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The battle between Syrian secular activists and feminists: we all lose

Yet another pushback for Syrian women to leave the public spaces for the powerful men who behave as if these spaces are their ownership.

‘revolution is female; Syria is our mother; we want freedom except for my wife; freedom for everyone except the women in my family ; yes to the one protecting the land and the honour.” Cartoon by Amani Alali for Liberated T. With permission of the artist.It is 1:00 pm on a hot summer day in my hometown of Idlib. I was speeding my steps to my mathematics class, holding my books and looking down at the street as good girls do, when I was suddenly hugged. Yes hugged, not grabbed nor harassed as usual. It happened as I was standing in the middle of the street, in sight of my teacher who was standing in front of his office along with the girls who arrived earlier.

I don’t remember exactly how I forced him to let me go, but I do know that I did all the kicks and punches I learned in my 5 years of Karate classes.

I was 15 years old, and this is the story I tell when asked about the first “flirting” I have ever had.

It was my first “hug”, an awful one that still makes my body shake when I remember it. However it surely wasn’t the first time I was harassed. It would not be an exaggeration if I said that I don’t remember a day in my teenage years when I walked freely without at least being harassed verbally, unless I was walking with a man.

For my bad luck I didn’t have many men in my family, as I was raised by a single mother and a bunch of aunts, and my only brother was studying abroad. However, the absence of controlling men in my life was an opportunity to take decisions on my own. It gave me the space to study journalism and travel to Damascus to do my degree, unlike many of my female friends whose fathers forced them to choose specific majors, “feminine ones” like English literature and to study in the nearby Aleppo university.

Public spaces are not mine

Not having men to walk me around the streets of my city, I usually had to take my 5 year old cousin with me. Although a kid, he is male so for my mother this is safer and would minimize the amount of harassment I might get. And frankly, it did which makes me even more sick when thinking about it now.

Public spaces are not mine; I am a weak dependent passer by who needs a male guardian. I learned this as a fact when I was as young as 8.

How do I feel about those who felt powerful enough to touch my body against my will for the last 30 years? Angry? What about those who were much younger, shorter, physically weaker than me, still I couldn’t respond because harassment is my problem and my shame?

My rage, however, is bigger towards those who watched me harassed and did nothing, those who laughed at my embarrassment while seeing me running away from the incident covering my face with my palms to hide. I just wish I could hit them with every pair of shoes that I have, and I have plenty!

This is just one episode of a long series of painful experiences that shaped my personality. Having said that, I have zero tolerance for those harassing women and girls just because they can and were raised thinking they are allowed to do it.

My tolerance for those laughing at their “funny” aggressive violations or those who keep silent about them is also zero. There is no difference for me between those doing these actions online or offline.

This was yet another pushback for Syrian women to leave the public spaces for the powerful men

Recently, there were discussions raised on social media after a public dispute that broke between two figures from the Syrian civil society about this particular topic. These discussions eventually turned into an aggressive campaign against Syrian feminists and the feminist movement – which is more than a hundred years old - this time by secular activists mostly representing what we call now the Syrian civil society.

I believe this was yet another pushback for Syrian women to leave the public spaces for the powerful men who behave as if these spaces are their ownership and they can occasionally invite women into it as long as they do not challenge their position.

The head of a Syrian think tank wrote publicly on his facebook page “the Syrian feminist movement is disgusting, how could someone be a feminist defending other women’s rights if she hasn’t been raped or beaten by her husband? And at the end all Syrian feminists are fighting for the sake of fighting only”.

Neither his think tank nor its funder, a study center in Dubai, condemned the manager’s public declarations.

On the next day he changed his mind and withdrew what he said, however, checking the interactions on that post one can clearly see that 20 likes/love reactions came from senior persons working for Syrian NGOs in Turkey, at least five of them are implementing “women empowerment programs”.

15 laughed and wrote sarcastic comments such as “you are going to be dead now, or good bye, picture with black strap on the side”, there were also 4 “amusing” comments from men working for international organizations.

A woman activist who didn’t mind being a second wife commented, “I feel I am a man too”.

This was just one sample of the awful aggressive discussions that filled my social media feeds last week, it brought back all the incidents of street harassment back to me again.

I felt as if I needed to CC that manager on all those attacks I have been going though for the last 30 years to “get his blessing to defend other women’s rights”.

