The Letter of the Law: Syrian Legislation and Violence Against Women
Sawsan Zakzak, Syrian Women’s League
It is easy to externalize violence against women as the fault of extremists, or the brutal tactics of the regime.
Sawsan Zakzak, member of the Syrian Women’s League, begs to differ.
The violence against women in the armed conflict is an extension of discrimination against women found in the law.
And she has the credentials to back it up.
Based in Damascus, Zakzak has been a political and women’s activist in Syria for over 36 years. She is a member of the Syria Women’s League, the longest operating women’s organization in Syria, one of founders of the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy, and a member of the Women’s Advisory Board, which consults directly with the United Nations special envoy to Syria.
Recently, SWL conducted an ambitious study on violence against Syrian women, which studied gender-based violence across the country.
Some results documented what Zakzak already knew: that with violence against women normalized through Syrian legislation, Syrian women have, unsurprisingly, been subjected to immense violence throughout the Syrian uprising and subsequent the conflict.
At the same time, however, SWL’s research illustrates the important point that all sides of the conflict are complicit in committing violence against women.
It seems that everyone is focusing on Daesh, but they are not alone in this. All sides of the armed conflict are committing immense violence against women.
Daesh`s violence is the extremist kind.
For example, armed groups such as Jaish al-Islam have kidnapped groups of Syrian women, “All of the armed groups have restricted the rights of women,” she said. “The freedom of movement, the freedom of clothing, etc,” she continued. In addition, the majority of women who were released ostracized for bringing shame to their families.
On the part of the regime, Syrian government forces have engaged in violence, hostage-taking, and the arrests of women, including as a means to pressure families of anti-government activists or rebels. Women have also born the brunt of the regime’s siege tactics as they struggle to keep their families alive while being cut off completely from the outside world.
This reality does not surprise Zakzak, returning once again to the unequal treatment of women enshrined in Syrian legal system.
The ideas of Daesh are found originally within Syrian law. For example, under the Syrian Personal Status Code, 'a woman is a kind of property.'
And if you look at the woman nicknamed, ‘the Mother of Daesh,’ she is a graduate of Syrian schools!
It is true, Zakzak said, that Syrian women are subject to violence under even normal circumstances. But with most headlines focus on war-based atrocities, Zakzak emphasized the need to recognize the war’s role as an enabler of even further violence against women.
With millions of Syrians having fled Syria, and millions more internally displaced, domestic violence against women, for example, remains a rarely regarded subject in the context of the wider civil war.
“Whether inside Syria, or in the refugee camps, women are subject to the harshest forms of domestic violence,” Zakzak said, noting that this was a key finding of the research of SWL.
Domestic violence has increased significantly, Zakzak said, due to poverty, unemployment, and men’s feeling of powerlessness, particularly with respect to providing for their families and protecting them.
And while domestic violence may seemingly pale in comparison to multi-year sieges and barrel bombs, Zakzak believes that ending violence against women, now and in the future, is an indispensable element of restoring peace to Syria.
It is, to her, an absolute must: something which she even incorporates into there research methodology.
“Through our research, we do not treat the women as victims, but as survivors and resisters to violence.” Zakzak stated. “They become resisters,” she continued and develop capacities to stop violence committed against themselves and against others.
To Zakzak, these women are an essential piece of her big plans for the role of Syrian women after the war in the rebuilding of a new, future Syria.
Of course, the primary goal is to end the war. To stop the armed conflict, but also women take part in defining the vision for a future Syria.
And for Zakzak, she has a clear idea of where to start: the criminalization of discrimination, as well as criminalization of violence against women, written into the new Syrian constitution.
If there is no law to protect me,” she said “I am unable to protect myself.
Without a legal system that ensures the equal treatment of women, and protects them from violence, Zakzak believes that Syrian women will continue to be subject to violence, without recognition, and without recourse.
There is no woman in Syria who is truly able to protect herself from discrimination or violence. Not without changing the law.