Gender-based violence remains rampant 10 years into the Syrian conflict, particularly violence against women. Women continue to be subjected to all forms of violence, including sexual exploitation and honor killings. However, the most widespread form of violence continues to be domestic violence, a relatively old phenomenon within Syrian communities which has been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict.
In this extensive report, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) sheds light on the injustices inflicted on women and girls in several areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria. Some of the women discussed in this report are trapped in the throes of domestic violence at the hands of husbands or other male family members. Other women are struggling to heal from the potential life-long physical and psychological impact of the brutality practiced against them.
The testimonies obtained by STJ indicate that poor social awareness, norms reinforcing violence against women, and the absence of laws deterring gender-based violence, as well as poverty and conflict-driven displacement, have all contributed to increasing rates of domestic violence against women in al-Hasakah province.
In addition to discussing the root causes of widespread domestic violence, this report addresses violence’s tragic consequences, both physical and mental, for women, many of whom have even developed suicidal ideations. Additionally, the report discusses the less direct impacts of domestic violence, such as family fragmentation and increasing divorce rates.
According to the annual statistical report by the Social Justice Council in northeastern Syria— the supreme judicial body in the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration— at least 1679 crimes were committed against women in northeastern Syria in 2020. In 476 of these cases, women were attacked and injured. For their part, SARA Organization for Combating Violence against Women documented at least 22 femicides and nine female suicides between 2020 and late March 2021.
Unfortunately, violence against women has been increasing across Syria. In a number of pervious reports addressing abuses of women and girls’ rights, STJ documented numerous cases of violence against women, including honor killings in the provinces of Idlib and Daraa, as well as in the suburbs of Aleppo between 2020 and 2021. Furthermore, STJ recorded a marked increase in child marriages in the provinces of Idlib and al-Hasakah, in addition to Aleppo’s suburbs, and highlighted the traumatic impact these marriages are having on the lives of little girls.
This report draws on a total of 13 interviews, mostly with women subjected to domestic violence in al-Hasakah province, in northeastern Syria. Additionally, field researchers with STJ spoke to a judge working in the province to gain insights on violence against women in the Autonomous Administration’s laws. STJ also spoke with Arzo Tammo, the officer in charge of the legal office at the SARA Organization for Combating Violence against Women, about the reasons behind the increase in domestic violence in northeastern Syria.
STJ’s field researchers interviewed witnesses online or in person between late 2020 and late March 2021 and consulted several open sources addressing the report’s subject matter.
The Testimonies of 11 Battered Women from al-Hasakah Province
In this section, a number of battered women open up about their suffering, recounting their experiences with domestic violence at the hands of husbands or other male family members in northeastern Syria. Some of these women are still recuperating from the psychological and physical effects of the violence practiced against them.
“No matter how brutally he hits me, I’ll take it only for my children!”
Maha M.— born in Qamishli/Qamishlou city in 1988— has been married for nearly 10 years. She is a mother of four, but motherhood did not spare her the violence of her husband throughout their marital life. M. narrated:
“My husband has been abusing me physically and mentally for the most trivial reasons since the beginning of our marriage. I never told my family. I did not want to cause them trouble, especially because divorce in our society is considered a source of shame. We were married only for three months when he brutally hit me with his hands for not carrying his crying nephew. I put up with his behavior and kept silent about his violence. I was patient with him, hoping that he would recognize his mistakes and never repeat them. However, he hit me again, so badly that I lose conscience this time, and he had to take me to hospital. I spent three days in the hospital and never told my family the truth of what happened. Later, he travelled to Africa and stayed there for a year and a half. He did not call me, or even send me money for the kids.”
“He has not been able to make us a living since he returned from Africa. Instead, he keeps telling me that my brothers who are in Europe should help us. Once, he kicked my five-year-old son. My son fell, hit his head, and had to be taken to the hospital. Shortly later, he beat me ruthlessly in front of my children. He stepped on my head and made me bleed, all for no obvious reason. I finally managed to escape to my family’s house, possessing only the clothes I was wearing. I filed a complaint against him with the local council; I asked for divorce. I wanted to survive him. I wish I could count on my family to support me and my children financially — I would have immediately got a divorce. However, this is difficult. It is impossible.”
M. added that after she filed for the divorce, her husband begged her to return home and promised that he would not hurt her again. Her family threatened that if she complained of violence again, they would kill her husband. Knowing that her family was struggling financially, M. was forced to return to her husband. He resumed his habits and continues to subject her to physical, psychological, and financial abuse. Heartbroken, M. told STJ:
“I always tell myself that no matter how brutally he hits me, I will take it for my children’s sake only. What can I do? Nothing! There is not a family, nor authorities, nor human rights organizations to support me or safeguard my and my children’s rights and dignities.”
“He used to hit me and ask me for money.”
Zainab M.—born in al-Hasakah province in 1991—married her husband nearly eight years ago. M. opted for the marriage to escape her brother’s physical and psychological abuse, particularly as she hails from a conservative family, governed by patriarchal norms and traditions. She said:
“My brother used to shame me for not getting married. He compared me to my cousins, who were all married. He hit me and my sisters in front of my mother. My mother would stand there, helpless. So, I got married in 2013. My husband’s financial conditions were pretty bad. All my relatives advised me against marrying him, because they knew he was an alcoholic and a drug abuser. I agreed to marry him just to escape my brother’s tyranny. The second day into our marriage, he took my dowry money and jewelry and paid his debts. I never said a word. We rented a house in one of the Qamishli’s slum neighborhoods. I taught children and did hairdressing for the neighborhood’s women, while he never got a job. Despite all this, he would beat me every now and then. He would also take any money I had. Later, we moved into one of my relatives’ house. We stayed there for free, in exchange for looking after the family’s possessions in their absence. But my husband sold some of their possessions. My brother reported him [to authorities]. They took him to prison until he returned two of the things he sold. We then travelled to Turkey.”
In Turkey, M. found a job as a janitor. She stood guard at a building while her husband did not search for a job. Worse yet, he did not give up on drugs or alcohol. She added:
“My husband once stole drugs from his friends. The police arrested him. My daughter was only months old. I worked to get him his needs while in prison for two months. However, I could not do it anymore, especially after his family moved in with us. I was shocked to know that my father-in-law was using drugs as well. I decided to run away. I took my little girl and went to my sister in the Turkish city of İzmir. Then, I returned to Qamishli. I was unwelcome at my family’s house. My brother and father cursed me all the time. They cursed my mother for failing to raise me properly.”
In late 2017, M. asked for assistance from a humanitarian organization. They helped her get a divorce. However, her husband’s family took custody of her daughter. In early 2019, needing to escape the abuse of her father and brother, M. remarried. However, her sister told STJ little had changed in M.’s life.
“Since she got married, [M.] has only visited my house or my parents’ twice. Her husband has been denying her everything. He took her phone. She is not talking to us. Sometimes my father calls her husband to check on her. Her husband always comes up with excuses for not visiting us. No one knows what’s going on with my sister there, whether she is being abused, or is having issues with her husband. No one knows anything about her!”
“He pointed a gun to my head and threatened to kill me.”
Nisreen K. — born in al-Hasakah province in 1988—has been married for more than 15 years. K. accepted to get married while only 16 due to her family’s poor financial conditions. Her husband refused to allow her to leave home and often beat her, accusing her of cheating on him. K. recounted:
“My husband would not let me leave home unaccompanied. His jealousy made him suspect [I was cheating on him]. His family made me suffer as well. They accused me of having an affair and called me immoral, driving my husband to hit me. Fed up with their cruelty, I convinced my husband of travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan. There, a year later, I gave birth to my son. We then returned to Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê. It all started again, the beating, insults, and accusations of infidelity. During the last military operation in Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, we fled to Qamishli, me, my mother-in-law, and my husband who worked as a driver back then. I shared the house with my mother-in-law.”
K. added that her husband would often beat her just to please his mother. K. narrated that once he even threatened her with a gun, attributing his behavior to his frequent use of drugs and alcohol. She said:
“There was a time when my mother-in-law incited my husband against me, telling him that I did not take care of the children or feed them. I begged her not to raise her voice, I kissed her hands and feet, asking her not to let him hear what she was saying. However, she did not care. My husband got so angry and hit me with his belt. He whipped me 18 times. It took the bruises a while to fade away. Another time, my husband came home in the evening. He beat me hard, put his gun to my head and threatened to kill me. I escaped to my aunt’s house for several days. I also recounted the incident to my family, who lives in Iraqi Kurdistan. They told me to get a divorce, leave him the children, and join them in Kurdistan. However, for the sake of my children, I could not do it. I decided to endure the physical and psychological violence for their sake only.”
“I attempted suicide to escape this torment.”
Marwa— born in the city of Qamishli/ Qamishlo in 1980—married in 2001 and left school. Marwa described life with her misogynist husband and the forms of violence she suffered at his hands to STJ. She narrated:
“I wish I finished school and did not marry this man. However, I was not mature enough back then. And, unfortunately, there were no associations or organizations to raise women’s awareness about such matters. My husband was a government employee and a completely introverted person. He had an aversion for women. We lived in a room on the roof of his family’s house. He was plagued by doubts since the beginning of our marriage. He would spy on me every time I called my mother. Furthermore, he was upset with my family’s visits. Whenever they came to see me, he would beat me after they left. I no longer allowed them to visit me at home.”
Marwa is a mother of three, the oldest of whom is 19 years old. She recalled one particular incident. By then, she had already had her first child when her husband hit her so badly that she escaped to her family and stayed there for a month before she returned. Marwa narrated:
“I had to return because divorce is considered a source of shame. When I went home, my husband literally told me, ‘I brought you back to humiliate and destroy you, not because I care for you. I’m going to make you have 10 children. Then, I will divorce you and throw you out to your parents’ home.’ I convinced myself that he said this because he was still angry. However, he continued to beat me. He once even hit me with a sharp object. I was wounded in some sensitive areas. He beat and insulted me in front of my children so badly that once I collapsed. He only screamed and threatened he would burn the house down if I did not get up. I did so just because I feared him.”
Unable bear the violence, Marwa twice attempted suicide. The first time she used a sharp razor; the second, she swallowed a mix of medicines. Finally, she divorced him. She told STJ:
“Six years ago, I divorced him. My former husband continued to harass me even after the divorce. Later, I also learned that he was beating my children and denying them their pocket money and not letting them leave home. His actions had an adverse impact on them. This was apparent from their behavior and the way they interacted with people, especially the girls, who grew to hate marriage. However, I always advise them to continue their education and not give in to their reality and their father’s violence. Needless to say, my family does not allow me to visit my children because how can a divorced woman travel alone to al-Hasakah city. This would bring them disgrace, being part of a traditionalist Middle Eastern community. So, I have been visiting them secretly.”
Marwa concluded her account with a comment on the status of divorced women. She said:
“In such a society, there is neither a future nor a life for a divorced woman. We [divorced women] are considered a disgrace. No one wants to marry us except old men. I take up available jobs to support myself, in a kindergarten and a stationery store. I also attend events by associations and awareness organizations concerned with women’s affairs to forget my worries and sorrows.”
“Over time, I turned into a servant.”
Baritan M.— born in the city of Qamishli/Qamishlo in 2002—married in 2016. M. lost her father when she was three years old and married at 15, driven by her family’s poor financial status. Her early marriage made her a victim to domestic violence. She recounted:
“A sheikh officiated our marriage. We also bribed [employees] to register our marriage at the courts of the Syrian government. We had a good relationship early in our marriage. However, his mother always incited my husband against me. Over time, I became like their servant although I was two months pregnant and my body was too weak for pregnancy. I miscarried due to excessive work. Worse yet, I developed anemia, calcium, and iron deficiency. My husband cheated on me. I saw him talk to other women, and when I asked him with whom he talked, he would beat me. So, I went to my family; they divorced me from him when I was 17 years old.”
M. said that she sought help from the Women’s House of the Autonomous Administration. The house’s management could not assist her because she was still a minor and her marriage was not registered in the courts of the Autonomous Administration. M. added:
“I was eventually divorced. My husband gave me 150,000 Syrian Pounds, secretly, because he feared his mother. I am now staying with my mother, and our financial conditions are very difficult. This harsh experience has left me in a very bad psychological state. I still cannot comprehend what happened to me. In this society, men, young and old, when they see a divorced woman, they would prey on her to have affairs or sexually exploit her. What makes it worse is that I am still tied to my former husband through our family card. To annul the card, I have to pay 15,000 Syrian Pounds —a sum I cannot afford.”
“My father hit me so hard on the head that I had to be taken to hospital.”
Lava B.— born in al-Hasakah province in 1981— was forced to leave school nearly four years ago. Her father made her stay at home to take care of her sick mother, who later died as a result of her illness. B. narrated:
“My mother was sick and blind. She could not take care of herself. So, I watched over her all the time. My father used to tell her, ‘when will you die and relieve us from your burden?’. I also had a brother. He was killed by the Turkey-backed armed opposition factions in northeastern Syria. I have been raising his two children after they were abandoned by their mother. I cannot forget the moment my mother died, about eight months ago. Her health was very poor, so I asked my father to take her to the hospital. Instead, he beat me brutally. I took her to the hospital myself. She died once we got there.”
“My brothers in Europe sent us money every month, but my father used to hide all the money. He did not even give me money for our daily food. So, we started to argue. He hit me. The neighbors would hear me scream and come to my rescue. My mental state started getting worse day by day. I complained to my brothers, but they did nothing. Once, my father said something so provocative that I responded. He got mad and started hitting me hard on the head. I had to be transferred to the hospital, where I stayed for nearly 10 days.”
B. said that she sought help from relatives and members of the Komin (local council) to convince her father to stop his violent practices against her and allow her to travel to Europe. However, all their efforts failed. She narrated:
“My father continues to beat and insult me for any trivial reason. He also deprives me of my money and rarely lets me out of the house. That is why I keep secretly praying that he dies soon, to be relieved of this suffering. Why would a girl my age have to put up with this? Am I not entitled to be a university student, to have friends, and a life with them? Instead, I am raising two children that I do not know how to take care of or help grow up.”
 The UN Women defines domestic violence, “also called domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, [as] any pattern of behavior that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. It encompasses all physical, sexual, emotional, economic and psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This is one of the most common forms of violence experienced by women globally.”
“Frequently asked questions: Types of violence against women and girls,” UN Women, https://arabstates.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/faqs/types-of-violence (last accessed: 28 June 2021).
 “Under the Guise of Honor: Women Continue to Fall Victims to Violence Across Syria,” STJ, 5 May 2021, https://stj-sy.org/en/under-the-guise-of-honor-women-continue-to-fall-victims-to-violence-across-syria/ (last accessed: 26 June 2021).
 “Early Marriage Hits High Rates in some Areas of Syria,” STJ, 17 September 2020, https://stj-sy.org/en/early-marriage-hits-high-rates-in-some-areas-of-syria/ (last accessed: 24 June 2021).