Analysis Human Rights

Report from Syria: Women Combat an Oppressive Regime Online, On the Ground, and Sometimes Armed

Ruth Michaelson

Syria’s media war is being waged with gory images from the ground. But preconceived notions about subservient Middle Eastern women could lead the world to assume that there have been no women active on the ground in Syria. This is simply not true: we’re just not looking hard enough.

An image that has become synonymous with the Syrian uprising—any Syrian you speak to knows its intricate details—is of a woman in a blood-red dress (blood being a very important sartorial detail) standing outside the parliament building in Damascus, holding a sign that says: “Stop the killing. We want to build a home for all Syrians.” The woman, Rime Dali, has been detained and released several times by the Syrian government for protesting in this way, but she continues, undeterred, to broadcast her message. This image has become a symbol of the desire by many Syrians to express themselves freely, whatever the cost.

With the uprising rapidly descending into civil war and with the media transmitting images of young men with AK47s rather than placard-waving crowds, the weapons could easily supplant the woman in our collective consciousness. Syria’s media war is being waged with gory images from the ground. But preconceived notions about subservient Middle Eastern women could lead the world to assume that there have been no women active on the ground in Syria. This is simply not true: we’re just not looking hard enough.

FSA Fighters

Rodaina Eeesa Abud sits in a plush apartment in the northern Jordanian town of Irbid. She wears a long, elegant black dress with a black woven chiffon headscarf and gold jewelry. She pulls out her iPhone on which a video shows 20 women, their faces covered in beautiful patterned scarves, wielding AK47s as they stand proudly in their stilettos. These fighters are members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), from the southern town of Dara’a.

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“I finished high school and I married early, at 17,” Abud says. “Before the revolution, I was just living a very average life with my husband.” Abud’s reasons for joining the FSA are clear:

“I am a mother,” she says. “When the revolution started in Dara’a, I saw how the Syrian Army treated those children, and I imagined what I would do if those were my children. My maternal feelings drove me to feel like I had to do something about the situation.”

Dara’a is seen as the cradle of the revolution. The torture of 15 young boys who’d drawn anti-regime graffiti had sparked the initial protests.

In the close-knit religious communities of southern Syria, where family bonds are strong, resistance to government suppression of protest was swift. “We saw people from the neighboring village starting to protest, too,” Abud says, “and they would pass by my house. I would stand and talk with them from my balcony about why they were protesting.”

Abud gives the impression that in such a fiercely communal society, doing anything possible to oust the regime—including women arming themselves—has become the new normal. “I saw people who were ready to die to build a new Syria,” she says. “This meant that when the opportunity came for me to get a gun, I took it.”

She goes on: “One Friday I saw a man get shot by the army during a protest. I ran down into the street to help him, as the men could not move freely due to snipers. While a group of us were gathered in a house with him as he died, someone said that we need to do something to protest his death. He said he had a gun, but no way of transporting it, so I volunteered to take it. After that it, became a regular thing, and it made me so happy, as it was a way to help the people of Dara’a.”

Abud says that her initial task of transporting weapons was made far easier because she was a woman; without being checked, she could cross the network of checkpoints and snipers that had sprung up. “There were several women doing this, but I was the best at it,” she boasts, miming how many guns and bullets she was able to stash under her dress while making polite and demure small talk with the soldiers at the checkpoints.

“The women who joined the FSA initially were all those who’d lost a male family member, a husband or a son,” Abud says. “Although at first our job was transportation, later we began to use the weapons, too. The first time I got to fire a gun, I felt like the Arab Spring was coursing through my veins. I was just overjoyed to be doing something, to be part of this.”

She is both matter-of-fact and proud: “One day a group of male fighters went to battle some regime forces in our town,” Abud relates. “When they left, we followed them. The men were pretty surprised to see us there, ready to go into battle with them. Together, we won that battle. The regime soldiers who came as backup for the ones we’d killed were so frightened that they retreated. Although this was a success, the men we were with were annoyed that we’d disobeyed them and followed them, so we started our own group instead.” Her husband has remained to fight within the FSA in Dara’a, while she cares for her injured brother in Jordan, but she is keen to return and fight.

What does Abud want for women in the post-Assad Syria? “We can’t think about what happens post-Bashar al-Assad yet, because the pre-Bashar Al-Assad is too important,” she says. “Women should be out there in the streets saying no to this regime just as much as men. No one should witness their children dying. I fight for everyone, and everyone needs to be involved in this, whether they’re male or female. What I do is for all of Syria.”

The Activists

“I’d join the FSA if they’d have me,” says Alexia Jade, using a pseudonym she chose at the start of the revolution, “but right now they don’t have time to train people to use weapons.” Military service remains compulsory in Syria; army defectors and stolen weapons fuel the FSA, but conscription applies only to men. Yet violent resistance has followed more than a year of peaceful resistance. In this area, Jade says, “We stand shoulder to shoulder with men more than ever before. Women are leaders and spokeswomen just as much as they can be detainees, deportees, or even martyrs.”

