Syria: Debates on women’s bodily autonomy and sexual violence


This report is part of a WLUML three-part series on women’s rights in the context of the ‘Arab uprisings’. Last week: Egypt: Fighting for Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Revolution.

The Syrian government’s response to the uprisings across the country has been violent; over one thousand people have been killed so far, more than a hundred of them in the southwestern city of Deraa, and ten thousand people are said to have been detained by security forces. Syrian women, in common with their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, have played a crucial role in the protests against the autocratic political regime, which has hitherto successfully used the threat of the well-organised mukhabarat (secret services) to silence dissent. Their outspoken demands for the release of male family members, and the voices of those women who have themselves been targeted by government forces, has focused the attention of women’s groups and human rights organizations both inside and outside Syria on their situation.

The international solidarity network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), is aware of how crucial it is at this historical juncture to learn what aspects of their lives Syrian women are seeking to change and the strategies they are employing. Sexual violence against women has been identified as a serious issue in Syria. However, because of gaps in legislation and cultural and social taboos, this issue is marginalised and victims silenced in the public sphere. In the current Syrian penal code, under Article 498, only rape outside marriage is criminalised with the perpetrator facing a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. But Article 489 legally authorises marital rape, and in the case of extra-marital rape, Article 508 stipulates that the male perpetrator is exempted from punishment if he agrees to marry his victim. In Syrian society, because of the stigma attached to women who have been subjected to sexual harassment, women and their families prefer not to report these incidents and there is an urgent need to toughen up legislation on these forms of aggression.

This report focuses on the issue of sexual violence against women, asking Syrian human rights activists and researchers about Syrian women’s groups’ strategies for combating it, the challenges they face and their demands for the future. Furthermore, it is also important to see how women’s groups are supporting other marginalised groups in Syrian society such as the LGBTI community, and whether they consider their demands as part of mainstream women’s groups’ demands for legal reform. Crucially, do they support other sexual minority groups expressing their own rights over their bodies and sexualities?

1. What are women’s groups’ strategies for combating sexual violence against women, such as rape and sexual harassment?

Yahya Al Aous, editor in chief of Thara magazine ( explains that "in light of the extremely difficult circumstances in which women’s rights groups in Syria are operating, in terms of lack of permission to function and the absence of sufficient material resources, strategies seem to be lacking". Nawal Yazeji, a Syrian freelance activist and researcher on women issues, affirms that “most women’s groups working on gender issues are illegal because the government refuses to give us official registration” and, therefore, “they are not protected and do not have access to courts, etc.” Nadya Khalife, Middle East North Africa researcher in the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, says that “we know that independent organizations and activists face many problems in Syria because they are not able to operate in a way that makes them most effective because of government restrictions on NGOs”.

Legal reforms

Despite these restrictions, women’s rights groups and activists are working on issues of sexual violence and harassment and have made some progress towards legal reforms. For example, Al Aous says that “there is activism and calls for instituting laws that criminalize sexual violence and punish sexual harassment. Particularly prominent in this vein are the efforts of NGOs to arrive at a law that criminalizes domestic violence, including a true criminalization of sexual violence”. Khalife also mentions that “there are a number of penal articles that were amended earlier this year that show that some of these efforts by women’s organizations are having some impact”. Yazeji explains that “we did gain something although it is not that much. For example, recently Article 548 on honour killings was changed and now those who commit the crime are sentenced to five to seven years of prison”. This cautious welcome finds echoes in reports that one woman’s rights group is calling the amendments a "small contribution to solving the problem", according to the BBC. The National Forum on Honor Crimes (Oct 2010) had requested the cancellation of Article 548. The objection of several such groups is that the new law still apparently invites men to murder women if they catch them having sex or suspect them of doing so. Article 192, which was ignored in the latest amendment, states: ‘The murderer is entitled to benefit from the extenuating excuse if he committed his crime in a state of rage and was motivated by any illegal, and possibly dangerous, act on the part of the victim’. Bassem Al-Kadi of the Syrian Women’s Observatory wrote in January that “We at the Syrian Women's Observatory reject Article 548, both in its old versions and its new amendment…We need authentic and substantial change, not deceptive tweaks to an already bad law. We need to throw to the ash heap of history all laws that discriminate against and condone violence toward women and children, along with all those that discriminate on the basis of religion, sect, and race. In their place, we must enact completely new laws based on one simple principle: equal citizenship.”

