Why Are We, Syrian Women, Doomed To Die?

Manahel Alsahoui
Syrian Writer and Journalist

I couldn’t do anything for her, I continued on my way after he smacked her on the head in the middle of the street. He hit her so hard that she almost fell to the ground. She was 13 or 14 years old, and she did not dare lift her head after he hit her, while he repeated: “you filthy dog.”

I knew she was more embarrassed than hurt. I couldn’t do anything, because I am also weak, just like her, in a country where there are no laws to protect women, in a country that is too busy dealing with wars and hunger. For a long time, I regretted not doing anything, but today I recognized that I was just as afraid as she was. He had an authority that was stronger than any compassion, laws, or social norms, and he was her guardian.

I wonder why we, girls, are doomed to die?

Our lives, as women and young girls, are always doomed to end by getting killed, our corpses getting chopped or burned, just because a male found in them a reason for which we deserved to die. Everyone around us tells us that If it were not for our bodies, we would not die. Every time I feel helpless, I look at my body, and I think of all the stab and bullet wounds in all the other scared and trembling bodies.

Murdering Little Girls Under the Pretext of “Shame”

We, Syrian women, are always afraid and everybody knows it. It is not that men are monsters, but we are afraid we may die at any moment just because we have breasts and female organs. This is the summary of our situation, it seems a little straightforward, but it’s the truth. As Diana Russell, the feminist writer and activist, puts it: “Women are killed simply because they are women”, because they think like women, fear like women, and dream like women.

Syrian women are always afraid, afraid of being followed, of a weird look from the taxi driver, and of returning home alone at night. There is no doubt that they are equally afraid of their relatives, strangers, and gunmen. Even the most liberal of women experience moments of fear. They feel like they are always under threat. Even when their fear disappears for decades, it may come back stronger than ours, because the evil related to honor, rape, and the idea of owning women’s bodies grants men the eligibility to always control and use them whenever they want. Some may say that those crimes are the result of the sick minds and monstrous folk and have nothing to do with honor, but those crimes are all about women, their bodies, and the injustice they are subjected to. The tricks to circumvent such crimes actually aim at hiding our fear of the real crisis we’re living in.

A girl could be killed because her father thought that maybe she will have sex out of wedlock and turn into a whore in the future, or because he thought that maybe she will be raped and bring shame upon his family forever. At least this is what we heard from Safaa’s father, who killed his daughter, the seven-year-old, in cooperation with his second wife, their other daughter and Safaa’s uncle. They mutilated her small body, shaved her hair, and cut her down into pieces, then they buried her in the garden of their home in al-Hashimiyah village of the northern countryside of Homs. According to well-informed sources, the child was killed five months prior to the matter being discovered last August. The father and his wife admitted to the crime and said that they did it “so she would not bring shame upon her father.”

In the same context, another child named “Raghad Babat”, 12 years old, was killed by her father, when he beat her until she suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage last April in the Deir Foul village in the northern countryside of Homs as well.

Women and girls lack security all over Syria. The child “Shams Abji”, nine years old, was raped and killed two years ago in the Darkoush village in the western countryside of Idlib, under the control of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), who were accused by the residents of the village of committing this crime, but the crime was eventually filed against unknown perpetrators. In the same year, a father bit his baby girl while she was 9 months’ old until she died in Jaramana, Damascus. The father later admitted that he did so because he hated girls and wanted a baby boy, so he wanted to get back at the mother.

Who will claim the rights of those little girls when their own families are their murderers?

It is not solely about the heinous crime and the necessity of holding these murderers accountable, but also about the need for understanding that those crimes are not ordinary ones, that they are an extreme manifestation of the full mindset of a society that was torn between the war, and other economic and “moral” crises. The main reason women are murdered is their purported shame, as well as the problematic belief that their bodies are what decides how they live, not their brains nor their freedom. The perpetrators think they can use that purported shame as a pretext to evade their responsibility for those crimes.

This social and religious violation which gives men the eligibility to control women’s bodies drives men to believe that they can also seize those bodies.

