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'I must save my life and not risk my family’s safety!': Untold Stories of Syrian Women Surviving War (Part 2)

[A screenshot from the documentary Not Who We Are by Carol Mansour. Available at Forward Film Production] [A screenshot from the documentary Not Who We Are by Carol Mansour. Available at Forward Film Production]

 [This article is the second in a two-part series on untold stories of Syrian refugee women. Click here to read Part 1]

 

Mona’s Story

Mona is a warrior (both figuratively and literally) who does not match the mainstream media and Refugee Not Campaign’s representations of Syrian refugee women’s as passive powerless victims in the ongoing conflict. Mona (30 years old) is from a small village in Dara’a Governorate. She studied just until the sixth grade, and she got married at age 15 as did most of the girls in her village. She has an 11-year­ old daughter who has growth hormone deficiency disorder and thus physically appears to be 7. When I interviewed Mona, she resided with many members from her close and extended family in a small modest apartment in Amman’s outskirt. Unlike many other women and activists who I interviewed, Mona actively participated in the armed rather than peaceful phase of the Syrian Uprising. She used to work smuggling defected soldiers from the Al-Assad regime’s army and helped many of them join the Free Syrian Army (FSA). She was also an informant for the FSA and had a satellite phone in order to communicate with them and inform them about the Syrian regime’s military locations that they should target. When most of her female relatives and friends left her village seeking a refuge in Jordan, Mona was one of very few women who stayed in the village working alongside the male fighters in the FSA. Mona confessed that Al-Assad regime’s army was tolerant, at the beginning, with women, and the soldiers did not investigate or suspect women. Therefore she and another woman used to hide weapons and ammunition under their clothes and thus passed the regimes’ checkpoints without inspections to smuggle the arms to the FSA. However, Mona’s actions were uncovered by the regime, and her name, among other women’s names, was placed on the wanted people lists. At that time, Mona’s father, who supported his daughter engagement with the revolution begged her to leave Syria. Realizing the increased dangerous, Mona escaped Syria with her 11-year­ old daughter before the regime had the chance to arrest her.

Mona did not tell me an exact timeframe for her story because of different security issues such as that her husband and father are still fighting in Syria with the FSA. She left Dara’a Governorate with approximately 1500 persons heading to Jordan during a night when the regime launched an intensive bombing to her region. They walked for four hours under the bombing to reach the Jordanian borders. A group of Free Syrian Army soldiers accompanied them, and they gave the children sleep-inducing drugs to prevent them from crying and thus disclosing their location to the Al-Assad regime troops. Mona stayed in the Za’atri Refugee Camp for 12 days, and then she fled from the camp with her extended family who were already in the camp. She described her experience at the camp: 

The Jordanian army welcomed us at the border and took us via buses to the camp. When I saw the reception tent and that we’ll sleep on the bare ground, I was shocked. I wanted to go back to Syria. We were given a slim sleeping mattress, a pillow, a blanket, and a meal for each individual. It was so freezing cold, and the blanket did not warm us! I gathered all the young children in my family around me and tried to put all our blankets together as layers to warm us a little more!

 

The direct reason for Mona and her family to escape the camp was, similar to Karima’s reason, the snowstorm that hit Za’atri Camp in the winter of 2013. The storm crushed their tents. Mona and her extended family slept in one of the camps’ school buildings for three days. When they went back to their tent locations, the tents had been stolen[1]. The family escaped Za’atri with the help of an activist group.

In Jordan, Mona had to face daily economic insecurity that take away her time and quality of life. It was true that Mona and her family escaped Za’atri but this did not mean that they survived the frustrating housing conditions. Mona and her daughter shared a one-bedroom apartment with several members from Mona’s extended family, which includes Mona’s mother, Mona’s mother-in-law, Mona’s two brothers with their wives and children. The apartment rent was140 JD (about $200) per month and the monthly bills such as electricity and water exceeded 135 JD. In Jordan, a Syrian legal work permit in Jordan is extremely difficult and expensive to obtain. So people such as Mona’s brothers were subject to shadow work exploitation (they worked illegally in construction jobs). The UN aid plus what Mona’s brothers earn was very far from giving the family enough for survival. Despite this challenging housing condition, Mona and her family do not wish to go back to the Za’atri camp ever.

