Syria: Rape, Honor, and Quiet Collusion

Warning: This post contains graphic depictions of sexualized violence.


Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege Project which documents the incidence of rape in war and militarized zones, this week posted an opinion piece, End Culture of Rape in 2013. As she knows better than most, this is easier said then done. The immediate catalyst for her writing was the death of the unnamed 23-year old woman whose rape to the point of disembowelment and multiple organ failure is spurring protests all over the world. But, of course, India holds no monopoly on gang-rapes and victim-blaming. And, as shocking and horrific as this incident is, we all know that rape is not rare.  Especially in militarized zones.

Internationally, we have made strides towards recognizing the role that sexualized violence plays in conflict and setting as a goal its eradication. This summer, the UN appointed Zainab Bangura as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. She is responsible for leading the UN’s fight against the use of sexual violence during war.

As the research in the book Sex and World Peace reveals, there is a deep connection between how girls and women are treated and a nation’s propensity for violence and war. Rape, its incidence and threat, are central to the way violence works.  Mid-conflict, sexualized violence has a unique and multi-dimensional role. It is an obvious, immediate harm to the victims and often a vicarious punishment to men; it is a stigmatizing dishonor and it causes family and community disintegration, undermining a communities ability to fight among other things. But, the use of rape and other forms of gender based violence is also broadly destabilizing to a collapsing state and its immediate neighbors. It is has a destructive fractal effect on society that far exceeds the parameters of any one incidence of actual assault.

Consider Syria. Even if rape and sexualized torture are not being used overtly and systematically as weapons by leaders in Syria, it is clear that the context is enabling this type of violence for the purposes of punishment, intimidation and terror. It in no way discounts the real dangers of the potential uses of Syria’s chemical weapons to point out that rape and sexualized violence have already been used, whether deliberately or not, as tools of terror and destruction. To date, no world leaders have secretly met to discuss this topic. Of course, chemical weapons are qualitatively different in their potential uses. But, it is a matter of deeply held cultural habits, and given what we know, cultural preferences, that we do not pay similar heed to the effects of sexualized violence.

It is one thing to read, and mentally compartmentalize, the word “rape” but another to wrap your brain around the horrifying fact that men make parents give up their daughters in exchange for their lives or that others in “security forces” gain power and spread terror by forcing girls and women to watch them feed a rat into another woman’s vagina while they mock and taunt her. Writing that sentence has a certain shock value, but I can say truthfully, that after reviewing reports and news coverage, I could have written many others with similar effect. The point is not the shock, but the reality of these things happening. These are crime against everyone’s humanity. The two descriptions above taken from reports from Syria are among many documenting rape and torture during the country’s conflict and dissolution. Rape during conflict, like the use of chemical weapons, is a war crime.

Although it is hard to verify the scope of the problem, since late 2011 multiple news sources have consistently reported on rape claims. The Women Under Siege Project has been collecting and mapping incidents of rape and sexualized violence taking place in Syria since April 2012. These detailed submissions – gathered by journalists, researchers, doctors and activists, are not for the faint of heart, including as they do details that are heart-rending and nightmarish. Women Under Siege is not suggesting that rapes have been ordered by the Assad regime (although the Syrian Human Rights Committee has witness reports of rapes being ordered), but rather documenting the rape and sexualized violence that are occuring. According to Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege and a well-respected investigative journalist, victims range in age from toddlers to men in their 50s. Eighty percent of them are girls and women – many of whom are attacked in homes, at checkpoints and elsewhere in public. Men and boys are more likely to be assaulted in detention. The data compiled, while anecdotal, is corroborated by first person refugee accounts made to the International Rescue Committee, the Syrian Human Rights Committee and other relief organizations.

Despite the efforts of many in the international community, mainstream US media seems intent on talking about rumors and taboos or completely avoiding the information. Google “Wall Street Journal and Chemical Weapons in Syria” then try again substituting “rape” or “sexual violence” for “chemical weapons.” As with everyday rape, a lot of focus seems to be on questioning the veracity of claims or focusing on the people raped. As ever, victim-blaming is useful and common.  It finds its most deadly and perverse manifestation in honor killings.

Wolfe, in the piece referenced above, is calling for a concerted effort that begins with an end to victim-blaming as the first step to shifting the culture towards ending rape.   In the case of Syria, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, Co-Founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a Senior Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, agrees: “One major step,” she explains, “is to shift the blame away from the victims to the perpetrators. Men, often members of Security Forces, are the rapists. Let’s make them the subject of the discussion.”

But it’s not just victim blaming that has to end. Another step is to acknowledge the role that rape plays in war – not just as part of an after-the-conflict assessment of humanitarian concerns, but before it happens. Foreign policy assessments, security strategies, diplomacy, post-conflict transitions and peacemaking must all consider the role that sexual violence plays in conflict and post-conflict solutions.  We need to consider rape as an integral aspect of how often and how wars are conducted.


