When the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra stormed Batallion 13, killed some of its officers, and confiscated its weapons, the women of Marrat al-Numaan marched the streets in protest. This was not the first time women have taken to the streets, and it will not be the last time. Women protested many times against the Syrian regime from 2011 to 2012. However, ever since armed groups co-opted the revolution, women were gradually marginalized until they were finally pushed completely back to their homes. The pretext was that women should stay home because it is too dangerous outside, and because they could be raped or imprisoned at any moment.
The truth is that society is not comfortable with women taking leading roles, and it fears that women might eventually become fully involved in the revolution and demand full, equal rights. If this were to happen, it could lead to major changes in society, in the constitution, and in Syria’s system of patriarchal hierarchy. Therefore, and in order to avoid all of that, women were locked up inside of their houses. