Updated: May 7, 2019
Adra Women’s Prison witnessed an unusual scene. After hanging up the phone, a detainee started singing and dancing exultantly as if she had forgotten where she was. She told her bewildered co-detainees that her husband had just divorced her during their very first phone call because of her arrest.
Former detainee and activist Mona Barakat tells this story to try and explain the injustice endured by Syrian female detainees on two levels: firstly by the regime and secondly by their relatives and society. She assures that most of the female detainees she encountered did not escape exclusion and marginalization either by their families and husbands or by society at large, including their neighborhood, friends, and workplace. The root of this social behavior is a false and muddled feeling that leads people to criminalize women and hold them responsible for what happens to them, despite their obvious innocence, since their arrest is often due to the regime’s arbitrary acts or the women’s legitimate activity in the revolution.
Mona Barakat, the real name of activist Shams al Dimashqiyah, began her revolutionary activities by planning and filming protests. She then became a member of the Information Office in one of the coordination bureaus of the revolution in the Damascus countryside, before working as a news editor with several news networks.
She also founded the Shams Al Hayat Relief Association that covered many regions in Damascus and its countryside such as Western Ghouta, Daraya, and Moadamiya, in addition to areas in the besieged South Damascus where possible.
In 2012, Mona and her relatives were displaced from the Qadam district to Western Ghouta, where she continued her activities. However, she was arrested in an ambush in the Kaswa area in the Damascus countryside and was taken to Branch 215, where she spent about 7 months. Mona experienced the regime’s brutality during her detention. Not only was she tortured and harassed, but she was also a witness to the torture of other detainees. She later worked on founding an association for detainees in Turkey after her release, which took place through a series of negotiations between the regime and the opposition factions, leading to the release of six female detainees by the regime. Despite all the years that have passed since her release, Mona still carries the pain she endured from society, which exceeds the agony she withstood in prison. “My parents and siblings accepted my arrest and the fact that I was not responsible for it, since they knew it was a probability due to my activities,” she said. “They even visited me when I was transferred to Adra Women’s Prison. However, I was stunned at the hostility I faced after my release by my relatives. Their scorn and contempt made me feel as if I were guilty.”
Mona told Zaiton Magazine what happened to female detainees after their release:
“One of my fellow detainees was abandoned by her fiancé because she was arrested, and she accepted this separation because she was acquainted with his way of thinking. Another friend was arrested along with her husband, who was subjected to all sorts of torture and harassment. When they were released, he became a violent and aggressive man who was suspicious of his wife. Since he considered that they had both endured the same suffering, their family life became a constant hell. His culture and level of awareness did not help him deal with his doubts, so he turned away from his wife even though they stayed together under the same roof. He kept beating his children due to his constant state of aggressiveness and tension.”
In contrast, Mona says that there are men who held on to their wives and did not let go of them. However, many parents and relatives consider that female detainees bring shame and that they must be avoided.
According to Wadha Othman, a women’s rights activist, “some people are narrow-minded and consider that female detainees have become loose women of ill-repute.”
“These women were not arrested because of a crime they committed, but because they had a revolutionary husband or brother, or because they were carrying out honorable revolutionary activities,” she added, denouncing the double standards that glorify detained men and treat women with contempt.
Mona was released in 2014 to Idlib and then to Turkey. It was a journey into the unknown that was riddled with challenges. She worked in the medical field until she was able to return to her profession as a teacher. To help female detainees, she tries to turn their memories from their time in jail into reasons to live. Mona opened an institute for teaching Turkish and Arabic, and founded again the volunteer Shams team in Turkey.
Shams al Dimashqiyah does not feel comfortable with some women’s acceptance of their fate and tries to convey the message that if these women surrender to feelings of ostracism and inferiority, it would render meaningless the cause for which they were arrested. She considers that their arrest is a badge of honor for every Syrian and a source of pride for each man, which will go down in history. There will come a day when their children and grandchildren will be proud of their sacrifices and will say, “Our mother was arrested and tortured so that others could live. She did not make sacrifices for a personal cause, but rather for the cause of an entire people.”
Mona concludes the interview by saying that she dreams to return to Syria when there is no longer injustice. This dream gives her patience and removes any feeling of shame from her detention, especially after she realized it was akin to being born again.
*Born in Damascus in 1986, Mona Barakat is a mother of two. She is a teacher and has worked for the Syrian revolution in Damascus and its countryside in the medical, relief, and education fields. She was arrested then released after a negotiation process and currently resides in the south of Turkey.