Al Aous describes how “a number of activists have succeeded in bringing together a group of Syrian women who produced a special draft law for protection from domestic violence, but this draft is still far from appearing on the table for discussion within the government given the official denial of the reality that sexual violence is a phenomenon in Syria. This attitude is supported by a strong religious reaction in relation to the issue of marital rape, a widespread phenomenon which the religious scholars do not consider rape, but rather a marital right, which it is not permissible to criminalize in any way”. Al Aous adds that there are other forms of activism such as “conferences, lectures, and exhibitions that include both men and women in order to increase awareness of the threat that sexual violence poses to women and the psychological impact that it has on them”. However, according to Khalife, “some of the most effective strategies for combating violence against women in Syria have merely been through education and raising public awareness on the issue, and effective campaigning to repeal discriminatory provisions against women in the penal code”.

Changing socio-cultural perceptions of sexual violence

Al Aous underlines the extent to which Syrian laws are discriminatory: “It is necessary to work to reconcile them with international agreements that Syria has signed, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Similarly, working to raise the social perception of women is extremely important, because it presents the biggest obstacle standing in front of making a big advance for Syrian women. It is no less important than legal changes to improve the condition of women. This is a matter which requires the re-formation of educational curricula and the way in which matters relating to women’s issues are dealt with by the Syrian media.”

Social stigma

Cultural taboos and social stigma attached to sexual harassment and sexual violence in Syria create difficulties for women groups. Al Aous says that “the issue of sexual harassment in Syria remains an unspoken matter despite the fact that organizations working on women’s rights have made a notable effort with women, particularly groups of young women, to encourage them to speak out about the harassment that they face, whether it be at home, at work, in the street, or in institutions of learning. Unfortunately, these efforts do not reach a widespread receptive audience, in view of the social perception and expectation that a girl who faces harassment will give up her rights and cover up what she experienced out of fear of public scandal. There is also the difficulty of the procedures for making a claim, and the frustrations that the girl making the complaint of harassment could face in police departments.” Women reported incidents at police stations of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, hair pulling, and slapping by police officers when attempting to file police reports, as detailed in the US State Department 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Syria.

Yazeji highlights the fact that “the Syrian community is so conservative and people hide sexual harassment and rape to avoid scandal, and because there are ‘no databases or statistics’ it becomes difficult or even impossible for women groups to work and write about these issues”. She adds that “there are shelters dealing with violence against women – not only sexual harassment, but violence in general – and it is mainly young girls who experience these problems and usually they have to go to a government-run institute for underage girls”.

Al-Aous says that “it is also worth mentioning that some activists have created websites in order to increase awareness in Syria among women, especially towards issues of sexual violence, including Thara Magazine which is preparing to launch a campaign about sexual harassment in the next few months, encouraging young women to speak out about the harassment they face, in addition to publishing a number of articles that caution readers about the threat of sexual harassment and incidents that have been observed relating to the phenomenon, which will be published in the magazine as evidence of the spread of this form of sexual violence against women in Syria.”

2. How can increasing women’s awareness about their rights over their bodies and sexualities become a primary goal for women organizations?

Al Aous thinks that “in light of the absence of many basic political rights for women in Syria, the demand for the right of women to have control over their bodies gets postponed, particularly given the growth of conservative religious currents that consider any activity in this regard as a call for promiscuity, the decline of morals, or following the path of the West in licentiousness. For this reason it is not possible to classify this goal as among the priorities of feminist organizations working in Syria at the present time.”

