Licensed to Kill: Sanctified Sexism in Syria

By Barber, Melissa; Xie, Nancy | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Licensed to Kill: Sanctified Sexism in Syria


Barber, Melissa, Xie, Nancy, Harvard International Review


The image of hundreds of Syrian women, carrying white cloths and olive branches in a protest against the government's mass arrests of the men of their village in April, was indeed powerful. There, in die town of Baida, the women had seemed to be political equals of their men in the way they stood up, side by side, for their cause. Yet such seeming equality proves only to be an illusion for most Syrian women in their domestic lives. In fact, gender discrimination in Syrian law serves to institutionalize the social and cultural stigmas associated with sexual abuse, honor crimes, and divorce.

Sexual abuse has long been a hidden crime in Syria. Official statistics on spousal rape and abuse are virtually non-existent, although recent studies show that one in four Syrian women surveyed reported that they have been victims of sexual abuse. Most of these violence and assault cases have gone unreported, for few victims choose to seek redress in court due to partiality of the law. Sharia laws treats men and women differently, and some personal status laws in Syria use Sharia regardless of the religion of the parties involved in the case. According to Article 508 of the Sharia penal code, "If there is a contracted marriage between the man who commits rape, sexual abuse, kidnapping, sexual harassment and the victim, then there is no charge or the punishment is stopped." In other words, there is no law against spousal rape; rather, the law encourages rapists to marry their victims.

Since the law tails to prevent domestic violence, honor crimes have also taken place at an alarming rate. Honor crimes are often cases of homicide of women and girls by family members who believe that the victim has brought humiliation upon the family or community. Dishonor, especially for a family, can include adultery, refusal of an arranged marriage, or even marriage by free will. It is important to note that victims of honor crimes have included gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. In Syria, between 300 and 400 cases of such honor crimes occur annually, according to the 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). For instance, Hasso Abdal, a resident of Hassakeh, shot his 21-year-old daughter last May because she filed a divorce and decided to elope with her lover. Most perpetrators such as Abdal were convicted under Article 129 of the Syrian penal code, which allowed judges to reduce the severity of the penalty sentence when "honor" is a motive for the murder. Women have no opportunity of defending themselves, while men have no other socially acceptable alternatives to regain their honor except by attacking the very objects of their dishonor.

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