Volunteer in Free Syrian Army. Missed the target
Dr. Yaron Friedman

Syrian women are a victim of men's war

Analysis: The Arab Spring gave women an opportunity to break through the cycle of oppression and fight for their rights. The failure of their protest symbolizes the failure of the entire Syrian revolution.

Veiled women arrived at a roadblock in northern Syria. Fighters from the Daash organization (the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria) did not perform a physical security check on them because of the religious ban against it. Several minutes later, al-Qaeda members were surprised when the women opened fire at them.



Following the incident, the organization, which dominates most of the rebel areas in northern Syria, decided to establish a unit of female jihadist fighters for the first time.


The unit in charge of the roadblocks is called the al-Khansa Battalion. The name of the battalion was not selected incidentally. Al-Khansa was a Muslim poet and pious from the era of Prophet Muhammad (the seventh century), who composed elegies for jihad fighters and lost four sons in the war against the Persians. When her sons died she refrained from crying, announcing: "I am proud of their death as martyrs. If only I would join them in Heaven." 


Female volunteers in Free Syrian Army


But in reality, Syria's women are not proud heroines gladly sacrificing the fruit of their womb for the Muslim nation, but a victim of ongoing abuse, imprisonment, torture, rape and brutal murder. How difficult is the present situation for Syria's women?


Exploited in the army, oppressed at home

The Arab Spring, which erupted in Syria in March 2011, gave women an opportunity to break through the cycle of oppression and fight for their rights in society. During Hafez Assad's years in power, female army soldiers were seen on Syrian television standing in groups of three, holding snakes in their hands and biting them fearlessly. This ridiculous show of courage concealed the truth about the real status of the Syrian woman, her exploitation in the army and her oppression within the family.


The issue of the woman's role in the Syrian revolution has hardly been researched. Prof. Fruma Zachs of the Department of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University delivered a fascinating speech on the subject at the Van Leer Institute.


According to Prof. Zachs, under the Assad family regime there has been a certain increase in the status of women, which is reflected in the relatively high number of female parliament members (about 12%) and in the fact that half of the students in the early 2000s were women. The rise in their status has to do with the regime's secular socialist ideology. Bouthaina Shaaban, President Bashar Assad's media advisor, is a clear example of the woman's ability to move up in the ruling Baath party.


The rebels' female leaders continued the protest from home
The rebels' female leaders continued the protest from home


Prof. Zachs explains that the Syrian women underwent three stages during the Syrian revolution: In the beginning of the revolution, when the protest was quiet, there was an outstanding number of women in the demonstrations. Some wore veils in the colors of Syria's flag in protest of the regime's attempt to ban the veil. That way they also remained anonymous and protected themselves from the Mukhābarāt intelligence service.


But at the second stage, when the protest turned violent, the women were subject to arrests, torture and murder. In the third stage, as the civil war developed, the women stayed away from the streets, and female leaders among the rebels continued their protest from home through propaganda and by posting videos on YouTube.


According to Zachs, the women's protest was patriotic in its nature and shared by members of all factions, including women from the Alawi religious group. They called for a just and democratic regime in Syria which would honor human rights in general and women's rights in particular.


In the women's propaganda, the president's wife, Asma Assad, is presented as a war criminal just like her husband, as she fully backs his actions and bears responsibility for the killing of some 130,000 citizens just like him.


Sexual abuse after being recruited to Jihad

The recruitment system of Syria's jihad organizations includes both men and women. An anonymous fatwa on "Jihad al-Nikah" was distributed in 2012 – a religious ruling calling on Muslim women to go to Syria to encourage the jihad fighters in their war against the "heretics." The surprising response to this propaganda was particularly notable in Tunisia, to the point that it required the authorities to intervene in order to stop the phenomenon. Women were brainwashed to believe that they must sexually please the jihadists for the sake of the Muslim nation.


In practice, these women were sexually abused, or in the better case scenario, married jihad organizations' activists. These women are called "muhajirat" (immigrants in the name of religion), and today they are being recruited to the war mainly as roadblock guards.


