Women emerge as changemakers in war-torn Syria

Women emerge as changemakers in war-torn Syria
Investigations | 11 Jun 2016

In war-torn Syria, a growing number of women are taking on the role of changemaker, providing a sliver of hope with potentially lasting ramifications for empowerment.

As in a number of Arab countries, many of Syria's women were largely confined to traditional roles before the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the outbreak of war.

Now, however, more and more women are at the forefront of new efforts to solve local problems and counter the death and destruction that has engulfed the country.

This is in part because so many men are engaged in battle, have been imprisoned or have fled the country and women have had to step into new roles, but also because the Syrian uprising has upended a lot of social norms and customs.

One of the ways they've done this is by starting their own independent magazines and radio stations, such as Jasmine Syria, Sayedet Souriya, Radio Souriyat and Nasaem Radio, which focus on highlighting the daily struggles of Syrian women amid the conflict.

Even in the alternative media that emerged at the beginning of the uprising, the role of women in the movement was minimized. When women were mentioned, they were portrayed as the mothers, sisters or wives of male political prisoners or male fighters.

Now that is starting to change, said Reem al-Halabi, director of Nasaem Radio, which is based in the northwestern city of Aleppo.

"The stereotypical image of women presented in media reflects a patriarchal society," Halabi said. "Women's interests are not limited to fashion, beauty, cooking, family and children. This image does not reflect the real interests or concerns of Syrian women or how hard they are working to take part in building their country."

More women are also launching community initiatives, such as Women Now for Development, a center formed by women in 2012 in the besieged town of Hazza in the Damascus countryside to provide training in new skills. The initiative focuses on young women who have had to quit school due to the security situation and widows who need to generate income to support their families.

Layla, the manager of Women Now for Development, said the conflict had paradoxically "opened new horizons" for some Syrian women. "They are more self-confident and not afraid to express their opinions anymore, and this is reflected in the way they raise their children and deal with their husbands and the society around them," said Layla, who asked that her real name not be used for security reasons.

One of the center's trainees is 29-year-old Muzna al-Jundy, who could not complete her master's degree or find a job because of the fighting and military checkpoints.

"The center provided me and many others with the opportunity to get out of the house, and start work on our own projects," Muzna said. "This was the first personal, positive thing that had happened to me in years."

Layla added that Women Now's workshops about women's rights have contributed to increasing the number of women who voted in local council elections in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

"Since the revolution began, Syrian women have shown an interest in politics," she said. "They do not base their opinions on what men say; they form their own opinions by analyzing the news themselves."

Reem Kanjo, manager of the Women Now center in the northwestern city of Saraqeb in Idlib Governorate, said women were still marginalized, but that it was a natural result of the growth of extremism and the spread of military factions in Syria and was a temporary phase.

"The situation will gradually change with the continuous insistence of women to have a role in decision-making," she said.

Another such initiative is the Network of Guardians, which was founded by a group of young women in 2012 and provides training in caring for children during emergencies – for example, how to deal with the psychological shock many children suffer after a bombing.

The organization also works with educators in schools in Ghouta, near the capital, and northwestern Idlib to develop school curricula that take into consideration war and its influence on children.

"My work with the Network of Guardians helped me develop management skills, which was something I never learned in college," said Hiba, a fourth-year architecture student at the University of Damascus who had to quit her studies because of the security situation, especially the random arrests at checkpoints between Damascus and her home in Douma.

Hiba, also not her real name, said she stayed at home for five months before finally joining the Network of Guardians. She hasn't looked back since.

"The current conflict in Syria has played a positive role in breaking the stereotype of women as housewives. Women today have a great opportunity and they should take advantage of it, especially with the number of men being lost in Syria to the fighting, imprisonment and abduction," she said.

More women are also trying to change things through political activism – even taking on the Islamic State.

In the city of Raqqa in northeastern Syria, for example, Suad Nofal has become a symbol of resistance to tyranny. For a long time, she had opposed the Syrian regime. Later, she confronted the Islamic State.

When the city broke away from the Syrian regime in March 2013, she contributed to establishing the local government council. And when IS took control of the city and started abusing residents, Nofal protested daily in front of their headquarters for more than two months, calling for the release of the people they had arrested.

Since she had been a well-known teacher in Raqqa, she initially succeeded in opening a dialogue with a number of IS fighters who were former students, which irritated IS's foreign leaders. They banned their fighters from talking to her, then they began to harass and threaten Suad and issued a fatwa ordering her execution, which forced her to move to Turkey in 2013.

In Turkey, knowing that the media was covering her activities, she began a hunger strike in solidarity with the besieged in Homs and Ghouta. In 2015, Suad received the Czech Homo Homini Award for human rights.

The Syrian Independent Media Group is comprised of five independent Syrian media organizations working together to highlight untold stories from the war-torn country: Arab Reporters for Investigative JournalismRozana RadioSyria DeeplySyria Untold and the Violation Documentation Center in Syria. The project is supported by International Media Support.

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