Examining Chemical Weapons Attacks in Syria through a Gendered Lens

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One decade ago, on 21 August 2013, the world watched in horror as the Syrian regime unleashed chemical weapons on eastern and western Ghouta near Damascus, resulting in the tragic death of approximately 1,500 people.

In the dense web of geopolitical complexities that surround conflicts, individual stories are often lost, especially when those stories reflect gendered experiences. The chemical weapon attacks serve as an awful reminder of how gender dynamics play a role in the way crimes are committed, as well as how they are interrogated, experienced, and recalled. To secure any form of justice, there is a pressing need to view these events from a gender-sensitive perspective, and to ensure that accountability processes recognize these individual experiences.

This text poses three pivotal questions: First, why is there a pressing need to consider perspectives that highlight gender differences? Second, how did gendered dynamics influence the repercussions of this massacre? And third, how can we lay the groundwork for a judicial system that accounts for these gendered considerations honestly and actively?

The Need for Gender Sensitivity

Tohama Darwish, a survivor of the eastern Ghouta attack, witnessed it as a first responder. She had worked in every clinic in the al-Fayhaa area and volunteered for the Red Crescent; she is now a refugee in France. “Gender has been the missing link for the last ten years”, she said in an interview. “After the massacre, women were reluctant to come forward with their stories. Women who held senior positions in healthcare did not want to appear in the public sphere, mostly for security reasons and because of social anxieties imposed by the conservative social context.” Darwish observed that the voice of women remains subdued. Her understanding of the importance of highlighting women’s experiences compels her to participate in events, commemorations of the atrocities of the massacre, and efforts to hold the culprits accountable - even if such efforts might seem futile.

There are blind spots in terms of gender’s place in the historical narrative due to the systemic neglect of women’s experiences. Such an oversight significantly impacts victims and survivors, as well as the routes to accountability and healing. In the aftermath of such attacks, the pressing need to lay blame and identify the perpetrators often overshadows other considerations. Although those processes are vital for eventual accountability, they have also often obscured the gendered violence taking place in the conflict on a wider level, of which the chemical attacks are a part. A gender-informed perspective highlights this significant gap in the international response to such attacks, a gap that only furthers the continuing obfuscation of women’s experiences at times of crisis.

The Global Public Policy Institute found that: “Women and children are disproportionately affected by indiscriminate violence, including attacks involving chemical weapons”, referring to the fact that women’s experiences are not reported because of systematic gender bias affecting data collection. According to the Institute, this bias leads to a lack of understanding among the international community relating to the effects of the Syrian conflict, which naturally weakens the efficacy of any policy decisions taken. In addition, the Global Public Policy Institute suggests that the gender gap in both documentation and knowledge is attributable to the fact that the main correspondents in Syria, including journalists and first responders, are male. In a conservative society, this limits the readiness of women to share their experiences and furthers the marginalization and silencing of female voices.

A view of chemical weapons attacks informed by gender sensitivities is fundamental to revealing the complex and often hidden ways in which gender can intersect with the conflict’s impact.

Traditional analysis of war tends to marginalize individual experiences, points of weakness, and the coping mechanisms employed by people of different genders. This produces a limited understanding of the impacts of such events. In contexts of conflict, women and other gender minorities often face increased risks such as sexual violence, exploitation, and discrimination. Including their perspectives also recognizes the vital role women play as caregivers and peacebuilders, identifying the importance of their agency in both the conflict and its aftermath. Although we focus on a perspective informed by gender, we are not neglecting the fact that gender can intersect with other aspects of personal identity, such as age, social class, ethnicity, religion, and health. An approach that considers gender also acknowledges these intersectionalities, shedding light on how the different levels of identity can amplify a conflict’s impacts on individuals.

An understanding of gender dynamics is vital for both an effective response and for subsequent healing. Incorporating such an understanding would mean that rescue efforts would not unintentionally exacerbate existing gender inequalities. Equally, it would strengthen accountability for gender-based crimes under international law, which might otherwise remain neglected without this understanding. Furthermore, a gendered analysis should guide public policies aimed at defending equality and justice and provide more comprehensive and precise narratives of events. Such comprehensive accounts are vitally necessary for improving the accuracy of the historical record, as well as being important for the paths to justice and societal healing.

