Sundus Filfleh, a schoolteacher and a mother from Latakia city in western Syria, struggles to support her two girls and overcome the stigma of serving time in prison for her civil activism.
“After I was released from prison, the first question people asked me was whether I was raped,” Filfleh told VOA. “Society looks at a released woman in a suspicious way. There is a social rejection of the women who are released from prison.”
Syrian government forces arrested Filfleh during a peaceful protest in 2011 as she was trying to escape with other anti-government protesters. She said security forces opened fire on unarmed peaceful protesters to disperse their gathering.
She was imprisoned for about a year by the Syrian regime for her civil activities.
She said prison profoundly changed the way her family and other people view her as a person.
“My husband never accepted me again. We were separated after I was released. A lot of inmates were abandoned by their spouses and families after they were released as well,” she said.
Filfleh said her family members tried to her get out of prison, but turned their backs on her when she was released.
Torture and delivery
Filfleh was pregnant with her daughter when she was arrested, and she gave premature birth to her child inside the prison as a result of severe beating and torture by prison guards.
Now out of prison, Filfleh tries to find meaning and purpose in life. She lives in northern Syria’s Idlib province, one of the last rebel held strongholds in Syria. She works as a social worker, helping other women who went through gender-based violence during the country’s war.
But social work brings its own challenges, and she fears that her work might provoke extremist groups who disapprove of women’s activism and advocacy for rights.
“Surviving the experience of detention took fear out my heart. We must fight back this extremist thought,” Filfleh said.
A recent U.N. report said Syrian women have suffered many abuses, including sexual violence, torture and trauma, by different warring factions in the country.
The report also echoed Fifleh’s experience that prison takes a heavy toll on inmates and changes women’s lives forever.
“Owing to social norms and honor codes, however, men tend to be celebrated by their community upon their release, whereas women face shame, stigma and rejection by husbands or parents, who assume that they were raped in custody,” the report said.
Gülden Sönmez, a lawyer who organized the Conscience Convoy, an all-female march, in Turkey’s border region with Syria earlier this year, told Turkish media outlets that about 14,000 women had been imprisoned by the Syrian regime and that most of them had died because of torture and abuse.
Rejection by the community has prompted abandoned Syrian women to band together to help heal some of psychological trauma. Some have established organizations to help former prisoners raise awareness their situation and experiences.
Walaa Ahmad, a former prisoner and founder of the Idlib-based Release Me Foundation, started her nonprofit organization to provide psychological healing and education for women who suffered during and after detention in Syria.
“The greatest challenge these women face is the acceptance of society. Many of these women are divorced by their husbands, neglected by their parents, and found themselves cut off without a place to live,” Ahmad said.
“Some of these women are imprisoned with their children, and this creates a greater pressure on them after their release from prison,” Ahmed added.
Ahmed was arrested in late 2014 for her civil activism and was finally released in early 2017. She said she was arrested at a military checkpoint by government forces and taken to the notorious Adra prison in northeast Damascus.
Ahmed was hesitant to go into the details of her experience in prison, but like Filfleh, she finds comfort in helping other women with similar experiences overcome their struggles in post-prison life.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based rights group monitoring developments in Syria since 2011, has documented more than 140,000 cases of people being detained by the Syrian regime.
The group charges that detainees have been subject to torture and that nearly 15,000 people, including women and children, have died as a result.
The group also says the 15,000 figure represents only cases that can be documented. It says the actual number of detainees who died in government prisons could be several times higher.
VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of these figures.
Many international organizations are urging the Syrian government to release prisoners incarcerated by the regime during the country’s civil war, which broke out in 2011.
In March 2017, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told a Geneva forum that in order for the Syrian people to find peace, there must be accountability and justice.
“Today, in a sense, the entire country has become a torture chamber, a place of savage horror and absolute injustice,” Al Hussein said.
Syrian local sources said that the fate of thousands of Syrian detainees might be revealed as the government regains most of the land it lost to various rebel groups in the past few years.