Elham Hakki was born in 1960 in al-Raqqa city. Her father was from al-Raqqa and her mother from Homs. Her father, Mohamed Naji Hakki, established the first library in al-Raqqa in the late 1950s. The library had a backyard in which guests could sit and read for free. It brought together the intellectual and prominent figures of the city who initiated discussions on the country’s political issues and affairs.
Elham says that women in al-Raqqa were very liberal in the 1950s and 1960s, “The women of al-Raqqa would have male visitors in their houses and work the land hand in hand with men. They even danced Dabke with the men at weddings and on other occasions. Discrimination between men and women is a new phenomenon in our society and wasn’t seen previously.”
Wedding traditions were similar in rural and urban areas of al-Raqqa Governorate. A slight difference existed in rural women’s clothing, which consisted of colorful headbands, “as-Saya” robe above a loose dress, and a belt around the waist with a bandana called “Mimisha”.
Early marriage wasn’t common among women in al-Raqqa. Elham says, “We used to criticize some of the societies in the Aleppo countryside that made girls get married at an early age. Our society was progressive in this respect, encouraging women to pursue their education. Girls would go to Hama or Deir ez-Zor to study before middle schools were opened in our region.”
As for funeral traditions, the procedure used to be very tiring and lasted 40 days. However, since the 1970s, it had been restricted to 3 days only, during which time food was served to those offering condolences and accommodation provided to those who had traveled from other regions. Wearing black for 40 days was the symbol of grief, whereas in the past it used to be worn for years.
“Women of al-Raqqa were conservative but not bigoted. One could say they were as strong as men. Even illiterate mothers were keen on educating their children, and as a result, significant proportions of the generation became educated.”
Elham remarks that most of the teaching faculty was female when she was a student, perhaps because females tended to pursue their education and work as teachers more than males. “One year in the early 1980s, the government took a decision to separate male and female students and place them in different schools. Students were transported in trucks from their mixed schools to their new ones. That decision was wrong, and it later proved to have negative impacts.”
Elham says that signs of religious intolerance appeared in al-Raqqa society gradually and perhaps unnoticed by most, in the form of post-Iraq War repercussions and the entry of Iran’s Shia Muslims to the Uwais al-Qarni region. “Our society is conservative. We refuse to compromise on Islamic rituals and practices, but we are not intolerant.”
In the 1970s, the regime started placing corrupt people from rural areas and other governorates in important positions in an attempt to marginalize the city’s residents, especially the educated ones. “This policy affected the people of the city and the youth’s cultural activity,” says Elham. “For instance, the gatherings held at the cultural center, which had been well-attended in the past, were now attended by only a dozen or so people.”
She adds, “A few rich people from al-Raqqa tried to establish tourism projects, such as coffee shops or resorts, on the banks of the Euphrates but they were prohibited from doing so for fear of competing with the Syrian coastal regions.”
Elham graduated from the teacher training institute in 1977 and worked as a teacher first in al-Raqqa, then in the city. Through her work, she noticed some differences between the city and rural areas. In rural areas, children didn’t go to the nursery before school, while children in the city had already acquired knowledge of letters, numbers and so forth before starting school.
“A significant number of teachers were sent to al-Raqqa from al-Silmiya and the Syrian coast, although there was no need for that,” she says. “Teachers from al-Raqqa were, in turn, transferred to the rural areas.”
“After 15 years of teaching, they assigned unqualified school principals from their own group of people instead of the experienced and respectful principals who had been in post before,” she adds. “In fact, corruption was rife all over Syria, not only in al-Raqqa.”