The Gendered Impact of the Massacre

To understand the massacre, we must first contextualize it properly. The Syrian regime first directed missiles loaded with sarin gas towards eastern Ghouta. The regime had already besieged and bombarded the area, starved its people, weakened its infrastructure, and strangled it to the point that many skilled workers fled, including driving out specialist medical personnel. In this context, women carried a significant additional burden of societal caregiving due to the social role imposed upon them. This impacted women’s experience of the chemical attacks. Furthermore, the healthcare system in the area had been decimated, as the regime had continuously targeted medical facilities; cut off electricity, water, and communications; and detained, driven out, or killed countless medical personnel. As a consequence, the healthcare system was not prepared to react to a disaster of that scale.

To address the gendered aspect of the massacre, we interviewed Salim Namour, a doctor who opened the al-Kahf hospital in eastern Ghouta. Namour was the head of the United Medical Office in eastern Ghouta, a body that organized medical work, and was also one of the founders of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons. He said:

According to the figures gathered by the United Medical Office in eastern Ghouta, there were approximately 10,000 people injured. By the time international investigators arrived a week after the massacre, 1,466 people had died. Those figures continued to climb as people injured in the attack passed away. According to our figures, roughly two-thirds of the injured were women and children, since the weapons were directed at residential areas, targeting families as they slept.

The fact that the attacks took place at night impacted the gender balance of the medical staff working at the time, as there were a large number of women working and volunteering that night. First responders, nurses, and doctors all needed more time to arrive at healthcare facilities.

Providing first aid requires removing the clothes of injured people; before the attack, regional hospitals and healthcare facilities had respected local values regarding the separation of the sexes. But, as Namour said: “The attacks changed their conception of gender”, as mass death left no opportunity for any of these considerations, and “it was a matter of life or death”. Darwish, who was working as a first responder in a school that had been turned into a medical facility in Zamalka, said: “The attack happened quite far from Zamalka, and there was some coordination, so we made the backyard of the school into an area for women. I don’t think that would have been possible at facilities that had been more directly impacted by the strikes.” Darwish also stressed that this separation of the sexes helped to preserve the dignity of the women affected; being in a conservative area, most of the women covered their hair, and removing a woman’s clothes was a violation of her privacy according to social customs.

“The physiological impact of sarin gas is the same for both sexes, and women exhibit the same symptoms as men,” said Namour. He continued:

However, if we want to return to the context of the attacks, it becomes clear that individuals suffering from malnutrition, forced to rely on wood for heating and consequently inhaling the resultant smoke, or living in areas contaminated by dust from bombardment, do not possess the same health status as others. Facing a chemical attack with such compromised health presents an even greater challenge. Women living under siege endured disproportionately harsh circumstances. Often heading their households, they grapple with managing familial finances amidst extreme food shortages, preparing meals with chopped firewood, maintaining household cleanliness, and caring for their children. The ordeal is further intensified when they had to confront the effects of inhaling sarin gas, all while navigating the previously mentioned conditions.

In terms of sexual and reproductive health, Namour stresses the importance of taking the whole, disastrous context into account. However, as a doctor, he also cautioned against making any connection between sarin and termination of pregnancy or birth defects, highlighting that the combination of all the factors we discussed could have an impact on sexual and reproductive health. In the long term, the scars from both the physical wounds and the mounting psychological trauma of chemical attacks continue to impact both genders.

Thus, when analyzing the massacre, it is not enough to draw solely on this medical perspective that sees no difference between the sexes in terms of the consequences of exposure to chemical weapons. The intersection between environmental, economic, and political factors with social roles can illuminate our understanding of the gendered impact of the attacks, and paint a complete picture of the context in which women face challenges and violations, which are often marginalized and forgotten.

In terms of the social consequences of the attack for women, Namour highlighted the “honorable” role women played in caring for the “sarin orphans”. Women who survived the attacks took on the responsibility of caring for orphaned children, a task made even more challenging given the circumstances of the time. Furthermore, Namour emphasized that the pain stemming from witnessing the regime evade accountability parallels the pain caused by the attacks themselves – a sentiment deeply felt by both men and women.

