IDLIB — In 2017, after six months of blackmail attempts consisting of “threats and defamation or paying money,” Hala al-Zein (a pseudonym), 46, was able to find out who was sending the threats with help from a digital security organization. But although she did not comply with the demands, she was forced to abandon her feminist activism, which she started in 2013.
A month after al-Zein was displaced from the western Damascus countryside to Idlib province in northwestern Syria in 2017, someone recorded a video of her while she was meeting with a relative in a main street in Idlib city. He sent her husband the video “with profanity, and threatened to post it publicly and fabricate accusations of theft and treachery if we didn’t send him money,” she told Syria Direct.
Al-Zein and her husband tried to deal with the threat by “blocking the person, but he would call back from a new number.” She enlisted the help of SalamaTech,which provides support and help with digital threats to Syrians. After “the organization’s technician contacted the source of the threat, he felt he was in danger and stopped, afraid of being caught,” said Hala, who worked with women’s organizations and was previously detained by the Syrian regime.
Blackmail attempts and threats are among the main obstacles facing women who work in the public sphere and civil society organizations in Syria, pushing them to limit their activity. “We are often forced to stop working because of threats,” said human rights activist Nour al-Khatib, who documents violations against women at the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).
Threats “target us personally as women, and target our families,” she said. This “limits us exercising our freedom of opinion and expression, and sometimes prevents us from posting on our personal [social media] pages.”
From March 2021 to March 2022, SNHR documented at least 35 incidents of threats and intimidation against women activists and workers or women’s centers in connection with their activities in Syria.
The SNHR figures do not reflect the true magnitude of the threats women face in Syria’s various areas of control, however, as some victims stay silent about documenting their stories, for fear of security and societal repercussions. Safa Kreidi, a focal point official with a Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) program and a gender-based violence activist in Idlib, said 400 women in northwestern Syria turn to the program every year following harassment and blackmail.
Abuse of power
On April 30, activist Mona Fraij revealed the reason she recently left Raqqa province, in northeastern Syria, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In a post on her personal Facebook page, she accused a member of the “de facto authorities” of attempting to use his authority to exploit her “by demanding a relationship” or else he would arrange a “plot with the authorities and accuse me of treachery and collaboration.”
Although Fraij informed the relevant authorities in the area, it “was futile, as there is no monitoring and no security,” she wrote. The blackmail attempts and threats also continued “to escalate.” Syria Direct reached out to Fraij about the incident, but she declined to comment for personal reasons.
Maysa al-Mahmoud, a human rights defender in the northern Aleppo countryside controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), recounted the story of one of her friends, who worked as a commentator at a media agency in the area. “She was harassed by a colleague, the son of one of the military commanders in the area, after she refused to establish a relationship with him,” al-Mahmoud told Syria Direct.
The incident took place in late 2021, and the colleague threatened al-Mahmoud’s friend with “firing her if she refused his demand, and she was actually forced to leave her job,” she said.
Al-Mahmoud tried to get her friend a job at another media agency, but was surprised to find she was blacklisted. “There were instructions from the program’s director to prevent my friend from working there, or any other institution,” she said.
Given her feminist activism, al-Mahmoud contacted the perso who harassed her friend and threatened to report the incident to his father. “The threats have subsided, but the harassment hasn’t stopped so far,” she said.
Excluded from the public sphere
After the Syrian revolution broke out in spring 2011, Zahra (a pseudonym) was socially and politically active, traveling between Turkey and opposition-held areas of Aleppo province in northern Syria to help network between local opposition councils and civil actors in the region.
In 2013, the military scene became more complicated and dangerous for women, especially given Islamic State (IS) attempts to seize the area. Still, Zahra tried to continue her activity until “I received a text from an unknown number. The sender told me he knows where I live, that he has all the information about my daughters,” and promised she would pay “a high price.”
The threats continued for three months, without Zahra knowing their source. As a result, she decided to “withdraw from public activity, and my work became narrow.” Nine years later, she has not thought about returning to public work.
Syrian women are not only targeted by threats and blackmail, but also “bullying,” said Layla Hassou, who works in the humanitarian advocacy field. Women participating in international humanitarian response meetings have faced “pressure aimed at reducing their effectiveness in those meetings,” she said.