Noura, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is an Alawite activist based in Aleppo.

“The concept of male and female disappears with this kind of struggle,” she says. “The courage of certain work is what determines its importance, regardless of who did it. But there’s a certain privilege to being female in this situation, because women need extra courage and ability to overcome the power imbalance.”

Both women are long-time political activists, who have been organizing peaceful demonstrations in Damascus since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011. “This involved choosing a location and designing the route, working out where was dangerous and where was safe, then checking to see if it really is safe,” says Jade. “Now this isn’t such an issue, because we all know the routes and the danger spots, especially as the shelling has increased in some areas.” For Noura, nonviolent resistance took the form of organizing but also of spreading revolutionary media “such as brochures or even graffiti” at first. Now, nonviolent resistance includes medical and relief work. Providing front-line services to the FSA can be as physically and socially dangerous as fighting in certain areas.

Like Abud, Noura and Jade found that being women allowed a greater freedom of movement that they were able to exploit. “It’s part of the social conventions here that women are considered more trustworthy,” Jade says. “Well, that and the stupidity of the security services! With a car I had access to places guys would avoid for fear of detention. Until very recently I used to pass through checkpoints [without being searched], but they’ve begun to check ladies’ IDs now.”

That’s not to say that there are no gender-related complications. “We had rows every so often about feeling that the men were overprotecting us,” Jade says, referring to how initially men would stand on the outside of the group of demonstrators to protect the women from incoming fire. The female activists eventually won this argument by persuading the men of the sad reality that the regime’s forces were indiscriminate about whom they were firing at.

The Netizens

As women have begun to make strides with their public activism, the relative anonymity of the Internet has also provided a platform for women’s resistance. Despite Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted grip on communication, the lifeblood of the revolution has been online, often through social media. “You could say that the real revolution started as far back as 2005 due to online activism,” says Khadija. She is Jordanian but has been involved in online activism against the regime since 2003. “Yes I’m Jordanian but I have loyalty to Syria,” Khadija says. “Once I started to be aware of how people suffered under Assad, I had to get involved.”

The Internet provided a veil of protection long before anyone was able to demonstrate publicly against the regime. Khadija says that one of her fellow members “is a blogger about civil rights, focusing on women’s rights and children’s rights. But at the same time she’s a Christian, the daughter of a bishop!” Khadija says that it’s imperative for a group such as this to have members both inside and outside Syria, which is why her role is so important. “You can’t do anything like this where it’s entirely based in Syria, it’s not safe,” she says. “This allows for an approach with a Plan B, with backup. Any large-scale activity like this requires international coordination.”

The core group, named Il Yom al Hurriya or Days of Freedom is composed of 12 members, with a large peripheral group of online supporters. The group was previously an outlet to ease communication, often using coded messages. But in the push toward revolution, Khadija says, “Some of the women who were outside Syria began making videos about how to protest, how to protect your child or yourself from attacks or investigation by the government.”

Online communication began to spill over into physical activism with the start of the uprising, and Days of Freedom began to distribute revolutionary literature and organize peaceful resistance actions, such as putting red dye in the fountains of central squares in Aleppo and Damascus, so that they appeared to run red with blood. This real-world activity puts the group even further at risk in some cases. Khadija’s colleague, after publicly declaring at a protest that she supported the uprising, despite being a Christian, realized that her phone was tapped and her movements watched. The regime forces even targeted her mother’s funeral. 

Syria has a long and depressingly sophisticated history of repressing Internet communication, but the revolution has driven more Syrians to express their activism online, creating a “herd” effect, which makes it harder for the regime to crack down on online expression.

Fundraising networks are also trying to reach inside Syria. The Syrian Ministry of Expatriate Affairs estimates that 17 to 18 million Syrians live outside the country, as first- or second-generation émigrés to countries in the Gulf or the United States. Since many left for reasons related to the 42-year rule of the Assad family, an enormous amount of the fundraising and campaigning that sustains global attention on the Syrian cause has been generated from Syrian émigrés. The Internet naturally plays a vital role. 

“I’ve been involved in humanitarian relief efforts inside and outside Syria, communication relief for activists still operating inside, not to mention fundraising and purchasing communications equipment for them,” says Reem (not her real name), who lives in the Gulf with her husband. “Overall, I have worked extremely hard to raise awareness about the devastating humanitarian situation going on.” Using the Internet as an interconnected, potentially genderless ‘safe space’ for funding means that an activist in Illinois can raise funds for medical equipment from her local community or from her cousins in the Gulf, and then find a way to distribute them in Damascus. A frequent criticism of long-distance fundraising, particularly from the Gulf States, is that it could end up paying for weapons for the FSA, which is problematic for many. Given the often religious motivations behind such funding, the Internet also provides a method of counterbalance by connecting the large swaths of the secular Syrian Diaspora, who wish to focus their funding exclusively on aid or helping pro-democracy civil-society groups.

