The anniversary of the Syrian revolution falls roughly a week after International Women’s Day. The conversations inevitably bleed into each other, forcing through serendipity an effort to contend with the place of women’s rights in broader movements for freedom and dignity for the region’s peoples. The confluence is particularly momentous this year, because it will soon be a decade since the uprising in Syria broke out.
One subject that keeps coming up in recent debates on Syria on social media platforms is the idea of sacrifice. I have encountered this a lot on the audio chat app Clubhouse, which is becoming increasingly popular in the Arab world and has created a fascinating experimental platform for debate between the region’s women’s rights advocates and their antagonists. It is easy to think of sacrifice in the context of the Syrian war in terms of the combat deaths of fighters, most of whom are men, who left everything behind to achieve freedom and dignity for Syrians. But thinking exclusively in those terms does a great disservice to the enormous sacrifices of Syria’s non-combatant women during a decade of conflict.
A new report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights highlights some of these sacrifices in numbers. It is worth mentioning that the SNHR tends to be conservative in its estimates because of its high verification standards, so the figures we see may very well tell only part of the story. For instance, SNHR has confirmed the deaths of a quarter of a million people to date, whereas UN estimates placed them at 400,000 six years ago.
The report says that at least 9,264 women remain arrested or forcibly disappeared in Syria – the vast majority of them in the government’s notorious network of dungeons and detention centres. At least 94 women have been tortured to death in these prisons. This is indicative of the crucial role women have played in terms of their political activism and their contributions to civil society. Activism in Syria often comes at greater cost to women, who have to endure greater social ostracism if they ever are released from prison, in part because it is often assumed that they were violated sexually during their detention.
The SNHR has also documented the deaths of at least 16,000 women over the course of the conflict. The real number is probably orders of magnitude higher, again because the organisation’s fact-checking requirements (among other factors, it requires verifying the names of victims) are so stringent.
Another horrifying figure shows the incidents of sexual violence, which, if proven to have been systematic, might amount to crimes against humanity. SNHR documented at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence against women, more than 8,000 of which were allegedly committed by the Syrian regime, including 879 incidents in detention centers. The terrorist group ISIS was next in line in this particular category of offences, committing 3,487 of them.
These numbers themselves tell a story of great suffering, but even they fail to cover fully the breadth of the challenges facing women because of the war. It is true that men have accounted for most of the conflict’s deaths, by virtue of the fact that they make up the core of the military units on all sides of the conflict. But so many of these men have left behind families who have to fight for survival in a country that has been impoverished to the point of ruin, where unemployment is rampant, where the economy is in free fall and where basic goods and services are hard to come by. Some of these families have fled and had to make a living in refugee camps or in neighbouring countries, where people have grown progressively more hostile to their presence.
The war thrust many of these women, who were forced overnight to become the heads of their households, into a realm where they have had to struggle as single parents to feed their children and provide for relatives. I met inspiring women while reporting from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, who had managed to make a life for themselves by starting small businesses to help make ends meet.
But I also met women who suffered the various injustices of refugee life. I met a survivor in Lebanon who was lured from Syria with promises of a job and was then forced into prostitution for months on end within a network that imprisoned and tortured women, denying them even the blessing of sunshine by keeping them inside rooms with windows painted black. I met women who had suffered domestic abuse by jobless husbands living in cramped squalor, and I met girls who had been forced into early marriages at 13 to alleviate their families’ financial burdens.
The Syrian war has devastated a country, displaced a population, and dismantled cherished beliefs of the international order. But lost in the horrifying numbers that denote this extraordinary suffering are the ordinary stories of struggle, loss, heartbreak and resilience. Syrian women have given much for Syria’s struggle for dignity and freedom, and their sacrifices never end.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National