Women sitting by a street are seen through a bullet hole in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, 20/12/2020 (AFP)
IDLIB — On July 11, social media buzzed with the news of the murder of 17-year-old Israa Deeb by her father in Afrin city in the northern Aleppo countryside. But soon enough, this crime, like many other crimes committed against Syrian women, faded from society’s memory.
The murder took place on the first day of Eid al-Adha, after Israa was accused of texting with a young man. Turkish-backed Syrian National Army forces discovered the crime at a checkpoint in Afrin, while Israa’s killer was attempting to move his daughter’s body to her birthplace in Kafr Amma, the family’s ancestral village they were previously displaced from.
Before Israa was killed, she and her sisters had been victims of domestic violence for years, one of her friends, Reem (a pseudonym), told Syria Direct. Their father forced them to “leave school at a young age, although they excelled, and he was violent with them,” she said. “He killed the aspirations of his daughter, who excelled in her studies and was known for being shy.”
Crimes against women and girls reveal a social crisis, but also lay bare the shortcomings of Syrian law. Crimes committed under the pretext of protecting “honor” are “legitimized in the law, since the killer is only punished by imprisonment for a period at the judge’s discretion,” said Hiba Ezzideen al-Haji, the Executive Director of Equity and Empowerment, a Gaziantep-based organization defending women’s rights in northwestern Syria.
On top of that, changes to Syrian law in recent years that increased penalties for perpetrators of crimes committed under the pretext of “honor” are not enforced in opposition-controlled areas of northwestern Syria.
Israa’s story became well-known last month, but the stories of many other women and girls have been buried by silence. This “encourages more of these crimes, because staying silent about a crime proves to the criminals that they can escape punishment,” lawyer Huda Sarjawi told Syria Direct.
In addition to the silence surrounding crimes against women—which reveals a deep-rooted social problem—the Syrian Penal Code prior to 2009 allowed killers to take advantage of an “exemption of penalty” in Article 548. The article stated that “He who catches his spouse, or one of his ascendants or descendants or his sister committing adultery or illegitimate sexual acts with another person, and he unintentionally kills or injures one or both of them, benefits from an exemption of penalty.”
Under the same article, issued by Legislative Decree No. 148 (1949), the perpetrator of murder or harm benefits from “a reduction in penalty” if “he surprises his spouse or one of his ascendants, descendents or sister in a suspicious situation with another.”
A 2009 change to Article 548 removed the “exemption of penalty,” but the “reduction in penalty” remained, on condition that “the penalty shall be no less than two years’ imprisonment for the killing.”
Article 548 was abolished entirely in March 2020, and killers in such cases are now referred to the judiciary for the crime of intentional murder. However, perpetrators may still be able to benefit from Article 192, which refers to the possibility of reducing the sentence for intentional murder “if the judge finds that the motive was honorable.” In that case, the killer can be sentenced to “simple imprisonment, in place of imprisonment with hard labor.”
Although the judiciary in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition use the regime’s penal code, it does not accept its recent amendments “because it does not have the legitimacy to develop or amend laws,” lawyer Sarjawi said. On that basis, “reduced sentences are still applied against perpetrators of crimes [committed] under the pretext of honor.”
While legal solutions may not eliminate such crimes, the law has a role to play, according to al-Haji. “Crimes motivated by honor have decreased in countries of asylum,” such as Turkey, according to figures from her organization Equity and Empowerment. “Turkey is a country with deterrent laws, and this points to the law’s role in protecting women.”
Numbers don’t reflect reality
In early July, coinciding with the murder of Israa al-Deeb, 15 crimes against women took place in multiple Arab countries over the course of a single week, according to incidents tracked by Sharika Walaken, a feminist media platform with a network across the MENA region.
The same month, Maha (a pseudonym), 25, was killed in a Damascus suburb by her brother, a member of the Syrian regime’s armed forces. Her death was not reported, but word circulated among close friends and relatives that she “disappeared after returning to Syria,” said Iman (a pseudonym), one of her relatives.
Maha was beaten and abused by her husband, and “sought refuge with a family she was in contact with” outside the country, Iman said. But when Maha’s mother found out where she was, “her mother assured her safety if she returned, while on the other hand agreeing with her brother to punish her,” she added. When Maha returned, her brother killed her.
Maha had “asked for a divorce from her husband because he was violent towards her, but her mother refused her divorce and tried to convince her to continue her marriage,” Iman said. Syria Direct could not independently verify the details of this incident from independent sources or local media.
Unlike Maha’s story, that of Ayat al-Rifai, a 19-year-old mother, was publicized on social media sites at the beginning of January 2022. She was reportedly killed by her husband, Ghiath al-Hamawi, a member of the Syrian military’s elite Republican Guard.
Al-Rifai was abused by her husband and his family. The day she died, she was beaten twice by her father-in-law, before her husband beat her to death.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented “the killing of at least six females under the pretext of an honor crime across Syria in 2022,” compared to “the killing of 21 females, including girls, in 2021,” said Nour al-Khatib, who is responsible for documenting violations against women with SNHR.
But these figures are what is “documented, and they are the bare minimum,” al-Khatib said. “Often, the family and surrounding community try not to advertise crimes under the pretext of honor, [but] to obscure them to preserve the family’s reputation, protect the perpetrator, or stage the crime as one of unknown circumstances or natural death.”
Although violence against women is not a recent phenomenon, “the spread of social media and women being extorted, threatened, and entrapped” contributes to it, al-Haji said, “as well as the lawlessness, proliferation of weapons, and state of war and conflict in the country.”
“Certain areas of control can’t be said to be recording more domestic violence than other areas,” she said. “All parts of Syria record cases of abuse and killing of women,” as women live “within a dictatorial system, coupled with religious and societal authority.”
‘Customs are stronger than law’
Domestic violence and the murder of women is a priority for Syrian women’s organizations, al-Haji said. These organizations are working to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which is considered a non-negotiable political commitment for the UN Secretary-General.
Syrian organizations’ ability to monitor and respond to violence against women runs up against several obstacles, including that “each organization operates within a narrow local framework,” al-Haji said. But more serious than that is society. For that reason, Equity and Empowerment aims to “play an awareness-raising role in reducing violence against women” through “legal awareness [projects] for men and women, as well as dialogue sessions on various topics, including killings under the pretext of honor,” she said.
Her organization focuses its programs on “laws and customs,” she said, noting that “social customs are stronger than the law in northwestern Syria.” For that reason, “we aim to listen to the society’s views and correct misconceptions.”
But this approach alone is not enough to prevent domestic violence, especially given a “lack of human rights bodies capable of responding quickly and protecting women who are under threat,” Sarjawi said. The only legal option is for “a woman to turn to the judiciary for protection,” but “in this case, she could face pressure from her family and those around her.”
“There is a security vacuum when it comes to crimes against women,” Sarjawi said. “The de facto authorities have their own police stations and courts, but they don’t protect women.” In the face of this judicial and social reality, “women don’t turn to these bodies if they are threatened, for fear of exploitation and social stigma.”
While there are women’s protection centers run by organizations operating in northwestern Syria, their role is limited to that of a “mediator” if women turn to them, Sarjawi said. Centers mediate “between the woman and the party threatening her—it could be a father or a brother—and at the same time, she turns to community leaders so the matter doesn’t reach her being killed,” she added. Syria “lacks more serious measures, such as strengthening the role of protection centers, and improving the legal and judicial system.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.