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Freed from regime prisons, Syrian women seek refuge from social stigma

After enduring torture and sexual violence in prison, Syrian female survivors face societal stigma upon returning home.

6 August 2020

AMMAN — When Leila (a pseudonym) left her home in the capital city of Damascus to go to university on August 24, 2014, she did not know that day would end up being a turning point in her life. After being arrested at a government checkpoint, she was taken to the Mezzeh Air Force Intelligence branch, where she was accused of “undermining state sovereignty on my Facebook page,” Leila told Syria Direct.

“That day was like a nightmare,” she said. “I hoped I would wake up from it, before two years of my life went by, [though it] felt like twenty from all the tragedies I saw at that branch,” Leila recalled. “Not only was I subjected to verbal and sexual abuse, but I also witnessed children and young girls raped in front of me. I felt their pain more than my own.”

Sexual assaults are one of the methods of torture practiced by the Syrian security forces against regime opponents—especially women—since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011.

“The Syrian Network for Human Rights [SNHR] estimates that Syrian regime forces committed at least 8,013 incidents of sexual violence against women from March 2011 to July 2020, including approximately 817 cases that took place in detention centers, and at least 443 cases against girls under the age of 18,” SNHR’s director, Fadel Abdulghany, told Syria Direct

Article 489 of the Syrian Penal Code states that: “Anyone who, through violence or threats, forced a person other than his spouse into sexual intercourse shall be punished by hard labor for at least 15 years. The penalty shall be no less than 21 years if the victim had not reached 15 years of age.”

Nonetheless, “everyone now realizes, at least deep inside, that the blundering and confusion of the state and its military institutions that are no longer controlled by Syrians alone, forces it to turn a blind eye to holding its personnel accountable and applying laws to them,” one lawyer living in Damascus told Syria Direct. The claim is “that their violations are permissible so long as they are in the interest of the head of the regime, and they want to strengthen his rule,” she added. 

Sexual violence as a ‘strategic weapon’

Aisha (a pseudonym) was detained in 2011, when she was 26 years old, “in front of my husband and three children in Bab Dreib neighborhood in the countryside of Homs,” she told Syria Direct. “My hijab was taken off and I was dragged through the street in front of everybody, and nobody lifted a finger,” she added. “It was like a horror movie.”

“I was taken to a security branch in the city of Homs, on the charge of living in an opposition-held neighborhood,” Aisha said, “where three Syrian regime personnel took turns raping me.” Even so, she was concerned less “with everything that was happening to me at that time,” she recalled. “My thoughts were drawn mostly to my family’s fate and what they were feeling after I was taken in this humiliating way in front of everybody.”

The Syrian regime uses sexual violence in its prisons and detention centers “as a strategic weapon of war which has been widely and deliberately practiced, and powers given to personnel to do so without restriction or accountability, and with the tacit approval of the officers in charge,” noted Abdulghany. 

The goal of that, according to Abdulghany, is to “spread terror in Syrian society, which is generally conservative, and as a form of revenge, with the aim of destroying the social fabric, forcing the population to flee their areas, and breaking their will to continue to call for freedom and democracy.” Additionally, “much of the sexual violence was committed against a sectarian backdrop,” he said. 

From Assad’s prisons to society’s prisons

Getting out of regime prisons does not necessarily mean the beginning of the end of the tragedy for detained women. Perhaps the opposite is true, as Aisha’s experience indicates. She was released in 2018 under a prisoner swap deal between an opposition armed group in Idlib province and the regime. “Every survivor had someone from their family waiting for them with ululations [zaghareet] and joy, except for me,” she recalled.

Afterward, Aisha wanted to return to her family in Homs. But “when I found out that the people of [her area in] Homs had been displaced to Idlib, I started to look for my husband and children among the displaced families,” she said. 

When Aisha arrived at her husband’s house, “one of my children opened the door. I hugged him—I was crying so hard, and he was looking at me with astonishment. Moments later, my husband appeared in front of me, next to a woman I realized must be his wife,” she recalled. “I approached him emotionally, and he asked me: ‘Who are you? What do you want? When he recognized me, he spoke to me in a humiliating way, kicked me out of the house and banned me from seeing my other children.” 