A few months before I interviewed Mona, she was with her mother-in-law who had a diabetes medical check at Akilah Hospital[2]. In the hospital corridor, Mona was waiting with her daughter when a man called Amr approached them to say that he helps Syrian women without a male provider. Amr told Mona that he has available apartments for such women that were donated through a philanthropist. Mona was attracted to the idea but before going with the man to see the apartments, she covertly called her brother to inform him about the situation. Once Mona left the hospital with Amr, 11 other women also in the hospital did the exact same thing. The man grouped them based on their Syrian region of origin. Mona and her daughter were grouped in a taxi with three other women from Dar’a. In the other two taxies were 4 women from Homs and 4 from Damascus’ outskirts. The promised place was in Al-Zarqa Al-jadidah[3].       When Mona got into to the taxi, Amr was in the same car as she was. He called the apartments’ donator to inform him that he “has good news” and that he “brought women from Dar’a.” Mona felt insecure about this call, and she felt that the man’s accent and tone had changed when he talked on the phone. She whispered in her daughter’s ear to pretend to play with their mobile phone and to take a photo of Amr. Mona’s daughter did that, and they had the photo. Amr told the women in the taxi that he just has checks and no cash and asked them to pay now for the taxi and he would reimburse them once they arrive. Mona paid her only 5 JD (about $7) and was left without money. The car took different long side roads, so Mona was not able to memorize the travel route. When they arrived to the promised apartments, Mona and the other women discovered that they were brought to a house for prostitution. An old man was running the place and he was angry with Amr when he discovered that Amr brought older married women with him not young virgin women. Mona was furious. She urged the other women to not eat or drink anything[4]. She threatened Amr and the old man with actions by Free Syrian Army. The old man said that they do not force women to prostitution and they are free to go. Mona and the other women left without any money. They walked a few blocks until they saw a shop where the owner felt solidarity with the women and gave them money to pay for a taxi to take them back to Amman. Mona told her story to a Jordanian Palestinian male activist, who is known to be connected to international media, asking him to publish the mobile photo of Amr and warn other women and the authorities about him. The male activist took Mona’s mobile phone, transferred the photo to his mobile phone, and then deleted it from Mona’s phone. Mona was left without evidence and she was not able to continue her attempts to investigate the case of Amr and the prostitution house.

Mona’s strategy to survive the Syrian War was manifested in different forms of resisting political and patriarchal oppression in both Syria and Jordan. In Syria, she did not only challenge her traditional gender role by smuggling both small arms and defected soldiers but also she was active participant in the armed conflict by working as an informant for the FSA and engaging in military planning. As an uneducated mother from a poor rural region, Mona already had experiences in public spaces inside Syria through working in farming for almost her whole life and later through working with the FSA. Thus, when she arrived in Jordan, it was more likely that she would embrace her new role and life easily and quickly in comparison with women who were from her same class but from urban regions and thus may have lacked experiences in public spaces. Such experiences empowered Mona to act appropriately and immediately when she was trapped in the prostitution network. However, similar to all other refugees from lower classes, Mona continued to suffer from severe daily economic insecurity in Jordan and increasing hostility from the hosting community.

 

Sima’s Sotry

Sima (52) is an example of skilled refugee women who moved to Jordan with proficient expertise but they were marginalized from Syrian mainstream activist organizations because of their place of origin and age. Sima is a widow from Al-Tall, a small city in Rif Dimashq Governorate. Sima got married to a male cousin at age 17. It was a first-cousin marriage, thus two of Sima’s six children have mental and physical disabilities. Once Sima got married she moved with her husband to Saudi Arabia where her husband was working. She got her Baccalaureate certificate (high school) few months after marriage, and then she fulfilled her passion in pursuing courses in fashion design. A few years before the Syrian Uprising had started, Sima and her family went back to Syria where she established a fashion and crafts design training institute in her hometown Al-Tall. Sima’s children have professions in the medical, engineering, and teaching fields. When the Syrian Uprising began, all Sima’s children were involved with it.

