Syria’s female revolution Syrian women at the forefront of a struggle / Anti-regime Syrian-Kurdish women
OLOF PALME CENTER STOCKHOLM
The newly formed Organization of Syrian Women, which is coordinating a conference in Sweden co-sponsored by the Olaf Palme Center in Stockholm this February, aims to ensure that women have an equal voice on all levels of society.
NOW MEDIA 26.1.2013 – When the Syrian uprising began almost two years ago, women took part in the peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, right alongside men.
But as the conflict turned bloody – with regime forces bombarding towns, killing civilians and using rape as a weapon, and with some groups of rebels taking up arms – men came to dominate. Today, many believe that the uprising is becoming increasingly militarized and Islamisized, and that women aren’t playing much of a role in the fight. However, there are arenas in which women are very active, and they play an indispensable role in keeping the rebellion strong.
Hundreds of women took to the streets of Banias early on in the uprising, demanding the release of thousands of men who had been rounded up by security forces loyal to the regime. Activist Nadja Mansour told NOW that women back then led many of the peaceful movements. But as the violence increased, peaceful activities decreased, and the role of women also diminished. ‘In addition to violence,’ said Mansour, ‘the gradual Islamisation of the movement also limited women’s participation. In some areas women were forced to separate from men during protests and to wear a veil.’
Suheir Atassi, vice president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, agrees that women are no longer present on the front lines but emphasizes that they are manning field hospitals and media centers, and organizing humanitarian relief for the displaced.
Anti-regime Syrian-Kurdish women hold up rifles during the funeral of an opposition activist. (AFP photo) Syrian women hope not just to oust the regime but to ensure that women’s rights are protected in whatever government emerges. ‘I think our definition of battles needs to be expanded a bit here,’ says Syrian student and activist Sara Ajlyakin, who is currently based in Brazil. ‘Is a woman – a doctor who has an entire hospital in a suitcase and is jumping from one building to the other to help a soldier survive an operation conducted on a sidewalk, while threatened all the way by a sniper – not in battle as well? She is, and we saw many women take up this role.’
As for the Islamification and radicalization of the rebellion, Atassi holds the international community responsible. In an interview with al-Arabiya late last year she explained that the Syrian people were abandoned and took up arms to protect themselves against the Assad regime’s atrocities. ‘I have met with Salafists and members of the al-Nusra front, I was not forced to wear a veil, and I honestly was not discriminated against,’ she said. The representation of women in the formal opposition councils, however, remains small. Rafif Jouejati, the English-language spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria who has written for NOW in the past, says this is partly because the power brokers in these organizations are leftover Muslim Brotherhood members, whom, she says, ‘are not predisposed to treating women as equals.’ Another factor is the ‘typical power grab that is not limited to Syrian or Middle Eastern circles but is a problem for women universally.’
Jouejati adds that Syrian women are fighting to overcome chauvinism and misogyny even harder now than before the uprising. She believes that because women fear the potential for being completely marginalized, they are becoming more vocal and have taken action. They are forming organizations, seeking training and upping their participation in demonstrations.
A significant number of women has recently been detained for their activism, among them Rima Dali, who was arrested with three other women who were part of the ‘Brides of Peace – Stop the Killing’ campaign. Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer, is another. Along with other lawyers and activists she has formed an opposition network to disseminate information about what is happening in Syria. She is now in hiding, having been accused by the regime of being a foreign agent.
In addition, the role of women is getting further exposure as activists uncover more and more evidence of sexualized torture. ‘Because of the horrific nature of these crimes, the social narrative around rape in Syria is beginning to change. Rape is no longer associated with a woman’s honor; it is increasingly seen as a form of torture,’ says Jouejati. Moreover, there are multiple Free Syrian Army soldiers who are women, some of whom returned to Syria from abroad to fight.
‘The soldiers are part of an FSA battalion of women, and a Palestinian-Syrian woman has been found to be an excellent sniper among them,’ Jouejati said.
‘I think the battle is not only in the traditional ‘military front’ sense, but is much wider in Syria, particularly when the threat of death from an attack by the regime is everywhere,’ says Ajlyakin. ‘A woman is a soldier, whether on the frontlines, in the schools, in the shelters, in the refugee camp, or in the make-shift hospitals all over Syria.’
Syrian women hope not just to oust the regime but to ensure that women’s rights are protected in whatever government emerges. Although Syrians are accustomed to seeing female lawyers, doctors and judges, Syrian women say laws governing marriage, maternity leave and divorce need overhauling to be fairer. Jouejati, who is also director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria, explains that they are working toward equal representation and full participation in the political process, and inclusion on the social, economic and industrial levels. The newly formed Organization of Syrian Women, which is coordinating a conference in Sweden co-sponsored by the Olaf Palme Center in Stockholm this February, aims to ensure that women have an equal voice on all levels of society.
Mansour explains that peaceful activists are now working on gaining more knowledge in democracy, justice and active citizenship so that they can play a role in resolving problems that are being born today under extreme violence. ‘By organizing into a civil society group,’ she says ‘we seek to challenge the critics who have said that the uprising is dominated by conservative Islamists and is sectarian in nature.’