Hassou described one voting session in which “the men refused to cast their votes for women, only the men.” When the official leading the session noticed this, “he appointed a group of women, one of whom was myself,” she said. “This raised objections from the rest of the male members.”
Women’s professionalism and ability to accomplish the tasks they are entrusted with is often called into question, she said. “We are treated as inferior, and robbed of our right to express our opinion in meetings.”
Fraij, the activist who left Raqqa this year, wrote in her Facebook post about the incident that “the blackmail, threats and defamation that I and other women activists are subjected to are one of the reasons they are excluded from engaging in the public sphere, which is what many want.”
More than laws
The repeated targeting and exploitation of women working in the public sphere demands greater effort, “and for deterrent laws to be enacted” to push against violations and encourage women to “report blackmail crimes, not cover them up for fear of the threat,” said Rabia al-Harami, a legal consultant in the protection program of Shafak, an organization working in northwestern Syria. A legal complaint is the most important step on the road to holding perpetrators of threats and blackmail accountable, she said.
Article 636 of the Syrian Penal Code punishes “anyone who threatens a person with exposing, divulging or disclosing something that would harm the dignity or honor of that person in order to force him [sic] to bring an unlawful benefit to him or others” with a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to SYP 500 ($0.13 according to the current exchange rate of SYP 3,965 to the dollar).
But in addition to being weak, the law is not in force in all areas of control in Syria, including Idlib province, “where the punishments are at the judge’s discretion [taziriya],” al-Harami said. Few women “come forward with a legal complaint.”
Women are reluctant to disclose incidents of blackmail and threats because “they are afraid of the person who is the source of the threat as well as the community, including their family,” said Hind Kabawat, a university professor and member of Tastakel, a women’s empowerment organization working in northwestern Syria. “Some families consider their daughter to be the problem, even if she made a complaint.”
A participant in a campaign launched by Space of Peace to combat violence against women in northwestern Syria, 25/11/2019 (Space of Peace)
Kabawat denounced women being treated as a source of “shame,” calling on Syrian society to learn from the experiences of countries such as Singapore and Turkey, where she said women are “leaders and symbols, not shame.”
Support not appropriate for the reality
Kreidi described an incident in which the director of a humanitarian organization in northwestern Syria demanded “a physical relationship” from one of the female employees “as a condition for renewing her contract. She refused to do what he wanted, and lost her job.” The employee, Kreidi said, “was afraid of the director’s revenge, since he is influential, and that she could lose her chances of employment in other organizations.”
The employee received psychological support from a program Kreidi provides at an organization in northwestern Syria. In such cases, there are individual counseling sessions in which the survivor can “psychologically unpack and be connected to services and sectors, based on her needs and wishes.”
Other organizations, such as SalamTech, offer support and training programs in digital security for women who work in the public sphere.
Programs related to blackmailing take the sensitivity of these cases into account, Kreidi said. The program she works for has dedicated an email to communicate and encourage reporting. “A survivor can report an incident without mentioning her name, or by using a pseudonym, and the network documents the incident confidentially to preserve the survivor’s safety,” she said.
But despite the importance of psychological support programs for women, the reality on the ground demands “extensive awareness-raising for all parts of society,” and for “strong and strict laws” to be enacted to “curb the abuse of women,” according to Kabawat.
Hala al-Zain’s story sums up the reality of many Syrian women who have faced blackmail and harassment. Years have gone by since she was blackmailed, but to this day, every time she receives a text from an unknown number, “I feel unsettled, and my heart starts pounding,” she said.
“I have a right to participate in the public sphere without fearing for myself, my reputation or my family,” she said, “and to exercise my rights without threats.”
[Editor’s Note: In June, incidents of violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa sparked widespread shock and discussion. On June 23, Jordanian student Iman Ersheid was murdered on a university campus in the capital Amman. Days later, Neera Ashraf, also a university student, was murdered in Egypt’s Mansoura governorate. The crimes pointed to a broader crisis of harassment and violence threatening women, including Syrian women working in the public sphere amid the poor security, living and legislative reality in the country.]
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.