The Syrian Conflict is an Important Feminist Issue

As the bloodshed continues in Syria, and US military intervention becomes imminent, I am struck by the media’s lack of attention to women in the Middle East. Even in the mainstream feminist blogosphere there seems to be a complete lack of attention to the experiences of Syrian woman living in a war-torn country. A quick search for the term “Syria” on, one of the most widely read “feminist” resources on the internet, returns only one critique of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad’s flippant use of social media as her country explodes in violent conflict. Asma al-Assad, born and educated in London, is young, stylish, and light skinned. Before the Syrian conflict exploded, she was characterized by the media as a progressive and reformist first lady. Since then, things have changed.  Joan Juliet Buc (author of Vogue’s controversial article about Asma entitled “A Rose in The Desert”) has dubbed her a “modern day Marie Antoinette.” She has been publically criticized for touting the importance of youth development while her husband brutally murders and displaces thousands of civilian youth. Huberta von Voss-Wittig, wife of Germany's UN ambassador, and Sheila Lyall Grant, wife of Britain's UN ambassador, even produced a video directed at Asma, asking her to take a stand against her husband and his supporters.

While the media’s focus on Asma al-Assad is absolutely warranted, I am more concerned by the media’s lack of attention to civilian women in Syria. To me, this is a stark example of the invisibility of poor women and women of color in the media. While powerful women like Asma al-Assad routinely garner international attention, women who fall victim to political conflict and turmoil are systematically excluded from the discourse. In short, everyone, and particularly women who identify as “feminist,” should have a vested interest in the experience of Syrian women as this crisis unfolds.

In particular, these issues should be receiving more media attention:

1.  Sexual and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in the Context of the Syrian Crisis

Since the Syrian Crisis began in March 2011, several human rights violations have been reported. According to a brief report published by the International Federation for Human Rights, arbitrary arrests and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape, other forms of sexual violence, abduction, enforced disappearances and the use of torture by Syrian authorities and pro-governmental militias have been widely documented. In addition, various UN bodies and representatives, as well as international and national NGOs, have documented crimes of sexual violence committed during the Syrian crisis. Acts of rape and sexual assault are occurring indiscriminately, but are also being used as a form of torture in unofficial detention facilities. The report states that most reported allegations of rape and sexual violence were said to have been perpetrated by government forces and militias during house searches, at checkpoints, and while women had been detained. In some cases, women were assaulted in public or in front of family members, an act that carries a strong social stigma and is associated with dishonor in Syria. As a result, women are often rejected by their husbands or families after a rape. Increases in domestic violence have been reported in response to sexual assault. In addition, many women are forcibly married after rape or excommunicated from the home. Women who flee or are removed from their homes are exposed to further exploitation as they struggle to find food and fuel to survive. The exploitation of women and girls continues to be a problem in refugee camps after they leave Syria.

2.  Syrian Women as Part of the Opposition

While the conflict has unfolded publically on sites like Youtube and Twitter, the bulk of visible rebels are young Syrian males. Behind the scenes, however, young Syrian women are playing a crucial role in the Syrian revolution. Several women took part in the first demonstrations against the regime and many continue to protest publically despite the inherent risks. CNN’s international correspondent, Arwa Damon, reports on a female human rights activist. A couple of months after she participated in demonstrations, she was detained and imprisoned for 48 hours. After her release, she, like many other female activists, was effectively driven into hiding. She reports that groups of female activists sneak out and attend secret meetings in order to support the opposition and help free activists who are still imprisoned. In addition, women contribute to the opposition by stitching together opposition flags, making face masks for the men to wear, and running secret underground clinics to treat the wounded. They also organize to provide families of the dead or detained with food, blankets and financial aid. Finally, women have been supporting the opposition through the use of art, writing and social media. Asma documents her interactions with one woman who picked up a camera and began filming the dead and wounded in order to raise international awareness of the atrocities being committed.

While the majority of female Syrian activists choose to maintain anonymity for their protection, a handful of women stand in public opposition to the Assad regime. Suhair Atassi is a Damascus-based political activist. She runs a Facebook forum that calls for political reform in Syria. Atassi was arrested in March 2011 while protesting in Damascus. After spending a month in prison, she helped found a local network to organize demonstrations, document abuses, and relay the story of the uprising. She went into hiding for eight months, and then made her way to Paris after being smuggled out of the country. Throughout it all, Atassi used her laptop, Twitter and Skype to communicate with her allies. Another remarkable woman, Razan Zaitouneh is a Syrian human rights lawyer who is currently in hiding after being accused by the government of being a foreign agent. Zaitouneh's reporting to the foreign media on human rights abuses committed against Syrian civilians through her website served as an important source of information to the international community. Fadwa Suleiman, a Syrian actress who led a rally against the Bashar al-Assad regime and was subsequently disowned by her family, has also been lauded by international human rights organizations as a distinct face of the opposition.  

3. Syrian Women as Pro-Governmental Soldiers

In addition to fighting against Bashar al-Assad, women are also training to fight for him. The Syrian regime is reportedly arming and training women to fight as a pro-governmental militia. The formation of the force comes amid speculation that the Syrian army is depleted.  According to a report in Britain’s Independent newspaper, the all-female force, named the “Lionesses for National Defense,” is part of an effort to supplement the army with a National Defense Force militia made up of civilian volunteers. In practice, the women have been confined to checkpoint control, although in the midst of the Syrian conflict this effectively places them on the frontline. The Washington Post reports that their efforts are aimed at checking women in headscarves. One activist reported to the that the militia women “force women out of cars with deliberate roughness, rip off their veils and scream insults at them…They treat them like they are female terrorists. They call them al-Qaeda … and say, ‘the veil won’t protect you.’”.

In sum, there are a lot of important things going on in Syria, and the feminist community should really be paying more attention. It is our responsibility to ensure that the voices of the world’s most vulnerable women are not drowned out by the voices of those with power. 

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Written by Lauren Gutman

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