Analysis Human Rights

Report from Syria: Women Combat an Oppressive Regime Online, On the Ground, and Sometimes Armed

Ruth Michaelson

Syria’s media war is being waged with gory images from the ground. But preconceived notions about subservient Middle Eastern women could lead the world to assume that there have been no women active on the ground in Syria. This is simply not true: we’re just not looking hard enough.

An image that has become synonymous with the Syrian uprising—any Syrian you speak to knows its intricate details—is of a woman in a blood-red dress (blood being a very important sartorial detail) standing outside the parliament building in Damascus, holding a sign that says: “Stop the killing. We want to build a home for all Syrians.” The woman, Rime Dali, has been detained and released several times by the Syrian government for protesting in this way, but she continues, undeterred, to broadcast her message. This image has become a symbol of the desire by many Syrians to express themselves freely, whatever the cost.

With the uprising rapidly descending into civil war and with the media transmitting images of young men with AK47s rather than placard-waving crowds, the weapons could easily supplant the woman in our collective consciousness. Syria’s media war is being waged with gory images from the ground. But preconceived notions about subservient Middle Eastern women could lead the world to assume that there have been no women active on the ground in Syria. This is simply not true: we’re just not looking hard enough.

FSA Fighters

Rodaina Eeesa Abud sits in a plush apartment in the northern Jordanian town of Irbid. She wears a long, elegant black dress with a black woven chiffon headscarf and gold jewelry. She pulls out her iPhone on which a video shows 20 women, their faces covered in beautiful patterned scarves, wielding AK47s as they stand proudly in their stilettos. These fighters are members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), from the southern town of Dara’a.

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“I finished high school and I married early, at 17,” Abud says. “Before the revolution, I was just living a very average life with my husband.” Abud’s reasons for joining the FSA are clear:

“I am a mother,” she says. “When the revolution started in Dara’a, I saw how the Syrian Army treated those children, and I imagined what I would do if those were my children. My maternal feelings drove me to feel like I had to do something about the situation.”

Dara’a is seen as the cradle of the revolution. The torture of 15 young boys who’d drawn anti-regime graffiti had sparked the initial protests.

In the close-knit religious communities of southern Syria, where family bonds are strong, resistance to government suppression of protest was swift. “We saw people from the neighboring village starting to protest, too,” Abud says, “and they would pass by my house. I would stand and talk with them from my balcony about why they were protesting.”

Abud gives the impression that in such a fiercely communal society, doing anything possible to oust the regime—including women arming themselves—has become the new normal. “I saw people who were ready to die to build a new Syria,” she says. “This meant that when the opportunity came for me to get a gun, I took it.”

She goes on: “One Friday I saw a man get shot by the army during a protest. I ran down into the street to help him, as the men could not move freely due to snipers. While a group of us were gathered in a house with him as he died, someone said that we need to do something to protest his death. He said he had a gun, but no way of transporting it, so I volunteered to take it. After that it, became a regular thing, and it made me so happy, as it was a way to help the people of Dara’a.”

Abud says that her initial task of transporting weapons was made far easier because she was a woman; without being checked, she could cross the network of checkpoints and snipers that had sprung up. “There were several women doing this, but I was the best at it,” she boasts, miming how many guns and bullets she was able to stash under her dress while making polite and demure small talk with the soldiers at the checkpoints.

“The women who joined the FSA initially were all those who’d lost a male family member, a husband or a son,” Abud says. “Although at first our job was transportation, later we began to use the weapons, too. The first time I got to fire a gun, I felt like the Arab Spring was coursing through my veins. I was just overjoyed to be doing something, to be part of this.”

She is both matter-of-fact and proud: “One day a group of male fighters went to battle some regime forces in our town,” Abud relates. “When they left, we followed them. The men were pretty surprised to see us there, ready to go into battle with them. Together, we won that battle. The regime soldiers who came as backup for the ones we’d killed were so frightened that they retreated. Although this was a success, the men we were with were annoyed that we’d disobeyed them and followed them, so we started our own group instead.” Her husband has remained to fight within the FSA in Dara’a, while she cares for her injured brother in Jordan, but she is keen to return and fight.

What does Abud want for women in the post-Assad Syria? “We can’t think about what happens post-Bashar al-Assad yet, because the pre-Bashar Al-Assad is too important,” she says. “Women should be out there in the streets saying no to this regime just as much as men. No one should witness their children dying. I fight for everyone, and everyone needs to be involved in this, whether they’re male or female. What I do is for all of Syria.”

The Activists

“I’d join the FSA if they’d have me,” says Alexia Jade, using a pseudonym she chose at the start of the revolution, “but right now they don’t have time to train people to use weapons.” Military service remains compulsory in Syria; army defectors and stolen weapons fuel the FSA, but conscription applies only to men. Yet violent resistance has followed more than a year of peaceful resistance. In this area, Jade says, “We stand shoulder to shoulder with men more than ever before. Women are leaders and spokeswomen just as much as they can be detainees, deportees, or even martyrs.”

Noura, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is an Alawite activist based in Aleppo.

“The concept of male and female disappears with this kind of struggle,” she says. “The courage of certain work is what determines its importance, regardless of who did it. But there’s a certain privilege to being female in this situation, because women need extra courage and ability to overcome the power imbalance.”

Both women are long-time political activists, who have been organizing peaceful demonstrations in Damascus since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011. “This involved choosing a location and designing the route, working out where was dangerous and where was safe, then checking to see if it really is safe,” says Jade. “Now this isn’t such an issue, because we all know the routes and the danger spots, especially as the shelling has increased in some areas.” For Noura, nonviolent resistance took the form of organizing but also of spreading revolutionary media “such as brochures or even graffiti” at first. Now, nonviolent resistance includes medical and relief work. Providing front-line services to the FSA can be as physically and socially dangerous as fighting in certain areas.

Like Abud, Noura and Jade found that being women allowed a greater freedom of movement that they were able to exploit. “It’s part of the social conventions here that women are considered more trustworthy,” Jade says. “Well, that and the stupidity of the security services! With a car I had access to places guys would avoid for fear of detention. Until very recently I used to pass through checkpoints [without being searched], but they’ve begun to check ladies’ IDs now.”

That’s not to say that there are no gender-related complications. “We had rows every so often about feeling that the men were overprotecting us,” Jade says, referring to how initially men would stand on the outside of the group of demonstrators to protect the women from incoming fire. The female activists eventually won this argument by persuading the men of the sad reality that the regime’s forces were indiscriminate about whom they were firing at.

The Netizens

As women have begun to make strides with their public activism, the relative anonymity of the Internet has also provided a platform for women’s resistance. Despite Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted grip on communication, the lifeblood of the revolution has been online, often through social media. “You could say that the real revolution started as far back as 2005 due to online activism,” says Khadija. She is Jordanian but has been involved in online activism against the regime since 2003. “Yes I’m Jordanian but I have loyalty to Syria,” Khadija says. “Once I started to be aware of how people suffered under Assad, I had to get involved.”

The Internet provided a veil of protection long before anyone was able to demonstrate publicly against the regime. Khadija says that one of her fellow members “is a blogger about civil rights, focusing on women’s rights and children’s rights. But at the same time she’s a Christian, the daughter of a bishop!” Khadija says that it’s imperative for a group such as this to have members both inside and outside Syria, which is why her role is so important. “You can’t do anything like this where it’s entirely based in Syria, it’s not safe,” she says. “This allows for an approach with a Plan B, with backup. Any large-scale activity like this requires international coordination.”

The core group, named Il Yom al Hurriya or Days of Freedom is composed of 12 members, with a large peripheral group of online supporters. The group was previously an outlet to ease communication, often using coded messages. But in the push toward revolution, Khadija says, “Some of the women who were outside Syria began making videos about how to protest, how to protect your child or yourself from attacks or investigation by the government.”

Online communication began to spill over into physical activism with the start of the uprising, and Days of Freedom began to distribute revolutionary literature and organize peaceful resistance actions, such as putting red dye in the fountains of central squares in Aleppo and Damascus, so that they appeared to run red with blood. This real-world activity puts the group even further at risk in some cases. Khadija’s colleague, after publicly declaring at a protest that she supported the uprising, despite being a Christian, realized that her phone was tapped and her movements watched. The regime forces even targeted her mother’s funeral. 

