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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Kurdish Mobilization for the Murdered Girl

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Dunya

A few days ago the horrifying news about a young girl who was the victim of a honourkilling in Dohuk in Northern Kurdistan spread over the world. Dunya, a 15-year-old girl who was in an arranged marriage with a 45-year-old man, according to kurdishrights.org his name was Sleman Ziad Younis, had been killed by him and the photos of her mutilated body filled the internet.

These news are unfortunately not rare in Kurdistan. Violence against women is a wide spread phenomenon – I dare saying this as I have worked with women’s rights issues in the region – and many of these crimes are swept under the rug and forgotten. Only in 2011 domestic violence became illegal in Kurdistan and even though this legal change marked a great step forward, the process of actually implementing the law and change attitudes is very long, as always when a society is in a process of change and is developing from a troubled past. Unfortunately the change was not quick enough for Dunya.

But in the aftermath of the petrifying news something happened. Women’s rights groups – there’s quite a few of them, consisting of both men and women – started to call for a mobilization against what had happened. I actually first found out about this story when one of my male Facebookfriends who is a human rights activist changed his profile picture to the picture of a young Dunya. Progessive Kurdish media condemned the causes of the murder, not only the act itself; Dunya’s parents selling off their little girl to an old man, the society not taking actions against it. Events were being set up to demonstrate against  violence against women and in support of the girls as Dunya. Yesterday May 29 the first event was held, a demonstration outside the Kurdistan parliament in Erbil called “Stand up for Dunya”.

I asked my Kurdish friend Camaran who went how he thought the event was, and he answered:

Today I went to the civil protest that took place in front of the Parliament, and continued for an hour in which the civil servants and human right activists spoke about the ordeals that women experience in their daily life in Kurdistan. 

Dunya has become the symbol of such brutality. A 15 years old child!

But I was generally disappointed at the number of participants… out of 2000 something people that responded to the event on Facebook, only around 150 people showed up.

But even though Camaran was disappointed fewer people than expected showed up, the event marked an important change. Also the fact that he as a man was there and participated in the struggle, just like my other male friend who made Dunya’s photo his Facebook profile picture. Some years ago a similar sight would have been impossible.

Photo credit: nrttv. com

Remembering Halabja

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Monument at the Halabja memorial site

On March 16 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his own population, the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq. All of these photos are from the cementary and memorial of the genocide in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan, when I visited it two years ago.

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Graves in the cemetary

Between 4.000 to 5.000 people died when the Iraqi airforce indiscriminately bombed the village of Halabja with chemical weapons. What was the reason? The Kurdish people wanted independence, they want to be free from the brutal suppression of the Saddam regime.

Men, women, children and animals all died, some directly, some after a few minutes of vomiting or laughing hysterically. Between 7.000 to 10.000 more people were injured, blinded or paralyzed by the gas that is believed to have included nervgas and mustardgas, injuries that are still today effecting the people that were lucky to survive the attack. Or should we say unlucky? Because what happiness can you experience in life after surviving a genocide?

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Memorial site

The Halabja genocide took place centuries ago but the act of erasing a rebellion by gassing people to death is a method that is still being used by dictators whom are desperately clinging on to power no matter what suffering it brings their own countrymen. Tomorrow is the international day for remembering the victims of Halabja – but let’s also keep in mind the people in another country, where civilians have been subject to the same crime against humanity as recent as last year. Let’s keep in mind our brothers and sisters in Syria.

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Memorial site

Who Cares About a Dead Iraqi Anyways?

On a week like this, when 55 persons in Baghdad has been killed by bombs in a vegetable market; outside a mosque and in residential areas, I feel with the Iraqis, and I feel with the families of the assassinated civilian people that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 55 persons of yesterday were not the only ones: last month almost 1.000 people were killed all over Iraq.

And I’m relieved that I’m not working for an Iraq mission as I have in the past, even though safely tucked away in the comfort of Kuwait or Iraqi Kurdistan. Relieved because I don’t have to work Skype and the phone to make sure none of my Iraqi colleagues are among the murdered. Because what would happen if they were?

No one would be hunted down by the local police and tried in front of the justice system, where they would get their rightful punishment, that in turn would discourage others from committing the same crime. No office or NGO would close for the day or a minute of silence be demanded in order to respect the dead. No debriefing would be given to the other staff to help them cope with the loss. Work would carry on as normal and the organization would send their condolences to the family while starting the recruitment process for someone new. Years back in an Iraq mission, my expat colleague whose team member was taken from his own house under gunpoint by one of the many militias, and tortured for hours before being killed, was left on her own to choke back tears in front of her laptop after the murder. Because who cares about a dead Iraqi anyways?

The colleague of ours was actually a person, a real human being. He happened to be friendly and everyone in the office liked him. He had a family that loved him, a mother and a father, sisters and brothers that missed him deeply when he was gone. But in the eyes of many he was a nobody, just another dead Iraqi. I rest quite assured things remain the same for the Iraqis whose lives are lost today.

Turkish Police Brutality Silenced Online

Protesters in IstanbulJenny, please write about this in your blog! The government is doing terrible things to the people and our media is just playing mute and deaf

A Turkish friend e-mailed me today. She’s a regular Turkish young woman, uninterested in politics, who never showed any interest in activism or talking politics with me before. Attached was a link, where it said Turkish police had gassed the protesters with teargas, gassed the subway in Istanbul and an emergency room where patients of the attack had been treated. The link is now removed, as are blogs I’m trying to access- it seems the media is really being silenced from somewhere higher up.

A number of protesters had gathered in Taksim, the beautiful heart of Istanbul where protesters usually gather, to act against that the Gezi Park was to be taken down in order to give place to something else. Having known political activists in Turkey I know how the police and military usually used hard core methods when cracking down on activists – but this brutality is something new to me. Probably also to my friend, a patriot at heart, who never complained about her country before.

I will not publish the most horrific photos here as I want to keep the blog free from such pictures (you can easily find such pictures online anyway), but I’m asking you to share my blog post and these news. Turkey is a popular tourist resort that is trying to enter EU. The never ending brutality towards minorities and the population that are protesting in a peaceful, democratic way can only come to an end if the international community starts to be aware and put pressure on the current government. If Turkish bloggers can’t share the news, let us who are outside do it.