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“Heroines accused of bringing shame”

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Ali Al Ibrahim – Istanbul:

“Stories of women freed from prisons now trapped in a society’s traps”

My phone rings again one hour after concluding the interview on the Syrian-Turkish borders.

During the call, a woman in her 50s wanted me to talk with her older son Ahmed to tell him how important the testimony of his sister “Hend” was on her imprisonment experience from the past was priceless for the Syrian cause, and how getting her story in the media, and her talking about what happened to her, would help thousands of Syrian women who survived the detention centers of the Syrian regime start a new life after their detention ended.

The young man interrupted his mother to tell her, “as if what happened to us wasn’t enough. Now everyone in the world knows about it!”

That was after an interview with Hend Salih, a young woman under 20. She wasn’t very keen at first to talk about what she had been through in detail, in a military intelligence branch’s detention center in Damascus, after her arrest in August 2017 on accusations against someone who had a similar name as hers. She also talked about what happened after she was released.

From Hama Countryside in central Syria, the family denied our request to talk to her about her story alone over Skype. Her older brother requested to be present with us during the interview. After several attempts we were able to contact her, while in the presence of her brother. We talked for more than an hour. The brother was the one shown on screen, while Hend talked in a tranquil halting and stuttering voice in the background. From her tone, it was apparent that she had second thoughts about agreeing to talk, not only because of the memories of torture she endured in detention, but also because of the smearing and psychological abuse she is facing, from some who claim they worry about her reputation, and blame her for getting arrested.

Hend said, “after my release, the first question I was asked was whether I was raped. I felt a huge distance between me and the people around me who shunned me outright. They didn’t talk with me.”

She remained silent for few minutes, before she carried on, “a young man from my town was released months ago. You could hear the noise of joyous bullets fired in the air everywhere. In my case, nobody exchanged more than a few words with me. Even now, I don’t know the reason behind this discrimination. Society blames me for getting arrested. They accused me of having gone through a shame. I remember very well the moment that young man came back from detention. He was released days after me. People gathered and held parties on his honor, as if they were receiving a hero.”

“I hope I lose my memory and maybe it will be easier for me and the horror I still live with every day, despite leaving Syria after my release, I have been saved from the looks of pity, blame and abuse.”

Hend finishes her speaking, while her brother Ahmed runs his fingers through his hair.

After the nightmare, a new nightmare begins

The detention of Syrian women draws a sharp line between their past and future when they are released. That is because detention usually leads to a state of forced isolation, socially and within the circle of the family. They become afraid of talking about what happened to them, or of revealing the violations they experienced, fearing a life-long stigma, in the absence of any substantial psychosocial support for survivors. Those survivors usually see their nightmare ending when they come out of detention, only to start facing new nightmares.

While working on this investigation, for 4 months, most efforts witnessed were providing awareness raising workshops in some neighboring states, and in a limited number of centers in northern parts of Syria, but the tragedy facing survivors is larger than the what has been demonstrated.

In an Amnesty International (AI) report entitled, “It breaks the human: torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons”, we see some of the psychological and medical problems they faced during detention. Many of the women interviewed by AI said that their family are not in contact with them anymore, after they were released, for reasons that include social norms discriminating against former female detainees and preexisting assumptions that these women experienced rape in prison.  

The torture of a woman

A report by a group of NGOs entitled, “Violations against Women in Syria and the Conflict’s Unjust Influence on them”, in cooperation with the Democracy and Civil Society Center describes their detention and what follows, states: “In relentlessly seeking to destroy the fabric of Syrian society, the detention of women is a technique used by the Syrian government to put families under huge psychological pressures in such a patriarchal society, where honor is connected to women’s bodies. This has led many families to send their daughters abroad.”

In her testimony, Hend said, regarding the situation of women in prisons, “I suffered, and dozens suffered in prison tremendously. They tortured me with no mercy, until I lost consciousness. I saw girls losing consciousness in detention because of physical and psychological torture. I remember a young girl, no more than 15 years old, who lost her mind because of the terrors she witnessed. We suffered psychologically and physically. It was an inferno.”

A Hero who brings shame

In discussions with the investigative team, Nour Burhan, one of the founders of “I Am Her” network that supports Syrian women in practicing their political, economic, and cultural roles in Syria, said “dealing with survivors is different across different communities. It depends on the nature of the community, and on how far her family accepts the situation. In some communities, she is considered a hero who needs support. In other communities, she brings shame, and is faced with isolation and stigma from society. She is shunned from the opportunity of being asked for marriage, or getting a job. In the worst cases, she becomes a pariah, facing situations like divorce, if married, thrown out of the family house, or getting married to an inadequate suitor, as a way to cover up on the shame and avoid scandals. In some cases, survivors don’t even find shelter. We also have on record cases where the survivor was killed.”