One of Sima’s children, Nizar had “an identity crisis for many years,” and he joined contradictory extremist groups. Nizar joined a Satanism extremist religion group while he was attending medical school for surgery in Jordan. Because of this, his family transferred him to a university in Bahrain where this time he joined a branch of Al-Qaeda and through them got involved in terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government imprisoned him, and later he was transferred to a Syrian prison in Damascus. Thus, in mid of March when the Syrian Uprising started, Nizar’s name was immediately placed on the wanted peoples lists regardless of the fact that he had abandoned his affiliation with Al-Qaeda. However, Nizar along with 15 other persons from Al-Tall participated in one of the Umayyad Mosque early demonstrations in Old Damascus. Sima accused Nizar’s uncle of reporting him to the intelligence. Nizar was imprisoned again and severely tortured. March 25, 2011 was the first time Sima was requested for interrogation. On the one hand, the Syrian intelligence aimed at terrorizing Sima to disclose any information about her son’s activities, and on the other hand, to put pressure on her son to cooperate with them. Nizar was released early in June 2011 after Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty that covered political prisoners. Though such harassment of Sima by Syrian intelligence did not stop. All Sima’s children (males and females) stayed involved in the Syrian Uprising, and they joined the Free Syrian Army groups in Damascus suburbs where they all held tasks of fighting and/or securing medical assistance in field hospitals. Thus, Sima was continuously a subject of security harassment and interrogation.

On September 2012, Sima’s and son Nizar’s houses had fallen under retaliation from Syrian regime troops. The Syrian security invaded Sima’s house, stole everything, and destroyed what they could not take. Her son Nizar’s house was burned. Sima showed me pictures of her house and family. She was sad where she referred to a handmade carpet that she made in 1987 and which was stolen on that day. Late in September 2012, Sima permanently left Syria and regularly moved to Jordan to stay at a female cousin’s house. Sima explained her moving to Jordan:

I wanted to travel to stay with my foster daughter by breastfeeding[5] in Saudi Arabia. While I was waiting for the visa, I sought activities that I can do to serve the revolution and the refugees. I was excited that a group of women learned about my work and they wanted me to find a place and be an operator of a workshop similar to the fashion and crafts design training institute that I ran in Syria. The aim was to train refugee women to produce handcrafts and then make income by selling it. I found this a great work opportunity. I had no money. We are not a poor family, but we invested all our money in serving the revolution.

 

Sima's excitement turned to frustration very soon. Her female cousin was not happy with what seemed like professional success that Sima was achieving. At the beginning, she stole Sima's money, and then suddenly she threw Sima out of her house in the middle of the night. With so little money, Sima walked through Amman’s streets until she reached the Al-Ammer building where there are rooms for cheap rent. The building had no rooms that were available. The Egyptian concierge who was working through the night told Sima she could safely stay at his room until the morning. The next day, Sima met a woman from Dara’a who told her that she can move into her apartment with her. Sima’s visa to Suadi Arabia was on hold as were all other Syrian citizens’ visas for the Arabian gulf countries, and the fact that Sima had lived there for more than 20 years and has a foster daughter there did not help her.

Inside the Syrian women’s organization that Sima worked with, she became frustrated and felt marginalized. She was underpaid, and the employers did not put her in charge of the crafts project as they had promised. The director of the organization was a young Syrian woman who was raised and educated in the United Kingdom, and she was descended from an upper middle class Damascene family. Although Sima had supervised selection of furniture and other equipments for their workshop space, the director hired project mangers who were western-educated Syrian women who had no experience in working inside Syria with lower class women. Sima expressed her opinion: “We started the Syrian Revolution because we wanted to get rid of classicism and for all of us to become equals. They underestimated me, ignored my experiences and treated me as if I am nobody.” Furthermore, Sima had a dispute with her flatmate over the prices of rent. Her flatmate wanted her to pay the entire rent for both of them because Sima was working. As a result, Sima moved to Raghadan Complex in Amman where many Syrian refugee families reside. When Sima worked with refugee women in both Amman and Za’atri Refugee Camp, that give her fulfillment. However, Sima’s poor living conditions in a small room without basic appliances such as a refrigerator as well as the marginalization at work made her make plans to travel to Egypt before the beginning of 2013 Ramadan month. I interviewed Sima two days before her scheduled flight to Cairo.

Sima’s strategy to survive the Syrian War was her attempt to recruit her own skills and talents in Jordan to make a living, on the one hand, and to serve other refugee women and the broader cause of the “Syrian Revolution,” on the other hand. However, because of her age, rural origin, and lack of proper education, Sima’s attempt was restricted and marginalized by the Syrian women’s organizations that she tried to work with. As a Syrian woman from a rural upper-middle class family, Sima’s family wealth was embodied in owning properties and lands rather than having money in cash or in bank accounts. Therefore, in Jordan, she lacked money to live fairly and thus depended on relatives and other people close to her to secure housing. However, later even relatives and people who were close to her rejected her. Such rejections highlight the ways in which host communities’ attitudes change from welcoming refugees at the beginning of the crisis to more rejection and hostility later. In Sima’s case when her situation became significantly depressing, her privilege enabled her to move to Egypt to stay at a house owned by her family.

 

Hala’s Story

Hala’s story is like one of many Syrian citizen journalists’ stories who were detained and tortured in prisons during the Syrian Uprising[6]. Hala is 21 years old. She is from a political family. Her father was one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Hama City during the 1980s, and since then he lives in exile in Saudi Arabia. Hala did not seem committed to her father’s political Islamic heritage. She is secular and does not wear any religious symbols. Hala lived in Damascus with her two brothers and mother. They had a Damascene upper middle class life. However, Hala's family life changed sharply after the Syrian Uprising. Her two brothers were detained early in the uprising. One of them died under torture and the other one still is in prison.

Since the beginning of the revolution Hala worked as a citizen journalist. She filmed news reports covering the peaceful phase of the revolution and the activism of youth and college students. She sent her video reports to Arabic news channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. She also organized demonstrations and delivered humanitarian aid. In July 2012, many of the activists and citizen journalists in Hala’s circle were arrested. She left her house and lived in hiding for seven months in a female cousin’s house. Hala’s cousin was married to a high-profile Syrian government employee and lived in a fancy pro-regime neighbored. Hala’s cousin-in-law did not know about her revolutionary activism, just his wife did. On February 10, 2013, one of Hala’s last activist colleagues who had not flee Syria, been killed, or been imprisoned called Hala from a “fake number[7].” He told her that he is in great danger and asked her if he can come and hide in her mother’s house. Hala agreed. When they arrived at Hala’s family house, Hala’s friend made a long call (more than 16 minutes) from his “fake number.” This long call was the reason that the security forces were able to locate Hala’s friend location. The intelligence agents came searching the building for him. Hala helped him escaped through the roof of her building, but the security forces captured him. He immediately confessed about Hala. The security forces invaded Hala’s house. They broke every thing and they stole all the money (around $10,000) and valuable possessions including Hala’s cameras and videotapes that she used in her citizen media activism. The security forces arrested Hala along with her friend. They accused them of being armed terrorists. They took Hala in one car and her friend in another. As soon as they put Hala in the car, the verbal and physical harassment started. When they arrived to the Forty Intelligence Center in the White Bridge neighborhood, an agent gave her a dagger and ordered her to stab her friend to prove loyalty to the regime. Hala refused, and she denied that she knew “her friend.” The agent took the dagger and stabbed Hala’s friend in the back. They severely beat Hala and then took her to a separate room. There, Hala was a subject of a technique of tortured called Strappado. Her wrists were tied with a rope behind her back and then she was suspended in the air for six hours. After one and half hour, she lost consciousness. When they let her down, they threw her body over flour bags and four men hit her small body extremely hard with rifle shoulder stocks. After that they put her in a tiny single cell (Monfareda in Arabic)[8]. Hala was tortured with various interrogation techniques such as electric shock, sexual assault, threat of rape and shaming, and food deprivation. Hala described her experience in a low and shy voice:

They severely hit me and harassed me. They said they would rape me! It is so difficult for a girl’s psyche to be subject to all of that. They made me feel that they knew everything about my most personal life details. They threaten that they will inform my family that I am not a virgin and that I am a slut who slept with the Free Syrian Army’s soldiers. 

