Weaponizing the Bodies of Syrian Women – Rape, War, and Syria: The Crime That ‘Never Happens,’ The Shame that Never Dies!

Elie Chalala
Stills from “Syrie, Le Cri Etouffe” [“Syria, The Stifled Cry], 2017, directed by Manon Loizeau

Director Manon Loizeau’s recent documentary, “The Stifled Cry,” does not reveal something unknown about the crimes of the Syrian regime. However, it has shocked Arab audiences to watch and listen to Arab women speaking out about their experiences, whether openly, with their faces exposed, or under the cover of darkness, with backs turned away from the camera. Perhaps, one of the most important contributions of this film, this makes it impossible for those who, for whatever reason, denied the occurrences of sexual assaults inside the regime’s prisons, to continue their denials.

Bringing the issue of rape into the public domain, unable to be contradicted for political or cultural reasons now, “The Stifled Cry” has rendered a serious blow to the political and social forces which propagate denial. The film reveals not just the faces of victims, but also the names, locations, and faces of the criminals. The experience of Maryam Khalaf, a former detainee, offers a heart-wrenching example: she recounts one Syrian soldier asking another, “Do you want to start first, or should I?” as they discussed who would rape her first. She told the camera, “As I was in pain, I felt like my thoughts were separated from my body, and my body from my spirit. My thoughts were in a different world… After that, I felt like a slave. Like I had no rights.”

In Assad’s Syria, rape functions as a double-edged sword. First, it weaponizes women’s bodies by forcing their families to choose between surrendering their rebel opposition fighters, or enduring the shame and stigma attached to rape. In addition, it also helps to tear apart Syrian society, leading to honor killings or to the displacement of rape victims and their families, who feel they must leave their villages, and become refugees in faraway places. Used as a deliberate regime policy, rape has become widespread, no longer mainly restricted to prisons, but now occurring at checkpoints, in the streets, and even in homes in front of children and husbands. Fawzia, a mother of eight daughters and a son, speaks of her family’s demise in the Houla massacre. Ignoring the desperate mother’s pleas to take her but spare her daughters, after raping Fawzia herself, soldiers raped seven of her daughters in front of her, and then slaughtered them with the bayonets. Rasha, her only surviving daughter, plays a video on her Smartphone, showing the corpses of her family members, including her father.

Tragically, not only do religious and conservative forces deny the occurrence of rapes, but when Syrian regime soldiers and pro-regime armed gangs do the raping, some of the secular and leftist forces deny those crimes as well. This should come as no surprise when these same, very “secular” forces have spearheaded the denials of Assad’s use of chemical weapons!

This edited excerpt comes from Elie Chalala’s film review essay, “Rape: Weaponizing the Bodies of Syrian Women,” which appears in the current issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.

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