Statistics from the Syrian Human Rights Network about the situation of women in Syria reveal terrifying truths, including the situation of women in detention. Fadl Abdulghani, the network’s director, confirmed during a meeting with the investigation team that, “released women face the heavy weight of suffering, falling under a different category of violence against women. It is societal refusal and isolation. If the survivor is living in an area controlled by the Syrian regime, the repercussions are harsher. The period after release could be the hardest in her life, with all the refusal and blame against her from the community.”

A new prison

Meisou, a Syrina woman in her 40s from Deraa, a mother of three children, is a former detainee of Regime prisons, arrested for taking part in a protests in the South of the country. She was imprisoned in March 2012 for two years and three months and transferred between the branch of the Military Security force known as 215 in the district of Kafr Sousseh in Damascus, and Adra prison, until she was released in mid 2014.

She now lives in a country neighboring Syria and suffers severe psychological problems. These manifest themselves in feelings of constant fear and despair  in the state of loss she experiences linked to the exile imposed on her by her family and community.

She says, with a tear running down her face, “after I left prison, I was surprised by my husband separating from me because I had been imprisoned. I left Syria completely. I don’t want to return to that country that trapped me inside its walls and the perceptions of society. Everything I try to create now is focused on the issue of female detainees from Assad’s prisons and supporting survivors to overcome their difficulties that they can face.”

Survivor of the Syrian regime’s prisons face many obstacles in reintegration and getting into the rhythm of daily life after release, especially given the very harsh conditions they withstood during detention. The new situation after release can be summed up in what experts describe as the traditional communal norms. Many survivors, however, were able to carry on with their lives and to face society.

Muhammad Abdulsalam, the psychiatrist who works unofficially at the moment with other torture victims in Idlib, northern Syria, says, “When women emerge from prisons in Syria, their communities deal harshly with them. This can break their lives. And so instead of being treated as women with dignity, a man would say to an ex-prisoner for example: ‘I don’t mind marrying you!’

ICRC seeks to protect and help victims of armed conflicts through visiting detainees, and through its efforts to reunite families. The situation on the ground in Syria, however, is totally different. There, we see no presence for the ICRC in this regard.

Samah Hadeed, MENA Campaigns Director at AI, said, “the international community, especially Iran, Turkey and Russia, should ask the Syrian government and armed opposition groups to put an end to all types of torture and discrimination against women.”

Bargaining chips

According to the EuroMed Rights’s report entitled “Situation report on violence against women in Syria”, female detainees faced domestic violence on their release. Some of them were divorced, and families killed many. In the report entitled “Detention of Women in Syria: A weapon of war and terror, 2015”, it was said that women face horrible experiences after release. They live through strong trauma after release, including feelings of anxiety and frustration, PSTD, feelings of helplessness, and in some cases this psychological deterioration leads to suicide.     

Ghalia, a Syrian woman who has spent 4 decades as a volunteer supporting survivors to actively participate in the Syrian society, said, “Women were systematically detained by Regime forces during the Syrian uprising as a weapon of war, to put pressures on society and opposition. As bargaining chips.”

The human rights activist Nour Nassar, who is active in Idlib, northern Syria said it is very unfortunate how society deals with female prisoners. As beside the horrors women face in prisons that make them unable to reintegrate into society once released (especially if a woman is used as a bargaining chip by the regime against her armed opposition relatives and is raped in prison repeatedly), on release women need help from their loved ones. This is missing in our society. On the contrary, an ex-prisoner can face isolation, to the extent that some around her would wish her dead.”

Mariam is an ex-detainee who asked to keep her second name anonymous because her husband is still in detention.

Mariam was detained for a year and five months because her husband joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). She added, “I was arrested while trying to issue a birth certificate for our daughter. They asked me to wait in a room, then many armed young men came and arrested me. I was taken to the political security branch headquarters in al-Maza, Damascus. I had heard a lot about what happened in detention, but realized that the situation is far worse than at. The regime uses all kinds of torture with no mercy. It is true that our suffering in prison was horrible, and it shattered our humanity and future. However, I know that some women faced fresh suffering after release, and I am one of them. Some of my relatives do not wish to speak with me, or to contact me in any way, on account of my detention.”