If these are the secular leaders of our Syrian civil society, it’s not surprising to read the findings of the Citizens For Syria research “Syrian Civil Society OrganizationsReality and Challenges” which indicated that “25% of CSOs have no women representation among their board members, as the high-stake positions were all occupied by men, while women’s presence in these organizations, severely low as it is, is merely restricted to selective or non-essential roles”

But these are not the only examples. Some of the most common arguments and positions we hear are that women’s rights are not a priority amid the ongoing crisis we are living. This often transforms into criticism against anyone who speaks about women’s rights or abuses against women being accused of ignoring the “more urgent” and “more important” problems.

Furthermore, for many groups the most common terminology to advocate for women who they consider are paying the highest price, is that they are “the mothers, sisters, and daughters of the brave Syrian men fighting for freedom”. This is another logic that feeds into the dismissal of women as equal agents in the struggle and instead sees them as attached to men.

The Syrian Feminist movement is older than social media

The history of the Syrian feminist movement goes back to the end of the 19th century. Women in our Levant started writing in the journals and when the Ottomans pressured them, they immigrated to Egypt and kept writing in Egyptian media about women’s issues.

Dr. Maya Al Rahbi, the Director of Musawah Women's Studies Center since 2012, and the manager of Al Rahbi Publishing House for feminist books says

“We had a clear feminism movement in the 1910s, many women were running cultural salons such as poet Mariana Marrash, and Mari Ajamai who then established the first women magazine in the same year under the title Al Arous”.

In the 1930s-40s many women NGOs were formed, such as the Syria Arab Women union founded and headed by Adela Baiham Aljazairy, the union was an umbrella for 14 other women NGOs. Adela headed it until 1967.

Dr .Al Rahbi thinks that “the Syrian feminist movement then as many feminist movements in the world, didn’t have a clear vision, and they focused on charity kind of work besides education for women”.

When the Baath party took over the county in 1963, it formed the Women Union and all the active women and feminist organizations were pushed to work under its umbrella.

The only organization that could keep working outside of it was the Syrian Women's League that was established in 1948, because at that time it was part of the communist party, and the regime allowed them to because their party was part of the “Syrian National Progressive Front”.

Eventually the SWL detached themselves from the communist party and became an independent feminist movement.

Dr. Al Rahbi believes that the SWL is the first Syrian feminist movement.

Are we against the violations only when the regime or extremists are committing it but it’s all fine when our people are?

The secretary of the SWL Sabah Hallak says “since the 90s we have been focusing on changing the Syrian laws to be more equal, and we were able to stop a bad discriminating draft of a personal status law suggested in 2009 from reaching the parliament with a big campaign that we launched that many groups and organizations took part in”.

In 2000 when Bashar Al Assad came to power promising some space for freedom, some feminist groups and organizations were formed such as “feminism initiative, together to support the women cause” that was established by Dr. Al Rahbi.

The Syrian Women League along with other feminist organizations then formed the Syrian Women for Democracy body that was submitting NGO shadow reports to The Committee on the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

For more detailed information about the history of the Syrian feminist movement, there is a very recent research published by the Arab Reform center.

The circle’s beginning and end?

All the vertical battle started with a young anti-regime activist writing publicly on his Facebook page “who can rape this girl with his feet” in a post with her picture, because she was holding the regime’s flag.

He apologized out of pressure but with a justification that this is “common in our verbal traditions and it’s not a demand for action”.

Then many intellectuals, seculars and activists defended the young man along with his friends who seconded his aggressive attack on the girl.

Such a defense (or even not a clear and loud condemnation) coming from intellectuals and opinion leaders represents what we wanted the revolution and our civil society to change. It is surely encouraging violations against women trying to exist in the masculine public spaces.

The worst argument was those using “these are our social traditions” in their defense. Well, running behind and mocking mentally ill people in the streets, killing women for having an affair or being in love without marriage (known as honor killing), is part of our long lasting traditions too, beating children with wooden sticks and water pipes, burning their tongues with chili so they don’t say bad words, are also parts of our traditions. Is that enough reason for them to go on? Should we really keep using this justification to defend human rights violations while claiming to be human rights activists? Or are we against the violations only when the regime or extremists are committing it but it’s all fine when our people are?

About the author

Zaina Erhaim is an awards' winning Syrian journalist, named the journalist of the year by Reporters without Boarders in 2015, and among the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women by Arabian Business in 2016. Recently she received the first Annita Ausuburg Award for Rebel Woman Against the War, provided by Women International League for Peace and Freedom. Follow her @ZainaErhaim.


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