“I will not forgive him, nor will I let God’s mercy descend onto him,” uttered a woman activist working to support rape victims at a secret humanitarian organization in Damascus. The activist leveled this charge not against the regime and its Shabiha militias—which use this most cruel weapon of war systematically to intimidate, suppress, and humiliate Assad’s many opponents—but in reference to the father of a twelve year-old girl who was brutally gang raped by pro-Assad factions in her own home in front of her family.
Rape is a brutal and despicable weapon in any context, capable of tearing individuals, families, and whole communities asunder. In Syria, rape not only brutalizes the victims and strips them of their humanity in their own eyes but also in the eyes of their families and society. The Assad regime utilizes its incredibly harmful effects on the victim and her society to suppress any form of dissent. Clearly, a twelve-year-old girl was no threat to the regime, but raping her in front of her family was a means to repress the opposition and callously silence those who long for freedom.
“When I heard about this incident from members of the community, I managed to track down the phone number of this young girl’s father, who had come to represent a crime against humanity itself,” says the female activist. The activist learned that the girl was in the third month of her pregnancy, but in keeping with Muslim tradition, the girl’s father refused to allow her to abort the child. When the activist attempted to speak with the father about the incident, he angrily declined to discuss the matter and quickly hung up the phone. After the young girl gave birth to the child, the activist received additional reports that she and her baby were physically assaulted by her father for bringing dishonor upon the family. Again the activist attempted to make contact with the father, but he rebuffed her.
In the end, the young girl took her newborn child and fled from her home, prompting the activist’s earlier comment of the father who mercilessly forbade his daughter from aborting the child of a Shabiha-rape, but then displayed no mercy towards the child of that rape. Already stripped her of her humanity, her family’s shame and humiliation stripped her of it a second time.
Regrettably, the girl’s story is hardly unique. Thousands women and girls have been victims of the regime’s institutionalized campaign of sexual and gender-based violence. The roots of this epidemic do not stem from the 2011 revolution, but rather extend from Syria’s legal and religious tradition set long before the revolution. Syria’s constitution—still in force today—contains several laws pertaining to “honor crimes” and sexual assault, including the crimes of rape, seduction, licentious behavior, and violations of women’s private chambers (pursuant to Section 7, chapter 1, clauses 498-507). Article 192 of the penal code considers the perpetrator of an honor crime under the influence of passion caused by the victim’s lack of scrupulousness. Additionally, the penal code allows judges to exercise great discretion when determining how to convict and sentence perpetrators of honor crimes, calling for all factors that may mitigate the penalty to be considered when applicable.
The Syrian constitution also derives certain components of its legal code from particular interpretations Islamic law (sharia). The regime codified the narrow-minded religious precepts regarding rape and honor crimes to extend its authority into people’s personal lives. In the process it empowered a certain brand of religious men: those willing to align themselves with the government to gain influence. Any criticism of these precepts became a challenge to the political system, silencing moderate voices of Islamic jurisprudence, which take as their basis natural law and a respect for human nature. Religious discourse and Friday sermons were further used to guide the public toward the regime’s perspective and away from any critical thought.
A woman who was a former regime prisoner said, “During my detention, I saw many female detainees whose families refused to recognize them on the assumption they had been raped, even if that wasn’t true. For example, the regime forced one activist [detainee] to conduct an interview on national television and claim that twenty-one Free Syrian Army fighters gang raped her to spread its false version of who revolutionaries are by playing on the religious and social tension of regime supporters. This was not the only injustice that she faced. After being transferred to the Adra civilian prison, her father visited her and disowned her, ordering her never to return to her community. Even if she was ever released from prison, she could never go back home.” The regime’s detention of the activist was not enough; by forcing her to lie, she was crushed between the brutality of the regime and the shame of her family.
Syrian society has failed to deal with mass rape and other sensitive gender issues in a fair and just manner—incidents that only increase in frequency. For example, one common solution is for a man to volunteer to marry the victim, as though it were an act of mercy; often the man is much older than the victim and possibly already married. As though society has not done enough damage at this point, some of these men publicly declare that the marriage is intended to protect the victim. Those who engage in this practice act as though they are committing a holy act, without pausing to consider the emotional, mental, and psychological damage done to the wellbeing of the victim.
As a Syrian, I hope that the revolution will not only fight the Assad regime, but also the damaging traditions and mores that oppress our society. The fight for freedom calls for us to think and act logically, not to listen to overzealous religious leaders and a brutal regime. Syria’s honor does not depend on the female hymen, but in eradicating the ruthless Assad regime and its cruel system of gender-based oppression. This is the revolution that we need.
Khaled Rawas is a mechanical engineer, civil society activist and member of Damascus’s Revolution Leadership Council