Syria: A Tale of Five Women

March 6, 2012

Women activists in London for Syria
Activists gather in London to support Syria protesters.

Here is a tale of five women in Syria.  One is Asma al-Assad, As First Lady of Syria, she has long portrayed herself as a champion of women and children’s rights.  In 2008, she assured the world that women and girls in Syria were protected with equal rights. She said:

“We all deserve the same thing.  We should all be able to live in peace, stability and with our dignities. … It’s a simple basic human right.”

As her husband’s military and security forces launches a wave of repression throughout the country, Asma al-Assad, however, has done little to protect women.

Since the beginning of the protests more than 6,000 people have reportedly been killed, among them more than 200 are women and girls.  During the past year, many of the images of women in Syria offer a strong challenge to the First Lady’s claims. We saw women shouting in unity during protests, we heard reports many were injured or killed during the protests, and hundreds were arrested.

This is a more true picture of women in Syria.  Recently, Amnesty International campaigner Maha Abu Shama, while interviewing Syrian refugees in Jordan, told us about the incredible story of four women refugees who had just arrived from Syria. The women’s husbands were all on the run and their brother who was an activist was shot and killed.

The women told Maha stories about burned homes, shops, and widespread looting. They explained to her how they had to escape from Syria in the dead of night, walking for miles with their children before crawling on their bellies into Jordan to avoid being spotted by the Syrian border security:

“We had to leave Damascus for Jordan because our husbands are on the run. If they do not catch the activists they would eventually go after their families.”

The stories of these four women highlight some of the challenges facing situations of women in armed conflict. Through them we hear about the dangers facing women fleeing a situation of internal strife as they are left vulnerable to attacks. They also have to become the head of the household and fight for the survival of themselves and their family members.

Many women activists have played leading roles in organizing demonstrations and supporting them and have paid the price for their actions, including arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment.

Activist Razan Zeitouneh, for example, reported atrocities committed by security forces, including the kidnapping, arresting, torturing and killing of peaceful protestors on her website.  She was one of few sources for the international media who documented the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s regime towards Syrian people. Today, many women activists are effectively in hiding, while others have fled but continue to expose violations committed by state authorities to the international community.

As Amnesty International marks International Women’s Day on Thursday, tell Asma al-Assad to make good on her promise to use her influence to bring an end to the ongoing violence and human rights violations committed against Syrian women rights activists and to ensure accountability and redress for these women.

Mahsa Maleki, Syrian women’s country specialist, contributed to this posting.