Syria has a long and depressingly sophisticated history of repressing Internet communication, but the revolution has driven more Syrians to express their activism online, creating a “herd” effect, which makes it harder for the regime to crack down on online expression.

Fundraising networks are also trying to reach inside Syria. The Syrian Ministry of Expatriate Affairs estimates that 17 to 18 million Syrians live outside the country, as first- or second-generation émigrés to countries in the Gulf or the United States. Since many left for reasons related to the 42-year rule of the Assad family, an enormous amount of the fundraising and campaigning that sustains global attention on the Syrian cause has been generated from Syrian émigrés. The Internet naturally plays a vital role. 

“I’ve been involved in humanitarian relief efforts inside and outside Syria, communication relief for activists still operating inside, not to mention fundraising and purchasing communications equipment for them,” says Reem (not her real name), who lives in the Gulf with her husband. “Overall, I have worked extremely hard to raise awareness about the devastating humanitarian situation going on.” Using the Internet as an interconnected, potentially genderless ‘safe space’ for funding means that an activist in Illinois can raise funds for medical equipment from her local community or from her cousins in the Gulf, and then find a way to distribute them in Damascus. A frequent criticism of long-distance fundraising, particularly from the Gulf States, is that it could end up paying for weapons for the FSA, which is problematic for many. Given the often religious motivations behind such funding, the Internet also provides a method of counterbalance by connecting the large swaths of the secular Syrian Diaspora, who wish to focus their funding exclusively on aid or helping pro-democracy civil-society groups.

The Radical Feminists

“This isn’t just about getting rid of Assad, we want to build a completely new society,” says Zara (not her real name) from the southwestern city of Zabadani. Syrian society is a patchwork of different religions, but overall it is culturally highly conservative. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (based on indicators such as discriminatory family codes, restricted physical integrity, son bias, restricted resources and entitlements, and restricted civil liberties) ranked Syria 75th out of 86 countries worldwide in terms of gender equality.

Zara and her friend, Rasha (not her real name), were both activists who saw the revolution as an opportunity for social as well as political reform. Having begun to attend protests and to connect to networks of activists locally, Rasha, in particular, found that she wanted her involvement to be personal as well as political. “I stopped wearing the hijab, I cut my hair, and I moved out of home,” she says, sipping lemon and mint juice in a café in Amman. At first glance you would think Rasha was a student on exchange in London or Berlin; an eyebrow bar touches the hairline of her bobbed hair, and a pair of Nike Dunks covers her feet.

“The goal is to be freer in all aspects, not just for ourselves but for everyone,” Rasha says. “We can build a new Syria, one that will be an inspiration to the rest of the Middle East,” says Zara, the elegant tattoos on her hand visible as she raises a cigarette to her lips. 

Both women had left Syria for a period, but they were planning to return to Zabadani to continue their activism. With a group of women in their town, they were organizing a protest involving a ritual burning of their hijabs in the town square. The personal as political is played out on women’s bodies the world over, but in the context of the Syrian revolution, it carries a deliberately loaded message, in many ways not just against the regime but against those who have sustained it.

Khadija described a memorable protest last year in the small city of Salamiya, near Hama:

“One of the women at the protest went with her brother to a high point above the main body of the protest, and began to cut parts of her clothes off so that it looked like she was wearing a miniskirt,” she says. “It was an act designed to show that the revolution had a secular character, and I can’t emphasize it enough: this is not just a singular incident for one protest. It’s designed to strike at the whole of the society, not just the regime.” 

However, such examples are radical and rare. It’s tempting to assume that every woman activist or fighter will also hold radical feminist ideas, ones that sound comforting to Westerners, who are skeptical of Syria’s interplay of religion and culture. Syria may be highly conservative, but in judging Middle Eastern cultures and the way they treat women, Westerners can easily fall prey to their own backward ideas. 

