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March 8, 2013


Rime Allaf
January 12, 2012

On January 10, while President Bashar Assad addressed his supporters in Damascus, Syrian authorities handed the tiny tortured body of a four-month old baby girl to her uncle in Homs. Arrested with her parents a few days earlier, one can only assume, knowing the Syrian regime’s documented brutality, that baby Afaf had been thrown into a cell with her mother and submitted to horrific treatment, terrorizing her and her mother and leading to her untimely death.

In its violent repression of the uprising, the Syrian regime has made no distinction between men and women or between adults and children. There has been equality in oppressing, and equality in suffering. But there has also been equality in protesting, albeit in varying degrees of visibility and in different forms.

For the last ten months of the Syrian revolution, many skeptics have repeated the tired refrain that women have been absent from the uprising and that it seems to be a male- dominated (read “Islamist-leaning”) protest movement. Such generalizations, meant to discredit the revolution, do much injustice to the women who have lived the uprising from the start at the side of their compatriots.

It is true that the initial Friday-centric demonstrations were, by default, overwhelmingly comprised of men. With no other possibility to gather freely, protesters met at the mosque and grouped at the end of Friday prayers to start marching and chanting, and week after week the presence of women in these demos was negligible. Moreover, there is little doubt that the sheer brutality of the regime, with its blind random shootings, would have led many men to insist that their female relatives remain at home in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s way.

In this, the Syrian revolution may have differed from others where women were visible from the start, especially as most other revolutions have begun in big cities. But no other revolution has been suppressed with the ferocity of the Syrian regime, nor has any other country (save for Libya after the military intervention started) endured so many casualties. Declaring the Syrian uprising to be woman-less, therefore, would reflect a rather skewed view on the situation and a superficial understanding of how the Syrian regime acts.

As repression got more brutal, the demonstrations spread throughout the country and extended beyond Friday prayers. This resulted in a noticeable increase of women on the streets of Syria, chanting alongside the men and running under fire alongside men. Some organized women-only demonstrations, others mingled in the mixed crowds and some took microphones to lead gatherings’ defiant chants, such as the woman who electrified Homs when she shouted to a roaring crowd that her children would not attend a school that had been used as a torture center.

Even when they weren’t taking to the streets, women’s participation in the revolution has been constant. They have made signs, helped give first aid to the wounded, and run charity networks to distribute aid to the neediest families under siege from the army. While these activities were not undertaken exclusively by women, they played an important role in the logistics behind the protests.

At the same time, civil activism began to develop into new forms, unveiling Syrian creativity and a pressing urge to raise the voice of the revolution. Initiatives included numerous film clips of women in nondescript interiors, their faces hidden with masks and scarves to protect their identity, holding signs that often centered around a single message that the viewer discovered as the camera went around the room. Such events made the rounds of the social networks in the most YouTubed revolution of the “Arab spring”, letting the internet amplify the power of these peaceful protests.

Syrian women have also been essential components of the now famous flash mobs that have so angered the regime with their speed and their efficient messages. Often, women will join the group and start chanting while wearing a headscarf, then separate at the first sign of the infamous “shabbiha” and yank their hijabs off their heads as they melt into the crowd.

Examples of such varied participation are plentiful enough and put to rest the shaky theories about women in Syria’s revolution. In fact, when considering the number of prominent female activists, Syria seems to be a leader rather than a follower, rightfully boasting of the women active in civil society and in revolution. Activists such as Suheir Atassi and Razan Zeitouneh, veterans on the socio-political underground scene at the grassroots level, and writers such as Samar Yazbek, have been part and parcel of the civil society movement challenging the regime openly from inside Syria. Since the revolution began, more women have become focal points for the protest movement, including actresses May Skaf, who was one of the first artists to participate in protests and to be arrested, and Fadwa Suleiman, who has been chanting defiantly from the heart of embattled and besieged Homs.

Moreover, the women who have been politically vocal and active in opposition, including in the main organized groups, seem to easily outnumber, especially proportionally, those in other revolutionary countries. There have been numerous Syrian women discussing Syrian affairs on pan-Arab media, and most are well-known among their compatriots.

