Mona Burhan had already been “indirectly” threatened by female faculty members at the University of Damascus, Syria where she was studying when a female member of the Student Union accused her of being involved in anti-government protests and beat her.
On the cold morning of December 9, 2013, members of the Student Union stormed the university campus in the Mezzeh district of Damascus, demanding to see student IDs. When they saw Mona’s name, they took her to the faculty of medicine, where she was beaten and accused of participating in and filming protests, engaging with “malicious” networks and undermining President Bashar al-Assad. She was then arrested and brought to a government-run prison, where she was detained for 54 days.
From the moment of her arrest, she was beaten by men. Now a journalist, Mona, 24, told Syria Deeply, “The prison does not distinguish between a woman and a man.”
Both state and non-state actors in Syria generally treat men and women differently – except when it comes to imprisonment. Men and women are usually detained in the same government facilities, subjected to the same interrogation methods, suffer the same torture and abuse by the same guards and live in the same degrading conditions.
This is not a wartime phenomenon: A similar situation existed before the war. However, the scale of abuse in government prisons has grown massively since the start of the conflict in 2011. Moreover, in recent years the so-called Islamic State, some Syrian opposition groups, Kurdish forces and pro-government militias have been treating female detainees in the same way.
According to the independent Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), since March 2011 some 13,920 women and girls have been arbitrarily detained in Syria. As of February 2017, at least 7,500 remained in detention: 6,177 with pro-government forces, 921 with opposition forces, 357 with extremist groups (288 of which are with ISIS) and 116 with Kurdish forces. Sakher Edris from the Working Group for Syrian Detainees put that number higher, claiming that some 11,000 women and girls are either being detained or “have been disappeared” in Syria.
Besides the obviously devastating consequences on these female prisoners, there is a big knock-on effect for their families – these women are usually the primary caregivers in their households. As a result, detention in Syria has a different impact on women than men.
“From the moment of the arrest until the detained women arrive at the detention center and during interrogations, women detainees are subjected to insulting, beating and brutal and systematic torture,” according to a report from the SNHR. “The brutal physical torture is not the only form of horror women experience inside detention centers as they also suffer psychologically.”
When the war began in Syria, for many women such as Burhan no place was safe from the threat of arbitrary arrest.
By 2012 “the pattern of these arrests by government forces had changed, as systematic raids on women’s homes and arrests of women at checkpoints or barriers were introduced,” according to a report from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN). “The situation worsened as fighting escalated in the country and a number of armed opposition groups also embarked on arbitrary arrests and detention of women.”
According to a November 2016 report from SNHR, armed opposition factions “forcibly disappeared” or arrested hundreds of women and girls. At least 769 women and girls were arrested, many of them at home during opposition raids on government-controlled areas or at checkpoints.
Members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which later merged with other groups to form Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, stormed the home of Zainab al-Hamoud, a math teacher from Idlib, on June 5, 2016, according to her testimony in the SNHR report. They arrested her, bringing both her and her husband in for interrogation. She wasn’t beaten, but they threatened to kill her if she didn’t confess to providing information to the regime. She was released on June 12.
While both men and women have been arrested at home, this arrest campaign presents a unique problem for women, who are often the sole carers for their children. “When they detain a woman, they are not thinking that they’re leaving her children behind. They don’t care if her children will be alone or not,” Edris said.
One Syrian woman who gave her testimony to Edris earlier this year found out that government forces were looking to arrest her. She had no way to escape, so she quickly made arrangements for her neighbor to keep her children, aged 10 and 13, safe.
“They knew her specifically, so if they saw her they would detain her, but they didn’t know the children. The neighbors smuggled her children out of the neighborhood across the rooftops of buildings,” Edris recalled.
In a recent report on Syrian female detainees, the NGO Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) interviewed eight women who had been detained by government forces at different times, from different locations and without any connection between them. Of the eight women, all mothers with between two and five children each, “almost all … were arrested when they were caring for their children,” either at home, at a checkpoint or a border crossing, according to the report.
Among them was 30-year-old Amina, a mother of four children who was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Government forces arrested her in her home and brought her to Branch 215 in Damascus. She told LDHR that because of her arrest she had to leave her children alone in the house and they were later evicted while she was detained.
Amina said she was detained because her husband was suspected of delivering medicine to opposition forces and that government forces wanted her to inform on both her spouse and her brother-in-law.
Many women such as Amina are brought in for interrogation or detained as a way to put pressure on their male relatives and loved ones, whether to obtain information about the men, to use the women as a negotiating tool or to torture them.
“If they want to arrest someone and they cannot find him, then they will take his woman or his mother or his sister to threaten him,” Edris said.
While male and female detainees are also tortured by groups fighting on all sides of the Syrian conflict, there is an added layer of abuse for women. There have been several cases documented where female detainees in government-run detention centers were tortured or raped in front of their husbands, sons or brothers, in order to inflict even more suffering on the male detainees.
Such was the case for one Syrian man, using the pseudonym Ahmad, whom Edris met in 2014. The 60-year-old taxi driver from Daraa had been searching for his daughter who had suddenly disappeared for two weeks when he received a call from the local government intelligence branch telling him to come in for questioning. He was accused of supporting rebels and detained and tortured for 10 days.
