SYRIA: On the Front Lines in Syria, Women's Role is Still Undefined

Sunday, January 22, 2012
The National
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes

Where are all the women in Syria's national uprising? Judging by the scarcity of articles detailing the role of women in Syria - compared to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen - it might be easy to assume Syria's women are staying on the sidelines.

That assumption, of course, would be false. But how involved women remain will depend largely on the direction the uprising takes.

For now, women are participating in the uprising in Syria in increasing numbers. Despite the risks and the viciousness of the government's crackdown (more than 5,400 have been killed), Syrian women are displaying bravery by leading initiatives and protests for the release of prisoners and to support the Syrian revolution.

Female-led protests have erupted across the country, anywhere arrests and torture are occurring on a large scale. In one instance it was women's activism that organised protests to release their male-relative prisoners. Syrian women, furthermore, have generated their own discreet circles and coordination efforts to collect money and provide medical kits, food and non-food items to affected families in the worst-hit areas.

In some cases, Syrian women alone interrupted the Arab League patrols and took inspectors to meet affected families when the security forces attempted to mislead the monitors and take them to pro-regime inhabited areas. Women have even been kidnapped by "Shabiha" - regime-affiliated thugs- or gone into hiding to avoid such a fate.

Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights activist, has been hiding in many places to avoid being persecuted. She has refused to leave the country.

May Skaf, a Syrian actress, was detained for taking a role in peaceful protests and calling for an end to urban siege.

Razan Ghazzawi, an outspoken blogger, was released after being arrested at the Syrian-Jordanian border.

And Fadwa Suleiman has become the epitome of Syrian female activists, often seen singing in support of the uprising.

But there are many more women who are being arrested, tortured and harassed without being widely recognised or acknowledged. They come from all walks of life and are conservatives, liberals and secularists. They fight for Syria, but they also fight for their own rights. Syrian women have been marginalised and systematically isolated due to conservative cultural values, and the brutal and notorious practices of the Syrian security apparatus.

I do question, however, how much longer women will continue to stand up to the brutality so publicly. As one young Syrian journalist recently told me, the tendency towards militarisation of the uprising is one of the most dangerous aspects for women. "It will really end meaningful participation of women, given that they will not be on the battlefield," the journalist argued.

Some activists are already scaling back.

"I participated in many protests in the beginning until I was detained for few days," a young female activist said. "I stopped because I feared for my family; I was still intensively under scrutiny ... after my release".

In the early days of the uprising, now 10 months old, women were less exposed to torture by the security services. But in time, some believe they have become a burden that male protesters feel they must protect. One male activist from Aleppo recently reflected that since the women are usually the weakest link, they will be the first casualties in any strife.

Across the Arab world, post-revolution periods have provided few rewarding outcomes for women, despite the fact that women were involved in helping to lead change. Moreover, as post-revolutionary governments become Islamised, the temptation will be to exclude women, secularists and religious and ethnic minority groups to curry favour.

Referring to "Haraer Souria" or the Free Syrian Women, the male activist from Aleppo continued: "Haraer is the right word to describe free women, but [it also] reminds us of harem and those libertine sultans."

Syrian women will evolve their struggle, moving from fighting oppressive dictators to reeling under religious fundamentalism. Women embrace revolutions and their work should be seen as a vital component of political and social reform.

My 75-year-old mother whispered to me the other day: "I wish I were younger [so I could] join the protests and call for freedom." She said today's uprising reminds her of her university days when she joined activists all "living in the same house" - from the secularist to the Muslim Brotherhood member, the Syrian nationalist to the Nasserite - to challenge authority.

Where Syrian women fit into that house today is still being determined.