Syrian women suffer inside their country and out

Oliver Holmes
File photo shows a woman holding bread in Minbij city in the east countryside of Aleppo
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A woman holds bread in Minbij city in the east countryside of Aleppo in this October 18, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Aref Hretani/Files

By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Some Syrians say outrage over the sentencing of a teenage girl was a spark that started the country's two-and-a-half year revolt.

A month before protests started in March 2011, Tal al-Mallohi - a 19-year-old who blogged about wanting to shape her country's future - was sentenced to five years in jail on charges of spying.

Having already been imprisoned for over a year, Mallohi was brought to the court chained and blindfolded. Her mother, who was waiting in the courtyard, burst into tears.

A Syrian court granted Mallohi amnesty last month as part of a three-way hostage swap. When she emerges from prison, she will find her country radically changed.

Women in Syria have been targeted by Syrian security forces during the revolt and civil war, rights groups say. Thousands have survived rape and torture and Syrian jails have filled with women and girls.

But forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are not the only enemy to women in Syria - hard-line Islamists are stripping them of their rights, too. Outside Syria, refugees say desperation is forcing some to marry off their daughters as child brides and aid workers report an emerging sex trade in camps.

Syria ranked 19th out of 22 Arab states in a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on women's rights (poll2013.trust.org), slightly better than Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt.

The survey of gender experts carried out in August and September was based on key provisions of a U.N. convention against gender discrimination that almost all Arab states, including Syria, have signed.

Experts rated Syria badly in most categories, including gender violence, reproductive rights, economic inclusion, treatment of women within the family and attitudes towards women in politics and society.

They also said the war had had a devastating impact on women's rights, putting millions of women and girls at risk of trafficking, forced and child marriage and sexual violence.

ABUSE IN JAIL

A Syrian lawyer, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity from the capital, said that female detainees she visits in jails have bruising, open blisters on their feet, skin and eye infections and dried blood on their bodies.

Another Damascus-based rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, said women were often imprisoned without charges. Some are held because they smuggled food through army checkpoints. Others had photos of anti-Assad rallies on their phones.

"None of them have carried weapons and fought against government troops," he said, estimating that 3,000-4,000 female prisoners still live in detention in Syria.

He said many died due to torture, lack of medical care or asphyxiation. He said they were often kept in underground dungeons that have no sunlight, and some with small children.

In one of his cases, an entire family with six children was detained, Bunni said. Some women are also imprisoned as hostages to be traded with their male relatives wanted by the state, he said.

"There's the added humiliation of being tortured by men, and the women sometimes are forced to be nude," he said. "There are cases of rape while in detention, and if she's not raped, she's probably been threatened with rape."

Bunni has a pregnant client who says she was raped in jail.

A MESSAGE TO SOCIETY

New York-based Human Rights Watch has documented accounts of sexual assault in jail and during army raids - one on a girl as young at 12 - in what it says is a tactic "to humiliate and degrade".

Sema Nassar, a Lattakia-based activist documenting rights abuses against women, says that because the government doesn't acknowledge that these abuses occur, it has been hard for her to openly reach out to survivors.

"For example, we have a system in place to help raped survivors to test for pregnancy and diseases and offer psych help. And we help if they want to abort and we even have a shelter for children who are the result of rape, all funded by Syrian expatriate doctors," she said.

"But we can't advertise it, or work in the open, because no one admits to it, starting with the regime itself."

Women have played an integral part in Syria's uprising-turned-civil-war, from supporting rebels to smuggling contraband and running underground networks of humanitarian relief in besieged areas.

The Syrian revolt started with peaceful protests that were met with gunfire by state security. After several months, the revolt armed itself and now more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

REBEL RULES

Although members of Assad's Alawite sect hold the most powerful positions in the country, Syria was run as secular state. Women say the misogyny and oppression they now face at the hands of the Islamists is a regression.

A Syrian woman from the east, who says she supports a secular peaceful opposition movement, told Reuters she prefers to stay on the government-held side of Syria because, although she faces dangers, she is not harassed because she is a woman.

"I don't trust our opposition in Syria. I don't think our lives will get better, especially for women," she said on condition of anonymity, adding that some rebels say women should reduce their role to household tasks and food shopping.

All-male courts run by rebel factions who say they are implementing Islamic law have been set up in opposition-held areas of Syria.

Islamists in one neighborhood of Aleppo issued an order in July banning women from dressing in what it considered provocative styles, angering some who accused the group of overstepping its powers.

One Islamist rebel told Reuters that women in the Syria he envisioned would only be able to work in female-only environments, such as non-mixed schools and hospitals.

Residents of eastern desert towns near the border with Iraq say that rebels are forcing women to wear veils.

More than two million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries as refugees but on the outside, women face further challenges.

There are reports of men from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries taking advantage of families' desperation to seek young brides among refugee communities, aid workers say.

Refugees and aid workers in Lebanon and Jordan also report that prostitution is rising in the camps.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and a journalist in Damascus who cannot be named for security reasons; Editing by Tim Large and Sonya Hepinstall; For full coverage of Thomson Reuters Foundation's poll on women's rights in the Arab world, including interactive info-graphics, visit http://poll2103.trust.org)