The Hidden Sexual Assault of Syrian Refugee Women

As Germany inaugurates 2016 with 100,000 new refugees taken in from Syria this past calendar year, the Western lens lunges ever so slightly closer to a firsthand account of just what exactly an effective migrant support system entails.
Beyond the plainly perceptible needs like food, water and shelter, an exploding concern is surfacing among the interviews of both refugees and social workers: the treatment — or more notably — the mistreatment, of women.
A New York Times article published just Saturday nearly claimed to break headlines regarding the sexual violence and exploitation of the featured focus group of women along their Berlin-bound journeys fleeing Syria.
From using sex work as a means to pay along the way to outright beatings, attacks and assault once in Germany, every installment of the migration proved disproportionately dangerous for women. Despite the surface level injustice and abuse reeking from these stories, cultural and religious taboos surrounding women and sex, as well as the fragile political problems to begin with, introduce added layers and layers of complication.
One woman spoke of the daily rapes she endured to financially support her husband and children as they moved country to country, all concluding in her own husband abusing her as a result.
Another mentioned the abuse by a man outside her shelter in Berlin. Domestic violence, too, strung through the stories as a common theme — but nearly none willed to report any such attacks.

The media’s failure to cast light on concrete issues faced by Syrian women is far from an isolated incident.

According to the caretaker of the discussed German shelter housing 44 women from teens to senior citizens, almost all had suffered sexual assault.
The most crucial point in these surfacing stories, however, stems not from the actual, undeniable tragedy these women face, but in the pathetic delay it required for a mainstream American news headline to pick up such an integral piece of the crisis.
“Muslim women in the Middle East” has nearly devolved into an abstract obsession for Western audiences to hypothetically debate and dissect, especially surrounding rather trivial or even uninformed matters; yet here we witness a very old and very tangible problem at hand that has somehow missed the public’s eye for so long.
The media’s failure to cast light on concrete issues faced by Syrian women is far from an isolated incident. Just this past fall, Jenan Matari published on MuslimGirl a call to action to combat the lack of support and resources in menstrual supplies.
Women have been bleeding since the beginning of time; this isn’t new. Yet support for specifically funding this fundamental need of women was and remains alarmingly low.

While war is a human issue — given how women are further exploited, beaten, abused and blamed — it must be underscored additionally as a women’s issue.

It is further fascinating to consider these lapses in light of other American attitudes toward women and war, as well as a general failure cultivated by the comforting solitude bred by our sheltered distance from battlefield borders.
We need not zoom out of Syria very far to illustrate the wide scope of concern surrounding this very topic of women and war. In the tumultuous summer of 2014 when tensions peaked in Palestine and Israel yet again, Nada Elia published “Ending Zionism is a feminist issue,” on Electronic Intifada.
The article discussed the consequences of Zionism and war in classifying Palestinian women as both disposable property that Israeli soldiers could exploit in an action to wage war by attacking (read: raping, beating), as well as a direct hazard in reproducing more Palestinian babies and thus threats toward ultimate Israeli occupation (which on a separate level, of course, is extreme, stupid and extremely stupid — given it takes a man, too, to create a child — but alright).
Published in Egyptian Streets just last April, “Exposing the Horrors of Sexual Violence Against Refugees in Egypt,” also notes the rampant, in addition to diverse, displays of sexual violence involving refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
The author, Ahmed Khaled, also eludes that some local Egyptians may have been rather unaware of the types and the degree to which such abuse plagued refugee communities.
Perhaps, then, it is the combination of our geographical removal, as well as our cultural distance that multiplies the mainstream American inability to fathom the lengths of desperation and tales of horror that war brings.
In other words, we should remain horrified; but why are some of us so surprised? And while media attention is lightyears from any end solution worth celebrating, it indeed speaks to the level of awareness and aid that American people are supporting.
Let’s be crystal clear: War is a human issue that affects and terrorizes any and all genders.
But it is specifically a women’s issue, too, in that it additionally and disproportionately targets women who are not afforded resources or opportunity, let alone attention by foreign media. Any lingering thought that war is more a man or male soldier’s issue needs to recalibrate into a comprehensive understanding of what accompanies both the direct and indirect consequences of battle.
Again, while war is a human issue — given how women are further exploited, beaten, abused and blamed — it must be underscored additionally as a women’s issue.
The Syrian War and its refugees are no anomaly, but they do indeed compose a case staring us in our contemporary face and hence a case in which we have even a shred of power to help.

Image: Flickr