While they never imagined that their children would be such easy prey for the regime nor intended them to be part of the movement, Syrian women have from the start been an integral element in the revolution. There is no doubt that they will also be an integral component of post-revolution Syria.

Published 12/1/2012 ©

Syria’s women: Fighting a war on two fronts

By Arwa Damon, CNN
March 7, 2013 — Updated 2324 GMT (0724 HKT)
A woman participates in a demonstration in support of the Syrian people on July 7, 2012, in front of the Pantheon in Paris.
A woman participates in a demonstration in support of the Syrian people on July 7, 2012, in front of the Pantheon in Paris.

  • Role of women in Syrian uprising is little reported, but many have played a key part
  • Syria no stranger to seeing women in high power roles: Lawyers, bankers, politicians
  • As the unrest reaches its second anniversary, women are working as activists and medics

Editor’s note: Editor’s note: This feature, by CNN’s senior international correspondent Arwa Damon first appeared in Turkish Policy Quarterly.

(CNN) — The conversations with Catherine al-Talli over Skype were cryptic, no voice, only text, and they were deleted once the conversation ended. An anti-regime activist, there was no way I could have used her name in my report without putting her in danger.

In the summer of 2011, and I was in Damascus with a CNN team on the first official visas the Syrian government had granted our network since the uprising began around four months earlier.

We knew we were being watched: The intelligence agents in their drab suits trying to hide their faces behind newspapers outside our hotel were impossible to miss. Opposition activists warned us all phones were tapped, and suspected our hotel rooms were as well.

Catherine is no stranger to the ways of the Assad regime. Her father, a longtime activist, was detained in 1992 for eight years. Simply coming out to meet us was a formidable risk for her to take, considering the regime surveillance.

We’d previously arranged hand signals and a meeting point on a crowded street. I was with a female colleague, CNN producer Jomana Karadsheh. We pretended we were shopping, with a small flipcam buried deep in a handbag.

We tailed Catherine through the narrow alleyways of Old Damascus, nervously looking over our shoulders before finally following her into a dark apartment building, where one of her friends lived, and where we could talk.

Catherine, a human rights activist and lawyer, took part in some of the first demonstrations against the regime in Damascus in March. A couple of months later she was detained and imprisoned for 48 hours.

“I saw how they treat prisoners there, they don’t treat them like human beings,” she told us. “I saw how they forced a prisoner to drink toilet water, and I saw how they called a woman activist dirty words.”

She believes she was released because of her prominence as a lawyer, but it forced her to effectively live in hiding.

Like other Syrian women I met during the course of my reporting, Catherine was taking charge and playing a significant role in the revolution.

Protesters shot, beaten

Her focus at the time was to document Syrian government violations, to build a future case to prosecute regime officials and compile evidence of government brutality. She attended dozens of demonstrations, cataloging shootings, beatings, and detentions.

She recalls one protest where activists were chanting for the unity of the Syrian people, the unity of Muslims and Christians.

“Suddenly, the security forces guards jumped in front of the protestors, less than 10m away, and the security forces start shooting the protestors.” She remembered. “We were in the frontlines and at least five next to me were shot and killed at that time, I saw that by my own eyes.

“You asked me about why I am going out when it’s really risky: Because it’s our country, in simple words,” she explained. “It’s our responsibility to make it better.”

A few days later we snuck out once again to attend a secret meeting of opposition activists held at a school in an upscale Damascus neighborhood. Again, they asked us not to use their real names.

Like many of the activists I have met, they have now disappeared, perhaps detained or perhaps, like so many of the more moderate voices of the revolution, driven underground.

One of the women, a Christian, going by the pseudonym Maria, said she used to demonstrate until she nearly died after security forces fired tear gas followed by bullets at a protest she attended.

Why am I going out when it’s really risky? Because it’s our country, it’s our responsibility to make it better
Catherine al-Talli, Syrian activist

Another young woman, a lawyer and a Muslim, who asked to be called Sana’a, was briefly detained and began working behind the scenes to get other activists out of jail.