A brother raped his sister in the Babila area in the countryside of Damascus, then slaughtered her with a knife under the pretext that she had a bad reputation. If we faced this act with resentment and denial of its interpretation, it is because we are afraid and scared. We denounce the crime saying: “Which religion allows this?”  Still, if we’re being honest, there is an interpretation for such an act. Aren’t women’s bodies possessed by the males of their families according to our social norms? Don’t those males have the right to force women to marry whoever they want? Don’t they have the right to hit and suppress those women? Thus, they also have the right to use their bodies for sexual pleasure too, which is legitimate according to the laws that stipulate that the guardian of a girl is her father, and if absent, her guardian will be her male brothers or uncles. Those laws did not provide for the limits of controlling women’s bodies, which makes raping them possible according to the male creed above, since they already own them. What happened was that the family did what they believed they were entitled to do, as the father had witnessed and blessed the crime. The girl would have brought shame upon them anyway, so they brought it themselves first.

Crimes against women became so frequent that Syrians got used to them and they’re widely circulated on social media without any clear statistics. Among the examples was the crime committed by Weam Zayoud, the lieutenant, who killed his ex-fiancé and her sister in Lattakia, a crime attributed to emotional disputes. Here, emotions actually murder in real life, not just in poetic imagery. We are living in a country where a son would strangle his mother over a dispute, where a woman’s corpse is hidden among the rocks in a remote area, and where a severed head of a woman was found without a body… A lonely head in the prairie.

This is just a sample of the crimes that were committed in the past few months in Syria and the victims of those crimes were largely women who were killed by the men closest to them. In a country mired in the consequences of the wars and crises since 2011, and now experiencing the scary outbreak of Covid-19, there is no way to figure out the accurate figures and data about the extent of this violence, but what is certain is that it has become more talked about than ever before.

Secret Rooms of Honor

“Three divorced sisters! There must be some secret. I am not saying they are dishonorable, but maybe they were stubborn for example!” A family friend claimed in the next room about his neighbors. To him, a bachelor’s degree holder, being divorced is simply impermissible, so something must be up when three sisters are divorced! People talk about the divorce of women like there’s no other reason it could’ve happened unless they were stubborn, or didn’t obey their husbands; and that means they are characteristics that describe models that do not fit in Syrian society, one way or another. It is always the woman’s fault, if only men made mistakes like women for once!

What is the meaning of women’s bodies and why are women killed because of them? The intimidation of females begins during childhood. They convince them that they do not own their bodies, and that is why they must preserve those bodies, as if they had been entrusted with a piece of jewelry. This intimidation takes place in direct ways, or through the telling of stories that happened with other girls to scare them from making any mistakes; this fear is the most important pillar in guaranteeing control over their bodies in the future.

In most honor crimes, the family celebrates the murder of the girl, by ululating, as a sign of the family men restoring their lost honor. Ululations are the voice of murder, the music of the blood that flows out of the murdered girl’s frail body. Honor, in their tradition, is but a heart that stops beating and ululations glorifying murder.

Saying that ‘honor’ is about keeping one’s word, honesty and nobility, has become a useless cliché. Honor is actually about women’s bodies, and the blood that proves their virginity on wedding nights. What is the point of looking up the word ‘honor’ in the dictionary and finding out that it means much more than just a body and a hymen? A hymen that does not only signify the “chastity” of the girl, but also the man’s virility, and his ability to transform an innocent girl into an innocent woman. Innocence, in this society, means women’s ignorance of life and her being constantly surprised with sex and desire, as if they are matters that have nothing to do with her or her body; they only come from the outside, only from the men!

My mother tells me that in the village, years ago, the piece of cloth with the virginity blood used to be hung for a whole week outside the house of the bride and groom. Today, this white piece of cloth is replaced with the smiles of satisfaction when asking about the results of the first night, the great and glorious night, the most crucial night in the lives of many young girls. I was brought up in a conservative environment where many conversations about the virginity of girls, the first nights, and the honor of the families being in between their daughters’ legs are made in the secret rooms. By chance, I got to know about many stories of women, some close to me and others I don’t really know well, with whom nothing happened on the first night… they did not bleed, and it is a common story. Although the men had kept waiting, the hymen’s blood refused to come out sometimes. This would send the girl into panic, as she tries to explain, and to swear that she was a virgin. But sadly, the man would not believe her. There are stories about women who were divorced after one month of their marriage, claiming they did not get along with their husbands; but in those cases, the man thinks he did her a favor because he did not “expose her secret”, according to the masculine mindset. In other cases, he may keep her, but she will have to bear with the life of humiliation and abuse. Words like ‘keeping her or returning her to her family’ are what I hear in the secret rooms of honor!