 

Hala stayed in the Forty Intelligence Center for two nights in which she did not sleep due to the unbearable conditions of the single cell but also because of the sounds of torturing of other detainees around her. Yet what was most difficult was that the intelligence agents put her friend in the facing cell where they tortured him day and night. From the Forty Intelligence Center Hala and her friend were transferred to Al-Khatib Intelligence Branch. Hala emphasized that Al-Khatib Branch was “a horrible place that there are no words to describe.” The intelligence agents forced Hala on her knees to climb down seven floors of stairs located underground until they reached the single cell where they imprisoned her again. Hala was then subject to three days of interrogation and torture to force her to name and locate all the networks of activists and citizen journalists that she knew. Hala was born with heart disease. The methods of torture that the intelligence agents tried on Hala and her friend were significantly harsh. For example, they were subject to the Chair of Torture, where their wrists, neck, and feet were tied to a chair and then water and electricity were thrown on their bodies to be electrocuted. Hala was able to smell the burning nails and hair. She temporally lost her sight for 24 hours, and she started bleeding from her nose. Furthermore, Hala was food and water deprived for four successive days. On the fourth day in the middle of the night, she cried loudly for any food or water. A patrol of two persons came. One gave her a little water. So she asked for little food too. The other person caught one of the cockroaches that were running around in her cell and put it in her mouth forcing her to eat it as food. After three hours Hala was still muttering “food.” A watchman came with a steel can of rotten food that cannot be open without a can opener. Hala complained asking how she was supposed to open it. Her nails were long. The watchman mocked her asking to open it with her fingernails. When she answered that it is “impossible,” he called his fellow guards to came and watch. He ripped off her first two fingernails. She lost consciousness while he ripped off the rest[9]. The psychological and physical torture, especially the beating on her lower abdomen, caused Hala to have a gynecological hemorrhage for a month and 18 days. After 8 days of torture, the head of the Al-Khatib Intelligence Branch was checking the detainees when he saw Hala bleeding and about to die. He ordered her to be transferred to a civilian prison. In the process, Hala was asked to confess on the Syrian national news channel that she was a terrorist and that she regretted her deeds, but she refused. Then, she was transferred to the Terrorism Court. There, one of the employees recognized her and called her well-connected cousin. Hala’s family came in one hour after the call, they paid 150,000 Syrian pounds (around $3,000), and Hala was released. Hala went to stay in a cousin’s house in Qudsaya, a town close to Damascus. Hala mentioned:

The neighborhood was mostly Alawite and pro-government inhabitants. They knew that I was an activist and a political detainee. They threaten my family with kidnapping me. This had already happened many times in that town. There are civil militias (Ligan Sha’abiah in Arabic) that kidnaped pro-revolution people, most kidnapped people are women and girls who will be held, tortured, and maybe raped in civilian prisons. Many of these prisons are the kidnappers’ houses.

 

Because of these threating circumstances and fearing a new arrest, Hala decided to flee Syria. She escaped through Lebanon’s border, and from Beirut she flew to Amman. At the end of my interview with Hala, I asked her what helped her to stay brave and strong. She answered, “I have hope that I will go back to Syria and that our cause will win.”

Hala’s strategy to survive the Syrian War and to cope with everyday life in her refugee destination was to continue her activism by volunteering with different humanitarian activist organizations in Jordan and, at the same time, she was looking for a job. When I interviewed Hala, she had recently arrived in Jordan, and she expressed to me her interest in wanting to be interviewed for my research. While she was telling me her story, Hala mentioned that no one, not even her mother, knows about various details in her story. Hala’s effort to share her story underlines her endeavor to survive passivity and empower herself. Such an endeavor was strengthened by Hala’s background as an educated young Damascene woman from an upper middle class family. One should note that Hala had completed her higher education in Damascus; however, due to her political activism she was denied her degree certificate or transcript when she asked for them before leaving Syria. Therefore, her efforts to find a job in Jordan were restricted by both Jordanian strict employment regulations of Syrians and the Syrian regime’s "revenge" tactic of depriving opposing activists from their education certificates.    

