Since 2011, more than 117,000 Syrians have been arrested, mostly by government forces, the Syrian Network for Human Rights violations monitor estimates. At least 7,100 of those detainees are women.
A detained woman in Syrian society is an unspoken euphemism for a raped woman. The shame of that falls not on the rapist, but on the victim. So goes patriarchy, in which the honor of a family is tied to the perceived virtue of its women.
Of the thousands of women who retreat into shame or exile following a prison stint, however arbitrary and faultless she may be, a few are speaking up to instigate change in the way female detainees are perceived.
“When a man gets out of prison, he is celebrated, and sheep are slaughtered [in celebration],” Muhammad Zakaria Aminou, vice president of the Local Council of Aleppo City tells Syria Direct’s Suhair al-Homsi. “When a woman gets out, people see it as a disaster.”
Last month, the Syrian Institute for Justice, an Aleppo-based NGO that documents and investigates human rights violations, held a workshop alongside the opposition Local Council of Aleppo city to study ways of better supporting female detainees after their release.
Mahdiyah Ajam, the director of the Women’s Bureau of the Local Council of rebel-held Aleppo city, was one of the speakers.
“We are calling for a change in society’s view of female detainees,” she said.
“In the view of the society around me, detention had ruined my future,” says Ajam, a widowed mother of one. “I became a pariah.”
Muhammad Zakaria Aminou, vice president of the Local Council of Aleppo City, is a member of the Syrian Institute for Justice and a human rights and international humanitarian law activist.
Q: What challenges do female detention survivors face? Is there psychological support for them?
I don’t like to use the term “survivor.” They’re victims of society, even if they’re no longer detained.
Just entering regime detention centers and being subjected to physical and psychological violence drives society to shun them. This pushes them into isolation and away from engaging with society due to what they have experienced.
That’s why it is necessary to hold workshops like these.
Q: What did you discuss in the workshop?
We discussed the rulings of Syrian state law, as well as the decisions of the [UN] Security Council, which require the protection of detainees and prisoners of war. We also discussed the conditions that must be provided in prisons and how detainees and prisoners should be dealt with according to the law.
The experience of female detainees in regime prisons was presented: The conditions of detention, the psychological state they leave in, society’s perception of them and the difference between female and male survivors. When a man gets out, he is celebrated, sheep are slaughtered [in celebration]. When a woman gets out, people see it as a disaster.
Two women and four men who are detention survivors participated in the workshop. There was an aspect of training and an aspect of discussing the situations of women detainees and survivors of detention, who presented their experiences.
Mahdiyah Ajam, 45 years old, has been detained twice by the regime and participated in April’s workshop. She is the director of the Women’s Bureau of the Local Council of rebel-held Aleppo city.
Q: How and why were you arrested?
I was one of the first women in Aleppo to participate in the demonstrations. I’ve been detained twice.
The first time was in May 2013, when I had to leave rebel-held Aleppo, where I live, for regime-held areas to go to the court and get a sum of money that my daughter had inherited from her father [who died of cancer in 2011]. I was arrested at the courthouse under the charge of incitement to terrorism, demonstrating and insulting the president. My detention lasted for five days, then I got out as part of an amnesty by the president (according to the amnesty, because I was fooled by the rebels).
The second time was in December 2013. I was arrested when I was going to pick up my salary. [Ed.: Prior to her first arrest, Ajam worked as a teacher. She stopped working after being detained, but was owed back pay.] They supposedly had a report proving that I was in constant, direct contact with the terrorists of Aleppo, as they said. I was held for two months. They let me go after useless attempts to get me to confess to the charges against me, but I held firm to my position. My health condition was horrendous when I was released.
Q: What was it like in prison, and how were you and other women dealt with while you were there?
The interrogators would demand that we give them information regarding the factions inside the rebel-held areas, and threaten to take us to the Air Force [Intelligence] branch if we didn’t talk. It’s known that those who go into the Air Force branch are lost and for those who make it out it’s like they’ve come back from the dead.
I lied to them and told them that I was a single woman in Aleppo, that I didn’t have any relatives and that “the terrorists” had threatened to kill us if we didn’t participate in the demonstrations.
The state of women inside was very difficult, physically and psychologically. Many were sick.
Personally, I suffer from rheumatism, diabetes and high blood pressure. I had a heart attack while in detention, and when I called for a doctor the answer was: “When she kicks the bucket, put her in the trash.”
Everyone who got sick received the same treatment. Even healthy women developed conditions like lice and scabies, because of the absence of the most basic kinds of personal hygiene.
As for food and water, it was extremely bad and unhealthy; stale bread and the water we drank from the toilet. There was torture, with the “flying carpet.” [Ed.: A person is tied to a piece of wood that is then bent at the middle, inflicting severe pain.] They also used electricity, tires and beatings with plastic rods.
Q: What difficulties did you face when you got out? Was it easy to go back and engage in society?
The first problem I faced when I got out was my family’s demand that I stay inside. They prevented me from going out so that people wouldn’t criticize us and talk about our reputation. In the view of the society around me, detention had ruined my future. I became a pariah to those around me.
It hasn’t been easy to engage with society, but it depends on the will of an individual to move forward and start anew. After I was released, I spent a year at home, abandoning my job as a teacher. Afterwards, I applied for the position of director of the Women’s Bureau in the local council. I was appointed this past February.
Q: What does a detainee need after getting out of prison, in your opinion?
She needs to get her self-confidence and balance back so that she can go back to living her normal life and integrate into the community around her again. She also needs psychological support for what she went through physically and psychologically, so she can find equilibrium.
Q: As a detention survivor, what are you calling for from the local council and the community?
As female survivors of detention, we need material support in order to live an honorable life. This is especially true for those who get out with disabilities because of the monstrous torture. Survivors have become outcasts, unfit to work in any field.
We are calling for a change in society’s view of female detainees through awareness campaigns for the acceptance of survivors. A former detainee is a victim and a hero at the same time. Society should be proud of her, not disdain her.
Q: Has the local council provided support to you or other detainees?
The local council doesn’t currently provide anything to detainees, but April’s workshop was to study the possibilities and solutions that could be offered to survivors.