When they realized Ahmad was innocent, the officer in charge quickly apologized to him for the brutal treatment and detainment. The officer offered him a cigarette. The officer insisted he have something to drink. When Ahmad refused, he insisted again, ordering another officer to bring him a coffee.
When the coffee arrived, it was brought on a tray being carried by Ahmad’s 20-year-old daughter. She was barely dressed, wearing only a nightshirt, without underwear, with signs of abuse and torture visible on her body and face. She had been brought in for the officer to use while threatening her father.
The officer told Ahmad that if he ever even heard that he was involved with the opposition again, he would “fuck all of his family with sticks,” Edris recounted.
“He started crying when he got to this part of the story. He told me: ‘I would rather kill myself than be in this situation,’” Edris said.
Women detained by nearly every group in Syria have described torture and punishment tactics that aim to quell dissent and spread fear to both men and women.
Samar was working as a volunteer helping families who had been displaced to the capital when she was arrested on her way home from work in the neighborhood of Barzeh on August 11, 2013. She was taken to the Damascus office of the Political Intelligence Directorate, where she was searched. The head of the branch went through her purse, and on seeing that her cellphone was more expensive than his, she said, he beat her.
“All of this is because of you and your protests,” she said he screamed in her face.
Then Samar was ordered to remove all of her clothing and an officer then took her to the interrogation room. According to Samar, the interrogator, who was in his sixties, “molested” her until he reached orgasm. After being raped, Samar was put in cell 18 for 26 days.
“When I first stepped into my cell, I saw three women crying. Nour, from Daraa, who later became like a mother to me, Raghad from the neighborhood of Midan in Damascus, and Kinanah, who had been in detention for 100 days,” she told Syria Deeply.
“The three women knew what had happened to me, because they were all molested by the same officer,” she added.
Kurdish forces have also been accused of beating, assaulting and arbitrarily arresting women who publicly show dissent, according to the 2016 SNHR report.
ISIS has also begun to use women as a tool of control. In 2016, ISIS started displaying women in cages in public squares. This brutal punishment was “a way to insult them after they violated the laws imposed by ISIS,” according to SNHR. Previously, ISIS had kept women in its prisons and fined them.
“The methods of torture used on women are nearly identical to those used on men,” the SNHR report said. At least 55 women were killed during torture between March 2011 and November 2016, including 39 in official and non-official government detention centers, at least 13 under ISIS and at least two at the hands of armed opposition factions, according to SNHR.
There are some, albeit very few, documented cases where female detainees were undressed by a female officer rather than a male. Maria, a former detainee who was arrested in Hama while at her mother’s house with her three children, told SNHR that an officer named Suliman Jomaa ordered the female officers to undress her and another female detainee.
“We tried to resist but it was in vain. The [male officer] perpetrators started to laugh afterward while they were drinking, then the mass rape started,” she said, according to a 2015 SNHR report.
The EMHRN report mentions only two female policewomen, whose “role was reportedly limited to dealing with the visits by families at the main gate of the prison.” The report added that in Latakia Central Prison, where only a few female prisoners are being detained, “five policewomen were in charge of the women detained, while the rest of the personnel were male.”
SNHR documented at least one testimony from a former detainee with Kurdish forces, given the pseudonym A.G., who was interrogated by a female guard “with broken Arabic” for the names of ISIS fighters from A.G.’s hometown.
“She threatened me that if I didn’t reveal all the names of the people who are affiliated to ISIS from Tal Brak town, she would transfer me to another prison outside al-Hasakeh where no one will know of my fate,” she told SNHR.
Cases of guards using threats, torture and humiliation to force false confessions have been documented for both men and women, across the majority of groups fighting in Syria.
In September 2013, Samar was transferred to the Military Intelligence Directorate, where prisoners were treated even more brutally. The guards wanted her to confess to sheltering armed fighters and to planting bombs. When they left her hanging by her wrists, which were tight behind her head, for an entire day, Samar could not take the torture anymore and said she would confess to whatever they wanted.
She was lying. Back in the interrogator’s room, she once again told the truth: She was active in photography and relief work. Ten days later, a new interrogator arrived, and with him came new accusations. She was cuffed to the bed in the interrogator’s room and he, too, raped her – despite her screams. As soon as he finished with her, he sent her to another interrogator, who cuffed her to a chair and raped her again.
Samar lost consciousness, so the guards threw her back in her cell.
“We heard them drinking and dancing on New Year’s Eve. They were celebrating while torturing and raping the detainees. It felt like they enjoyed our pain,” Samar added. “They used all types of torture to force me to confess, but they did not succeed.”
For women who are released from detainment, life after prison rarely ever goes back to normal. Women survivors of detainment are often believed to have brought disgrace on their families, particularly because of the stigma associated with sexual assault, “even if it is not the woman’s fault,” Edris said.
As a result, most women choose not to speak out about their suffering and many do not know where to access the few medical and psychological resources available in order to begin the process of reintegration into society.
For many, reintegration is a step too far. For Burhan, as for many women who have been detained in Syria, her arrest was a pivotal moment: She was not able to continue her studies and was forced to flee Syria, as her family feared that she might be arrested again. She now lives in France, where she works as a journalist.
“You can miss everything in a place like that, even the sound of a cat, but the people I missed most were my mother and my little niece,” Burhan said. “I learned in prison that humans can adapt to this environment no matter how difficult, which made me stronger in life after getting out.”