Women and the Crucible of the Syrian Revolution

6 Oct

Women and the Crucible of the Syrian Revolution

AMEWS Bulletin E-News, October 2013 *The Bulletin is available to AMEWS members.

Sherifa Zuhur

Women are involved in every possible aspect of the Syrian revolution 1.  (the terms “conflict,” “uprising,” or “civil war,” are incomplete or inaccurate descriptors )which began March 15, 2011. From President Assad’s advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, to women in the Syrian revolution, refugees forced from their homes, or socialites of Damascus, no-one, male or female, aged or infant is spared from the threat of violence. Although many women journalists write on Syria, media coverage usually portrays women as absent from the street, the military struggle and the political opposition to Assad. This falsely implies women’s non-agency, or that violence and revolution devastate them, and does not illustrate their role in a revolution “of” (or in Marxist terms, für) them.

The revolution carries multiple frames of ambivalence. Women have coordinated to carry out specific actions in support of the revolution, but the effort to end Bashar al-Assad’s regime has by no means united all Syrian women. Revolution-supporters are engaged in media war alongside other forms of struggle against regime forces and their supporters, and international detractors of the revolution. The international media portrays Syrians as being somewhat like Egyptian citizens who united against Mubarak in 2011 although possessing differing aims, ideals and loyalties, because . dstinct, but often hostile groups of Syrians agree on the need to oust the Assad regime, but not on much else. These divisions are acknowledged yet challenged by certain revolutionary women’s understanding that they are contesting Islamist, patriarchal, patrimonial and factional frameworks or as they put it, the necessity of multiple revolutions.

According to the narrative preferred in the international media, the Assads and the Ba`th Party promoted equality for women, at least relatively speaking. Bashar al-Assad agreed to terminate Article 548 of the penal code which had exempted those who committed crimes of honor. In contrast with Sha`lan nightclub revelers in Damascus who dance to the song “You and I salute General Maher,” to forget the fighting (Agence France Press, 2013), Islamist male fighters in the Syrian revolution have grown up with women who wear modest covering, and they hope to restrict many of women’s freedoms. Still, the Assad-supporters’ or anti-Islamists’ assertion that the regime is better for women and minorities than the Islamist revolutionaries is rendered meaningless in the face of the regime’s astounding brutality. That claim is also challenged by the numbers of minorities and women involved in the revolution who often enact strongly postcolonial and postmodern positions and insights, as Sondra Hale discussed in last month’s issue (Hale, 2013).

Syria’s opposition is more disparate in social terms than are regime supporters. Some of Syria’s nonviolent activists first became active in the Damascus Spring of 2001, quashed by Bashar al-Assad. Mohja Kahf points out these are mainly secularists, and were highly ideological in comparison to others. Other opposition members from rural or urban areas are of middle or working class backgrounds who were similarly unconnected to the Islamist vision of many of the subsequently formed fighting groups (Kahf, 2012). Many women’s protests have been solely female, as when women supporting the revolution in Salamiya organized protests and then weekly sit-ins, issued statements and acted in solidarity with women prisoners on strike at Adra prison and broke with tradition by participating in funeral processions of those killed by regime forces (Women’s Group of the Coordination of Salamyeh, 2013). Women in Baniyas organized to protest the release of male detainees. And even after the militarization of the conflict, in November of 2012, a markedly post-modern street theater could be seen in the four Bride of Peace march in wedding dresses in Damascus, calling for a ceasefire before their detention. (Reilly, 2012).

Other elements of Syria’s opposition operating in exile, including the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), the National Bloc and other members of the Syrian National Council included women leaders like SNC spokesperson, Basma Kodmani. The SNC reorganized under international pressure to become the Syrian National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces which currently has 8 women out of 114 seats. There are substantial tensions within the SNC and between it and the revolutionaries in Syria including the estimated 1,200 fighting groups allied with the Free Syrian Army or who are salafi-jihadists. The resented dominance of the Ikhwan in the external opposition, and the role of Qatari or Saudi Arabian funders of the revolution and the salafist groups flying their black banners are a controversial piece of the debate on Syrian women’s future status.