Ridiculous show of courage. Syrian soldier biting a snake during the Hafez Assad era
Ridiculous show of courage. Syrian soldier biting a snake during the Hafez Assad era


According to interviews given by Daash leaders, most female al-Qaeda fighters are of Chechen descent, but they also include women from North Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan. Among them are young single women and married women with a family in the organization's camps in Syria. It's reasonable to assume that the girls, some of whom are even minors, serve as an attraction for young men interested in joining the war in Syria alongside the Islamic rebels. Due to the fact that most of them are not Syrian, they communicate in classical Arabic and not in the local jargon.


The jihadist recruitment network is likely somewhat related to the phenomenon of "black widows" recruited for suicide attacks. Some of these women are avenging the death of their husbands who were assassinated by the Russian army in Chechnya or by the American army in Afghanistan.


More openness to women among Kurds

Among the fighting parties, the Kurds were wise enough to integrate the women into the army and give them full military training. The Kurdish militia operating in northern Syria is recruited to protect the Kurdish autonomy created in practice in the northern part of the country from the threat of both regime forces and Islamist organizations. All the fighters, both men and women, are trained by their Kurdish brothers in Iraq. The moderate nature of the Kurdish Muslims allows openness when it comes to the participation of women in the army and having them fight alongside the men.


According to different reports, the situation of Syrian women in the refugee camps is pretty bad. Their difficult economic and mental state causes many of them to turn to prostitution. In Jordan, doctors and social workers have been recruited to handle thousands of cases of women suffering from serious trauma of rape, abortions, torture in prison and the loss of their children and husbands.


Syrian woman protests against Assad regime in Geneva (Photo: AFP)
Syrian woman protests against Assad regime in Geneva (Photo: AFP)


Families destroyed. A father and his children in Syria (Photo: AFP)
Families destroyed. A father and his children in Syria (Photo: AFP)


In women's propaganda, president's wife is presented as a war criminal just like her husband
In women's propaganda, president's wife is presented as a war criminal just like her husband


Jabhat al-Nusra members enforcing the sharia law in the area under their control (Photo: AP) (Photo: AP)
Jabhat al-Nusra members enforcing the sharia law in the area under their control (Photo: AP)


While in the beginning of the revolution women sought to join the protest against the regime, the situation today is utterly different. Many women have expressed in public, on the media, their fear of living under the regime of Islamist organizations, especially Jabhat al-Nusra and Daash, which appoint sharia committees and impose a violent coercion regime against women.


According to different reports, women's rape has become a tool in the war between the rebel factions and between the rebels and the regime. In the past year, the areas controlled by the regime's army have become the lesser of two evils, as a woman's life is more tolerable under the secular regime, and even Assad's old oppression is preferable to that of the al-Qaeda gangs, the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic front.


The role of the Syrian regime's thugs, the Shabiha, in targeting women was notable in the first two years of the revolution. It was reduced the moment it turned into an armed war and the women almost completely disappeared from the streets. Yet estimates are that there are still several thousand women jailed in the regime's prisons. The Shabiha's efforts are now focused on women trying to smuggle food and weapons to the rebels.


Syria's women and their children are the victims of the war waged by the men in their country. Their tough choice is between a life of misery as refugees, oppression under the Islamist rebels or a life under the regime's army.


It's reasonable to assume that the Syrian regime will try to restrain the Shabiha's activity in order to add another dimension to the pro-Assad propaganda: The Syrian president not only provided shelter to the minorities – the Alawis, the Shiites, the Druze and the Christians – not only protects the seculars from all factions against the Islamic terror, but is also the Syrian women's only hope.


The failure of the women's protest is one of the significant symbols of the failure of the entire Syrian revolution.


Dr. Yaron Friedman, Ynet's commentator on the Arab world, is a graduate of the Sorbonne. He teaches Arabic and lectures about Islam at the Technion, at Beit Hagefen and at the Galilee Academic College. His book, "The Nusayri Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria," was published in 2010 by Brill-Leiden


פרסום ראשון: 02.22.14, 14:22
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