For many watching events in Syria unfold, mostly through YouTube videos, it would seem that women are not a factor. But delve behind those first appearances and you will discover that’s not the case.

They may not be as visible as their male counterparts, but women are playing a crucial role, one that is arguably going to grow even more critical. And the nation’s women are from all different backgrounds and beliefs.

Underground clinics

Back in Damascus, some six months after my first meeting with Catherine, I met three women, clad in black from head to toe, in the neighborhood of Kafarsouseh. They said that fear of sexual assault by security forces kept them off the streets.

“We want our voices to be heard, women also want freedom, this is our Syria as well,” they said, echoing one another.

They were from conservative Sunni backgrounds, but they insisted they did not want to live under Islamic law.

All university students, they had dropped out of school and now spent hours stitching together opposition flags, making face masks for the men to wear, and running secret underground clinics to treat the wounded, having gone through a crash course in first aid.

ide Syria’s detention centers

“It was a shock at first,” Insisar, at 19 the youngest of the three, said of seeing gaping wounds. “But we have a goal that we need to reach, so we have to deal with it.”

They also tracked down the families of the dead or detained to provide them with food, blankets and whatever financial aid they could.

Since our meeting, a year has passed, and the phenomenon of the “radicalization of the revolution” has ingrained itself. Extremist groups, like the Nusra Front which the U.S. recently designated a terrorist organization, are at the forefront of the rebel fighting force and seeing their capabilities, influence and ranks grow by the day.

In Aleppo in December a Salafist commander joked that the only thing between him and the Nusra Front was a cigarette. The Front does not allow its fighters to smoke, and he did not want to give up nicotine. That line is a widespread joke I heard more than once during my two weeks there.

We ended up walking with him into a former sweetshop recently turned into a field clinic.

He overheard a conversation I was having with one of the medics, a 19-year-old high school senior who asked us to name her Aya.

Fear and bravery

“You did what?” he asked her, his voice dripping with contempt.

Aya, glared straight at him, her dark eyes lined with bright blue eye shadow, her young face framed by a pale pink headscarf.

“I left my husband and came to volunteer here,” she responded, her voice quiet but defiant.

He gave her a look of utter disgust before he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.

Relief spilled across Aya’s face, and the faces of her colleagues, but quickly gave way to anger: She was not about to let the Syria she was fighting for be ruled by the likes of him.

Aya’s English is nearly impeccable. She once dreamt of being a lawyer. A new bride, her husband had recently joined the free Syrian army and she left home — with his and her family’s blessing — to train as a medic.

I just can’t take a gun and fight because I am a girl, so I decided to come here and help
Aya, volunteer medic

“With everything happening in this country, I decided that I am supposed to do something and I just can’t take a gun and fight because I am a girl,” she explained. “So I decided to come here and help in another thing, like… saving people.”

The first time she saw blood, she said she almost fainted.

“Of course I was scared, I scared too much, but there was something inside me telling me that there is something that I am supposed to keep doing,” she says softly.

“I can’t just be afraid and go, I am supposed to stay, and time after time I learn and I have more courage to do this.”

Freedom and democracy

Now, dealing with the influx of wounded has become almost mechanical, part of a macabre daily routine. Despite the horror of what she is witnessing, dwelling on her own emotions is a luxury she cannot afford.

Aya is from a conservative Sunni family, and when it comes to the future of Syria she is fighting for, she says she wants to see something of a blend of both an Islamic and a democratic Syria.

“But democracy is better,” she adds. “We need freedom, we need democracy, we need to say what we want without anyone saying to us, ‘Why are you saying this?'”

Also in Aleppo, I met a young woman who goes by the pseudonym Sama. She walked into the room at a hospital run by the opposition, sporting jeans and long mud-covered boots, her brown hair tied in a loose ponytail, carrying a computer and with a camera slung around her neck.

Having grown accustomed to hearing male voices narrating the various YouTube videos, and having only come across male “media activists,” we were surprised, to say the least.

