“The day I left prison, I got invited to attend a memorial service for one of those who were killed by the regime in Syria. Everyone started chanting my name the minute I entered the venue. They were thousands, and they treated me like a hero. It was a moment that I will never forget. I never felt more connected to my people”.
Rima, the 40 year old Syrian writer who now lives in exile, didn’t really ask for a leadership role in the early nonviolent struggle in Syria. Her passion was always fighting for women’s rights, as well as advocating against honor killing and corruption. But beginning in March 2011, she found herself among thousands of other Syrians fighting through social media or on the streets for a bigger cause - democracy in Syria.
Syrian women have played an important role in nonviolent protests when the Syrian uprising began. But as the conflict turned violent, men and their guns came to dominate the struggle. And with the advent of armed insurgent groups like the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Liberation Army, stories of civil resistance in Syria, like Rima’s story, have been submerged.
Today, many say that the role of women in the Syrian uprising has diminished as the struggle has become militarized. Others believe the role of women in struggle is taking a different shape - an auxiliary role in keeping the resistance strong. In any case, there is a need to better understand the challenges which women faced while engaged in nonviolent resistance before the struggle was steered toward violent insurrection. This reflection can help to identify ways for the nonviolent resistance to remain a positive influence in the country.
Image from protests in the Damascus suburb of Douma, April 24, 2011. Flickr/Syriana. Some rights reserved.
Commitment to nonviolent work but no strategy
“We were around 100 women. We used to fast together during daytime. We sat together and prayed for the victory of our people”. This story is told by Mona, a wife and a mother, and also a woman activist from Altall.
It is a well-known belief among Muslims that prayers will be answered if they are uttered by a fasting Muslim. Mona’s voice shakes when she talks about these memories. It’s clear that these shared activities created an intimate connection between those women. Mona and her group would go out for their daily protest 15 minutes before sunset. “We would chant around our area. Then, have a meal together. This was our routine for months, and it gave us courage”. Despite the repressive environment, this group created an outlet to network, recruit, as well as organize street gatherings and protests. Women developed their own chants and slogans and managed to form a unity among resisters in the area. However, the lack of a longer-term strategy in their nonviolent efforts became evident. In many cases, these women were wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of the soldiers who volunteered for the Free Syrian army. Some of their activities were later oriented to supporting the armed resistance, which may have involuntarily contributed to the weakening of nonviolent discipline in the struggle against the Assad regime.
Other groups of Syrian women were aware of the importance of building a fighting strategy based on nonviolent principles, and they genuinely believed in it. Kinda, a student from Duma said, “Our revolution started like a baby, and we needed more time to grow stronger. This will never happen until we have a solid and unified strategy for our peaceful resistance.” Kinda organized many protests and strikes at her university. She tried to come up with effective ways of maintaining nonviolent discipline and not allowing violent resistance to take over. But her efforts to succeed had to be replicated by hundreds and thousands, and particularly by the men who were deserting the Syrian army in great numbers. This did not happen.
Being a woman in the Syrian struggle
Women activists in Syria were jailed and tortured. Stories of rape that spread like wildfire were terrifying to most women activists. Despite this brutality, many women inside Syria continued their fight. But they were also keen to use precautionary measures to protect themselves, including covering their faces while in protests so that they could not be identified by security forces. Nuha, an artist from Jaramana, organized many protests in her area from the beginning of 2011. Despite being beaten, she never stopped organizing. She reflects: “Women choose the safest and more effective ways to do things, and these qualities and skills are very useful in our civil resistance. Women are the best at organizing - the logistics of setting up and running field hospitals, arranging blood drives and donations.”
According to Nuha, women were in many cases the minds behind successful resistance actions that aimed as much at showing defiance as at limiting chances for getting injured or killed. She noted that “when women choose routes for protests, they take into account all elements and factors, and in many cases, the protests designed by a woman will end up with no or minimum arrests and no confrontation with the police”.
Maha, a Syrian human rights activists also observed the advantage of being a woman activist. She said: “in the beginning of the uprising, I used to drive through the police checkpoints with my western outfit and short skirt and they never suspected me. They were under the impression that the only supporters for this movement were the Islamists. The police would have never suspected a secular woman like me”. This helped Maha to move from one location to another documenting and reporting human rights violations. Later, she was arrested at the human rights center where she worked along with many of her colleagues. She was released the same day and fled the country in late 2012, fearing for her safety. Her story is a testimony to the changing circumstances for women activists in Syria over the past two years.
Flickr/Syriana. Some rights reserved.
Nonviolent resistance persists despite brutality
Mai, a woman scout leader from Damascus, was one of the peaceful resisters who still remains in Syria. She started her actions by gathering together with several men and women and organizing peaceful protests, using tools like balloons, signboards and leaflets to attract more people. Mai and her colleagues believed strongly in the virtue of citizenship, and they wanted to promote it through legal actions. They applied to the authorities for a permit to organize demonstrations to challenge the restrictive law on public gatherings. They went through a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork and finally succeeded and secured the necessary permissions. However, when they held their peaceful protest in Damascus, they were immediately attacked by the police even though the demonstrators were holding the protest permit in their hands.
Despite violence, we continue reading the stories of “Daryya’s Free Women Group”, nicknamed the “Spray women”. These women sprayed messages on the walls of their neighborhoods and towns, aiming to unify residents around nonviolent resistance. Some of these messages read, “Remember that we went out first for the rule of law” and “the revolution passed through here”.
We also hear about a brave woman who in August 2011 began documenting the names of people who were killed by the regime in Syria. She searched systematically for their personal stories, inquired with people about their hopes and dreams, in a mission to document the sacrifices of ordinary people for future generations. These examples demonstrate that a repressive environment and violent reactions to peaceful acts, although creating a formidable challenge, cannot douse the spirit of women in resistance.
Protecting the movement
Many women activists in Syria are aware of the enduring damage that the armed conflict is inflicting on Syrian society. This is why many of them have shifted their energy towards building a strong civil society rather than just organizing protests. Nuha was among many women who volunteered for organizations inside Syria. ”We try to empower civil society and to give it a voice” she says. “I am personally afraid of the power and money that the radical Islamist groups are acquiring in the course of this revolution. This radical ideology is very foreign to our society as a whole, and it’s threatening Syria’s future”.
Many Syrian female activists chose to be involved in activities that crisscross civil society and politics. Katherine, a lawyer and a human rights activist is involved in building community organizations from the bottom up in Syria, which she and several other women activists are trying to do. Their work focuses on instilling the culture of self-management of local communities through an informal network of people and institutions.
Although we now hear guns more than peaceful chants in Syria, and while the news of armed rebellion overshadows discussion of nonviolent resistance, an everyday survival activism performed by civic groups, especially women, keeps the movement alive, and this is done in a much more subtle way than overt protests and demonstrations.
This article is based on field research conducted by Rajaa Altalli, senior advisor at the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, and Dr. Anne-Marie Codur. who holds a Ph.D. in Economics and Sustainable Development from Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University