion".[9] "No to injustice, no to oppression [by] the ruler, no to accusing other Muslims of heresy, yes to [freedom of] thought," among other messages. After ISIS militants removed the crosses from the towns' church at the close of September 2013, Nawfal came out with a sign saying, "State of Evil, the churches are [dedicated] to the worship of Allah the Exalted." Realizing that this sign was more provocative than the others and that she risked her life by carrying it, Nawfal left her family a note before she left saying "forgive me". That day ISIS activists indeed surrounded Nawfal, tore up the sign, aimed their rifles at her and threatened to kill her if she dared demonstrate opposite the ISIS headquarters again.[10]

Nawfal with her hand-written signs (image:, October 26, 2013)

When asked if she thought her actions were doing any good, Nawfal said: "Of course. Al-Raqqa hasn't been liberated. The regime delivered it into the hands of its loyalists [namely the Islamist organizations], and the only losers are the people, whose heart is still conquered by fear. The people [of this city], and in particular the activists and men of honor among the [opposition] brigades, must act to save Al-Raqqa... I'll continue to demonstrate in various areas and main streets so everybody will realize that we will not allow a new Pharaoh to appear and rule over us. [I am not doing] this only for my brother-in-law, but for all those who are imprisoned and kidnapped. They are my brothers, for I and they courageously came out against the criminal [Assad] regime when most people hid in their homes. We will not remain silent in the face of all these violations and inhuman actions. Whoever wants to build a state for himself, let him go somewhere else and establish whatever he wants [there]. We rose up for the sake of the freedom that we have been robbed of for decades, and we will never give it up. No oppression will divert us from our cause. We will be content only with a civil democratic state that will preserve the rights of all."[11] In an interview with the UAE TV channel Al-Aan, she said: "I am an educator of children, and the most important thing that I teach my children that one must rectify a wrong, and must not remain silent about it… We must raise a generation that knows its rights and duties. That is the message that everyone must get – a free generation."[12]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Columnist: We Stand In Solidarity With You, Su'ad

Following the reports on Nawfal's activity, Diana Moukalled, a columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, devoted a column to praising Nawfal's courage and describing her activities.[13] The following are excerpts from a translation of the article that was published in the paper's English edition:[14] "Su'ad Nawfal. Memorize the name of this Syrian woman. Keep an eye on her activities. Her bravery makes her exceptional... [but] only few media outlets report on her.

"She is the woman who, for more than two months, has been writing banners and protesting alone in front of the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Al-Raqqa in order to condemn the group’s acts of murder, detention and torture against Syrians, and to condemn the arbitrary laws [it imposes on the] citizens, particularly on women...

"The extremist group responded by preventing the media from talking to Su'ad or shooting footage of her. It threatened to kill her if she continue[d] to protest. Therefore, no one dared [to] support this woman or [to] stand with her...

"Almost three years after the revolution, and after so many people were killed and displaced and so much was destroyed, one wonders where Su'ad obtains this momentum. She’s on her own and she’s a woman. Her life will mean nothing to a group [ISIS] that is a master of the brutal art of murder and considers it a commendable deed. One of its rallying songs says: 'Oh how many throats we’ve slit!'

"People in Syria feel that everyone has given up on them. There’s no deterrence against the regime’s violence. There’s no power to confront ISIS in the areas it controls. Civil activity in Syria has become moribund as so many activists have fled. Activists who remained behind are subject to death threats either by the regime or by extremist groups, particularly by ISIS. Su'ad’s revolution is not only a struggle against murder. It’s also a struggle on behalf of women. Tyranny in Syria has many faces, and that rooted stance on women’s rights lies at its core.

"ISIS is annoyed by Su'ad’s rebellion against its authority, arms and masculinity. ISIS is annoyed by this woman’s pants. But Su'ad insists on wearing them and taking to the street to protest. Despite everything, Su'ad Nawfal embodies the spirit which ignited the protest of the Dara'a youths three years ago. We really miss this spirit today. And we really fear for you, Su'ad, and stand in solidarity with you!"





[1] Al-Arab (London), October 7, 2013.

[2], August 19, 2013;, October 10, 2013.

[3], August 11, 2013.

[5], August 19, 2013.

[6], August 11, 2013.

[7], August 19, 2013.

[9], August 11, 2013.

[10], September 28, 2013.

[11], August 19, 2013.

[12] Al-Aan Channel (UAE), September 28, 2013.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 4, 2013.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (English edition) (London), November 5, 2013. The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

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