 

Maha’s Story

Maha (40) is from a village in Dara’a Governorate. She is a mother of seven children (3-16), four boys and three girls. Maha who got married early in her life has no experience in the public sphere. Her life centered on serving her family in the private sphere. Maha’s husband was an English language teacher in a local governmental school. He provided the only family income, which was 20,000 Syrian Pounds per month (around $400). Maha and her husband had no political opinions supporting the revolution whatsoever. In fact, they preferred the safety under Syrian regime rule to the chaos after the revolution. However, these previous pro-regime sentiments did not protect their children and them from being victims of the Syrian regime’s hostility. On February 16, 2013, Maha escaped from Dara’a with her seven children. On that day, one of the fragmentation bombs hit their village, and a piece of metal that dropped from the sky fell next to her son while he was in the kitchen. For Maha and her husband, this incident was the final signal from a series of signs that seemed to indicate that Maha and the children should leave as soon as possible. Before that and for many months, Maha’s children had suffered from various psychological impacts from the armed conflict that lasted through the time when I interviewed Maha during June 2013. The psychological impacts of war on Maha’s children had manifested in different forms. For example, one of her sons had sudden bouts of crying and screaming in the middle of the night, and one of her daughters had a reaction to any loud voice that reminded her of bombing sounds and caused her to run and hide her head under several layers of sheets and pillows or crawl under tables and begin crying loudly.

When she and the children arrived in Jordan, Maha’s suffering with economic and food insecurity began. The humanitarian aid was not only far from enough for Maha’s family to survive on. But, also Maha complained that the UN food aid was generally “rotten.” This situation severely affected Maha’s and her children’s physical and psychological health. The food aid included canned foods, bulgur, rice, and lentils. There were no fruits, vegetables, eggs, or meats. This diet caused Maha’s children to have constant bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. Both Maha and her children had Anemia and sever loss of weight. In four months, Maha’s weight dropped from 134 pounds (60 kg) to 90 pounds (40 kg). To combat malnutrition, Maha, as did many other women in the Za’atri camp, developed a strategy of surviving by selling food aid at low prices in the Za’atri market[10] and instead buying “eatable items.” Maha complained about the corruption of the street leader[11] in the camp’s section where she lived. She revealed that her street leader did not distribute the non-food aid on her street, such as caravans and cleaning supplies, which generally came through individual and non-UN donors. Instead he sold these for money. Maha said that she could not buy a caravan from him because she did not have enough money. However, she bought soap from him several times because her family was so much in need of materials that would keep them clean.

Maha refused charity as a solution for her situation[12]. She said “I want to work and make my living honestly. I do not beg. I want to eat bread by the sweat of my brow.” Maha confirmed: “I wish to die instead of being humiliated.” Thus, she went to Nour Al-Hussain center asking for a job cleaning public rest rooms. The manger agreed to Maha’s request after she listened to her story. Maha signed a contract to work for a monthly salary of 150 JD (around $210). However, her contract was ripped up when another manger came and hired a woman he knew.

Maha’s husband did not accompany them at the beginning because he wanted to keep his income as a teacher inside Syria. However, after he knew about their hardship and misery at the Za’atri camp, Maha’s husband wanted to join his wife and children. He left Syria and reached Jordan’s border. However, he could not pass the border because single men are not allowed to enter Za’atri camp. Maha’s husband confirmed with the Jordanian officials that his family was inside Za’atri camp, but they did not cooperate with his case. For three days, Maha waited in front of the Za’atri camp’s manger office until she could meet him. She told the camp manger her husband’s story, and later she knew that for her husband to pass the border, he needed to pay 200 JD (around $282). Maha and her husband could not afford such an amount. Nevertheless, Maha was still hoping that her husband who she occasionally communicated with via mobile phone would join her soon. At the same time, she hoped that the products of an embroidery workshop that she joined might be sold in the future and that would bring her some income.