Regarding the question of human rights and documenting violations, I spoke to the Syrian activist Tha’ir Hijazi, another founder of the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons. He worked on documenting human rights violations in Douma and eastern Ghouta from 2012 to 2018 and is a civil claimant in the criminal case brought against the Syrian regime in French courts, which accused regime officials of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Hijazi spoke about the international investigations commission that attempted to identify both the type of gas used and the source of the strikes by collecting soil samples and blood samples from the injured, testing animals in the area, and anything else that might help. He described how the subsequent documentation efforts focused on gathering evidence, and how witness statements focused on identifying the type of chemical weapon and pointing the finger squarely at regime officials. As for the gendered perspective of the documentation, he said: “The disaster has not been studied from a gendered perspective in the way it should have been, and there is a lack of both materials and expertise, which has only served to widen the gap.”

The focus on gathering evidence is understandable in the aftermath of the massacre, but we need to expand our understanding of what constitutes evidence and direct both local and international efforts toward forming a more comprehensive and inclusive account of the massacre’s consequences. This expanded account should include consequences related to the massacre, such as forced migration and displacement, and the attendant material and psychological burdens, as well as gendered forms of violence.

In the long term, the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons is dedicated to the collection and preservation of eyewitness accounts. These stories can be used in efforts to hold those responsible to account. I asked Tha’ir Hijazi about the gender balance within the Association, and their focus on gender in the documentation process. He responded:

Women make up only 20% of the members, but it’s not the case that we do not want women to be involved. This imbalance is perhaps primarily attributable to the security fears relating to families who stayed in Syria, and to the nature of Syrian society and customs. Women are survivors, but they do not speak, and societal controls restrict them.

As for the questions asked and the findings of the documentation process, Hijazi stated that there is no difference between the sexes, but that the Association needs support with both resources and expertise if it is to be able to pay more attention to this issue. He added: “It is very important that the whole issue is connected to its context, namely a society where large numbers of women have experienced a wide range of human rights violations, up to and including the chemical attacks. The relations and intersections of these violations are a matter of fundamental importance.”

These accounts show that a comprehensive understanding of the massacre requires the precise identification of the interrelated factors behind events, starting with the social and economic context and ending with the circumstances related to physical and psychological well-being, which have a particular impact on women. If we want to bring about justice and accountability, we must look at these challenges and factors from a gender perspective and take steps to document evidence and achieve justice for all victims.

For this reason, it is imperative that women actively participate in the documentation process. Support and resources should be directed towards equipping and empowering them to make meaningful contributions to these efforts. As calls for international accountability and justice rise, we must work to secure the gendered elements of these efforts and emphasize that women will not remain invisible or ignored in the efforts to hold those responsible to account and bring them to justice.

Towards a Gender-Sensitive Justice

As part of the attempts to create a form of justice that is more sensitive to gender in the context of conflict, we must abandon the more limited view of accountability. This approach focuses exclusively on determining those responsible for visible and direct crimes. A strategy that does not solely focus on accountability for those responsible for the tangible consequences of crimes may serve to incentivize more comprehensive approaches that address the causes of the gendered violence that occurs in conflicts. This form of justice looks at the context before the massacre, analyzes the massacre, and then studies its direct and indirect consequences.

In this conception of justice, punishment is but one strand; a more comprehensive justice is also reformative and restorative. Forms of compensation that recognize the specific experiences of different genders, from the material to the psychological, are of vital importance in these efforts. Forging specialized support systems, holding guidance sessions, and organizing social reintegration programs that pay particular attention to the unique experiences of each gender are the pillars and foundations of comprehensive justice. The effects of the chemical weapon attacks were not unified, with men and women facing differing challenges in their aftermath. True justice recognizes the innumerable and immeasurable ways in which people experience harm and seeks to heal these wounds.