Rasha might have thrown away her hijab, but this was an act primarily directed toward the conservative social structures in Syria more than toward religion itself. Those removing their clothes or burning their hijabs are not doing so in the hope that people will become less religious, but instead to sustain the vein of secularism that runs through Syrian society, one they are keen to maintain as part of the uprising.

The majority of women interviewed here were loathe to describe themselves as feminist, even if their actions seem implicitly so. They are feminists by necessity, not by design. “I don’t work as a female activist, I work as an individual regardless of my gender,” says Noura, in itself a radical statement. There has been talk of women helping the FSA fighters by cooking for them and doing their laundry. This might sit uncomfortably with most definitions of feminism, but in itself it is something of a radical act: aiding the FSA can mark someone as a target. These threats are gender-blind, even if what they’re reacting to is not. 

The Future

No one knows what will happen in Syria, but change is certain: whatever forces have been brought to the fore are not likely to leave quietly. The increasingly public presence of radical Salafists or other groups fighting the regime in the name of a radically religious agenda could pose a threat to the increasing presence of women in the political sphere. Noura, for example, is concerned about “increasing participation to erase the potentially Islamic and backward character of the uprising,” while others were fighting the regime partly for religious reasons. The Salafists are not a new presence in Syria, which remains a diverse country. If many activists interviewed here get their way, the future Syria could house both groups quite happily.

For the moment, one thing is clear: women and men have suffered equally in the fight for their rights, and that in itself has generated an openness that could have a ripple effect in Syrian society. “Female activism has been seen as normal and integral to this Syrian uprising,” Reem says. “We have far too many females detained and facing horrific treatment at the hands of the Assad regime.” 

Standing “shoulder to shoulder” at protests (another oft-repeated phrase) means standing shoulder to shoulder to push for a new future, and the increasing visibility of women in positions of control and power is redefining what women are capable of doing. Women’s rights are undoubtedly seen as one of those after-the-revolution issues: the priority of the activists is removing Assad from power. Demanding things afterwards for themselves or their groups is not necessarily their priority. But in such a conservative society, women have found a new political space, one they are more than capable of filling. 

It’s tempting in researching a topic like this to assume that every female activist or fighter also harbors radical feminist ideas. These notions can feel comforting to Westerners, who view the interplay of religion and culture in Syria as suspect. Syria may be highly conservative. But judging it by the way it treats women can lead to Westerners’ fairly backward ideas about Middle Eastern cultures. 

Explaining why she’s used a pseudonym when working as an activist since the start of the uprising, Jade laughs and says, “I don’t want my dad to know what I do. He fears for my health already, but he’d freak out if he knew what I’ve been up to. When this is over, I plan to tell him. I hope he’ll be proud.”

Analysis Human Rights

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: Syrian Refugees and “Marriages of Convenience”

Ruth Michaelson

An estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since March 2011. Temporary solutions to what may be a long-term problem include how to integrate those fleeing across the border to Jordan. In this environment, “marriages of convenience,” or even forced marriages, can thrive, essentially undetected. 

This article is the second in a two-part series commissioned by Rewire. You can find the first here.

An estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. The Jordanian authorities have made much of how they’ve welcomed refugees, but even after they granted the United Nations permission to build 200 refugee camps along their northern border, housing up to one million people, the focus is still very much on temporary solutions to what may be a long-term problem.

Refugee services include short-term housing, inexpensive rentals, “holding centers,” and, since August 1, the first tent camp at Zaatari. Countries as dissimilar as Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia have dispatched medical teams to the border to provide on-site care. Save the Children has launched projects at Zaatari for young people. These efforts are essential, amid what the Jordanian government has just recently begun to call a humanitarian crisis.

Women tend to bear the brunt of the more slow-burn problems surrounding conflict, and the setup in Jordan is ripe for this to continue. So-called “refugee issues” are not just those related to camps, or to short-term care. Jordanian and Syrian societies are close-knit socially, and much of the focus until very recently has been on how to integrate those fleeing across the border into Syrian society, and into homes and pre-existing structures. In this environment, “marriages of convenience,” or even forced marriages, can thrive, essentially undetected. Many question whether—under the circumstances—these marriages are even a problem at all.

