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Cynthia Enloe: How do feminists keep us interested in the Syrian civil war?

Giulia Casella, News Editor

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Trigger warning: this article discusses wartime rape, sexual assault and sex trafficking.

Cynthia Enloe opened her second talk of the semester with a little quiz for her audience: draw Syria and its neighboring countries, and then label those countries. Her audience knew them all: Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. According to Enloe, this is because Americans only start to think about certain countries when they are at war with them.

The outbreak of the civil war in Syria drew the United States’ attention, but that was years ago in 2011 – who has kept the United States (as well as the rest of the world) interested in Syria since? According to Enloe, it is feminists who remind us to care about the Syrian civil war, and this was the main topic of her talk on Thursday, Sept. 28.

Enloe emphasized that she was sharing a gender analysis of politics in Syria at a specific point in time: late 2017. The time period is important because it was not until recently that humanitarian aid organizations became responsive to pressure, embarrassment, and persuasion by feminists, who have analyzed other wars, to consider that “you have to ask feminist questions and gather feminist data to understand the Syrian civil war,” according to Enloe.

Since 2011, 50 percent of all Syrians have either fled as refugees to neighboring countries or have been internally displaced within Syria. It is estimated that 4.9 million Syrians have become refugees, but only 1 million additional Syrians are internationally recognized as refugees through political agency funding and guidelines. Another 5 million Syrians do not know how to attain refugee status or do not have the resources they need to become recognized as refugees.

Feminist questions have allowed researchers like Enloe to understand how the issue of becoming a refugee is difficult for Syrian women specifically.

Enloe explained that female illiteracy was at 26 percent before the war.

“Once you’ve crossed the border, can you read anything?” The fate of refugees is heavily dependent on reading and writing, and not having these skills is a further loss of power. Enloe then discussed working for pay: only 39 percent of Syrian women were reported to be in paying jobs before the war.

“What do you do during war with no money? You can’t buy a bus ticket to cross the border. You can’t bribe an officer to let you pass the border,” she said.

Feminists have made important improvements in pushing humanitarian aid organizations to consider war through a feminist lens, which has alleviated some problems Syrian women face in the civil war.

It was not until the 1980s that people trained in women’s studies were employed as professional staff in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These new employees insisted that the humanitarian aid organization modify the language it uses.


“2/3 of all the displaced people outside their own countries that the UNHCR was legally responsible for…were women and their dependent children,” said Enloe. “Not women and children.” The latter is the way most journalists and international analysts lump women and their children together.

This language difference has a significant effect on policy and how people are treated. Lumping together women and children suggests they are both dependent on someone else, but ‘women and their dependent children’ distinguishes that it is women who are taking care of children, and that it is children who are dependent on women.

“Words matter – they carry political consequences,” said Enloe.

It also was not until after the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides, in which systematic wartime rape became viewed as a strategy of ethnic cleansing as well as of physical violence and fear, that humanitarian aid organizations declared rape an “internationally prosecutable violation of rights in wartime,” according to Enloe. Because the Syrian civil war comes after these genocides, organizations are paying attention to sexual assault, and “they don’t treat wartime rape as simply ‘guys will be guys’,” said Enloe.

Syrian parents are aware that a woman is “fair game” if she is unprotected, explained Enloe. Not only with regards to sexual assault, but also sex trafficking, which increases during wartime.

“Sex traffickers think war zones are heaven, because in wartime girls and women are without community and family protection,” said Enloe. Consequently, Syrian refugee communities feel increasingly pressured to marry off their young teenage daughters, because the male suitors (who are usually much older) promise they will protect them.

While marrying off a young teenage girl to a much older man may not be ideal, the idea that a woman needs to be protected is part of Syria’s gender history, and one that is difficult to challenge during a vulnerable time such as war.

Enloe reminded her audience that every country has a gender history, and that even Clark has its own gender history.

“Does anyone know how many female presidents Clark has had since it was founded?” Her audience guessed correctly: zero. “Think about that,” said Enloe.

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Cynthia Enloe: How do feminists keep us interested in the Syrian civil war?