A young woman ties a keffiyeh around her face. The text reads: “I’m coming out to protest.”
From a hole in another girl’s head, butterflies rush out. A girl shot in the head, like so many girls, but the butterflies suggest she’s achieved a kind of freedom – either the freedom that motivated the defiant act that provoked her murder, or simply the freedom of death. The text reads: “Your bullets have only killed the fear within us.”
Women have been at the forefront of Syria’s revolutionary struggle.
The two most important grassroots revolutionary coalitions were set up by women: the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution by Suhair Atassi, and the Local Coordination Committees by Razan Zeitouneh.
Suhair Atassi went on to play important roles in the Syrian National Council and the Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
As well as setting up the LCCs, Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer, helped establish the Violations Documentation Centre to record and publicise the regime’s killings and detentions. After some time living underground, she moved to Douma, a liberated town near Damascus, where she was forthright in her criticism of any authoritarian actor who sought to limit the people’s freedom, whether the regime or any of the militias which had been formed to fight the regime.
In December 2013 Razan was abducted, probably by Jaish al-Islam, an Islamist militia. Three others were taken with her: the activists Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi. Collectively they are known as the Douma Four. Nothing has been heard of them since.
Before her abduction, Samira Khalil, a former political prisoner, was setting up micro-finance projects and women’s centres in the Douma area. Similar centres operate all over those parts of Syria liberated from both Assad and ISIS.
Yara Nseir, an activist from Damascus, describes them like this: “Before, a women’s centre was a ridiculous place controlled by the Baathist Women’s Union. Now they are amazing. I’ll give you the example of the women’s centre in conservative Maarat al-Nowman. As well as providing a place for women to meet and discuss their rights, it teaches work skills, including in fields traditionally considered unsuitable for women. There’s a course in presentation skills, and a subject called ‘scientific research’. These centres are still running even in areas under Nusra control, much more successfully and safely than in areas under regime control. This couldn’t have happened without the revolution, and I don’t see how it can be stopped.”
Women joined the mass protests against the regime. Fadwa Suleiman, an actor of the same Alawi sect as the Assad family, led protests in the Sunni neighbourhoods of Homs. As men and women demonstrated together they began to question and reconfigure the public space.
Yara Nseir describes her experience of the early days:
“There was such a positive atmosphere. It sounds incredible, but suddenly everyone had good ethics. People stood together. Their slogans were very beautiful. Remember this is a people who’d been brainwashed and kept apart for decades, the victims of a failed education system, a failed social system. In this context, what the people did was amazing. I went to Meydan to protest. It’s a conservative Muslim neighbourhood, and I was wearing a skimpy top. One young man asked me, politely enough, to dress more appropriately when I came next, but his friend said, ‘No, sister, you wear whatever you like; we’re here for our freedom after all.’ We really were ready to transform into an open society. We had great momentum.”
When bombardment drove most women off the streets, they still protested indoors, veiled to protect their identities, and posted the footage online.
A few women have fought alongside men in the Free Army. These are often widows or bereaved mothers. General Zubaida al-Meeki, the highest-level female officer to have defected from Assad’s army, trains Free Army fighters.
More often women have offered logistical support, moving ammunition across checkpoints, smuggling food and medicine into besieged communities, and organising soup kitchens and nurseries. Many administer care in the makeshift hospitals of neighbourhoods under attack, or in the refugee camps. Women work in psycho-social projects for the traumatised, and in education. Marcell Shehwaro, for instance, is a founder member of Kesh Malek, an organisation which provides a consciously ‘non-ideological’ education to schools throughout besieged and bombarded east Aleppo.
In several communities, women-only coordination committees have been established to focus on issues specific to women.
This level of spontaneous social engagement has broken taboos.
“Civil resistance led to a real recognition of women’s roles in society,” says Yara Nseir. “In conservative neighbourhoods women went out to protest in the streets. Men depended on women to carry supplies through the checkpoints. Now women like these will call to inform their husbands they’re spending the night outside because, for example, they have to deliver aid. This was unthinkable before.”
Feminist writer Samar Yazbek has recorded Syria’s struggle and tragedy in searing literary prose. Many less famous women have become citizen journalists and media activists. In Aleppo, women founded Syria’s first independent radio station, Radio Naseem; it promoted activism and gender equality. And women have led the effort to publish Enab Baladi (My Country’s Grapes), a revolutionary newspaper from Daraya, a Damascus suburb subjected to massacres, gas attacks, and a starvation siege.
In Kafranbel, Radio Fresh was ransacked by Jabhat al-Nusra, a militia linked to al-Qaida. The station’s lively women’s programme had upset the jihadists. Undeterred, women have spearheaded the daily protests against the militia there and in other towns across Idlib province.
In Raqqa, the teacher Suad Nowfal bravely undertook a daily one-woman protest against ISIS.
In ISIS territory, women’s dress and movement is rigidly policed. In the refugee camps, too many families, unable to protect, educate or adequately feed their daughters, are marrying them young to much older foreign men. Thousands of women have been raped, some by ISIS, many more by regime forces.
Ahmad al-Agyl, from Deir el-Zor province in the east, declares: “Ours is a revolution against all forms of patriarchy – against the state, the tribe, even against the self-proclaimed leaders of the revolution. In 2011 the tribal structures were weakening and people dared to contradict the tribal elders – but ISIS is turning this around again.”
Where the revolution opened up horizons, the counter-revolutions risk closing them down.
Syria’s heroines today are surviving, and ensuring that families survive, in the most terrible circumstances. You’ll find them growing herbs on rooftops in besieged neighbourhoods, washing children in muddy refugee camps, cleaning floors in Istanbul, and organising protests in Berlin.