I'm in a distribution centre in Gaziantep, southern Turkey and I'm surrounded by female Syrian refugees. I'm trying to learn more, about what violence, if any, they've faced while fleeing their home. But it's difficult to get answers, Turkish men stand around in the small tightly packed room with their arms crossed, listening. One Syrian man interrupts, telling me he can speak for the women. I look at my translator in surprise. 'Why would I want him to speak for the women?' I ask him. He looks down embarrassed and shrugs his shoulders. Upon leaving the centre my translator said, 'I think that is the first time anyone has asked those women about their rights.' I looked at him in surprise again. I was the first person to ask these women about their rights?
As the Syrian war has exploded the world has watched as millions of refugees have streamed out of their country. As part of my long running work on women's rights with my foundation Project Monma, I travelled to Lebanon and Turkey, two of the biggest recipient countries of Syrian refuges to learn about how women were faring in the midst of the crisis.
I first arrived into Beirut and began what would be a two-week research schedule of speaking with women's rights activists, NGOs, fighters from the Free Syrian Army as well as the refugees themselves. My research first took me into the Bekaa valley, a mountainous region of Lebanon located in the centre of the country long known for being one of the more tumultuous areas of the country as well as home to several hundred thousand Syrian refugees.
I was put in contact with a Syrian refugee called Om Noor living in the Bekaa valley. From Beirut I travelled through the mountainous valley region, past the many wine vineyards to a small makeshift camp where she was living. When I arrived she brought me to her small tent where we met her two of her five teenager daughters who smiled broadly when they saw me. We sat down to talk, but before we could begin we were interrupted by one of the camp leaders, a man, who came into the tent. He told us that none of the women would speak with us about violence, it would be better if I would go else where. It felt as if we were being warned.
Despite the lightly veiled threat, Om Noor still wanted to tell her story. It was a difficult one. After the fighting began in Syria she fled to Lebanon with her five daughters. They had been abandoned by her husband in Syria, he didn't want the responsibility of protecting six women in a war zone. Rape is often rife during conflict and Om Noor quietly told us how women have come to expect sexual assault from the soldiers at the many checkpoints throughout the country. 'Sometimes its just one of them, sometimes its all of them,' she said. After escaping the bombs and the bullets, she told us sadly that her real problems began when she arrived in Lebanon. With five daughters to feed, she was desperate to find work. However, she, like all of the Syrian women that I met in both Lebanon and Turkey, was confronted with the problem of sexual harassment. Several other Syrian women in their 40's came in to join us in the small tent and they too complained that employers were asking them for sex. One woman in her 50s said that she was even told by a bus driver that to get on the bus she would have to have sex with him.
The stories of sexual harassment facing Syrian women were no less disturbing in Gaziantep. I met with two sisters from Syria who were in their 40s in the backroom of a small refugee distribution centre. The stress that they had experienced was evident as they recounted their story. Wanting to escape the war they paid people smugglers to bring them over the border into Turkey. The violence however had not stopped with their arrival and they too reported sexual harassment from the Turkish men. Finding work was difficult because like in Lebanon, employers were taking advantage of their vulnerability and asking them for sexual favors in return for work. One of the sisters said she had heard Turkish men praying that the war in Syria would never end so that they could continue to have a supply of vulnerable women coming over the border. She said that she would prefer to go back to Syria and live in the war than to deal with the harassment she was facing in Turkey.
I understood her discomfort. I too was subject to leers from men in the street which made me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and disgusted.
The Lebanese and Turkish men I spoke to for the most part shrugged their shoulders and dismissed the issue. Sitting back laughing in his seat, one Lebanese man in Beirut said, 'sexual harassment is our culture.' Another Lebanese man informed us there was a website where men were sharing advice about where they could buy the best, cheapest and youngest Syrian women. For these men, Syrian women were just a commodity, to be bought and sold. During a conversation with a Turkish man in Istanbul he linked the treatment of Syrian women to the general view of women in the region. 'Traditionally in Turkey women have just been used for sex and beating on the back with a stick. Women have not had value in Turkey,' he told me.
There are few words that can adequately describe the disgrace of the treatment of the Syrian women in Turkey and Lebanon. The complete lack of respect or compassion for women who have been made vulnerable by war, or for women in general for that matter, is not only shameful, but barbaric. These kinds of attitudes and behavior must not be tolerated, ever. Sexual harassment should never be considered 'culture' and a woman should never be faced with the choice of having to sleep with her employer or living in destitution. If we raise our voices to express disgust, outrage and condemnation towards these sexist attitudes, we can make a change. As a global community we need to demand that justice is brought against men who abuse positions of power and we must demand that attitudes that promote the disempowerment and degradation of women come to end. Together we can work towards this goal.