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Talk is Cheap

Visitors to Amman speak of a recent phenomenon: get into any taxi, chat with the driver, and he will tell you that “cheap wives” are to be found in the refugee camps near the Syrian border. “Cheap” refers to the dowry given to the brides’ families, as well as to the women’s expectations. Jordan is a comparatively poor, aid-dependent nation. Around 14.2 percent live below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. Nevertheless, cultural norms dictate that most Syrian women will have lower expectations for their standard of living, having come from an even poorer country.

“There are all kinds of social conceptions of Syrian women as the most obedient, the most caring of their husbands out of all Middle Eastern women,” says Khadija, an activist from the northern Jordanian town of Irbid, close to the Syrian border.

“There are all kinds of jokes now within Jordanian society that the women should watch out, as with all these Syrian women in the country, the men will always choose a Syrian woman over a Jordanian woman.”

Add to this that Syrian women are normally paler, a valuable asset in a region in which skin-bleaching products replace tanning products. There is a growing sense that female Syrian refugees, while socially elevated, are now increasingly perceived as vulnerable, due to the conditions under which many refugees are living.

The State of Things

Until the opening of the Zaatari tent camp, refugees were being housed in so-called “transfer” facilities, usually rehabilitated private property that had formerly served as parts of the university campus, or even private gardens. The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), an umbrella group tasked with the coordination of all aid and refugee services in the Kingdom, has said that all refugees currently living in transfer facilities will be transferred to Zaatari, which can house up to 120,000 people.

Until now, refugees were held in facilities that were labeled as temporary until a Jordanian citizen could act as a “guarantor,” who would care for the refugee financially and legally. But the situation has reportedly been far from temporary for many. In early May, during a visit to Jordan by this reporter for Rewire, Mohammed Kilani of the JHCO estimated that the Beshabshe tower block, designed to house 700 people “is holding at least 2000.” Aid worker Hisham Dirani of Muhajeroon Ahrar reported that there was “no plumbing, no sewage, and no ventilation.” One former resident said, “I met people in there who’d been there for six months… It was like living in hell.” The expectation that, as Kilani put it, “a Jordanian family will open their homes to these people” after a short stay did not always prove true for those who did not have Jordanian relatives or a guarantor to bail them out.

Guardian Angels

Into this troubling situation comes the guardianship system, instituted primarily to allow refugees with friends or family who are Jordanian citizens to come to the transit facilities and to vouch for the continued well-being of the refugees, once they leave the camp. Given the years of intermarriage and long-standing familial and social connections between the two neighboring countries, there is undoubtedly a logic to this system.

There is, however, also potential for abuse.

Jordan boasts a long history of accepting refugees from all over the Middle East, but it is questionable to what extent Jordanians are “opening their homes” to refugees in camps with whom they have no family ties. The camps, either temporary or longer-term, are based primarily in Jordan’s northern region. The desperately-poor surrounding areas experience water shortages and electricity outages. “These are close-knit communities,” a Jordanian colleague said. “You wouldn’t just invite strangers to live in your house; you need some kind of social link to make that possible.” 

It’s possible that those acting as guardians for refugees are doing so because it is culturally expected of them. And a marriage between the two families provides a “convenient” way of making this socially acceptable as well. It’s also possible that men are entering the camps looking to find wives, and in so doing are bringing the women, and possibly their families, into their homes.

Former residents of Beshabshe spoke frequently of witnessing men being allowed into the block in order to, effectively, cruise for wives. Statistics on the scale of the problem are impossible to obtain. It’s also impossible to contact anyone who has had personal experience with the issue. “You hear stories everywhere of how Syrian women have a price now,” said “O,” a female anti-regime activist, who lived in the Ramtha center when she first arrived.

I heard of one man marrying six different girls in this situation, and I even met a family who were ready to sell their daughters. With all the misery I saw in that center, I could predict the kind of future that these girls would face. I don’t want to judge their motivations, but at the same time, these men are opportunists. It’s sick.

