Since the uprising in Syria began, in March 2011, the situation has degenerated into an all-consuming civil war that has left millions of people displaced within and outside the country’s borders.
Far from being restricted to the battlefield, the violence has even reached into many Syrians’ bedrooms.
Though problems such as spousal violence and sexist laws were around before the war started, many Syrian women and experts alike say the widespread violence correlates with an ostensible spike in domestic abuse.
“It is time to stop the silence and the feeling of shame,” Dr. Yassir Mualla, a Lebanon-based psychotherapist, told Syria Deeply. “We have a responsibility to bring all occurrences of violence to light, and to call things for what they are in order to raise awareness.”
Several preexisting laws already discriminate against women. Article 489 of Syrian law, for instance, defines rape as “using violence or threat … [that] forces a non-wife into a sexual act.” So, by this definition, legally, forcing a wife into sexual acts is not considered rape. Much of Syrian law relating to personal status is based on Quranic verses and interpretations of them that firmly place males in a dominant social position.
Dr. Mualla explains that active participants in the war are far more likely to abuse their wives or female relatives. “Violence cannot be divided,” he said. “People who carry guns and practice violence on a daily basis – their violence inevitably extends to their personal lives, especially those who earn their living through violence. And conversely, a person who is violent against his wife, for instance, is also violent outside the home.”
Syria Deeply spoke to many women who have suffered from domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Nadia, 32, lives in the city of al-Kiswah, to the south of Damascus, with her husband, a truck driver who is 15 years older than her. Since they married 13 years ago, she says she has endured his beatings time and again. “I still remember my wedding night – it was the beginning of a nightmare that has not yet ended,” she told Syria Deeply.
“All my dreams were shattered that night, and I realized all the romantic movies I had watched were an illusion,” she said. “The violence he used against me that night, to prove his dominance, still lives with me today.”
According to Nadia, her husband hits her in front of their four children, whom he also hits at times. “I never had the courage to tell my mother why he hits me, especially in bed,” she commented. “It took me years to understand why. After talking to my friends about it, they helped me figure it out.”
Explaining that her husband suffered from erectile dysfunction and sexual performance issues, Nadia says she didn’t learn about the female orgasm until her friends told her.
When the war broke out, Nadia’s husband joined a national defense brigade, an armed group that supports President Bashar al-Assad’s government. That’s when his violence grew scarier and more intense, she recalled. “I think he lost his mind. Sometimes he threatens me with his gun during sex,” she said. “When he is stressed, he cannot get an erection, becomes angry and uses ugly words. One time he pointed the gun at me and threatened to shoot.”
Although she wants to leave, Nadia is afraid that divorcing her husband will drive him to further violence and put her kids in jeopardy. “Divorced women are stigmatized in our society and I cannot leave my kids alone with their father.”
When asked about Nadia’s case, Dr. Mualla said, “Sexist laws, social conventions and religion all contribute to creating an environment where men can oppress women.”
Yet many women do take the risk and leave their abusive husbands. Marwa, 27, was married to her husband for seven years before the physical and mental abuse became too much. Her husband’s marriage to two more women and his practice of putting out cigarettes on her skin drove her to make the final decision. “We would have peaceful periods and then he would suddenly go crazy again,” she recalled.
“He would burn my face with his cigarette if I said something that he didn’t like.” Marwa was sad as she remembered running away from her home in Deir Ezzor, leaving behind her three children with their father. She recently learned that one of the kids had died. Today, Marwa lives in a small apartment near her sister and makes ends meet with financial assistance from relatives.
However, when the war started her parents fled to Saudi Arabia. Her brother, who stayed behind, was arrested shortly thereafter and died in government custody. “I have no one to protect me,” she said. “My only brother died in the regime’s prisons. We are nine sisters and only one of us went to Saudi Arabia with our parents. We haven’t told them yet about my brother’s death or my divorce.”
Although she misses her children, Marwa says that in the end she felt that she either had to run away from her husband or commit suicide. “One time [before leaving], when I refused to give him money, he tied up my hands and feet and forced me to stand in a top-leading washing machine and threatened to turn it on,” she remembered. “I try not to think of my kids,” she said sadly. “I have no feelings anymore. All I want is to not get hurt.”
Rudaynah, 25, is a widowed mother of one. After her husband died during extensive clashes that took place in the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Dannun, situated some 14 miles south of Damascus, she befriended a military officer who mans a checkpoint near her home. In the beginning, he invited her to his home, where he claimed to be in love with her. Hoping that he would eventually marry her, she agreed to go with him.
“He was a monster,” she said. “He used sharp objects to slash my skin … and [he cut] my private areas with a razor. I was extremely scared and in pain while he enjoyed what he was doing. I didn’t want anyone to know that I agreed to go to some stranger’s house because it would stigmatize me forever [in society].”
Months went by before Rudaynah was able to share her trauma and fear of men. After meeting a social worker at a shelter for displaced civilians in the Damascus area, she finally recounted the violence and showed someone her lasting wounds. “I regret that I brought this on myself, but I foolishly believed he might be a way out of this hard life,” she said. “I paid a very high price.”