The Impact of Gun Culture on Women in Idlib


A look at how war and gun culture affect women in Syria's Idlib.

03 November 2018

A painting by artist Sulafa Hijazi published under fair use, rights reserved by the artist
Translated by: Pascale Menassa

This article is the outcome of an ongoing collaboration with the Syrian Female Journalists Network to support Syrian female writers and media professionals.

(Idlib) Syrian women have endured the violence of many types of weapons during the conflict. These range from the missiles and barrel bombs dropped by the regime in opposition areas, to the proliferation of personal weapons, including rifles and bombs, which are widely available in the households of Idlib and its countryside.

The airstrikes carried out by the Russian-backed Syrian regime have hit markets, schools, hospitals and civilians houses without discrimination in Idlib. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian air forces have dropped at least 6243 explosive barrels in Idlib in 2017, killing 130 civilians, including 55 children and 32 women. The consequences of this violence are manifest not only in the death toll but also the waves of forced displacement and large-scale destruction of infrastructure.

This state of overall insecurity has been aggravated by gun culture, which affects women differently from men. It has undermined women’s social, political and economic participation in a society that was already in the grip of sexism, patriarchal domination and rampant gender-based violence. It has also cemented an unjust vision of women, who are cast as victims in need of protection rather than effective members of society who are incapable of contributing to the search for solutions.

Women face a higher risk of being persecuted, stigmatized, marginalized or outright rejected by their spouses and families in case of injury or disfigurement. Mariam Maamar (37) was injured in the war and had her left leg amputated as a result. She says her husband left her due to the disability and married another woman. Her children chose to stay by her side and take care of her. The father gives them almost no support at all. 

Consequences of war

“Assad not only destroyed our houses, but he also ruined our lives and future. I am now a burden for my three small kids, the eldest of whom is 15 years old. They dropped out of school and found jobs to make ends meet,” she says emotionally. “I can see it in their eyes—how worried they are. The pressures of life have jaded them. I don’t know what to do to lift that burden. I am helpless.”

Women in Idlib did not participate in the fighting, but they faced all kinds of resulting injuries, like wounds, burns and disfigurement. They assumed responsibilities, took care of the wounded and of disabled people in their own families. They became physically and psychologically exhausted.

“Only God knows my pain." With these words, Umm Wael, who is in her forties, described the suffering she endures while caring for her disabled husband and two children. She said that the shelling which struck their house in 2015 led to his disability. He suffered crippling fractures on his back that never fully healed. One of her children was left with brain paralysis, and another had one of his legs amputated.

“I am the only breadwinner, and I have to take care of them. But, since I do not have a degree or profession to work in, I took up a cleaning job at a school," she said. "I spend most of my time either at work or taking care of my family and catering to their needs."

A displaced Syrian woman living in a makeshift camp in Idlib (©SyriaUntold)

Weapons on the home front

Women were not only affected by the widespread use of heavy weapons. Personal weapons can be found in almost every house. Civilians carry weapons for different reasons. Some use them as a deterrent against theft and kidnappings, others to show off their power. Carelessness in the use and storage of weapons has left many women disabled and others dead.

Enas Ali (22), a housewife, is the victim of a stray bullet that her husband fired while fighting with his brother. The bullet hit her spinal cord, and she is now paralyzed. Not only did her husband shoot her accidentally, he also divorced her to evade the responsibility of treatment and caring for her. Her life now is full of challenges, due to her injury, but she insists on not giving in to “slow death,” as she described her condition. She is pursuing her studies to find a job, even if she was confined to a wheelchair.

“My disability is not easy, but I am trying to mend my wounds and [overcome this] tragedy,” she said.

Narmin al-Salman (25) faced a more tragic destiny. She was burned to death in a fire triggered by dynamite powder, which her husband stored at home. He was a member of the Ahrar al-Sham faction and was working on manufacturing bombs and missiles to defend opposition-held areas from attacks by pro-Assad forces. Narmin’s aunt, in tears, recounted the incident in vivid detail. She was still mourning her niece and fretting for the five small children she left behind.

“Her husband had put the powder on top of the closet so that the kids would not get a hold of it. But, the laser lamp was close, and it seems the powder caught fire from the heat of the lamp. In the huge fire, Narmin was burned,” she said.

Roua al-Mandil (23) was six months pregnant on July 27, 2018. That day Jabhat al-Nusra carried out a raid on her neighbors’ house in Kafr Nabl. They wanted to arrest the owner who they accused of being pro-regime and a rival.

“It was 5 am at the time of the raid, which was coupled with heavy shooting that penetrated the doors and windows. The whole neighborhood was terrified. I felt pain in my stomach, and I had a miscarriage on the following day,” she said, still traumatised by the loss of what would have been her first child.

Violence also shattered the education aspirations of Hiam Omar (18) and many other girls in the region. Hiam’s parents forbade her from pursuing her studies because they were afraid she would be kidnapped, as kidnappings were on the rise. She does not blame her parents, as she knows they worry about her—rightfully so. She heard about girls who were kidnapped at gunpoint in the area where she lived. This ended their lives and future, while also ruining the family reputation. The loss of educational opportunities also coincided with a rise in early marriages, more than third in 2015, according to a study published by the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research published in September 2017. These types of marriages often ended in divorce leaving young girls confronted heavy burdens and responsibilities.

Gun culture has also taken a toll on the psychological well-being of women, adding another level of violence to an already long list. While there are no comprehensive studies on this aspect,mental health practitioners could clearly see the signs,

“Fear, long-term panic, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and hallucinations are nervous symptoms affecting women as a result of weapon proliferation in secure areas and among civilians. These symptoms might breed feelings of despair, loss of hope, deep sadness and long-term disappointment and loneliness, due to the absence of a husband or children or due to displacement, migration and homelessness,” Ola al-Khatib (31), a therapist, told SyriaUntold.

Young and dangerous

Children and adolescents carry arms too. Some were recruited by radical Islamist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra. Raed al-Issa (15) told us that he joined Jabhat al-Nusra and carried arms to retaliate against the Assad regime that deprived him of his father and one of his brothers during an airstrike on Ariha end of 2015. Issa says that having a weapon gives him a feeling of power and ability to confront enemies or evildoers who wish him and his family harm.

But arming minors with weapons has negative consequences, not only for them but also the broader community. Many civilian shootings have been the outcome of brawls or quarrels between boys playing around, innocent passersby have been either killed or wounded in the process. Fatima al-Sabih (35) is constantly afraid. She knows she lives in an unsafe area. She had already had an accident as a result of weapons falling in the hands of teenage boys.

“I work at a sewing workshop, and while I was heading there, a brawl took place in the street between two teenagers, and it soon turned into a shooting. I was shot in the foot. Although I recovered, I have constant discomfort. I fear not only for myself, but also for my kids and husband each time they leave the house,” she told SyriaUntold.

Hala al-Atrash (25) is living the isolated life of a 60-year-old despite her young age. She used to press dried figs for a living, but no longer can.

“I do not know what is happening to me. But, I have severe joint pains that I feel often when I hear airplanes overhead or bullets being fired daily,” she explained.

Neurologist Hussam al-Hossein (40) explained Hala’s condition. He said that the effects of militarization in Syria are not limited to disabling thousands of people, killing others and creating psychological disorders. It was recently discovered that the war left many people with a condition called Fybromyalgia. Its symptoms include muscle, bone and joint pain, exhaustion and fatigue as well as trouble sleeping. This affects patients’ professional and social lives, as they get sucked into a spiral of searching for the root cause, visiting a series of different doctors.

Dr. Hossein said that this condition usually affects women who have witnessed bombings or seen injured human bodies. Women who were victims of clashes, raids or aggressive treatment are also affected. Dr. Hossein said that this syndrome is treated through anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication that increase the level of the happy hormone [serotonin] and reduce stress. Analgesics are also prescribed for this condition.

Weapons boost male power and authority

Marital relations have also been altered due to the proliferation of weapons.  For men, carrying arms is a new source of authority that has been added to their deep-seated masculine power.  Rabia al-Mustafa (30) complained about her husband’s recent behavior, which she described as rude and violent. She does not believe that he would direct the weapon he carries against her ever, but it gives him more sense of dominance and arrogance and she is simply stuck under his tyranny.

That sense of heightened masculine power has fuelled polygamy, which increased in Idlib and its countryside. Many women complain about this problem. Among them is Naela al-Omar (35) who told SyriaUntold her husband never thought about anybody else before he became armed (in Jabhat al-Nusra). He was sweet to her, but this changed when he held a weapon. She said mockingly, “He thinks he’s royal now. Nothing pleases him. He keeps complaining and shouting. I was ready to tolerate all this behavior, but marrying another woman without any consideration for my feelings was the last straw.”

She is now seeking a way to get a divorce because she cannot take it anymore.

Amer al-Sawaf (32) who is an armed member of Fursan al-Haq faction insists that having weapons has no impact on his behaviour or marital relationship.

“We held up arms to fight a criminal regime, not to show off in front of women or to bother others. We had to carry weapons to defend ourselves, our families and our towns against the regime advancement and against kidnappings, theft or assassination. We are at war, and we had to carry arms. Otherwise, why would we?” he said.

He smiles shyly when talking about polygamy.

“Polygamy has always been around," he explained. “It only increased during this stage because of a rising number of widows and spinsters and lack of men who were killed or arrested or who immigrated.”

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