Kilani viewed the issue purely in terms of aid. “But is it really such a problem?” he argued. “If a man marries a woman, he is obliged to care for her family.” That the women involved are being denied a role in choosing whom they marry did not appear to concern him. Indeed, such marriages can be beneficial to many charities and aid groups dealing with the Syrian refugees, because their limited funding can stretch only to short-term care. Off-loading a few women from the system means more resources to go around. Furthermore, many, if not all, of the organizations have some kind of religious affiliation, be they Muslim or Christian, making them less likely to criticize something that plays into a conservative social structure.

Aid organizations have condemned the guardianship system’s potential for exploitation, in terms of both marriage and work. Many international organizations that have visited the camps, including the Beshabshe transfer facility, were concerned about the lack of follow-through after refugees had been signed out of the facility. Unfortunately, none were willing to comment on the guardianship issue, given the shift of focus to the housing of refugees in Zaatari. That initiative brings its own set of new problems. Eva Abu Halaweh of the Jordanian human rights law group, Mizan, said:

While foreign women who marry Jordanian men are entitled to equal rights before the law, any marriage formed through this kind of relationship is going to have a built-in power imbalance, which could bring further problems.

The families of Syrian girls, married as young as ages 13 or 14, are increasingly concerned for their safety. Khaled Ghanem of the Islamic Society Centre told the U.N. news service, IRIN, “In Maraq, we have come across around 50 cases of early marriages since the day we started helping out Syrians. Most of them are married to Syrians, especially cousins.”

According to Jordanian marriage laws, age 18 is the legal marriage age, but religious leaders can grant “informal” marriages to younger people. The marriages can be certified when the parties turn age 18. IRIN quoted a mother, who arranged marriages for her daughters, ages 15 and 14. “As a single mother,” she said, “I cannot support them. I cannot feed them. I wanted to make sure they are okay, so I asked around if people know of good Syrian men they could marry.” Such arrangements involving Jordanians do not seem such a remote possibility.  

The policy toward refugees is changing with the move to Zaatari, but this does not mean the end of issues surrounding “marriages of convenience.” Zaatari is operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Its policy of “encampment” means that refugees are unable to leave the camp. There is also debate as to whether the guardianship system has been suspended or ended altogether. But with refugees now confined to a tent camp on an unforgiving dust plain in the middle of the desert, some are keen to escape by any means possible. Also, Zaatari is guarded by the Jordanian police, who have been responsible for guarding the transfer facilities, such as Beshabshe. Given that they were apparently allowing men into the camps before, there is no guarantee that they won’t continue to do so while policing Zaatari. With confusion over whether or not the guardianship system has ended, and with the camp filling up, and resources being stretched, there is potential for further exploitation.

Better the Devil You Know

This issue cannot be examined without looking at the “convenience” aspect, because this is not purely an issue of brute force and one-sided exploitation. For the women, girls, or families involved, socio-economic factors drive their consent to, or encouragement of, such arrangements.

One factor is a desire to propel oneself or one’s daughter out of the situation in which the refugees are being forced to live. It’s a shockingly obvious choice: live in a refugee camp in potentially awful conditions, or enjoy comparative freedom in Jordan. Because there is frequent intermarriage between the two countries, the latter may seem like the most sensible option. Girls are also more likely to be seen as burdens. Finding someone else to care for them lightens the already heavy load on families, who are struggling to support themselves in cheap accommodations, or trying to make meager rations feed a family in a refugee camp.

Another factor is fear of the unknown. The future of Syria hangs in the balance, and, sadly, the conflict now engulfing its main cities could rage on for years. The situation for those who left is as unstable as for those who stayed. The draw of a new, more secure life in Jordan is strong in a time of crisis. “Women being traded always happens with war,” O said.

But still, I worry about these girls. I know that this is a kind of survival strategy, but I wish instead that having survived the Assad regime would have made them stronger in a different way—to be able to escape not just the regime but to a place where they are not harmed like this.

The third, and most worrying factor, is the fear of rape, which is pushing families to marry off their daughters. Being raped can result in social isolation that will ruin the woman’s future chances of marriage, and thus of social and financial security. During a recent visit to Zaatari, I talked to a refugee from Baba Amr in Homs, who told me, “You need to know, everyone needs to know: they are raping women. Hezbollah, the Iranians, they are in Syria and they are raping women.”

