In the early days of the Syrian revolution—before the protest movement became an armed insurrection—government forces were often reluctant to shoot female protesters during crackdowns. So some women formed human shields during demonstrations, hoping to protect the men behind them, as one 25-year-old activist from the province of Daraa recounts in a Human Rights Watch report published this week.
As the revolution intensified, the crackdowns became more sweeping and more violent—and the authorities increasingly targeted women, too. The Daraa activist—whom the report’s authors call “Nisreen”—was arrested in February 2012 and reports being held in harrowing conditions for more than a year. Screams from tortured men echoed around her, and their blood seeped onto the floor outside her cell.
“There was a small space in our door, and we could see them cleaning the ground outside our room,” Nisreen says in the report. “They would torture them with electricity and throw water on them—we could hear it all.”
Other women activists, meanwhile, were themselves the victims of horrific abuse.
In the report, researchers documented the cases of 10 women detained by forces loyal to the Syrian government. Some were targeted for the actions of male family members, but most were being punished for their own revolutionary work, which ranged from protesting to aiding war-torn families and transporting injured rebels or defectors.
They faced dire circumstances once they were jailed. Many were held without charge, according to the report, and some were released only after their families paid bribes. One 35-year-old woman, who was imprisoned in Damascus, recounted repeated torture. On some occasions, she said, she was hung from the ceiling, her toes barely touching the ground. On others, she was electrocuted while bound to a metal chair. Another woman said that an interrogator sliced her wrists, put wires into the wounds, and then charged them with electricity. Another said she was beaten on her broken leg. Two of the women accused their jailers of rape.
“Amal,” 19, recalled how an interrogator entered her cell with two other men. The interrogator raped her on the floor, she said, and then the next man followed suit. “[With] the third one, the door was open. It was in front of whoever was in the corridor,” Amal told the researchers. “I could try to resist the first one and the second one, but not the third one. I looked down and saw a lot of blood. I felt dizzy. I was crawling to my pants and blouse.”
The report’s authors say they have no evidence that police or military officials ordered these sexual assaults—but they also say the attackers were not disciplined by their superiors. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs tracking the conflict in Syria have documented widespread detention, torture, and killing of activists in the past, including at the same detention facilities in which the women cited in the recent report were held.
Hillary Margolis, a Human Rights Watch consultant who co-authored the report, notes that cases of prisoner abuse—including sexual abuse—appear to be even more widespread among men. Even if women aren’t singled out, she adds, they are paying a drastic price for their heavy involvement in the uprising. “Women have been extremely active in this conflict, and they’re playing a large role in helping to support the opposition,” Margolis says. “Because of that, they are targets.”
While the numbers can’t be verified, one Syrian monitoring group cited in the Human Rights Watch report—the Violations Documentation Center in Syria—estimates that more than 5,400 women have been detained by authorities since the revolution began. Of them, the group estimates, some 750 remain in custody.
One Damascus activist, who goes by the nickname Alexia Jade, has been involved in media outreach and humanitarian aid since the revolution started. She says the situation has become more dangerous for women activists as the government has become clued in to their role. While some used to feel that they could pass more easily through government checkpoints, for example, Jade says that women traveling by car are heavily scrutinized.
Many women activists, she adds, have been arrested from their homes. “They track them down one way or another, mostly by cellphones, or the confessions of other detainees,” Jade says. “It doesn’t matter [if an activist is male or female] anymore. They want anyone they can get."
Women remain woefully underrepresented in Syria’s fractious political opposition-in-exile. On the ground, however, they have been central to the revolution from the start. They help to deliver aid and supplies and coordinate humanitarian relief behind the scenes. They have also been key to media outreach and to transporting rebels and defectors to safety. “The media are covering the front lines, so you only see men these days. But we’re still out there working in huge numbers,” one female Damascus activist told The Daily Beast last year.
As the conflict grinds on—with the United Nations estimating that more than 93,000 lives have been claimed since the revolution began—Alexia Jade says that she and the other women activists she knows are more cautious than ever. “Most of us are not staying at home anymore, me among them. A good number of female activists left the country,” she says. “The rest of us are trying to keep working for the revolution and stay free at the same time.”
Rajaa Altalli, who runs activist-training sessions for the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, says that women are “crucial” to the revolution’s success—but are also increasingly under threat. “They do everything,” she says. “And they are facing real risk.”