For example, take this July 2012 Congressional Research Service assessment summary to Congress, Armed Conflict In Syria: US and International Responses. It is concerned with the Syrian state’s collapse – how it is evolving and what we should do. It mentions the importance of leaders’ “kinship ties” and fighters’ and community “morale” without mentioning the demoralizing and physical effects of rape on kinship or on fighters or communities in honor-bound societies. It refers to a litany of weapons, without mentioning the weaponization of bodies. It mentions detentions, brutality and guerilla style attacks, without once touching on sexualized violence – taking place in homes, checkpoints, designated detention areas – as a tool of terror, violence and oppression. The connection between this assessment and reports from on the ground relief agencies is gender-based violence and it is entirely missing from this document.

As such, the document fails to apprise members of Congress of the broad impact that sexualized violence might be having on a massive refugee crisis and related regional destabilization. The report explains, in describing the causes of the refugee problem, that “residents have been cut off from food, fuel, medical care, and water.” At the time of the writing of the report, the number of refugees was estimated at 90,000. In actuality, the estimated number of Syrian refugees is now expected to reach 700,000 by year’s end. One of the most consistently given reasons that people are fleeing, provided by refugees in Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon? Not food, fuel or a lack of electricity, but the incidence and threat of sexualized violence and its consequences.

For the victims of rape and other forms of sexualized violence who survive, their assaults are actually just the beginning. Boys and men who are raped often do not ever reveal their assaults and live with sometimes debilitating emotional and psychological consequences by themselves. They often have no access to care suitable to their needs, physical or otherwise. In addition, because men usually perpetrate their assaults, male victims are subject to homophobic social censure and laws. For girls and women the consequences are more visible and immediate. According to the International Relief Committee, Women Under Siege, Amnesty International, the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the International Civil Society Action Network some victims are being killed by their families for honors sake; if not killed, some are pressured to kill themselves. Others are married to save honor – there have been reports of young Syrian girls married to Jordanian men. Many of these marriages are compelled and, in effect, second rapes. They also often result in child marriages that further imperil the health and lives of the girls being married. Some women, if already married, are dealt with violently, divorced and abandoned by their families. Under these circumstances it is remarkable that anyone reports rape or seeks redress or medical attention. And yet they are. In sufficient numbers that relief workers are consistently struck by reports made despite the tremendous taboos and consequences.

Nowhere in the 47-page, roughly 12,000 word report to Congress do the words “rape” or “sexualized violence” occur. Although the report to Congress discusses torture, it makes no allowances for the fact that rape and sexualized violence are unique in the way they redefine “weapon” and “conflict,” affect “kinship ties,” communities, and “morale,” and by extension, state security and disintegration. Rape continues not to make the cut as we weigh and measure what is important and just and how to derive sensible long-term resolutions to conflict and peace that includes girls and women. This topic continues to be marginalized as a “women’s issue.” The role of sexualized violence and rape needs to be treated seriously and comprehensively by men with power in the international diplomatic, foreign policy, military and security communities.

I say men with power for the obvious reason that they do not share their power with women and deny their perspectives when determining action.  As it is, there is a “near total absence of women from official peacekeeping” and post-conflict transitional governments. A situation which results in flawed, limited and ineffective solutions – solutions that do not address what “peace” means for girls and women. One of the greatest concerns about Hillary Clinton’s stepping down from office is that the hard-fought for emphasis on these issues, clearly still not in the forefront as a matter of course, will once again fall by the policy wayside. Besides, she is one, albeit smart, dedicated and determined, woman.  However, if an opposition government is ignoring women and their voices after the conflict, how does this differ from our government ignoring them for the purposes of assessments and policy before and during? If gender-based dimensions of war and conflict (and the unique role that sexualized violence plays) continue to be unrecognized in assessments of conflict like the one above what reasonable expectation can we have that women will be considered in transitional, post-conflict policy formulation and peace-seeking solutions?

Anderlini, who has expertise in gender dimensions of war, peace and security, has been working closely with Syrians who run non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country, as well as those organizing care and relief in refugee camps in Lebanon and Iraq, sees a consistent pattern: “The men outside are talking power, while the women inside and in the refugee camps are shouldering the responsibility for caring for the young, the old, the sick and the traumatized,” she explains. “Yet their own future is at risk if the coalition turns out to have regressive attitudes towards women’s status in society.”

Victim-blaming is regressive. Honor-killing are regressive. Failing to mention rape in an assessment document to Congress is regressive. Not including women and their perspectives in government, planning and transition is regressive. “Family friendly” media is regressive.

But, I think it goes beyond regressive attitudes. I think it is a kind of collusion to ignore that this is happening.  It shouldn’t take a young Indian woman’s being raped to death to spur thousands to demand change or Syrian women being fed to rats for us to pay attention to what is going on.   Assaults like this can’t be accurately reflected in the word “rape” which, after all, is a trending humour topic these days.  But, apparently, that’s where we are.

Rape is a symptom of a deeper violence in culture, one that treats girls and women as objects and property.  When girls and women are raped, it serves many different purposes, none really to do with sex, but always having to do with power.   When boys and men are raped they are effectively “made” into girls and women as a way of debasing them and demonstrating their worthlessness. The dishonor isn’t in the victim’s shame – whether they’re children or adult men or women. It’s in the actions of the perpetrators and those who pretend that the rapes they conduct either aren’t happening or don’t “really” matter.


*Multiple corroborating reports from the International Relief Committee, Women Under Siege, Amnesty International, the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the International Civil Society Action Network.



Photo credit Jeff_Werner via the Creative Commons License

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