With over 100,000 casualties, 2.6 million refugees and 6 million people internally displaced, Syrians attempting to escape violence have discovered a life of meager wages and hardship. However, for the women of the Syrian conflict, life has become exponentially harder, with threats of physical violence, sexual assault and even death becoming increasingly common.
A new Human Rights Watch report details the lives of 17 Syrian women affected by the ongoing regional war. For many, they face a double-edged sword. Hundreds of thousands of men have been arrested, killed or have gone off to fight the government, leaving the women responsible for providing for their families–yet clampdowns from all sides have made it increasingly dangerous for women to do so.
One woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch known as Layal describes her detention by Bashar al Assad’s Special Forces, and how she escaped to a camp which offered a fresh set of dangers.
During her detention, she was stripped, tortured in stress positions, molested and forced to perform oral sex more than once. When she was finally freed during an Iranian prisoner swap, she fled the country. In the refugee camp she tried to speak out about her experience, however she was soon silenced by the women around her who warned that her past assault could mark her as an already ‘ruined’ target for sexual violence.
Part of the problem stems from the extreme Islamist factions that feed off vulnerable men and women in the camps. One woman called Berivan speaks of moving to a camp in Southern Damascus called Yarmouk. Along with a friend, they opened a pharmacy and started providing medical assistance to those hurt during intra-government fighting. However, when extreme Islamist groups began to gain power in Yarmouk, militants began pestering Berivan for not wearing a hijab (headscarf), not being married, and being out on the front lines stitching up men by herself.
When she refused to stop Liwa’ al-Islam, a local Islamist group, took her captive. She was held for 10 days, and only let go after a hunger strike turned into violent illness. After her release she begun wearing the hijab, but even that wasn’t good enough for extremist groups. She recalls ISIS threatening her for not wearing an abaya (a long loose fitting dress), promising to hang her if they found in western clothes again. She fled to Turkey soon after to escape these militants. However, she laments that, “the worst part is, it wasn’t even the regime who arrested me”. She had spent her time stitching many of these men’s wounds only to have them turn on her in the end.
Another humanitarian named Roula who took up residence in a Turkish refugee camp would cross the Turkish-Syrian border on a daily basis to bring education and help to women and children in need. After the takeover of ISIS her job became especially precarious, due to their strict Islamic interpretations. However, Roula was clever enough to use their logic against them. “I said, ‘in the camps there are women and children without men. It is improper for you to go and talk to them. Let us do it.”
ISIS agreed, but continued to impose harsh penalties on women, forcing them not only to take hijab but full niqab (the face covering). Most women in Syria didn’t dream of wearing niqab before the war, and non-hijabis were common in cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. But after the ISIS take-over, strict dress codes were enforced under threat of violence and even death.
ISIS has also instituted rules stating no woman can go out alone without a close male family member, a law that never existed in Syria before. For women who have lost their entire family, they must find a way to evade ISIS rules while still providing a livelihood for themselves.
In refugee camps, women often take on roles as caretakers, teachers and nurses. However, as much as their assistance is needed, the danger associated with these humanitarian actions has put their lives at risk. Facing attacks from the Government and extremist Islamist groups alike, Syrian women have become just another forgotten casualty in this ongoing struggle.
Photo credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection