Latakia – Batoul Alali

On her way to her village in Jableh suburbs, Maram groans under the weight of heavy bags of rice and sugar she received after a psycho-social support session at Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in Latakia city. She feels irritated  as she thought he would harass her; Maram was about to scream the moment he would touch her. Instead, the volunteer gave her two children their share of biscuits. The UN was giving biscuits as part of an aid to students at schools. The volunteer only asked her not to bring her children to the center as they were loud at the session.

One october morning in 2013, the 22 years old skinny girl Maram woke up to the loud screaming; her husband, Mehyar, was killed on a front in Damascus countryside. She was given a title; “The martyr’s widow”. She and Mehyar had lived a three years old love story and got married. Her husband took a vow to protect her, never leave her, and stay beside her, but he broke his promise. He had rather volunteered as a soldier in “National Defence Forces” to fight “The terrorists” than supporting his family. The husband was killed in less than a year. They wouldn’t let her take a final look at his mutilated body wrapped in red  at his burial.

Maram’s fears of men and her suspicions began after the first harassment incident two years ago. She was at the National Defence Forces center in Latakia when one of the militia volunteers asked her to join him at a private room to collect her two-months-due food basket. He made her visit the center frequently as he knew she needed the aid. He knew she would travel  long distance each time to collect the aid. Maram needed the aid to support her children. She used to freeze-still while his body was too close to her, he kept harassing her; little did he know that her reaction was only because of her trauma after she was named “the martyr’s widow – the volunteer’s widow.

Maram’s husband used to tell her that his comrades at the “National Defence Forces” call him their brother in blood. Whenever she asked him to stay and leave the fight, his response  would be, “Do you want them to slaughter us?”. “They are already killing us my dear husband” she would reply, “not the terrorists, but your brothers in blood”.

Maram will never forget the slap she took from her father in law when a man proposed to her. The shouting and threatens to deprive her from her two children if she said yes still rings in her ears. “Do you want to sell my son’s blood you slut?”, her father in law would say to her, like a sharp knife in her chest. Her parents did not stand up for her, so she decided to forget the whole marriage matter. The “New traditions” dictates that a martyr’s window should not get married; it will be considered disloyalty to her late husband and martyr. Shame will follow her and her children. “Everytime I hear about one widow of an armed group member is getting married to the first man proposing, I wish my husband was one of them”. “At least I could have had the right to get married”. she says”.

When asked about why she is always wearing black all the time with no makeup, she laughed: “A widow wearing colorful clothes or showing any sign of relief, or even laughing is considered a shameful act according to the new traditions in times of the Syrian war”. she said. No one has encouraged Maram to continue her life normally. “It is out of question, I am the martyr’s wife, I should always be grieving, and beg for sympathy, pity, and money to provide to my children”.

Maram tried to change the status quo by enrolling in a free vocational course for widows to learn tailoring as it might help her find a job. At least work is still allowed for widows.

There are neither accurate statistics nor surveys addressing verbal, and physical sexual abuse in the regime-controlled areas. The subject of harassment is not addressed widely due to social taboo and regime restrictions on activists.

Reem Rajab, is an activist founded “Noun” – an organization about child and women violence victims whose ages are between twenty and early thirteens.

She says: “Most of these women did not spend much time with their husbands and are suffering from their loss, and the custody of the husband’s’ parents.” “The husband’s’ parents also share the compensations they recieve if the husband was a veteran. Most of the fighters and volunteers in the army are villagers, therefor widows stay at the husband’s place; at least at the same building. The widows are always the subjects of the eyes of the community. She would not dare to smile, otherwise would be accused of betraying her husband’s blood and his sacrifice.”, She says.

Reem indicates that female numbers exceeds males in the coastal towns and villages in Syria. She also says that “Two out of of three males who are capable of supporting a family and able to get married and support a family were killed in action. Therefor, widows are more likely be bullied by women. Their excuse is to protect the widow and maintain her reputation”. it is easy to judge and rate the “honor” of women in urban and rural women. Women are under huge pressure and have to live under pressure just to live in peace and quiet away from infamousy.

“When I established the organization at 2015, I was shocked by the numbers  of women, divorced, and widows in need of great support on so many levels. They needed financial, legal, and health support.” she says.  “There were many people working, but with little and limited capacities. many organizations are not seriously addressing these issues. A well capable and financed staff is a must, with a great margin to work in. It is not possible to be able to function in the regime’s areas.”

At the center of the children of the martyrs in Tishreen suburb, the only place where educational vocational services are available to families of the dead, Maram sits at the sewing training room; the place where she chose to learn a profession rather than begging. She didn’t have access to proper education as her family is poor, much like many of her colleagues in the training center. Most of her peers trainees are females. Nearly half of them are widows, and the rest are mothers and sisters of wounded men enlisted at the “National Defence Forces” as civilians, which lowers their benefits for wives and children. Their compensation is only a few thousand liras and individual aids once a year with no salary.

Dr Mazen Zowan, director of the association, believes that “Women are more affected than men, despite the claims that men are . Most of the women joining the training come from the far countryside. They are uneducated, and the Syrian regime does not provide compensation because their men are not officially enlisted in the army, but the National Defence forces. They suddenly had to become providers without any profession that could spare them begging. The association is trying to fulfill the gap with so few capabilities and support.

The vocational training session must be followed by psycho-social support session at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Center at Al-Amerkan area in Latakia. Maram cannot conceive of the benefits of of these sessions. Maram’s fiend told her that the organization is giving aid after each session, which is Maram’s best hope. The young woman’s thoughts drift away during her training practices with Rabab Ghazi. Rabab says that “Such sessions are essential and useful for Maram, and other widows. These women are usually facing daily-basis abuse. The community is not ready to accept this stratum, and rehabilitate it.”

“Considering the current restrictions, the psycho support awareness is a difficult task for the working teams. Such support does not reach the far suburbs”, Rabab says. “However, there has been some positive outcomes with women who were able to overcome post-trauma issues caused by the loss of their husbands. Still, the most essential task is to prepare the community to accept them – there has been no success in that matter yet”

Maram double checks her bag on her way back from the training sessions to make sure she has enough money to pay for transportation. She does not want to make the same mistake she did two months ago when the driver offered her an insulting exchange as payment, although he was a relative and he knew she was a “martyr’s widow”. She hold tight on her precious bags of rice and sugar.