By contrast, Leila was released after two years in detention “when my mother paid two million Syrian pounds to one of the Air [Force] Intelligence officers,” she said, “earned by selling a patch of land owned by the family.”

“By standing by my side, my mother and brother gave me a lot of support to continue my life,” she said. “They eagerly greeted me at home, and prepared travel papers immediately so I could move to Germany where my uncle lives,” she added. 

“My mother’s main concern was to protect me from being detained again,” Laila explained, “and to keep me away from our narrow-minded community of neighbors and relatives who greeted me since I got out with repeated questions: What did they do to you? They definitely raped you.”

Fatima al-Ashqar, a former detainee and a human rights activist currently living in Turkey, said society has what she considers to be the “wrong idea” that “all women who were detained lost their virginity, that all of them were raped.” Al-Ashqar, who was detained between 2012 and 2015, went on to explain: “I, for example, do not deny that I experienced sexual abuse by being beaten while I was naked. But I was not raped.”

Perhaps more dangerous than that stereotype, al-Ashqar added, is the presence of people who “look at a female survivor of detention as a victim who is easy to exploit. As a result, if she is not strong enough to start her life again, then she will be trampled by such a society.” 

“Society’s view of women who go into prison differs from its view of men,” said Rahaf Mohieddin, a Syrian psychologist and family specialist who lives in Jordan and provides mental support to female survivors of regime detention. 

“A woman’s punishment is double: social punishment on one side, which could lead her family to disown her on the basis that she sinned, or the fear that she could pass stigma on to her children, as well as psychological punishment on the other side,” Mohieddin explained. As a result, “she may suffer from depression that could lead to suicide. She could also suffer economically: If she wants a job, she is ostracized, especially in a closed-off community.” 

Mohieddin warned that by stigmatizing female survivors, society “rapes” them “spiritually and intellectually.” And “that might lead some of them to adopt wrong behaviors to capitalize on their own bodies as a response to social censure, justifying it in the sense that everybody has abandoned them and is trying to exploit them, so why not exploit themselves?”

It seems understandable, then, that “the percentage of women who speak out about their experience of sexual violence is no more than 15 percent of the total number of female detainees,” according to Abdulghany. 

Most women ask “to hide their identity and keep their testimonies confidential,”  he said. “Sexual violence is one of the most difficult abuses we document,” he added, so “we work hard when documenting them to spare the victim of the consequences of recalling the memories and pain.” 

Life goes on, despite it all

As such, it is understandable that female survivors “rarely” seek out psychiatric help in northwestern Syria, according to one employee trained to provide psychological support in an Idlib mental health clinic who spoke to Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to the media. Furthermore, they said that, “there is a lack of medical capabilities to deal with these cases.” 

They try to “support female survivors’ points of strength to raise their state of mind,” the same source explained. “If they need medical intervention, then we can provide that for them.” But they have limited capacity to deal with “difficult cases, where they have suicidal tendencies or suffer from severe depression, necessitating electroconvulsive therapy, hypnosis or advanced treatment sessions.”

Nonetheless, and in spite of her family’s rejection, Aisha has decided to move on with her life. After approximately five months of living by herself in a camp for displaced people in northern Syria, she said, “I read about a volunteer job opportunity for women in the Civil Defense Directorate. I said to myself, why not live out my life by helping others?” 

“I volunteered with them so that my children can hold their heads high, so they could be proud of my name one day, and know that their mother doesn’t have a bad reputation, but was the victim of a shameful society,” Aisha said. 

In Leila’s case, leaving Syria for Germany “opened new horizons for me,” she said. “It’s easy to accept the new society since everyone interacts with me without knowing anything about me,” she added. Leila was able to enroll in a university in Berlin where she now studies law “so that in the future I can prosecute the war criminals and violators of freedoms.”

Although “life for female survivors remains better in Europe than in Arab societies because it is like a new society that frees them from stigma and, accordingly, they can begin a new life,” Mohieddin said, this “does not mean they don’t need mental and social support, which could be improved by the presence of supportive relatives and friends there.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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