Likewise, strong tensions between the supporters of non-violent protest and the militant groups persist, even as many now acknowledge that there is no way forward against Assad without armed struggle. Due to the protracted regime violence, many women supported the idea of U.S. strikes on Syria in response to the murder of Syrian civilians with chemical weapons. Others argued against any intervention either because they consistently opposed militarization of the struggle, or with an anti-imperialist rationale (although Iran, Russia and Hizbullah are deeply involved in bolstering Assad or actually fighting to support his troops). Women are also involved in various training efforts to install civil governance over liberated areas (as well as criticism of the conditions in those areas) and all manner of relief efforts. Coordinating committees throughout Syria include women and despite stereotypes to the contrary, women fight in the conglomerate of groups known as the Free Syrian Army. Women also fight for Assad in the National Defense Force militias set up during 2012-13. They also staff checkpoints, and guard pro-regime neighborhoods. Organized in the all-female Lioness Brigade, they are primarily an Alawi force which would never employ a hijab-wearing Sunni woman and are said to specifically harass such women, calling them “al-Qaeda” (Sly and Ramadan, 2013).

Other women operate clandestinely in Syria, like Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer, one of the founders of the Local Coordination Committees which document the conflict and its casualties. Zeitouneh has waged war on the regime with her pen as well, documenting the experiences of the tortured (Zeitouneh, 2013), arguing that Westerners perturbed by the excesses of the Syrian jihadists seemed ignorant of the crimes of the regime. She also writes of her experience working underground in Syria “the only outsider (as in Syrian but not from the village), non-veiled, living-in-a-house-alone female in this village whois working among male revolutionaries” (Razaniyyat, 2013) and who has been threatened by hardline Islamist fighters. Suheir Atassi is another woman leader, the vice president of the opposition and from a noted political family. (Khatib, 2013) and other important women in the revolution include Rima Fleihan, who is Druze and Hervin Ose, who is Kurdish. Other warriors of the pen like Amal Hanano chronicle Syria’s horrible disintegration into death (Hanano, 2012) and how Syrian public figures avoid “burning their cards” – by hiding their positions on supporting foreign intervention, arming the rebels, backing Jabhat al-Nusra, helping refugees or those inside of Syria (Hanano, 2013). Mohja Kahf highlighted the revolution’s grassroots origins and Syrians’ existential awakening into free speech (Kahf, 2013). Other women reflect on survivor guilt and their dueling emotions if they went into exile to pursue careers (Yazbek, 2013).

Other media tropes about women in the Syrian conflict concern their victimization, rape, sexual assault, deaths, torture, dispossession, exile. Girls and young women have lost out on their educations, their career paths, or their ability to marry, now or possibly ever. Marriage is de rigeur and costly in Syria where it remains part of a woman’s life strategy as compared to the myriad choices for single women in the West. Therefore sexual violence as well as the destruction of daily life dually threaten women’s existing or potential life prospects.

It is true that Assad’s forces have routinely used sexual violence as a means of warfare against women, to shame and dishonor their male relatives, raping them in front of detainees or prisoners, and sexual violence has also been waged on men (Wolfe, 2013). An NGO running a women’s clinic in Zaatari camp, and another group treating women and children outside the camp explain that women have little choice but to conceal their experiences due to social stigmatization of rape and their fear of further family violence (Greenwood, 2013; Zawaideh, 2012). International observers should also realize that rape and sexual violence by Syrian security forces and prison guards predate the uprising. Sutra (the cloak or protection of marriage of raped women) marriage as promoted by Muslim clerics or marriages of refugee girls under 18 to other refugees or Jordanians, and allegedly, Gulf Arabs may appear tolerable solutions to struggling families but are often merely prostitution in the guise of temporary marriage (Long, 2013). Revolutionary fighters have been accused of raping girls they’ve kidnapped and married informally and “temporarily.” `Urfi (informal) marriage or short term marriage provides a licit cover for more exploitation of women, or very possibly, an economic strategy for some women. In April and September of 2013 a series of media stories sensationalized a fake phenomenon, jihad al-nikah with claims that Syrian and Tunisian women were serially marrying fighters to aid jihad. That this was Assadist propaganda was evident in a video of a captured minor girl from Dar`a who most probably has been brutally raped in prison and forced to admit false allegations since the practice has no basis in fiqh.