Maha’s strategy to survive the Syrian War and to cope with everyday life in her refugee destination was twofold: to sell her food aid and instead buy what she needed and also to register in an embroidery training program at an international organization in the Za’atari camp. As an uneducated mother from a poor rural region who suddenly became a displaced female head of a household, Maha went into severe depression and psychological distress that was reflected in increasing violence by her against her children. Thus, she expressed that spending her free time in a productive way at the embroidery training and talking to a Syrian psychological counselor at the organization made her forget her troubles. Maha’s story highlights the daily suffering of female heads of household inside the Za’atari refugee camp, and the importance of providing cash assistance for them, in the short term, and professional training, in the long term, to achieve their economic empowerment and independence. Additionally, Maha’s story calls attention to the obstacles for family reunions when an individual adult Syrian male needs to cross the borders into the Za’atari camp.

  

Conclusion

Drawing on transnational feminist perspective, I have argued in this paper that, in contrast to the dominant representations of global and social media, there is no singular category that fits all “Syrian refugee women.” Based on my fieldwork in Jordan during the summer of 2013 that included thirty-three in-depth interviews and approximately 100 hours of participant observation in addition to discourse analysis of global and social media, I have analyzed representative examples of global and social media dominant representations. To challenge such representations, I narrated and analyzed six stories of Syrian refugee women who represent different marginalized groups based on the intersection of their class, age, education, family status, and place of origin.

Thus stories similar to the examples of Maha, Sima, Mona, Rim, Hala, and Karima are invisible in global and social media representations. The stories of Maha, Sima, Mona, Rim, Hala, and Karima show how, through the process of becoming refugees, Syrian women have heterogeneous experiences. Such experiences refute the dominant global and social media representations that minimized Syrian women’s stories to not only passive victims of war but also subjects of forced marriage in exchange for money by their families. While all these women faced forms of structural violence by the Syrian regime, the intersectional relations of their class, age, education, family status, and place of origin made their experiences significantly different.

Each one --Maha, Sima, Mona, Rim, Hala, and Karima-- finds her own way to survive the Syrian War and to cope with everyday life in her refugee destination. Women like Rim and Hala, who are both educated, young, and from upper/middle class families, find a purpose in continuing activism in Jordan to help bring justice and positive change to refugee women’s lives. Women like Karima, who is a mother, uneducated and from a lower class family, find a purpose in protecting their children and securing the best future that they can afford based on their circumstances. In Karima’s case, this means escaping Syria as well as the Jordanian refugee camp and, in Amman, sending her children again to school. The individual experiences of each one --Maha, Sima, Mona, Rim, Hala, and Karima-- tell us multiple aspects about the main challenges that Syrian refugee women undergo and highlight women’s historical and political agency in coping with these challenges.

The dominant representations of Syrian refugee women invisibilize the political and economical relational issues as well as structural inequalities that impacted the ways Syrian women experience the process of becoming a refugee. Syrian refugee women’s lives are impacted by systems of power and privilege that make their voices and stories largely marginalized both in media and reality. In the media, Syrian refugee women’s representations are limited to only victims of forms of oppression by their “backward men” with no visibility of forms of exploitation that blame, for example, international organizations policies and corruption as was highlighted in Maha’s story. Syrian refugee women’s political and historical agency is manifested in different forms of resisting political and social injustice in both Syria and Jordan. However, there are systems of privilege and power that silence and marginalize some women’s voices more than others. For example, women such as Rim and Hala who have education and class privileges have more visibility in comparison with women such as Maha and Karima who lack such privileges. Additionally, women such as Sima are--because of their rural origin, age, and lack of proper education--marginalized among Syrian mainstream activist organizations in comparison with young Damascene women such as Rim and Hala. This paper highlights the ways in which online media representations robbed Syrian refugee women of their agency and invisiblize the complexity and variety of such stories of struggling for freedom, suffering from violence and war, and resisting inequality and injustice.  

[This article was originally published in an issue of Syria Studies entitled "Sympathetic Stereotypes: The Syrian Uprising in Western Media and Scholarship." Jadaliyya has republished the article as two parts]

 


[1] Although Mona accused the regimes’ agents inside the camp of stealing the tents, this idea was based more on ideological beliefs than facts.  

[2] Akilah Hospital is a Jordanian private hospital that provides free medical services for Syrian refugees based on donations from private businessmen. 

[3] Al-Zarqa Al-jadidah (New Zarqa): is one of the new suburbs of Zarqa city, which is located 25 km northeast of Amman.