Sama, in her early 20s, was living with the hospital “staff” — now made up mostly of young men and a handful of women, many of whom had no prior medical experience.

Women are still not doing enough to advocate for themselves… if women don’t work for it, men won’t care about it
Rajaa al-Talli, Syrian activist

At the onset of the uprising she had been among the many who organized demonstrations at Aleppo University. With aspirations to go into journalism, she picked up a camera and began filming the dead and wounded. It’s something she says one can never get used to.

The day before we met an artillery round had slammed into a crowd of people waiting for bread.

“Despite all the chaos and the pressure around four to five times I just wanted to put the camera down and sit and cry,” she told us.

“But you think to yourself there is a message you have to get out, it is hard and harsh, but it has to get out, it’s your responsibility. You get depressed but then you force yourself to be strong again.”

Trading ideas, ideologies

Among her colleagues at the hospital are people of different backgrounds — moderate, conservative, Islamist, Salafi — and they debate what the future Syria should look like on a regular basis.

In some ways, the revolution has brought together individuals who would never have interacted, traded ideas and ideologies.

“We even shout at each other,” Sama tells us with a wry smile. “I was with the revolution from the start, the revolution is one line, it’s not Islamist, it’s for all Syrians, and Syrians are from all sects.

“At the end, the revolution’s original ideals are going to endure because we are here, those that started it will be there at the end,” she adds. “If something happens and this changes it means it’s our fault because we gave up.”

There is a growing sense of awareness among female activists about the need to ensure the empowerment of women, now more than perhaps ever before.

The fact that Syrian women were among the first to demonstrate against the regime is little reported.

The country is no stranger to seeing women in high power roles, as lawyers, bankers, and politicians.

But despite that, women remain grossly under-represented when it comes to the local opposition councils inside Syria and the opposition bodies that exist outside of the country.

Rajaa al-Talli, Catherine’s younger sister, was in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, studying for a Masters in mathematics in Boston, when the uprising began. Since then she has co-founded the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria.

Rajaa, now based in southern Turkey, has been researching the part played by her fellow countrywomen in the Syrian revolution, and running workshops focused on boosting their role.

Through her work and research with some of the underprivileged women at refugee camps, she found their main concerns for Syria’s future were education and the economy. Politically speaking, they wanted freedom, justice and dignity, though some believed that women should not have leading roles in legislation or governance.

Two-pronged battle

“Some are very inspirational and some are willing to learn,” she explains, speaking over Skype. “In Syria we are not exposed to politics and some women would really like to be involved, they just don’t know how, and we don’t have the advocacy or lobbying skills.

“The men, especially the men now involved in politics, they have more opportunities to educate themselves and gain experience.”

Rajaa is focusing her efforts on empowering women from different levels of society, giving them the skillsets to make their voices and their demands heard.

“My approach is that women are still not doing enough to advocate for themselves, and we are not lobbying each other,” she says. “If women don’t work for it, men won’t care about it.”

Just back from a recent Syrian women’s conference in Doha that brought together between 15 and 20 female activists, she said that among the many discussions was the role that women needed to play in a post-Assad era, from transitional justice, to rule of law, to governance, and getting women more involved in the decision making process.

The groups set an ambitious target: 50% representation for women in government, and to try to alter the dynamics of local councils and opposition bodies by demanding and working for more female representation.

“The pillars of extremism and radicalism are usually [used] to oppress women,” Rajaa says. “Having more women empowered is hitting one of the pillars that support extremism.”

She and others fully realize that the next set of rules may want to sideline them, to relegate them to the shadows.

For the women of the Syrian opposition, this is a two-pronged battle: Fighting for freedom against an oppressive regime, and battling just as hard to ensure that their individual rights do not perish in the process as the landscape and dynamics of the Syrian uprising shift.

It is by no means an easy goal, nor is its success ensured, but the majority of Syrian women I have met over the last two years through my reporting are not going to sit silently by and watch while their freedoms are stolen from them or their future dictated to them.


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