A Syrian refugee waits to cross the border into Turkey. Photo: Uygar Onder Simsek/AFP/Getty Images
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Is the way the media reports Islamic State’s treatment of women making things worse?

As in any war, the “rape crisis” in Syria and Iraq is complicated, and the way it is reported shapes the false assumptions and stigma women face.

Anyone who has been following coverage of the conflict in Syria and Iraq will know that the region has seen a major rape crisis. Much of the media coverage has focused obsessively on the horrendous violence against Yazidi women and girls escaping from Isis captivity, with details sometimes bordering on the salacious about slave markets, forced marriage, and multiple rapes. Is it possible that this is doing more harm than good?

A group of scholars argued last year in the Washington Post that the coverage risks being counterproductive: “To scholars of sexual violence, these media narratives look typical in three related ways: They are selective and sensationalist; they obscure deeper understandings about patterns of wartime sexual violence; and they are laden with false assumptions about the causes of conflict rape.”

The violence against Yazidi women is unarguably horrific, an exceptionally extreme example of sexual violence. But this is not the whole story. As in any war, the “rape crisis” is complicated: it is not perpetrated by any one group. In Syria, regime forces have been using rape as a weapon of war since the conflict began in 2011. Islamist groups and rebels have also been responsible for violations. Women displaced by conflict, often left widowed or without a male guardian, face exploitation and abuse at refugee camps or in host countries.

Mandana Hendessi, the regional director for the Middle East for the NGO, Women for Women International, objects to the way that women have often been portrayed as victims. “With the Yazidi women, to some degree, I felt that their experiences were sensationalised,” she says. “In none of those articles have I read anything about how they resisted. There’s no mention of women trying to take things in their control. The very fact they ran away the moment they had the opportunity – that shows incredible resilience. Some self-harmed with corrosive substances on their faces to protect themselves from the men, and some shaved their eyebrows and eyelashes. But the way it has been portrayed in the media, it looks like these women had no power. Stripping them of agency removes their dignity.”

A recent article published by the Daily Beast argued that western journalists covering the violence against Yazidi women have sometimes been insensitive in their search for shocking details. “Does the public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy? I don’t think so and there are indications that victims would agree,” wrote Sherizaan Minwalla.

Hendessi notes that there is a risk of women being stigmatised. “Yazidi men are now the obstacle to women’s progress. They are not allowing the women to go anywhere as there is this fear that the women might be kidnapped again. To the community, it feels like a tremendous shame has fallen up on them.”

Of course, it is incredibly important that sexual violence is reported on, and that the issue is discussed widely in order to effect the kind of practical changes that can protect women. But it is also important that this reporting is done responsibly and in a sensitive manner, particularly given the shame and stigma associated with rape. “Refugee camps take away your individual dignity, and you are exposed to all sorts of professionals – doctors, lawyers, journalists,” says Hendessi. “There can be a lack of respect for women’s privacy.”

The Washington Post article argued that “reports of Islamic State imprisonment and rape of Yazidi women have effectively erased more common and complex patterns”. These more complex patterns include the exploitation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan by landlords and employers; the trafficking of women from official refugee camps. There is a full range of issues, from abuse by regime forces, to the rape of men, to the extreme poverty of refugee populations, that are common to many conflicts around the world. These issues deserve attention too.

The steps that need to be taken to protect women are not particularly headline-grabbing initiatives: the proper policing of refugee camps, extensive psychosocial support for women who have been victims of sexual violence, and economic empowerment for women displaced by conflict. But only by understanding the complicated nature of the problem can effective long and short term solutions be put in place.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.