July 27, 2016
LATAKIA â€" Raneem had a choice to make. The last time the 26-year-old from Hama province saw the man she loves, he asked her to marry him. She said yes. But her parents forbade the engagement. It was 2015, four years into the Syrian conflict, and Raneem was in love with a man her parents believed would put her in danger.
"My family never understood the situation they put me in," Raneem told Syria Deeply. "I couldn't marry anyone else. I love him. But they didn't care about that. My family rejected him because he is opposed to the Syrian regime."
Raneem and her family lived in a part of Hama province controlled by the Syrian government. Her fiancé, whom she did not name for security reasons, is from rural Idlib province, an area controlled by the Syrian opposition. Her parents were worried that if she married him, Raneem would have to move with her husband to Idlib, which is frequently targeted by the Syrian governmentâ€™s aerial bombardments.
Raneemâ€™s choice was stark: disobey her parents, or give up on marrying the man she loves. But first, she had to find him. It's been a year since the proposal, a year since the young couple last spoke. When her parents rejected the proposal, he fled the government-controlled area of Syria. Raneem has subsequently rejected all of the men who have asked for her hand in marriage, and has spent the past year looking for her beloved.
Her choice is one shared by dozens of young women living in Syria. A large number of those who live in government-controlled areas have fallen in love with men with whom they studied, or whom they met before the Syrian conflict began â€" men who live in places the war has labeled "opposition-held areas."
The conflict has divided the country, making such relationships increasingly difficult to maintain. Men are harassed or conscripted into the Syrian army if they stay. And women face danger and extortion if they travel between cities.
Salma, 25, met her fiancé four years ago while they were attending the same college. She is from the government stronghold of Latakia and he is from Idlib. After he proposed, the situation in Latakia became too dangerous for him as he supported the Syrian opposition. He fled the city for Idlib, but he did not bring Salma.
"He visited my family, asked for my hand in marriage, and then disappeared. It was very hard to convince my family to say yes. I now live in stress. My family wants me to end the engagement, but I'm not willing to marry someone else," Salma said.
Salma does not know when sheâ€™ll see her fiancé next and she is scared that her engagement will fall apart. Transportation between the two areas has become almost impossible. After the proposal, she planned to go to Idlib through the al-Madiq Castle crossing in northeastern Hama province, but her family warned her that women were being harassed at checkpoints.
Such checkpoints have become dangerous places for women across Syria, who often face sexual harassment, extortion and, in some cases, even arrest. In one particular incident at a government-run checkpoint in the province of Daraa, women were arrested and then traded to armed factions in exchange for weapons, according to a report from the Womenâ€™s International League for Peace and Freedom.
But physical danger is not the only obstacle awaiting women at the checkpoints. Many have paid large sums of money, up to 1 million Syrian pounds (around $4,600), to get to opposition-controlled areas.
Marwa, 24, from Homs, crossed three Syrian provinces to reach the man she loves. She traveled north with her mother and mother-in-law from Homs to Hama province and on to her final destination, Idlib. At the final checkpoint to reach Idlib, the regimeâ€™s officers harassed them, and took a golden ring that Marwa was wearing, her mother told Syria Deeply.
â€œWe had no other choice. We offered to give them 25,000 Syrian pounds ($1150. That was all the money we had, but they said it wasn't enough, so Marwa gave them a ring that I had given her as a gift," the 45-year-old mother said.
After the exchange, the trio were able to cross the checkpoint. They are now in Idlib, awaiting Marwaâ€™s husband, who is supposed to pick them up and bring them to his house for their wedding celebration. "I understand what it means for a girl to finally marry the one she loves. When we are with someone we love, we can overcome all difficulties," Marwaâ€™s mother said.
Hunted and harassed
The alternative solution for these relationships is not much better. Men who favor the Syrian opposition are often faced with harassment and punishment if they choose to stay in the government-controlled hometowns of their fiancées and brides.
For women in these areas, marrying a man who has been displaced to government-controlled territory is not a viable option. According to Salam, a 25-year-old woman from Jablah, a coastal city in the largely government-controlled Latakia province, these men are extorted on a daily basis.
Last year, Salam and her fiancé were strolling down the cityâ€™s boardwalk when government security officers stopped them. The officers "verbally harassed" her, but her fiancé, a displaced individual from an opposition-held area, was powerless to defend her. The pro-government officers could easily have become violent toward him, sent him to jail or arrested him for evading Syriaâ€™s mandatory conscription.
"It is dangerous to confront them," Salam explained. "This incident affected him a lot. He felt completely helpless, and that he couldn't continue with our relationship because he felt that he could not protect me."
There are no exact figures on the number of men who have left opposition-controlled territory or fled Syria altogether, but there is no shortage of reasons why men are a rare sight in government-held areas.
Aside from dealing with daily discrimination, men have been leaving in droves since 2014, when the government took new measures to enforce the mandatory draft and prohibited all males born between 1985 and 1991 from leaving the country. In Latakia, some 17,000 men are wanted for conscription, according to Zaman Al Wasl, an independent Syrian news website.
Soon after the incident on the boardwalk, Salam's fiancé escaped to an opposition-controlled town, which she did not want to mention for safety reasons. "He still wants to marry me, but we need to find a way for me to safely move there," she said.
Salamâ€™s fiancé escaped to a different part of Syria, but for other women, the journey they must make to be reunited with the men they love is much more difficult.
Though Raneem hasnâ€™t seen her beloved since his failed marriage proposal, she knows he is in Turkey. He had, in fact, offered to move them both to Turkey if they got married, in order to appease her parents' fear that Raneem would have to move to Idlib. After a year, and many failed attempts at crossing the border, she recently arrived in the neighboring country and is living with her brother, who left Syria to avoid the Syrian regime.
She spends her days trying to contact her beloved's friends, hoping that she will be able to locate him. She said she is sure that he has not gotten married and is waiting for her. "I hope I'll be able to find him," she told Syria Deeply. "If I do, no one will be able to stop us from getting married."
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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