Revolution never arrives without its victims. The lives it changes and swallows within its jaws are the same lives who endured decades of violence, decadence, and impoverishment by the very systems that it wishes to replace. The revolutions in the Middle East deeply reflect the contradictions between the joy and pride of toppling a dictatorship and the disheartening emotions of chaos and uncertainty. In the process, deepening class, sexual, ethnic and other social divides can bring a nation to its knees. In a revolution, just as in a society that does not take care of those who are the most vulnerable, everyone suffers, but it is clear that women tend to be given a special type of suffering. A suffering that penetrates their psychological, emotional and physical well-being, the suffering of being forced to endure rape, sexual assault and abuse.
As conflict arises in the Middle East, stories are continuing to be pressed on the escalating amounts of sexual abuse against women. Just recently, another high-profile incident took place, where a white Western journalist, Natasha Smith, was sexually assaulted by a mob of men. Much like the Lara Logan case, Smith’s story was given international news attention. Smith declared that it is not just white Western journalists who are being victimized. On her personal blog, after her attack, Smith wrote:
“I have to spread awareness; it is my duty to do so. I have to do this; I will not be driven into submission. I will overcome this and come back stronger and wiser. My documentary will be fueled by my passion to help make people aware of just how serious this issue is, and that it’s not just a passing news story that briefly gets people’s attention then is forgotten. This is a consistent trend and it has to stop. Arab women, western women – there are so many sufferers.”
It was great that Smith gave recognition to the suffering of Arab women in the Middle East; however, it is also important to not homogenize experiences. A Western journalist in this context has certain privileges, one being the ability to leave the country more easily. However, slowly, the tales of Arab journalists are making headlines as well. In Diana’s post last week, she highlighted the story of Muslim Egyptian journalist, Heba Afify. A story that challenges the notions of the people who are behind the stories of the revolution.
Yet, as we all know, experiences have differed across the Middle East. In Syria, President Basher al-Assad is holding tightly to his title with the use of privatized media agency al-Dunya, despite the flow of information coming from dissenters, citizen journalists and mainstream news media (think al-Jazeera and any American news channel). As tensions increase, so does sexual violence. Human Rights Watch recently issued a report in June, documenting the shameful stories of former detainees who reported, “being sexually abused or witnessing sexual abuse in detention, including rape, penetration with objets, sexual groping, prolonged forced nudity, and electroshock and beatings to the genitalia.” Some were detained in direct connection with their activism, while others were unsure of the reason for their imprisonment.
An article written by the Guardian interviewed four women who have been affected by the conflict in Syria. They eloquently shared the stories of their deceased husbands, what life was like before the revolution, and how their lives have been disrupted. One woman in particular, Intissar (interviewees’ names have been change) possessed the burning desire to fight back:
“I am serious, I would fight. If they allowed women, I’d be the first to enroll. I have no kids, so nothing to fear. I asked my nephews, who are in the FSA, to bring me a uniform to disguise me like a man so I could fight with them. My nephews started calling me “Muhammad.””
For women like Intissar, a beacon of hope may have arrived.
Intissar, a woman from the city of Homs, is not the only woman ready to put her life on the front line to fight against the shabiha (the name used for the Syrian security forces, the army, and pro-government armed militias). A female battalion, mainly consisting of women from Homs, recently made a public appearance. Banat al-Walid is their name, a name rooted from Khaled bin al-Walid who was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The battalion states that their goal is to “…help the wounded and refugees wherever they are, to train women to use various types of weapons to protect themselves from [President Bashar] Assad’s gangs, and to monitor the regime’s crimes and ensure they are published and exposed in the media.” Banat al-Walid’s goal is deeply connected to resisting the violence that has been wrought on women and their families. The battalion illustrates a double-standard between the sexes (in a binary sense) that in this rare case benefits women. Perhaps the narrative being created around the women’s battalion is interwoven with Orientalist notions of women’s defenselessness, and vulnerable Muslim women subjected to their domineering male comrades. But they are taking control of their lives. Since access to health and psychological care after rape is limited, and that’s if women overcome societal stigma of sexual assault, there is a pressing need for a stronger force to keep the interests of women and their children on top of the priority list. Banat al-Walid provides an opportunity for women who may have the strong urgency like Intissar, or feel the need to protect their daughters and children to be equipped with the ability to do so. Although this group may not have amongst its top priorities to dismantle a sexist system that terrorizes their country, it is a testament to the audacity, strength and need to survive.
(I would like to make a note that men and children are also subjected to sexual abuse. In the Human Rights Watch Report, there is an acknowledgement that there needs to be separate services for men, who have different needs than women. The point of this article, however, is to honour the local women who voluntarily and involuntarily risk their lives each day).