As embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad fights for his political survival, many negative adjectives can be found to describe the brutality of his regime in its attempts to crush the opposition and win the civil war, which has decimated and fragmented Syria. However, one issue that cannot be denied is that under his autocratic rule women and minority groups enjoyed rights and protections frequently denied to women and ethnic and religious minorities in other parts of the largely undemocratic Middle East. Ironically, some of those who now battle to oust the despotic Assad, also seek to reverse the rights and freedoms Syria’s women were able to enjoy.

With large swathes of the country under the control of Islamists, and more religious fundamentalists flocking to the battle weary country to join the war, and attempt to enforce Shariah Law, the abuse of women’s and minority rights once again rears its ugly head.

Reports of women, including Christians, being forced to wear full Islamic garb are only one of the new problems Syrian women are now facing. Al Qaeda-linked extremists also recently warned Christians against showing signs of their religious affiliation publicly and stated they would have to pay a special tax.

Rape, torture, murder, imprisonment without trial and people disappearing without trace are rife, with forces on both sides of the conflict perpetrating these war crimes, often against minority groups.

But the patronising attitude of the fundamentalists has backfired in some instances with a number of Salafists and Al Qaeda-linked militants making the mistake of assuming that women could not present a military threat.

In February a group of veiled women arrived at a roadblock in northern Syria, manned by armed followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant organisation, which is sympathetic to Al Qaeda. The men decided against carrying out physical security checks on the women because of a religious ban against it. Shortly afterwards the Al Qaeda supporters were shocked when the women opened fire on them. Following the incident, the organisation, which dominates most of the rebel areas in northern Syria, decided to establish a unit of female jihadist fighters for the first time and placed them at roadblocks specifically to deal with women trying to pass through. These women are called muhajirat (immigrants in the name of religion).

One such unit, the Al Khansa Battalion, is named after Al Khansa, a devout Muslim who dedicated poetry and eulogies to jihad fighters after losing four sons in a war against Persia during the time of Prophet Mohammed. There are pictures and a number of videos on the Internet showing these women in full battle dress, as well as a hijab and veil covering their hair and faces, pledging their support to various extremist groups.

An anonymous fatwa or jihad al nikah was distributed in 2012 – a religious ruling calling on Muslim women to go to Syria to encourage the jihad fighters in their war against the “heretics” by offering sexual favours to the jihadists for the sake of the Muslim nation. These deluded women were, in the best of some pretty grim recorded scenarios, married off to jihad activists or, more usually, sexually abused by large groups of men. Nevertheless, female volunteers came forward in considerable numbers.

This surprising response was particularly notable in Tunisia, to the point that it required the authorities to intervene in order to stamp out the phenomenon.

Despite the propaganda value of these female jihadists for the Salafist and Wahhabi rebels, fighting to overthrow Assad’s secular and socialist regime, the status of women has not only deteriorated in Syria but also elsewhere in the region despite the Arab Spring originally promising to afford women new rights.

Not so long ago, during Hafez Assad’s (Bashar’s father) rule, female army soldiers were seen on Syrian television standing in groups of three, holding snakes in their hands and biting them fearlessly in an attempt to portray women’s equality with men in the country’s armed services.

Women comprised over half of all university students in Syria, they had careers and many were involved in political life with some gaining prominent positions in government. Some 12% of Syrian parliamentarians are women, with Bouthaina Shaaban, President Bashar Assad’s media advisor, a clear example of a woman’s ability to move up in the ruling Baath party.

However, the situation changed dramatically in three distinct phases during the revolution. At the start when protests were peaceful large numbers of women attended the protests and street demonstrations, some wearing veils in the colours of Syrian flag, in order to remain anonymous and protect themselves from the intelligence services and also to protest against the Syrian governments attempts to ban the veil.

But at the second stage, when the protests turned violent, women as well as men became subject to arrest, torture and murder. In the third stage, as the civil war developed, the women stayed away from the streets, although many continued their protests from home through propaganda and by posting videos on YouTube.

The women’s protests were driven by patriotism and shared by members of all factions, including Alawite women from the religious sect to which the Assads belong. They called for a just and democratic regime in Syria, which would honour human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular.

There has been a notable disintegration of any unity, with ethnic minorities facing persecution and simultaneously being the perpetrators of atrocities against Syrian Sunni Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

The strongest division appears to be between the ruling minority Alawite Sect, from which Assad’s most senior political and military associates are drawn, and the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, who are mostly aligned with the opposition.

The Syrian government maintains a gang network known as the shabiha, a shadow militia that anti-government activists allege use force, violence, weapons and racketeering, and whose members primarily consist of Alawites. The two Shi’ite armies of Houthi and Hizbullah, have both become embroiled in the Syrian conflict, with Iran’s backing of Assad pointing conclusively towards sectarian motivations.

The conflict has also drawn in other ethnic and religious minorities, including Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmens. Meanwhile, Christians, the targets of some Islamist extremist groups, are reported to be some of the biggest supporters of the Assad regime.

Mel Frykberg

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