Women of honour: Speaking out on rape in Syria

Despite death threats and rejection, Syrian women have found the courage to speak out about rape.

Silent War

The first time I met a woman who had been raped inside a Syrian prison, it was November 2011.

I was in Homs and the city was under siege. We were there meeting victims of the first wave of crackdowns on residents of a city that had become known as the “capital of the revolution” against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Many of them were children who had been tortured in the regime’s prisons.

On our last day in the city, we met a family whose daughter had been arrested during a demonstration. She had been held in a detention centre and raped. I knew she was in the room with us, but I didn’t know which of the women she was. I was told that she had changed her mind about talking to us; that she was too traumatised, too scared.

In the years that followed, I have often recalled the faces of those women, wondering which of them had just endured the one thing they could not bring themselves to name. And, ever since, I have thought about making a film in which women like her would finally be able to speak of it.

Making Silent War was to take a journey into the heart of darkness; to the most secret crime perpetrated against the women of Syria.

In talking for the very first time about what they endured in the prisons of the Syrian regime, the women in the film exposed what had, from the very beginning of the revolution, been imagined as the perfect crime. In a country where rape is such a taboo and where it is used to bring shame upon a woman’s entire family, destroying the woman without killing her, the regime had expected its victims to remain silent and their stories untold.

But they didn’t.

It wasn’t easy and it took a long time. But a few months ago, cracks started to appear in the wall of silence. With al-Assad still in power and the West seemingly accepting Russia’s new “peace and order” in Syria, I started to notice a need to talk among the survivors. Afraid that their wounds would never heal and that they’d be forgotten by history, they wanted at long last to name the crime that had been perpetrated against them.

I remember one of them telling me: “Since 2011, you the West have done nothing. Nothing has moved you; not 400,000 dead, not thousands of children, women and men dying in chemical attacks, not the Caesar files and the tens of thousands of bodies photographed. Maybe this, the intimate, ultimate, forbidden wound that can cost us our lives if we tell you about it; maybe this will move you.”

At that moment, as a filmmaker who has made films about human rights abuses in Syria, I felt shame and helplessness.

But the fact that women were suddenly wanting to speak out, just once, so that their testimony might leave a trace, so that some abstract concept of international justice might hear their plea, convinced me that I had to make this film.

Some of the women even decided to show their faces and to name those who had abused them. They all told me they had nothing left to lose.

I felt that what I was witnessing was a revolution of the mind; they had decided not to be victims any more. This film was their way of fighting back against the crime and the silence that surrounds it.

Everyone I had spoken to about the film told me it would be impossible to make – and there were times when I thought they might be right.

It took months to gain the women’s trust. Sometimes they would agree to speak and then change their minds at the very last moment.

When they did speak, I barely asked any questions. I told them I wanted them to begin by speaking about their childhood memories, what it was like to grow up in Syria, their life before the darkness descended – and then to talk about the ‘other side’. I wanted it to be a film about Syrian women, not only about the rape of Syrian women.

But once they started to speak, they didn’t stop. Sometimes they would talk for hours, sometimes for days. But the word “rape” rarely came quickly or easily.

Pain and relief seemed to pour out of them with every word. Sometimes they would shake as they spoke, often they would cry. Whenever it seemed as though we ought to stop, we would. But they would ask us to keep filming. “We have decided to talk, you have to film,” they would tell us. The film, it seemed, was becoming theirs. No matter how great the physical, mental and emotional torment of speaking and how severe the potential consequences, they wanted the world to hear their stories.

Many of these women were rejected by their husbands, their mothers, their siblings, upon coming out of prison. They were forced to leave their homes with their children. The shame their society associates with rape has doomed them to lives of exile and loneliness.

But they were prepared to risk further stigma and isolation because, as they told us: “For us, it is too late. We feel as if we are already dead. If we take the risk to speak out today it is for the hundreds of women who are still inside Assad’s prisons. The world must know and must make those women come out of that hell, now.”

In the months since the film was made, it has been pirated and many Syrians who are still inside their country have viewed it via social media. Syrian friends tell me that it has triggered a debate and that, for the first time, they are hearing the word rape being spoken. A younger generation seems to be saying “no more”.

In France, I have spoken to NGOs that say the film is helping female refugees from Syria dare to say what happened to them.

There have also been death threats – from the regime and from some of the women’s families.

But the lines so often drawn around this crime are beginning to tremble. Of course, it remains a highly sensitive issue. But it is a start and, maybe, a time will come when these women will be recognised as victims and not as “guilty of being victims”.

The words of one woman stay with me: “Death is easier than rape. Our society refuses to consider us as victims. The regime rapes us and our people reject us. If it happens to you, then you must die … But we are not a shame, we are an honour.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.