The group also detailed a rise in domestic violence, kidnappings and honor killings against women, which raised global concerns about female vulnerability as the conflict spirals further into violence.
Lauren Wolfe, the director of Women Under Siege (a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualized violence and conflict), has worked with Syrian women along the Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese borders.We asked her to weigh in on the worsening situation of Syria’s women, along with Rafif Jouejati, the English spokeswoman for the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria, a network of local activists.
Syria Deeply: When we say “violence against women,” what are the issues playing out?
Lauren Wolfe: We’re hearing about a lot of women who’ve been raped or tortured in detention.
There are two fronts: inside Syria, and then what’s happening to refugees living outside the country. Women on the border in camps are facing incredible amounts of domestic violence.
Rafif Jouejati: There is rape, and rape is being used as a weapon of war. Based on what I know, it is really [President Bashar] al-Assad and the shabiha who are doing it. The only advantage of the extremists like ISIS is that they have a code of conduct that tends to prevent them from committing the crime of rape. There may be isolated incidents of rape, but it’s not a regular policy the way it is with the shabiha.
The idea is to maximize the destruction of the individual and society overall, and rape is the most effective way to cause people to flee areas or to cause them to not demonstrate or engage in a any act that is anti-regime.
With the extremists, violence takes on a different form: complete repression. With the expanded ground presence of ISIS, we’re seeing more directives about how to dress, what not to wear, how to act.
I don’t want to cast violence as only being perpetrated by the regime. I do think the policy of rape is systematically charged by the regime, but women are being systematically oppressed by the extremists. There’s a punishment for violating how ISIS thinks you should behave. They are severely lacking in women’s representation.
SD: Domestic violence seems to be on the rise.
LW: When I was at Zaatari [refugee camp] a few months back, within an hour of being there, I met a young woman who told me her husband beats her every night. And the more I spoke to women, the more I understood this was incredibly common. Frustration levels among men are high: men can’t get work, and they’re taking out their anger on their wives. I saw that at refugee homes in Amman and in southern Turkey. There’s a real boiling pot right now of no jobs and just utter anger at their lives and situations, and I think women have become quite vulnerable to that.
RJ: It’s because in the camps you have men who are idle, who are not being able to channel their energies and so they are taking out on women.
LW: I asked women why they didn’t report the violence, and they are just terrified. They don’t think there are mechanisms in place that can protect them, and so they take their chances. To be fair, I did meet with the people at the U.N. who deal with this, and they’re trying. It’s just a really untenable situation, with thousands of people in so much pain who have suffered so much trauma. It shows on women’s faces: there’s so much depression, it’s just palpable.
SD: Why are honor killings happening? Are they linked to rape?
RJ: Within more conservative communities, we’re seeing an increase in honor killings. When a woman loses her virginity [before marriage and particularly through rape], in the more conservative classes of Syrian society, it’s seen as a loss of honor. So in their minds, an honor killing is the way to restore the family honor.
One of the challenges we face going forward in Syria is changing that social narrative so that rape is understood to be a crime, that a man will have to be prosecuted. We have to promote the understanding that the victim has already been victimized. It’s something that has actually been changing throughout the revolution, because so many men and boys were also raped that it’s no longer this misperception that the woman must have flirted or done something to bring this upon herself. Now [in some places] it’s considered a crime.
There are multiple instances where young men have been raped in prison and come out and talked about it, and cautioned people to not doubly victimize women.
LW: One woman who’d been detained was terrified because the men who met her thought she’d been raped, and she hadn’t. She was desperate for them to understand she hadn’t been raped, because the stigma was so bad.
SD: What is contributing to the increase in kidnappings of women?
RJ: Increases in kidnappings are generally perpetrated by ISIS and other armed groups looking to extract ransom or some other form of leverage. It may be that more women are now replacing their male counterparts in going out there [and working and being in public], so we’re hearing about more women being kidnapped. I don’t think it’s an official policy.
SD: Tell me about the women you met.
LW: I met a woman in an apartment in Amman, and she was surrounded by six children. There was no furniture in the house. The mother sat in the middle of her children and she told me about massacres in Homs that she had fled five months before. She’d witnessed her neighbors being stabbed by shabiha. She went to the next town with the children, and it happened again. She was hysterically crying as she said these things, but she said them in front of her children. They’d already seen it happen.
The cases I’ve been asked to help with are when women [have been raped and] need an abortion, or when the psychological trauma from rape and torture is so bad that the family seeks help because the victim won’t speak.
SD: Are women afraid of what will happen next?
LW: Religion and culture in Syria have combined to create a perfect storm in which women risk very real dangers if they speak out about having been violated. It’s a crime on top of a crime. A woman is abused, attacked, raped and then forced to stay silent. The repression of women in Syria has put them in a place where they just don’t talk about anything. It’s a society where they’ve had 40 years of, “Who’s listening in, and who’s going to report you to the government?”
We never know who’s winning the conflict, or who’s going to win, and that puts victims in a hard place.
RJ: Many women I talk to are afraid that the situation is going to get worse. On the other hand, the women working in the camps or serving as doctors in field hospitals or taking up arms have this renewed sense now of mission and purpose. It’s the old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Syrian women are beginning to stand up and say, “We are going to exercise our rights and we are going to be active participants in rebuilding Syria.” I’m seeing an attitude of, “Don’t f**k with us.”