Another interviewee from Dara’a said, “Regime forces go into the houses, round up the men to kill them, then they rape the women.” Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, recently wrote in The Atlantic Magazine about a project her group conducted to map the incidences of rape in Syria found 117 reports thus far. Eighty percent of the victims were female, and the majority of those surveyed said the attacks came from pro-regime forces. Rape as a weapon of war has, unfortunately, become standard practice, despite the fact that the presence of foreign elements in Syria is still open to debate. But whatever the identity of the perpetrators or the actual stats, the fear of rape is real and widespread among the refugees. One of the many abominations committed in the fog of war, rape is just as frightening as shelling. This might explain the link to Hezbollah or Iran—whether true or otherwise—in the minds of some of the refugees.

A Syrian woman who married a Jordanian from Mafraq almost 20 years ago said, “In one of the mosques you find Syrian men who saying that they will marry their daughters for free, provided that the man is suitably religious, to ensure their safety.” By marrying, or by ensuring that their daughters are married, even if that means staying in Jordan, women are preserving their social status and security for years to come. They are also fleeing a form of violence that they cannot report, one which may remain a weapon in an increasingly sectarian conflict long after Assad falls. A “marriage of convenience” to escape the possibility of rape may be confining in some ways, but the fathers are consenting to their daughters’ marriages to preserve their dignity. Some are even arranging their marriages, which is common in more conservative societies such as those in Syria and Jordan. This smacks of allowing legal rape in place of illegal rape.

Silence Is a Virtue

Syrian men do not believe that the “marriage of convenience” is a problem that should be publicly discussed. Intensely patriotic Syrians who have left often spend their days discussing their hopes for a better Syria without Assad. For them, the idea of Syrian women marrying foreigners seems to hint at a kind of lost national pride. They sense that something is being stolen from them. “I’ve been clear with my daughters; they are not allowed to marry a Jordanian man while we’re here,” said the father of a family of eight living in Mafraq. A number of men had come to propose. “One was the owner, who is 56, of this building who saw one of the girls and liked her, but we said no,” the father said. “The other was a man who sent one of his female relatives to come and suggest the idea, but we said no again.”

Some are unwilling to recognize the problem of “marriages of convenience.” Pushed to comment on the issue, Kilani said, “Syrians have been marrying Jordanians for many years. Surely there are at most 20 to 25 cases if this is true?” He is right in one sense; hard evidence is extremely difficult to obtain, due to the social taboos, which fuel the entire issue. But anecdotal evidence is growing exponentially. Women who have been inside Beshabshe or one of the other camps have spoken of it. And “cheap brides” jokes are now so commonplace in northern Jordan that they’re almost passé.

Shining a light on this issue requires a careful balance of cultural sensitivity and criticism. The first response to raising the problem is often a gentle shrug and a reference to tradition. This problem may be rooted in long-standing traditions governing marriage, and that factor should not be dismissed. There is no wish here to rush in and point the finger in a way that is at best intolerant, and at worst racist. There is also a concern when writing about this issue that it feeds into every prejudice surrounding how women are treated in the Middle East. That is not the intention. However, that should not be a barrier for a necessary discussion. This is not an issue of “forced marriage,” but rather an examination of the cultural forces that can bind women to oppressive social structures, here and around the world.

News Human Rights

Dispatches from AWID 2012: Arab Spring Becomes a Chill for Women, But The Organizing Continues

Jessica Mack

Young Arab women have led and are leading the charge for women's rights in the Arab world. Yet spring has turned quickly to winter and the prospects they face are grimmer than the world may have realized. At AWID 2012, young Arab women activists speak for themselves.

The 12th Annual AWID Forum is taking place April 18-22 in Istanbul, Turkey, drawing more than 2,000 feminist and development thinkers from around the world. The theme is Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson and Global Contributor Jessica Mack are in Turkey for the event and will bring you up-to-date news and insights throughout. Follow #AWIDForum and #AWID2012 on Twitter for more updates.