As everyone seems to know about this exploitation from female matchmakers to U.S. Congressmen, what remedies have been proposed? At a conference on Syrian women held on the sidelines of the Union for the Mediterranean summit on gender issues, rape was discussed as well as women’s exclusion from public life promoted by jihadists (AnsaMed, 2013). No clear responses have emerged and with no large-scale efforts to help women victims of sexual torture, or violence.

Family violence – by men against women and children, or by women against their children has also been on the rise and is blamed on the stress as a result of the conflict (Benhaida, 2013) although domestic, or family violence was by no means an uncommon feature of Syrian life prior to the revolution.

The ambiguity of gender roles almost always emerges in emergency or wartime circumstances when women shoulder men’s responsibilities and both sexes may abandon gendered (sex-role based) expectations. The privatization of warfare as in the revolutionary opposition’s structure, or Assad’s popular defense committees (as opposed to Assad’s professionalized military) means that there are more opportunities for women to fight. In Syria, the Islamist goals and vision of many groups does not always inhibit women fighters, photographers, such as Nour Keize (VanDyke, 2013) medics or women in other support roles. Some have radically changed their lives — as Nour says “I used to wear fancy dresses and high heels, but not any more.”

However, members of Jabhat Nusra believe women must wear hijab (or be fully covered); they are a “jewel” to be protected by men unlike Western women who have “freedoms” but are manipulated and disrespected (An interview, 2013) Frequent gender segregation in fighting, relief or demonstrating activities in Syria may signify that role reversal is temporary and contested, and that women understand that patriarchy continues to function throughout the conflict.

Despite their marginalization in salafi-jihadist or other Islamist groups and in political leadership, women are part of war fighting. One in every five fighters of the Kurdish YPG is female (Beals, 2013). These fighters stand for the revolution and have battled Jabhat Nusra and the ISIS who consider them heretics. Other fighting groups include the Daughters of Walid Brigade in Homs, a female battalion formed in 2012, whose role was to care for the wounded and refugees (I’lan tashkeel, 2012), the Sumayyah Bint Khatab Brigade (Katiba Sumaya Bint Khatab) named after Islam’s first female martyr, in Nabak, and Our Mother `A’isha, a female brigade attached to the male al-Tawhid Brigades in Aleppo (Heffez, 2013). Here the brigade of Our Mother `A’isha salutes the Egyptian people on the occasion of October 6th (the anniversary of Egypt and Syria’s victory in the ’73 war) from ‘Free Aleppo.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=It6ix8h2SA0    These women were formerly co-schoolteachers (Malone, 2013). Our Mother `A’isha’s fighters explain their activism as necessary to protect their own children.

The Syrian refugee outflow of more than 2 million heightened pressures on already crowded camps of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (ANERA, 2013) as Palestinians from Syria poured into these camps. Some 40,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria returned to Iraq over a fortnight (Gang, 2013). 120, 000 crowd the inadequate conditions in Zaatari camp in Jordan, while others are at Atme in northern Syria, and are trying to find shelter outside of the camps, or are displaced within Syria. Women attempt to cope with lack of income, food, medicine, medical treatment, education for their children, family violence (Omari, 2013) and uncertainty about the future. Various exploitation schemes are impacting refugees as in other world slums. The refugee crisis will impact Syria and other countries for the next decade at least.

Feminist historian, McLaughlin indicated that we must examine the interaction of gender and experience and not merely note the divergence (or convergence) of behavior from culturally defined roles (McLaughlin 1990). Hopefully, more scholars will do so in greater depth. For despite the terrible costs of the Syrian crucible, as with its Palestinian, Algerian and Iraqi predecessors, women’s mere survival or participation in war-fighting does not guarantee they will overcome social and political marginalization and insufficient political representation on all bodies likely to lead Syria’s future transition.

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1.  The term “opposition” is used only for the political figures outside of Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s government terms all of these and the revolutionaries inside of Syria, “terrorists. “Conflict” and “uprising” are euphemisms disguising the aim of Syrians to completely overthrow and alter the nature of the regime, hence “revolution.” “Civil war” was adopted by some international organizations in the hopes that terms of the Geneva Conventions would apply to them, but Assad’s military do not recognize that designation or these rights.

Women and the Crucible of the Syrian Revolution

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