At least 80,000 people killed. Children detained and tortured. Civilian populations targeted. Bread queues bombed. Rape as a weapon of war…
Each of these snippets is enough to make the blood boil. Unless we’ve heard them before… unless we’re warned that accompanying reports may be ‘unverified’… unless we’re too concerned with our own insular issues… unless these atrocities happen in one of those places where women wear hijabs and deaths are approximate numbers, devoid of names or faces.
What does it say about us, ‘in this modern day and age when we have instant access to information that we as, citizens of the world, can look away as millions of people suffer’? This was the question posed by leading Syrian activist and campaigner for women’s rights Rafif Jouejati (1), speaking on RTE Radio 1’s ‘Drivetime’ on 22 May 2013.
Later that evening, she addressed a public meeting at the National Women’s Council of Ireland, chaired by Ellen O’ Malley Dunlop, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (2). At this event, Rafif focused on the situation facing the women of her country. She spoke frankly about the prevalence of rape as a particularly chilling aspect of the Syrian war, telling the audience ‘if we don’t talk about the ugliness we become complicit’. The details were horrific: gang-rapes, often in front of family members, the insertion of metal implements or rodents into victims’ bodies. The sexualised torture not only of women of all ages, but also of children – both girls and boys – and of men held in detention. The frequent killing of victims, the incineration of corpses to eliminate evidence. The impact on survivors, within a society in which the stigma associated with rape often leaves victims afraid to talk about their ordeals.
Rafif also discussed other threats faced by Syrian women whose lives are at daily risk due to the fighting. She admitted that all sides had committed offences. However, she described how, from the outset of the initially peaceful uprising in 2011, the regime of president Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for the worst atrocities and human rights abuses. How, for instance, regime forces have used Scud missiles to attack residential neighbourhoods. Rafif stressed how the inaction of the international community has allowed such oppression to continue. In addition, she highlighted the plight of women and children who have fled Syria – the thousands living in refugee camps, often without adequate sanitation and nutrition.
Listening to Rafif was a personal challenge. Her words took me back to my days as a student activist while the war was raging in Bosnia in the 1990s. During this time, I met my husband – a Bosnian who had been seriously injured in Sarajevo and who was evacuated to Ireland for medical treatment. The current situation in Syria evokes many parallels with the Bosnian conflict, not least in the use of mass rape as form of terror. As the mother of three young Bosnian-Irish daughters, these resonances are all the more disturbing.
But how, as women in Ireland, can we respond to this assault on our sisters in Syria? Or should national issues be our main concern? Are feminists too Western-oriented to care? Do Syrian women not count? Can we, female ‘citizens of the world’, ignore their fate? These questions have plagued me since... ‘How to be a woman’ (as the popular book proclaims) and knowingly let this happen? What shade of feminism is deep enough to speak against war-time rape… in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any other half-forgotten conflict? What can we DO? I can just share a few links to organisations which may be able to offer more concrete support, in particular, the Irish Syrian Solidarity Campaign. Some useful broadcasts and websites are also listed below. Perhaps, through raising awareness and taking action, we can make our own small responses to this crisis. Otherwise, Rafif’s assessment rings terribly true: ‘never again’ has become ‘oops it happened again’.
Irish Syrian Solidarity Campaign Facebook Page,
Esperanza Audio report on the visit of Rafif Jouejati,
RTE Radio 1 Drivetime radio show - Wednesday 22 May: Syria – ‘Rape as a Weapon of War,
NWCI - Rafif Jouejati Visits Ireland,
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre - Rape as a Weapon of War,
Human Appeal fundraising cycle in aid of orphaned Syrian children - 6 July 2013,
Women Under Siege Project,
International Rescue Committee - Syria Refuge Crisis.
(1)Rafif Jouejati is the Director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria - an NGO dedicated to women’s empowerment ), an official representative of the Local Coordination Committee in Syria, an executive committee member of The Day After project: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria and a member of the emerging Syrian Women’s Network (see NWCI link)
(2)Thank you to the NWCI for hosting this meeting and also to DRCC for showing their concern in relation to Syria and for all they have done to support victims of rape in the Balkans.
By Bronagh Ćatibušić
Bronagh Ćatibušić holds a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and is a lecturer, a developer of language learning resources and an academic writer.
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