A man with a gun: the conventional media representation of Syria’s civil war has obscured the story of massive violence against women. Flickr / Freedom House. Some rights reserved.
December 2012, a suburb of Damascus: ‘Samia’ and her friend ‘Lubna’ are stopped by governmental forces at a checkpoint. While the security personnel search the two women, an exchange of fire between armed groups and government troops breaks out. As the clash intensifies, the commander of the intelligence unit uses the two women to shield himself, pushing them into the line of fire until the troops manage to reach a safe area and leave the scene. The two women are then taken to the military airport were they are remanded in custody for several weeks. Neither Samia nor Lubna speaks of their ordeal for fear of reprisals.
June 2012, a village near Lattakia: ‘Kenda’, newly married and pregnant, is on her way to the clinic. Listening to a conversation she has with her husband, the driver—who happens to be an informant of the security apparatus—takes her to the military security branch in Latakia where she spends the night. Kenda is released after signing a paper stating that her husband is a ‘terrorist’. Her sister reports later that Kenda has been raped during her detention, miscarrying as a result.
The stories of these three Syrian women did not make prime-time news. Yet thousands of women like Samia, Lubna or Kenda have endured the most atrocious of acts of violence, typically suffered through silent rejection and isolation by their peers.
Amid the media’s bulimic coverage of the Syrian conflict, with its morbid daily body count and graphic imagery, there is still a little-known truth: Syrian women, young and old, are being targeted by all parties to the conflict. Being a woman in Syria has proved enough to cost one’s life.
As the civil war rages on, thousands of women are losing their lives in indiscriminate shelling against civilians. Hundreds more are killed in raids and massacres.
Many more are subjected to arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances by governmental forces and their supporting militias. Alarming statistics indicate that many of these women have undergone various forms of torture in detention centres to extract confessions. What these women have in common is they have been consciously pursued by competing parties in this bloody conflict—to put pressure on partners or brothers, or even (as in some reported instances) as human shields.
Reporting cases of violence against women is certainly no mean task. The socio-cultural context in Syria and issues of methodology continuously hamper documentation. Foggy areas remain as to whether—and, if so, how—these violations are to be addressed during the ‘transitional justice’ expected to follow the armed conflict. Equally uncertain is whether victims will eventually be provided with vital financial support, much-needed counselling and guidance to help them heal their gaping wounds.
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) has sought to address this void. Because Syrian human rights-groups are confronting unprecedented challenges operating on the ground, providing assistance (technical and otherwise) and helping them reorganise has become the main task for EMHRN in the country. But before it could empower its Syrian members and partner human-rights, the network needed to map the scope and extent of severe violations. Late last year, it published Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict.
Being a woman in Syria has proved enough to cost one’s life.
The EMHRN report features testimonies gathered over six months (between January and June 2013) of arduous information-seeking by Syrian co-ordinators in various cities. Data were collated by the researcher and women’s rights activist Sema Nasar of the Syrian Human Rights Network, supported by experts in documentation. Interviews were conducted with victims or, in some cases, relatives or family members or social workers or psychologists.
The objective of the report was to urge that perpetrators be held accountable for their crimes and that victims, their families and communities be given support towards rehabilitation. It sought to press the international community to lift the veil violence against Syrian women.
Most victims refused to speak about the violence to which they had been exposed, in particular when the offence had a sexual dimension, out of fear of social stigmatisation. Families were also often reluctant to report abuses, such as kidnappings and arrests of their daughters or female relatives, because of the widespread perception that arrested females are raped and harassed in prison.
That the work conducted by human-rights organisations has barely had an impact on the stance on the conflict of the international community—particularly the UN Security Council—has not helped Syrians get over their deeply ingrained suspicion of international mechanisms. Nearly three years into this brutal imbroglio, nothing has been done to address impunity for crimes clearly specified under international law.
Syrian women are also acutely aware of how futile domestic attempts to prosecute the rapists have been—all the more so when members of the ‘security forces’ have reportedly been involved. Women in Syria are therefore made victims twice—first when exposed to sexual abuses and second when suffering through the tacit silence that surrounds the crime and the indelible social stain attached.
Uncovering instances of rape and sexual violence is therefore simultaneously one of the most necessary and one of the most challenging tasks in the Syrian context. Despite shocking evidence presented in the EMHRN report, as in other publications by human-rights organisations, crimes committed against Syrian women are still inexplicably missing from the agenda of politicians and activists.
Meantime, the media continue stubbornly to ignore the complex plight endured by women in Syria. If the climate of impunity prevails amid this obscene display of violence, the open wound of Syria’s women will haemorrhage for many more months to come.
 Interview held with Samia on 15 May 2013