3. What are the demands of women’s groups during the current protests?

Al Aous believes that “given the nature of the period through which Syria is passing these days – an emergency situation – we are in need of more effective and appropriate mechanisms for protecting women from all forms of hostile actions. The government must not permit acts of violence to be committed against women, just as it must guarantee that none of its representatives will commit any such acts. This includes taking punitive or disciplinary measures against them, prosecuting the perpetrators and punishing them, whoever they are”.

Yazeji says ”our main demand is to stop the bloodshed and go through a process of reform and democracy. Women’s rights are our first goal and we are very well aware of the connection between democracy and human rights. I think the future is so clear and fundamentalism is not a danger here, or at least it is not yet. Women activists are very much aware of women rights as were activists in Egypt. We learn from each other’s achievements and experiences.”

4. What is the role of women’s organizations in fighting for homosexual women’s rights?

Al Aous says, “I do not believe that adopting this struggle will work in favour of the cause of Syrian women at the moment, because Syrian society is presently in the midst of a regression toward tribe and sect, as a result of the current political situation in Syria, and this poses a real threat for the future of women’s rights if [the movement] becomes linked to the issue of rights for lesbian women. This matter has also met with widespread rejection even among women activists concerned with women’s rights. It is not possible to speak of any activism or public calls for lesbian rights in Syria on the part of women’s rights organizations because the norm we are seeking is first obtaining full political rights.”

Rasha Moumneh, a researcher for the MENA region at Human Rights Watch, replies that ”there is no resistance because it is not even on the table. There has been no push for it because there is much fear about speaking about homosexuality. It is not on anyone’s agenda because no one is pushing. We also need to be very specific what we mean when we say 'homosexual women’s rights'. I have not heard of any cases of women being prosecuted under article 520 for example (although technically it is gender neutral). Most women who experience same-sex desire or engage in same-sex relationships primarily face not arrest and public violence but control and discipline by families and communities.”

Yazeji confirms that in Syria “homosexuals are invisible but we know they are everywhere. No organization works on this issue. In 1995, for the first time we talked about violence against women and since then it became an issue for government, but there are no talks on violence against homosexuals. Groups that are working on gender and women think that this is still not our main issue.”

Legal reform

Article 520 of the Syrian Penal Code criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexualities such as homosexuality. In response to the question of whether there is a public support for this law, Moumneh says that “I would imagine that there is public support for the law. Given the current situation and the types of reforms being asked for, it is very unlikely. No mainstream organization or group will push for its annulment.”

Al Aous agrees: “I do not think that the political situation in Syria allows for putting this article on the table for discussion. The article is presently being used in gay issues and legislates against sexual intercourse [between members of the same sex]. It is not possible to implement in the case of lesbians because their practices do not fall under the definition of what is considered full sexual intercourse under the law.”

'A Gay Girl in Damascus' blogger as heroine of the current revolt?

A blogger purporting to be a Syrian-American lesbian living in Damascus and writing in English, gained international attention in the western media and the LGBTI community when she wrote a post on her father’s response to the Syrian government’s security forces that targeted her as a supposed Salafist. An article published by the British newspaper, the Guardian, referred to her as a ‘heroine of the Syrian revolt’ and on LGBTI blogs and in weekly magazines she was presented as someone who ‘braves death to speak out’. Al Aous questions whether Syrian people would consider her as their heroine: “I have heard of this blogger. I do not think that there is access within Syria to her [writing], except by some curious people or some homosexuals enthusiastic to break the barrier of silence toward their issues. It is not possible for me to assess the extent of support for her, and I cannot consider her a great contributor with much impact.”

Since these interviews were conducted, it has been revealed that the blog is a hoax and the creation of an American man, Tom MacMaster. Daniel Nasser of Gay Middle East website has written: “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back. You single-handedly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause and you will be responsible for any LGBT activist who might be yet another fallen angel during these critical time[s].”

Translation of Al-Aous interview from the Arabic by Carolyn Barnett

By Nafiseh Sharifi for WLUML

June 2011