Femicide reaches terrifying levels in war-torn Syria as lawlessness and impunity reign supreme
The cases of Naira Ashraf, Iman Arsheed, Lubna Mansour, Shaima Jamal and others, all victims of femicide which shook the Arab world during the space of one month, have revived interest in the huge problem of violence against women in the Arab world.
However, these numbers only scratch the surface with regards to what is going on in Syria, where violent crimes against women within the family home are recurring on a near daily basis, but for the most part, remain shrouded in secrecy.
Although the aforementioned murders sent shockwaves through the region and generated a wave of sympathy and solidarity on social media for the female victims of violence, as well as reigniting discussions around women's status in Arab societies, the crimes relating to domestic violence in Syria are seemingly ignored even as, behind closed doors, they are becoming ever more frequent.
Isra Damour: Tortured to death by family
Isra Damour (17) died at home in Afrin, Aleppo province, which is under the control of the Syrian National Army (SNA). She was killed on 10 July 2022 by her father and brother after they tortured her under the pretext of "honour", after discovering that she was in a relationship with a young man over Whatsapp.
"The cases of Nira Ashraf, Iman Arsheed, Lubna Mansour, Shaima Jamal and others, all victims of femicide which shook the Arab world during the space of one month, have revived interest in the huge problem of violence against women in the Arab world. However, in Syria, violent crimes against women within the family home are recurring on a near daily basis"
Omran Muhammad (33) is a police officer in the Afrin Security Directorate. He said that her father confessed that the murder was intentional. On seeing WhatsApp conversations between his daughter and the man, her father beat her up and tied her to the roof of the family home, where he and her eldest brother continued beating her, which resulted in internal bleeding and led to her death.
To avoid punishment, her father claimed his daughter had died due to food poisoning. However, when on their way to bury the body, they were stopped at a military checkpoint and arrested as they didn't have a death certificate from a coroner. The details of the crime then came out and the father was jailed. The eldest brother, who took part in the crime, fled and has gone into hiding.
Femicide: A countrywide issue
Femicide in Syria is not a crime confined to a specific region, nor related to who is in control of a region, whether the regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the opposition.
When they occur, crimes of this nature reverberate temporarily across social media before the stories dissipate and fade, in a country where lawlessness reigns and there is no accountability.
The crimes resemble each other in many ways: all of them are premeditated, whether their final implementation occurs in secret or in public. All of them point to an obsession with control. All the perpetrators are men, who did not accept the victims' rebellion against their wishes, a rejection of a relationship with them, or decision to end a relationship with them, or occurred under the pretext of so-called "honour crimes".
Women are rendered permanent victims of multifaceted violence
Violations against women and girls are linked to a culture of domestic violence and impunity, which is exacerbated within the context of relentless war and the void in security and absence of societal monitoring, which in more normal circumstances can act to limit such crimes. Cultural, social and economic conditions have all played their role in creating a multi-faceted system of violence which has turned women into permanent victims, stuck in the midst of patriarchal communities.
In December 2021, Samer Bakdash shot his ex-wife dead in front of their children in the town of Taftanaz in eastern Idlib. The murder took place during the evening after a longstanding argument between Samer and his ex-wife re-erupted. She had come to his house to see her children after he tried to prevent her from doing so.
"Cultural, social and economic conditions have all played their role in creating a multi-faceted system of violence which has turned women into permanent victims, stuck in the midst of patriarchal communities"
A few months prior, on 12 June 2021, a photograph of a young woman, Timaa (22), not wearing a headscarf, was leaked and published on Facebook. The image led to the murder of both Timaa and her mother by Tima's 21-year-old male cousin, who shot them both dead in Atma camp where they lived on the Syria-Turkey border. He had seen the posted picture, and in killing her he perceived himself to be fulfilling the societal role of "guardian" and "restoring honour" to the family. He has not yet faced trial.
Timaa's sister Lubna accuses the local police of covering up the murder and being uninterested in arresting the killer who murdered her family and is still walking free.
Social researcher Amal Zaatour (37) says: "In our communities, hardly does one horrendous crime against a woman happen before we learn of another, even worse and more distressing."
On 25 August 2021, the Syrian Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets) found the body of a woman in her thirties in Mashhad Ruhin camp in north Idlib. The discovery followed revelations of the horrific murder of Mariam Ahmad by her husband Bassam Ahmad, who dumped her body in a barrel which he filled with cement in order to hide his crime.
The details of the crime came out when the victim's relatives raised charges against the husband accusing him of being behind her disappearance. The family knew Bassam took drugs and was regularly abusive to his wife – Mariam had raised complaints against him several times, according to her mother.
On 14 December 2021, the department of forensic medicine at the Idlib Health Directorate stated that it had received the body of an unidentified woman in her twenties which had been burned, and found on the Bab al-Hawa highway near the rubbish dump. It was later discovered that her father was one of the participants in her murder, after which her body was doused with acid and diesel and set alight. Her father said she was killed due to what he called "family arguments".
Every time another woman is murdered, the same questions are regurgitated: what was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Why was she walking alone? @aymankhwaja laments the global epidemic of violence against women https://t.co/VnnAdzL3XC— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 28, 2022
In Zaatour's view, "these crimes are essentially an example of a phenomenon which has become endemic in societies where backward customs reign and patriarchal ideas have run rampant. As a result, many women in our communities live lives of violence and violations against their rights, and suffer oppression and injustice, amid a terrifying silence by the de-facto authorities and civil society organisations which are supposed to specialise in women's affairs".
Societal silence is collusion
Zaatour condemns this silence and believes it to represent the silent collusion of wider society when it comes to the crimes being committed against women. She calls for these crimes to be clamped down on, for much stricter laws to be legislated and enforced, for penalties which would deter the perpetrators and for them to be subjected to fair and public court processes.
She noted that the security and judicial agencies of northwest Syria needed to implement significant changes internally, as well as take strict measures to protect abused women who are in the process of reporting their abusers. This is especially important since they often have no choice after filing a case of abuse other than returning to the abuser's home, or finding themselves homeless on the streets, deprived of seeing their children.
"These crimes are essentially an example of a phenomena which has become endemic in societies where blind custom reigns and patriarchal ideas have run rampant. As a result many women in our communities live lives of violence and violations against their rights, and suffer oppression and injustice, amid a terrifying silence by the de-facto authorities"
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) published a report in May 2021, which stated that between January 2020 and February 2021, 16 women were killed by their relatives for reasons relating to "honour", and 6 other women were killed for reasons that were not verified.
The report also documented multiple cases of domestic violence against women during the same period and pointed out that the security vacuum, widespread lawlessness, and the proliferation of weapons – a legacy of 11 years of war – were all factors in the increasing number of honour killings in various Syrian regions.
At the beginning of 2022, the "Syrian Feminist Lobby" published a statement in which it placed the responsibility for criminal violence against women on "the perpetrator, society, the law, the judicial police, the media, the regime and the de-facto forces" and that everyone had taken part in the "blood and ruin".
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko