My Friend in Syria Has Lost All Her Rights as a Woman

I lived in Syria last year, and I made a few amazing friends despite the ongoing war. I still keep in touch with them and am surprised how I could meet so many fine people in so short time.

One of them, we can call her Sarah, had made an incredible journey in life. Coming from a working class conservative family, she had been married off against her will when young. The marriage had been abusive, something she was not unused to: in her world, as she described it, “almost all men hit women”. But the violence Sarah had been subjected to had been of the extraordinary kind.

When she left her husband it was because she knew she wouldn’t survive if going back. Trauma to her head had made her loose parts of her memory and she had suffered three miscarriages as a result of the abuse. When leaving her husband Sarah had to leave her children behind and was not allowed to see them. She had the right to visit her children but was deeply traumatized, had no support from her family and no lawyer to help her access this right.

At her family’s house noone spoke to her, they didn’t approve of her leaving her husband. She stayed most of her time in a dark room, often not remembering the day before or where she was. She knew her family wanted to get her into a mental hospital, and she also knew that if they were able to make her admitted there she would never be able to get out.

“How did you make it?” I asked Sarah the one evening she opened up and told me her story, which I would have had no clue of if she hadn’t told me, despite her sad eyes, this pretty girl in modern clothes and pastel earrings. We had been hanging out for a while and were drinking wine in one of the laid back cafés in the inner city of Damascus.

“I just had to”, she said. “I read every book in the house… And I tried to remember the books I read.”

She became able to make appointments with a psychiatrist at a public hospital. She gradually became better and was able to enroll in a beauty school. One day when she was well enough she left her family’s house. She had been making money by working in beauty saloons in downtown Damascus, saving so she could rent a small flat on her own.

“You’re not allowed to move out!” her brother had told her. “You’re nothing but a whore if you live on your own!”

But the verbal abuse didn’t take hold of her, she was so used to it.

Sarah took off her abaya and hijab (“I believe in God, but I never wanted these”). She started going to the gym, started going out, started dating. After a few years she was strong enough to fight for her kids. In the meantime her ex husband had remarried and had a new child with his second wife. And the war had started.

Sarah got a female lawyer who threatened her ex husband with legal actions if he didn’t allow Sarah visitation rights. The legal system was weakened and they might not have been able to push it further, but her ex husband got scared and gave in. The children slept next to her each time they visited and cried when it was time to go back to their dad, desperate not to go.

War dragged on and effected everyone, even the people living in the regime controlled capital. Sarah wasn’t able to make a living despite working 12 hours a day. Her employer paid her a small sum of her salary and said “It’s war, I have no money to pay you”. In the breakdown of the system there was nowhere to go to claim your salary. Benefits didn’t exist. Sarah had to move back to her family, and they didn’t accept her children coming to visit. Her ex husband was happy and Sarah was back in confinement again. The war had made her loose all her rights. But worse was yet to come.

The other day she called me and told me her children were back with her. Great news! But how had it happened?

Her ex husband had been taken by the authorities and noone knew where he was. His new wife had refused his extended family to see the children. But the childrens’ uncle had spoken to them on Skype and seen them having bruises and marks on their faces. Something wasn’t right and in the end he called Sarah and told her to try take the children. He didn’t want to take them himself as the war made him having enough financial constraints with his own family.

There was no legal system anymore that would support Sarah’s attempt to get her children back. Instead she called the woman and asked if she could invite her and the children to a nice restaurant. When they met, Sarah was all smiles with the woman. In the middle of the meal she got up with the kids to go to the bathroom, then rushed them through the back door of the restaurant, and jumped in to a taxi.

Sarah’s family in the end accepted the children staying with them when they learned that Sarah’s ex husband was gone. The truth about what had happened to the children unravelled when back in Sarah’s care. Sarah’s ex husband’s new wife had abused them already when her husband was still present, probably as a revenge for the abuse she herself suffered in the hands of her husband. The children had told their father what their stepmother did but he didn’t believe them. When he disappeared the abuse escalated: she had tortured them with electricity and starved them. If Sarah hadn’t intervened I don’t know what had happened.

“They are so angry”, Sarah said. “And hungry. It’s like they hadn’t had food for weeks. You can’t believe how weak they are.”

“So what will you do now?” I asked when we were on the phone.

“I can’t do anything, Jenny. There is nowhere I can go.”

She can’t report the woman to any police authorities. There is hardly nowhere to take the children for psychological counselling. If her ex husband comes back and forces the children to return to their abusive stepmother, there is nowhere for Sarah to turn for legal help. She’s also no longer financially independent and has no control over her own life, she’s back in the hands of her own abusive family. In Syria, once a functioning country with a stable infrastructure, everything is collapsed.

When I speak to Sarah on the phone there is nothing I can say that will help her. That’s why I write about this on my blog. I want everyone to know what it’s like to be a woman or a child in Syria during this war. That’s all I can do.

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Don’t Hate

images

I wrote the post “Being from Gaza” during the Israeli attack on Gaza this summer when thousands of civilians died. Now news popped up the other day on the shooting during prayer time in a synagogue in Jerusalem and the predictable counterattacks by the Israeli army. I wanted to comment on the violence and then I found this quote on the Facebook page “Palestine Loves Israel“, a peacepromoting page (not a pro-Israel page) managed by a Palestinian. He captured things so well that I’d like to let his quote speak for itself.

I’ve been managing this page for almost 3 years and during this time, I’ve met hundreds of amazing people from both sides and from every corner of the world. We’ve endured two wars together, we’ve celebrated our holidays together (who can forget the chanukka candles from Gaza?) and mourned our dead together. During all this time, I’ve never lost hope that one day, we can live as neighbors and friends in peace and prosperity. I don’t loose hope because I know we’re all in this together.

But in times like this, I see so much hatred on both sides. It’s painful to watch. What I see is always the same: It’s dehumanization. It’s easy to dehumanize the other side, to call them monsters, to hate them. It’s much easier than to try and find a solution. In times like this, it’s a very difficult thing to reach out to the other side, especially when there is so much pain. It’s a difficult thing to show compassion for “the enemy” when you’re supposed to be hating them. Reaching out to the other side despite the traumatic pain, despite the ongoing conflict is a heroic act. Dehumanizing and hating everyone on the other side is certainly easier. But it’s not helpful. It’s fueling the fire. And the vicious cycle of hate and revenge is going on and on…

In this project, I’ve met many heroes. I’ve met Palestinians and Israelis who reached out to each other, no matter what. Who said: “I’m sorry for your pain, I wish you well” in the middle of war. Who said: “I love you so much and say hi to your mom!” despite the ongoing conflict. I’ve met so many heroes… people who changed from extremists into peace workers. People who let go their hate and replaced it with compassion. So many heroes…

No, I don’t loose hope.

Please stay safe everyone and take good care of each other. These are troubled times but we will make it through together.

Photocredit: abc.net.au (the photo is from a previous attack in Jerusalem)

Remembering Old Palestine in Photos

Photographs is a great way for knowing something that was without having been there.

Agricultural memory of Palestine is a Facebook page dedicated to show the world the agricultural heritage of Palestine through photos. Their shared images range from late 1800s up until the 1960s, and show men and women working in the fields and on the markets in the cities. The page were happy for me to write about them as they want to share their photos with the world. This is how they describe themselves:

“Our belief in the need to maintain the Palestinian memory, our goal is to strengthen the identity and belonging to the homeland and the cause. Through the page ‘Agricultural Memory of Palestine’ we highlight the heritage and agricultural history as part of an important and original aspect of our culture and the Palestinian identity.”

So what did Palestine once look like? Have a tour among the shared memories.

Girls of Betlehem 1890

Girls in Betlehem, 1890.

Peasants from Ramallah who fill water tractor-1900 m

Peasants in Ramallah collecting water, 1900.

Betlehem market 1931

Betlehem market, 1931.

Ber Sheva halal market in 1960s

Ber Sheva halal market in the 1960s.

Girls

Girls, place and year unknown.

Photo copyrights: facebook.com/agriculture.memory

First Female Prosecutors Sworn-In in Kuwait

In Kuwait women were given the right to vote and participate in elections as late as 2005, so when the news broke a few years back that the country would allow female prosecutors for the first time, this was to many a step forward. Kuwait is not as oppressive to women as some of their neighbouring countries – there’s no mandatory dress code for women, women are not banned from driving and there are fewer restrictions on work places for women than in Saudi Arabia. But it’s still behind many of the other Middle Eastern countries.

The other day the first batch of women prosecutors were sworn in, more precisely 22 of them, creating more headlines. It hadn’t been an easy path – Islamist MPs who opposed the women had delayed the process by several months, claiming that under Islamic Sharia law women cannot be judges, which they as prosecutors now have the possibility to be. In the end the new justice minister Yacoub Al-Sane (also a man) signed a decision to appoint the prosecutors, putting an end to the delay. After the women had been sworn in, MP Humoud Al-Hamdan held a press conference where he critiziced the decision and said that he and other Islamist MPs were to submit a draft law to ban the appointment of women judges, as this is against Islamic law.

Many others celebrated the event though and the group photo of smiling young women was shared widely online among Gulf people and women’s rights supporters, generating positive feedback but also comments from men such as “I can’t wait to be prosecuted in Kuwait!” and “They don’t look Kuwaiti, they must be Lebanese” (the ultimate insult for a Gulf girl).

I asked one of my male Kuwaiti friends what he thought of the women prosecutors and he gladly shared his views – on the condition that he could remain anonymous. My friend is not an activist, but he says he like to keep an eye on politics. His answer surprised me as I myself was very positive about the women prosecutors.

“I am not so excited” he says. “In 2005, I was super excited for women to get the ‘right’ of voting. But having a look into history will show something hidden. Before 2005, There was a lot of failed attempts for female activists for the right of voting. What was changed in 2005? It is external pressure. The government in Kuwait wanted to release this pressure by directing the members to vote for the right of the woman. Therefore, women were used to polish the authorities’ image to the West, and gaining this right was not because of local female activists.

The trick is using women to polish the image of the governments from the Western perspective, without allowing a real impact within the inside of the society. In all cases, what did women added in Kuwait after 10 years of gaining the right? We still see discrimination against women, less rights in the society etc.

The government today has a bad image because of funding the extremist groups all over the world, and it need to polish the image again. Therefore, women are the best tool to be used. I don’t feel that the society is pushing for more women rights. To see real impact, the change should come from the society, the average people. In fact I could say that using women this way is another way of abusing women in a completely patriarchal society. And we will never see any real impact to change the basic systematic violation of women rights.”

Let’s hope the appointment of these 22 women will be a step in the direction of real implementation of women’s rights and that this trickles down to the average people that my friend is talking about. So that the feedback for the next batch of prosecutors will generate more positive comments than sexist ones. At least they have male supporters. That’s something to cherish.

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/sultan.alqassemi