Syria chemical weapons attack puts new focus on regime crimes. One of which is rape.
With Tuesday’s gruesome chemical attack in Syria all over the news, attention has suddenly turned toward the crimes of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime—and away, for a moment, from those of the Islamic State. It is about time. Now would also be an appropriate time to recognize that media and politicians have long overlooked sexualized violence committed by the Syrian state in favor of the sick glamour of ISIS crimes.
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, the regime has perpetrated horrifying violence against its own people, such as torture, murder, unlawful detention, starvation, and rape. It’s this last one, however, that has had a low profile in global media, as well as in world politics. In fact, The New York Times published an entire story today breaking down specific atrocities committed by Assad’s men. None of the atrocities mentioned were sexualized violence.
The reasons for this absence, while multiple, are not hard to understand.
After a 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria, then-President Barack Obama declared that a “red line” had been crossed. At the time, I wondered why these weapons went past this red line, but the weaponization of women’s bodies had not. I was given a simple answer by Yifat Susskind, executive director of women’s human rights organization MADRE.
“People divide their understanding of militarized violence into normal and not normal, acceptable and not acceptable,” Susskind said. Meaning: Violence against women has become normalized.
Another reason most people overlook rape committed by the regime is that it is harder to “prove” than other crimes. We have 57,000 photos of starved and tortured bodies from a man code-named Caesar. These photos mainly show men who died in regime detention or otherwise killed by government forces. When a city is hit by barrel bombs, we know that the regime is the culprit. We can point a finger at just who is barricading a city and depriving citizens of food and clean water. These crimes have “proof.” Rape, which may or may not provide physical evidence, more often depends on a victim’s word. It is extremely difficult (although not impossible) to collect physical evidence of rape in a war zone: Where would a victim even go to offer such a thing? Hospitals have been bombed to bits and beyond that, there is a severe cultural barrier on the issue of rape.
Syrian women live in an honor culture, in which their purity is put above all else. That’s what makes sexualized violence such an effective weapon in this war. But it’s also what prohibits women from publicly speaking out. Which leaves us to document this violence in as many other ways as possible (corroborating witness testimony for example, or using satellite imagery to confirm when soldiers pillaged a particular town)—as we continue to seek survivors willing to talk.
The investigation our team at WMC Women Under Siege carried out for three years—in collaboration with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health—relied mainly on extant news reports, secondhand sources, and our own in-the-field reporting. Getting a survivor to actually speak was extraordinarily difficult—although one brave woman finally did. But we were not alone in our efforts. Groups like Amnesty and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights have done tremendous research on rape in Syria. The UN itself carried out multiple investigations and wrote up cases that exist online.
We published a number of reports on our research, including this one, which appeared on our site and in The Atlantic magazine. The report contains a breakdown of the types of sexualized violence committed against women and men (which, yes, often brings the attention that the rape of women alone cannot), as well as a look at the alleged perpetrators.
The Syrian government was reported to have allegedly committed more than 90 percent of sexualized violence.
Which brings us back to Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack. Media and political attention has for too long focused solely on the heinous acts of ISIS. While not ignoring the genocide and mass rape that ISIS is committing against the Yazidi people in Syria and Iraq, it is important to recognize that there is another major perpetrator of sexualized violence here. We also need to recognize that this even violence exists.
Yet there is no doubt that it does: “Sexual violence against women, girls, men, and boys has been a characteristic of the Syrian conflict from its inception,” Zainab Bangura, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, wrote in March 2015.
With statistics and stories of regime sexualized violence against women and men perhaps now the world will finally understand that the Syrian government has tortured, murdered, unlawful detained, starved, and raped its own people, and that there is documentation and evidence to back it up. Yes, chemical weapons should be a red line. But so should all violence perpetrated on innocent civilians who want nothing more than for their incredibly long suffering to end.
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