[4] Mona was afraid that food or drinks would be drugged.

[5] A foster child by breastfeeding (Radaa’ah in Arabic) is the only allowed form of an adoption relationship under Islamic Sharia’a law. It is not necessary that the parents of the foster child by breastfeeding are dead. In fact, when any woman has breastfed any child under the age of two years five times, this child is considered her child. However, this child would not usually live with the breastfeeding mother. Thus, this is an adoptive relationship and not a literal adoption. But, under Islamic Sharia’a law this situation affect legal issues such as marriage. For example, Sima’s birth son is considered a brother to Sima’s breastfeeding daughter and they cannot get married. 

[6] The systematic torture by the Syrian regime against detainees gains international media visibility especially after the report that the CNN exclusively published at the beginning of 2014. The report showed thousands of photographs which were leaked by a Syrian government defector. The photographs document the killing and torturing of detainees in Syrian regime prisons (Krever and Elwazer, 2014). 

[7] A fake number (Khat Madrob in Arabic): is an appellation that Syrian activists use to refer to a phone that they operate it through a SIM card phone that they take it from a dead security agent or any equivalent person whose SIM card would not be monitoring by the regime forces.

[8] The Syrian regime is known for using this technique of tortured in which the regime agents put a prisoner in a very tiny, dirty single cell where there is no sunlight. The tiny space of the cell allows the prisoner to just sit in a squatting position.

[9]   In the middle of my interview with Hala, I noticed her fingernails’ damage. She realized that I had seen her fingernails when she explained to me what happened. She also showed me other effects of torture on her body.

[10] Za’atri market: some refugees (who have money and connections) established market-like structures on the camp’s main street where they sell goods like vegetables, meat, clothes, and cleaning equipment, among other things. Many families go to the market shops' owners to sell their food aid and, in exchange, buy goods that they need.

[11] The street leaders were men who were chosen by international organizations inside Za’atari to be in charge of each street of the camp. The mission of these leaders would be to help organizations to distribute daily food aid and materials such as clothing, tents, caravans, and cleaning supplies.

[12] When Maha told me about her situation, I wanted to connect her to some humanitarian activist groups that I know in Jordan but she refused and said that what she needs is to work not to depend on charity.  

 

References

Abu-Lughod, L. (2002). Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. American Anthropologist104783-790.

Alloula, M. (1986). The colonial harem. (M. Godzich & W. Godzich, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bhattacharyya, G. (2008). Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence, and Feminism in the War on Terror. London: Zed Books.

Krever, M. and Elwazer, S. (2014, Jan 22). EXCLUSIVE: Gruesome Syria photos may prove torture by Assad regime. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/20/world/syria-torture-photos-amanpour/

Lajiaat Lasabaya (2012). In Facebook [Group Page]. Retrieved December 1, 2013, fromhttps://www.facebook.com/Lajiaat.Lasabayaa/photos/pb.140338906108408.-2207520000.1395608623./14093071
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Mark, D. (2013, May 22). Syrian Refugees Selling Daughters as Brides. ABC.  Retrieved fromhttp://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2013/s3765230.htm

McEwan, C. C. (2001). Postcolonialism, feminism and development: intersections and dilemmas. Progress In Development Studies, 1(2), 93-111.

McLeod, B. (2013, May 10). Syrian Refugees Sold for Marriage in Jordan. BBC. Retrieved fromhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22473573

Mohanty, C. (1984). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Boundary 2, 12/13(3/1), 333-358.

Mohanty, C. (2003). Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nordstrom, C. (2005). (Gendered) war. Studies In Conflict And Terrorism, 28(5), 399-411.

Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Salloukh, B. F. (2013). The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East. International Spectator, 48(2), 32-46.

Todd, S. (1998). Veiling the 'Other,' Unveiling Our 'Selves': Reading Media Images of the Hijab Psychoanalytically to Move beyond Tolerance. Canadian Journal Of Education / Revue Canadienne De L'éducation, (4), 438.

Ward, C. (2013, May 15). Syrian Refugees Sell Daughters in Bid to Survive. CBS. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cbsnews.com/news/syrian-refugees-sell-daughters-in-bid-to-survive/

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