The Radical Feminists

“This isn’t just about getting rid of Assad, we want to build a completely new society,” says Zara (not her real name) from the southwestern city of Zabadani. Syrian society is a patchwork of different religions, but overall it is culturally highly conservative. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (based on indicators such as discriminatory family codes, restricted physical integrity, son bias, restricted resources and entitlements, and restricted civil liberties) ranked Syria 75th out of 86 countries worldwide in terms of gender equality.

Zara and her friend, Rasha (not her real name), were both activists who saw the revolution as an opportunity for social as well as political reform. Having begun to attend protests and to connect to networks of activists locally, Rasha, in particular, found that she wanted her involvement to be personal as well as political. “I stopped wearing the hijab, I cut my hair, and I moved out of home,” she says, sipping lemon and mint juice in a café in Amman. At first glance you would think Rasha was a student on exchange in London or Berlin; an eyebrow bar touches the hairline of her bobbed hair, and a pair of Nike Dunks covers her feet.

“The goal is to be freer in all aspects, not just for ourselves but for everyone,” Rasha says. “We can build a new Syria, one that will be an inspiration to the rest of the Middle East,” says Zara, the elegant tattoos on her hand visible as she raises a cigarette to her lips. 

Both women had left Syria for a period, but they were planning to return to Zabadani to continue their activism. With a group of women in their town, they were organizing a protest involving a ritual burning of their hijabs in the town square. The personal as political is played out on women’s bodies the world over, but in the context of the Syrian revolution, it carries a deliberately loaded message, in many ways not just against the regime but against those who have sustained it.

Khadija described a memorable protest last year in the small city of Salamiya, near Hama:

“One of the women at the protest went with her brother to a high point above the main body of the protest, and began to cut parts of her clothes off so that it looked like she was wearing a miniskirt,” she says. “It was an act designed to show that the revolution had a secular character, and I can’t emphasize it enough: this is not just a singular incident for one protest. It’s designed to strike at the whole of the society, not just the regime.” 

However, such examples are radical and rare. It’s tempting to assume that every woman activist or fighter will also hold radical feminist ideas, ones that sound comforting to Westerners, who are skeptical of Syria’s interplay of religion and culture. Syria may be highly conservative, but in judging Middle Eastern cultures and the way they treat women, Westerners can easily fall prey to their own backward ideas. 

Rasha might have thrown away her hijab, but this was an act primarily directed toward the conservative social structures in Syria more than toward religion itself. Those removing their clothes or burning their hijabs are not doing so in the hope that people will become less religious, but instead to sustain the vein of secularism that runs through Syrian society, one they are keen to maintain as part of the uprising.

The majority of women interviewed here were loathe to describe themselves as feminist, even if their actions seem implicitly so. They are feminists by necessity, not by design. “I don’t work as a female activist, I work as an individual regardless of my gender,” says Noura, in itself a radical statement. There has been talk of women helping the FSA fighters by cooking for them and doing their laundry. This might sit uncomfortably with most definitions of feminism, but in itself it is something of a radical act: aiding the FSA can mark someone as a target. These threats are gender-blind, even if what they’re reacting to is not. 

The Future

No one knows what will happen in Syria, but change is certain: whatever forces have been brought to the fore are not likely to leave quietly. The increasingly public presence of radical Salafists or other groups fighting the regime in the name of a radically religious agenda could pose a threat to the increasing presence of women in the political sphere. Noura, for example, is concerned about “increasing participation to erase the potentially Islamic and backward character of the uprising,” while others were fighting the regime partly for religious reasons. The Salafists are not a new presence in Syria, which remains a diverse country. If many activists interviewed here get their way, the future Syria could house both groups quite happily.

For the moment, one thing is clear: women and men have suffered equally in the fight for their rights, and that in itself has generated an openness that could have a ripple effect in Syrian society. “Female activism has been seen as normal and integral to this Syrian uprising,” Reem says. “We have far too many females detained and facing horrific treatment at the hands of the Assad regime.” 

Standing “shoulder to shoulder” at protests (another oft-repeated phrase) means standing shoulder to shoulder to push for a new future, and the increasing visibility of women in positions of control and power is redefining what women are capable of doing. Women’s rights are undoubtedly seen as one of those after-the-revolution issues: the priority of the activists is removing Assad from power. Demanding things afterwards for themselves or their groups is not necessarily their priority. But in such a conservative society, women have found a new political space, one they are more than capable of filling. 

It’s tempting in researching a topic like this to assume that every female activist or fighter also harbors radical feminist ideas. These notions can feel comforting to Westerners, who view the interplay of religion and culture in Syria as suspect. Syria may be highly conservative. But judging it by the way it treats women can lead to Westerners’ fairly backward ideas about Middle Eastern cultures. 

Explaining why she’s used a pseudonym when working as an activist since the start of the uprising, Jade laughs and says, “I don’t want my dad to know what I do. He fears for my health already, but he’d freak out if he knew what I’ve been up to. When this is over, I plan to tell him. I hope he’ll be proud.”

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