“This year, in the Arab world, discourse changed from a “spring” and a revolutionary moment, to a chilling winter promising a difficult path ahead.” – Ghadeer Malek

It may have seemed rather clear to followers of the news that, while women in the Middle East and North Africa played a prominent role in last year’s Arab Spring, their participation has faded into the background. But that Arab women continue to mobilize became abundantly clear after today’s panel, “Bringing Gender to the Streets: Young women amidst the Arab uprisings,” which featured five fiery young advocates and organizers from across the region.

Panelists from Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Yemen shared their particular stories, answered questions about ongoing movements – which they portrayed openly and (refreshingly) without conclusion – and provided the critical nuances so often missing from discussions like these.

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The women discussed both the specifics of campaigns they’d led to increase the recognition of women’s rights, and also spoke more broadly about how women in the Arab world have largely been betrayed by the democratic movements of which they helped ensure the success. There seemed to be clear resentment among the women of the portrayal by global and Western media not only of the Arab Spring (a “Facebook Revolution,” one speaker said, in air quotes and with a tinge of sass) but of Arab women as being forever oppressed, forever at the mercy of men and Islam, both of which are often characterized as inherently violent.

Ghaida al Absi, a young Yemeni woman from the Kefiaia Initiative (“enough” in English) discussed the safe-streets campaign she helped lead, which was the first time that sexual harassment had ever been discussed openly or documented in the country. A survey conducted before the campaign launch found that 98 percent of girls and women in Yemen had experienced some type of sexual harassment.

“Society accepts it and women expect that they will be touched and talked to. We were trying to change this perspective and turn it into an abnormality rather than a normality,” Absi said.

The campaign included the launch of an open source map to track incidents of harassment. Street harassment is also an emerging theme in Egypt, particularly around the revolution. Essentially, wherever women are taking to the streets – in protest, to amplify their voices and present their bodies in statements against oppression – they are increasingly met with hostility and deliberate harassment to intimidate them.  

Activist Engy Ghozlan discussed the novel Harassmap, an open source tool launched to track street harassment and provide women a space to tell the world what was happening to them. There is also an in-person, on-the-ground component to the campaign, which took off after protests ramped up.

“After the revolution, people’s relationship with the street changed – people felt closer to the streets, and they were able to go down and talk to one another – start conversations with doormen, shop owners, and neighbors, saying, ‘We want women to be able to walk safe and with dignity.’”

They have about 300 volunteers, men and women, who make the rounds monthly and sticker stores and venues that have pledged to prevent harassment of women. Yet victim blaming and deliberate harassment continue in Egypt:

“If you’re raped once, and you get into the police station, you’re raped twice and three times with the amount of questions and blame that you get, if your parents didn’t already kill you. You are no longer a victim, you are the perpetrator, you are to blame,” she said.

Activist Khouloud Mahdhaoui, from Tunisia, depicted an even more dismal picture of reality for women in her country. Women were at the heart of revolutions in Tunisia, which successfully ended the Ben Ali regime. Yet in its place, there has been a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and the women who were so instrumental to regime-change are now the target of new oppressions that, in fact, take the country back decades. Women and LGBT groups, in particular, face considerable persecution and marginalization.

“Women were expecting a new society to be built on egalitarianism and real equality. But everything that they suffered through during the revolution – after all that – they are now being pointed at as the culprits. It’s as if it was the woman who was responsible for the unemployment, for the unrest, for all the social ills.  Everything has gone back [for women], it’s been retrogression.”

Sara Abu Ghazal, a blogger and activist from Lebanon, lamented: “I wish I could tell you we’ve had a revolution in Beirut. Unfortunately, that is not the case.” She detailed a series of attempts to organize major pro-rights and pro-equality marches, which primarily failed either because of fractures in the local feminist movement, or the success of political parties to co-opt the marches as stumps for their own agendas.

Women are under attack in the Arab world, but it’s not like how much of the media and Western world paints it – it’s not as simple as Islam = violence and Facebook = revolution. “Women have been in the streets for a long time,” as one panelist put it. The panel was packed, with emotive responses and shouts flying back in forth in Turkish, Arabic, French and English, and running well over time. It’s clear that young Arab women have a lot to say about what’s happening around them, and perhaps more importantly, well into the Arab Winter, they continue to act courageously in efforts to effect change.