Social isolation

Huda, 25, was released from Al-Khatib branch in Damascus. She said, “Most women are afraid of what will happen when released, especially the married ones. Society has no mercy, and they become pariahs, bearing the responsibility of violations that they faced. Many women were divorced when they were released. But now, any woman released from her cell will have to live inside a new cell out there.”

Ahmed Barqawi, former Head of Philosophy Department at Damascus University, told us, “Women emerging from the regime’s prisons find out that they are abandoned by their families. This abandonment is rooted in the ethical perceptions of honor. Honor, in this understanding, hinges on women’s virtue. This mode of thinking deprived women of the concept of heroism. Here, we are seeing two values: the value of the great woman who endured torture and rape at the hands of unethical barbarians, and as such should be looked at as a symbol of our national struggle; and the other value is to look at the woman as a sexual object tarnished in the eyes of people.”  

He added, “This woman is a symbol of humanitarian and ethical struggle. Violations against her should raise her standing in her family and among her community members. More than 13,000 women were abducted, including over 7,000 still in detention. Therefore, out of respect for their femininity, and their humanity, and to salvage them from the demeaning look of society on them, we must have professional NGOs that supports women, with domestic capital, and international aid organizations, to care for their lives, especially mothers among them. This all will lead to liberating the patriarchal awareness from the negative look at these women, who must be seen as leaders and good examples: as women who have a higher degree of dignity and honor.”

Helping survivors

Muna left the country. She went to Turkey, where she works today as a coordinator for a rehabilitation programme for survivors of detention, within “Kesh Malek” organization.

She was detained, according to her account, two times by the regime. First, she was arrested in 2012 and then released in 2013. The second time, she was arrested in 2014 and released a few months later, in the same year.

She said, “I belong to a family with many detainees. I was the first to be detained. It came as a shock to the family, but they supported me upon my release. The first concern for my siblings and parents was to reintegrate me in normal life. For society, what happened to me was harsh. The question on everybody’s mind was whether I was raped or not. This is the most prominent concern on the minds of people upon release. The thing that concerns everyone regarding what happened in there is whether a woman was raped or not. Everything else is trivial in their eyes.”

“the female detainees that are released from Regime prisons find themselves renounced by their families. This renunciation comes from a heightened awareness of honour which is tied to a woman’s virtue. This pattern prevents women from being recognized as the heroes they are.

In spite of low capacity, many centers and professionals provide the psychosocial support

Syrian survivors need after they are released. Among them is the social worker Ramah Dimashqi, who worked with a professional team to understand repercussions Syrian women face after release, in their communities and within their families, and how to overcome such obstacles.

Dimashqi is facing many problems in her work but she is determined to continue working, and she believes that awareness raising is a very important way to tackle the tragic situation facing detainees.

She said, “I remember in particular a man we asked what did his daughter do to deserve the treatment he inflicts on her, and his answer was: ‘when a man is inflicted with sins, he must hide.’ At that moment, I was at a loss as to what to say in reply. I was shocked.”

Nour Jizawi is a women rights defender from Syria who lives in Turkey. She works with released female prisoners to help them reintegrate in their lives outside prison. She said, “While many women get support and psychological help, that does not rule out the many violations they faced during detention or after release, including pressures and refusal from society and family.”

A plethora of hardships

According to Syrian NGOs, more than 30 cases of divorce were documented, of women released from Aadra prison, once the husbands learned of the detention. That includes a woman who was detained because of sending medicines to a liberated area. After two months of detention, the prison guards came to tell her that her husband is visiting. Her heart was full of joy then, but after ten minutes, she came back to her cell crying hard. The husband gave her a divorce notification, according to the testimony of another released prisoner.

According to Burhan, “There are no integrated and comprehensive programmes for supporting released female detainees. Programmes run by NGOs are concerned exclusively with parts and pieces of the psychosocial support process, because of the big budgets needed for comprehensive care, which so far haven’t found supporters. Domestic organizations work on raising awareness of the situation of released survivors, and to engage ex-detainees with civic work or livelihood opportunities, beside the occasional psychological support programme. In the absence of an organization to establish a special fund for detainees and their families, they have lacked a listening ear since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.

The women face many challenges in returning and adapting to life after leaving prison, in addition to the harsh conditions they face during imprisonment. Amidst these restrictions they are unable to resume normal life.

*This investigation was conducted under supervision of the Syrian Investigative Reporting Unit – SIRAJ, within the context of “Syria In Depth” project, conducted in cooperation with the Guardian Foundation, with support from IMS.

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