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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.