Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Women struggle to find their role in Syrian revolution

Idlib, Syria—Nine-year-old Salima Hamid jerked her hips to the musical chants as the older male youths clapped their hands. Behind them in the crowd, Amal Nuran and her head-scarf-covered friends exchanged cell phone pictures snapped at the day’s anti-regime rally. “We all have a role to play in this revolution,” the 19-year-old law student tells The Media Line. “Even we girls can help by coming to the protests.”

Later, however, outside of earshot of suspicious men, Nuran expressed her real feelings. “There is little for us to do beyond making placards,” she laments. “The men do the fighting, they raise money. We can’t travel alone. How can we help?”

Syrian women have had to feel their way through the revolution. Though Syria is one of the most liberal Arab countries, society still places restrictions on women which have only increased as the revolution has degenerated into a civil war. To keep their relevance, women have been forced to find creative ways to help the cause while still preserving the aura of chastity that is so cherished in their society.

One way they have done so is exploit the deference men show them. Samar, 38, says she smuggled Kalashnikov rifles in regime-controlled areas. “The shabiha (regime paramilitary fighters) would never check me because I am a woman,” she tells The Media Line in a hotel in Killis, Turkey just across the border. “I hid them in my cloak and could cross neighborhoods without a problem.”

Other women took advantage of their pedigree to help the cause. Some Alawi defectors have transported wanted rebels in cities such as the capital of Damascus without the slightest fear they would be caught. “The shabiha would not dare stop someone like me,” says a 21-year-old-girl who uses the pseudonym Zeinobia. “I give them my papers, they see I am from (the Alawi stronghold of) Latakia and they motion me through.” 

Though circumnavigating checkpoints provides rebels with crucial aid in areas they otherwise could not operate in, not all rebel leaders approve of it. “It’s too dangerous for the girls to do that,” explains Hillal Hajj Suleiman, a 34-year-old officer in the Tawhid Brigade. “What if they get caught? What would the regime do to them and what would they reveal? I can’t condone such activity.”

One role Hajj Suleiman and other skeptics approve of is that of activist. In the countries surrounding Syria, young female college graduates with idiomatic English help journalists and aid workers navigate the confusing world of the Syrian opposition. “It’s a way to do something for our country,” explains Noura Sayegh, 23, in Antakya, Turkey. “The foreigners know so little about Syria. We fill in the gaps.” Other hip young women have become journalists themselves, working for large Arab and Western outlets as photographers and writers. 

It is a two-way street between the activists and the international community. Non-governmental organizations sponsor conferences where activists learn skills such as public speaking and how to cater to journalists on deadlines. Arab states such as Qatar bring in the best and brightest for week-long seminars where leading public relations specialists bombard the women with information about topics such as social media. “We are learning so much,” says Maryam Jundi, 22, in a Skype conversation from Doha. “I can’t wait to return and put it to use.”

Women like Jundi and Zeinobia are the rare iconoclasts though. Most Syrian women spend their time out of sight, taking care of their children and making meals. Some are so invisible that foreigners who have spent time in Syrian villages often do not even see them. In cities such as Aleppo, however, they are often sent out to wait in six-hour bread lines while their husbands drink tea with friends.

“The revolution is no place for a woman,” says Na’ama Wisam, 45, as a herd of men push her around outside a bakery window. “Treating women like this is forbidden,” she says, referring to Arab mores that prohibit men from touching women outside their family. One of the older men in the crowd seconds Wisam’s assertion. “Women should not be out here. They should be in their homes.”

As Syrians reflect on what they want to achieve from their revolution, many are pondering the role of women in their new society. But parochial views are holding the women back from achieving their aspirations, leaving their dreams for the revolution unfulfilled.


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