On this issue, Darwish said: “In eastern Ghouta, it was nigh on impossible for people to take care of their psychological well-being, and because of other priorities, psychologists and psychiatrists were a secondary concern. The way people cared for their sexual and reproductive health was very traditional, and the complete lack of resources was the reason cited for this shortcoming.” Darwish thinks that these developments will continue to have consequences in the long term, and they will continue to escape notice due to the many social factors that silence female voices. In Ghouta, these conditions affected women’s ability to cope with the aftermath of the chemical attacks; they further limited our knowledge of women’s experiences and restricted access to data that might aid a better understanding of the gendered impact of such chemical attacks. Without such data, it is difficult to create a more sensitive and comprehensive form of justice.

In pursuit of justice, traditionally the focus is on the legal processes involved in identifying and punishing the main perpetrators while also handling the international impact and diplomatic relations. In such attempts to secure justice, the gendered aspects of the tragedy – such as the stories of women subjected to violence, trauma, and homelessness – can play second fiddle.

When examining the avenues towards accountability after chemical weapon attacks and contrasting them with international negotiations aimed at holding regime officials responsible for the treatment of detainees, a significant distinction becomes evident: the inclusion of sexual violence related to gender as one of the allegations. The inclusion of these charges played an important role in building the chain of command which ended with Bashar al-Assad being placed on European sanctions lists for crimes related to sexual and gender-based violence. Achieving this requires monumental effort and courage. We must recognize how difficult these efforts are, especially when we appreciate the complexities involved in trying to emulate similar efforts. Without real international commitment to holding the Syrian regime responsible for the chemical attacks, repeating the process of accountability becomes even more difficult.

As part of the wider context of accountability, gender dynamics play an important role in shaping the path to justice. The imbalances of power that so often perpetuate gender-based violence overlap with challenges in identifying the perpetrators. This intersection requires an understanding of how structural inequality between the sexes is impacted by political and social dynamics in a way that limits people’s ability to bring to account those responsible for gender-based violence and violations. Although bringing perpetrators to account is a matter of vital importance, it can result in political aims being prioritized over dealing with the individual challenges that marginalized communities face on the ground.

Geopolitical interests are capable of unintentionally casting their long shadow over the intersecting power and gender dynamics in the Syrian conflict, and sometimes focusing on political considerations masks the way these considerations relate to political power and gender. Efforts to achieve political goals can override our understanding of the complex interactions between dynamics of power on the one hand, and gender roles on the other. Our conception of these interactions is also vitally important because traditional gender structures and the unequal distribution of political power impact processes from political decision-making to access to resources to being subjected to gender-based violence. Ignoring how these factors are all interlinked leaves us with a partial understanding of the impacts of the conflict and hinders the development of effective responses that recognize both the experiences and needs of people of different genders..

Equally, the limitations imposed by traditional justice mechanisms extend beyond their ability to address individual cases of gender-based violence, as they often also fail to treat the deeper root causes that enable this form of violence to persist. A gender-sensitive analysis emphasizes a recognition of the relationship between individual acts of violence and the larger structures of State power and patriarchal systems that enable those acts of violence. This understanding lays the foundations for forms of justice that challenge, rather than perpetuate, the structures encouraging gender-based violence.

Enabling and equipping actors on the ground in post-conflict contexts to counter the gendered impacts of conflict is another vitally important process. The path to recovery is often drawn up by legal experts, peace-keeping forces, and individuals from the humanitarian sector and local civil society organizations. In the absence of an understanding of the gendered complexities of a conflict, their efforts can unintentionally ignore some fundamental details; supplementing their training with greater awareness of the gender dynamics of a conflict can add depth to those efforts.

The chemical weapon attacks in Syria are not just testimony to the terrifying extent of human-rights violations that have occurred there, but are also a reflection of the deeply entrenched gender biases and vulnerabilities that so often surface during times of conflict. Bringing about true justice calls for the adoption of an approach rooted in an understanding of gender dynamics, where the distinct experiences of men and women are understood and recognized, alongside their centrality to accountability processes. This responsibility extends to an understanding of accountability from an intersectional perspective, which gives equal weight to political power and gender.

When the path to justice integrates gender, it can promise a journey that is not only about punishment, but is also about healing, recovery, and growth for all.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.