Women of the Camps

Every woman around the world has a difficult story to tell, but the stories of Syrian women are numerous, and rough, happening everywhere and at any time. Syrian Women are subjected to harassment and fear in local transportation, while waiting to get their rations of sugar and rice in long queues, from those responsible for distributing aid, and from their bosses at work.

In the large displacement camps, where miserable stories take place, and young girls are sold to rich Arab men for large or small amounts of money, and girls in the Syrian camps are turned into an actual commodity, and many of them return to the camps after a short period of time. How miserable! Why do Syrian women deserve all this pain? Why should they be afraid of being women?

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 32% of marriages between Syrian refugees in Jordan are done by girls who are under the age of 18. The real number is much bigger, as many marriages are not declared or even registered. In the camps, fear grows, along with tents and dreams. Young women avoid going out for fear of harassment or kidnapping. They fear that they may grow up and be forced into marriage; a marriage within the camp where she will be forced to transfer her pain to her children. Syrian women have experienced nothing more than misery. They have endured the results of men’s decisions and their long wars. They waited for their husbands and their sons and cried over their graves, then they ran away with their children, lonely to the camps, where they had to make serious decisions related to their life and dignity, like selling their daughters so that they could survive… But these were the last decisions their weary souls could make before losing contact with their lives. Every day Syrian women experience pain because of men; At home, they face violence and abuse, in the street, they face harassment, rape and kidnapping, and in the camps, they face fear.

In the end, due to all this injustice and lack of safety and choices, some women may decide to commit suicide.

In Idlib, Maissaa Derbas killed herself by swallowing three pills of a toxic material. She was the mother of three children, who were also subjected to abuse by their father. According to her friends, she took her own life due to the constant beating and ill-treatment of her husband. When she sought the help of her family, they did not defend her, as her husband was her cousin, and part of the family. Maissaa is now in a faraway place, an example of Syrian women’s despair due to their inability to resist any more. According to the General Authority for Forensic Medicine in Syria, suicide cases have increased in general, compared to last year, which naturally means that women suicide cases have increased. Where can Syrian women go? Who will rescue them from their families? Is it a luxury to talk about women’s rights in the era of war, economic siege and hunger?

Deficient Laws

There were attempts to amend articles of the Syrian law which are directly related to women. The most recent attempt took place in last March, by eliminating the mitigating circumstance for honor crimes and treating them like any other crimes. In the latest statement published by the official entities in 2011, Syria was ranked the third behind Palestine and Yemen in reference to the number of honor killings. In fact, the Syrian Constitution suffers from serious gaps that directly threaten women. Although the law now prevents the marriage of minors, the marriage ceremony may be held with the help of a cleric, after which the court is forced to register the marriage. The husband’s rape of his wife is not recognized because the law on rape does not provide for the case where husbands rape their wives, meaning simply that the Syrian law justifies marital rape. Therefore, if women wish to protect themselves, lawyers resort to circumvention of the law and they file a case for physical abuse, after obtaining a medical report. Such laws promote domestic violence, as there is no law referring to violence against women. The Syrian law punishes rapists, (other than husbands) only with hard labor. However, if the girl accepts to marry her rapist, he will not be punished; but will only be put under surveillance for five years. It is important to note that social injustice, customs, traditions and fear of scandal, may force many girls to accept this option.

On the other hand, because the judiciary does not impose sufficient child support after divorce, both the mother and the child are often subjected to dire needs, and the mother may often lose the custody of her child if she remarries after divorce, or remains simply unable to support her child. Women here need clear laws that do justice for them, at this particular time, as the brutality of the world has increased amid this war and hunger, until abusing the weakest groups of society has become a way for men to deal with their perceived loss of manhood in life and war, by blowing off some steam and practicing their ignorance on women. Syrians are facing another long war of re-education and enacting clear laws, without equivocation, regarding crimes and violence against women. Will we witness a time when Syrian women will be safe? When the law protects her freedom of decision, and her freedom of education and mobility, as well as her physical freedom? Or will Syrian women keep on dying for no reason under the authority of their guardians?

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