Violence against Women…Or Custom against Law

A report about violations of women’s rights in the regions of the Kurdish self-administration. 

(Photo: Slevogt Faun and a Girl by Max Slevogt - [Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons]).

“I couldn’t understand the looks that the policemen were giving me. It’s like they were accusing me instead of that man. One of them even told me: ‘No need to go to work dressed like that,’ although the clothes I was wearing were just normal.”

div>(Al-Qamishli, Syria) Violence against women is a controversial issue in communities governed by social customs in the absence of the rule of law or in the presence of conflicting laws. In Rojava,, in the north-east of Syria and in the city of al-Qamishli in particular, the issue of sexual harassment and rape remains a great concern for women and it is further complicated by psychological and social pressures. Therefore, calls for amending the law and renouncing entrenched customs are on the rise.
According to a statistical study conducted in al-Qamishli by the SARA organisation for combating violence against women, 853 cases of violence were registered in the first six months of 2015.
Despite the relative openness in terms of the emancipation of women in Rojava and given the reticence of those of them who are subjected to violence, Good Morning Syria was unable to contact the women directly. However, it received their exclusive written testimonies via legal expert Rojin Habbo and social worker Himrin Harsan, who are currently carrying out a study in this regard in the al-Jazirah plain for the US organisation People Demand Change (PDC).
Young women unveil their stories
15-year old Samar (1) related that, as she was on her way to school one day, she saw a man standing by the school’s backdoor. He had removed his trousers (practically naked) and was doing odd gestures. Samar ran off to class petrified. “I’ve been incredibly scared ever since. At first, I couldn’t even talk to my father or brothers,” the girl added.
As for 26-year-old Maryam, the experience was more direct. She was on her way back from work when a strange man came up to her and hugged her in the street. She yelled until people rushed to free her. Then, her parents came and told her she had to go to the police station (the one affiliated to the regime). “When we arrived at the station, I was scared and crying. I couldn’t understand the looks that the policemen were giving me. It’s like they were accusing me instead of that man. One of them even told me: ‘No need to go to work dressed like that,’ although the clothes I was wearing were just normal,” Maryam explained.
As for the silence of those who are harassed or abused, social worker Harsan stated it should be traced back to their childhood and to the violence that some are subjected to at an early age. “When children become victims of a violent incident, they go into shock. The lack of intimacy between them and their parents, caused by a lack of communication, makes them rather introverted. As time goes by, the child realises these things on his own, but the wrong way. As a result, they develop complexes related to such topics,” she clarified.
Married off to the cousin after he raped her  
Nura is a 13-year-old girl from a rural region in al-Qamishli. She was raped by a young man from her village after she suffered from a third-degree burn in her lower body caused by the gas stove. The boy – who is her cousin and shares property of the family’s land – seized the incident that had forced the young girl to stay in bed and raped her. However, Nura, like many others, was not able to tell anyone about what happened.
Salma, a married woman and a friend of the family, told Good Morning Syria about Nura’s story, adding that, eight months after the girl recovered from the burn, the mother was taken aback when she realised her daughter had only had her period twice before her injury. Then, the family’s neighbour inquired why the girl’s abdomen was swelling. “These were the two reasons why the mother suggested that I took the child with me to al-Qamishli to be examined when I was supposed to have my baby vaccinated. However, we were shocked when the doctor told us she was eight-month pregnant. Nura fainted when she heard the news.
“When we arrived home, her mother revealed that the cousin was the culprit. The family agreed to kill the girl for a sin that was not hers, but the neighbours undertook her protection. Later on, Nura’s cousin decided to safeguard his cousin’s honour and marry her unwillingly to halt the reprisals between the two families,” the woman said.
“Once the baby girl was delivered naturally, she was thrown away in an unknown location,” Salma concluded.
Regarding the treatment of such cases, social worker Harsan told Good Morning Syria: “During the initial phase, the treatment consists of raising awareness in order to diagnose the patient during the sessions. At first, the women seem to be willing to talk, but they often stop attending the sessions due to pressures exerted by their families or husbands. Later, in the second phase, my work aims at integrating them in the community by urging them to participate in different projects and activities.”
Women’s Rights in the Law 
Women remain bound by a discriminating mentality that excludes them from the community and strips them of their rights even when they are violated, especially in cases of rape.
In the absence of social and familial awareness about women’s rights, legal expert Habbo underlined the need to amend the laws, wondering “how could a woman work and raise her children when the law (Chapter 4 of the Law of Personal Status) does not grant her custody of them?”
Habbo also pointed out the contradiction between legal references. “The Syrian Constitution of 2012, the ultimate authority, stipulates that ‘all citizens are equal in their rights and duties (Articles 1 and 2)’,” she said, “however, the law contradicts the Constitution in several sections: when it comes to ‘crimes of honour’ there is discrimination in the imposed sanction between men and women. In the case of adultery, for instance, a woman’s sanction is harsher than a man’s (Articles 192, 473 and 475).”
The expert also noted that amending the law is not enough. “Even if there were laws supportive of women, social deterrents would keep them from resorting to these texts, particularly when it comes to ethical matters. For example, the law penalises anyone who addresses a woman offensively, but the woman cannot resort to the law because custom surpasses it.”
As for the laws recently issued by the Democratic Self-Administration (2) about women in an attempt to bypass the Syrian law, Habbo expressed doubts regarding the “legitimacy of these laws and their enforcement,” regardless of their legal form, “knowing that official documents are still affiliated to the Syrian judiciary.”
In this regard, the Co-Governors of the al-Jazirah canton issued decree No. 22 of 2014, which includes “the basic principles and general provisions on women.” According to these principles, “violence and discrimination against women are forbidden, discrimination is a crime punishable by law and the Democratic Self-Administration should fight against all forms of violence and discrimination through the development of legal mechanisms and services to ensure protection, prevention and treatment for victims of violence.”

Pseudonyms were used due to the sensitivity of the testimonies.
In 2014, the (Kurdish) Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared the Self-Administration (al-idarah adh-dhatiah) along with a number of Syriac Christian and Arab parties. It is divided into three cantons: al-Jazirah, Kobani (ʿAyn al-ʿArab) and ʿAfrin.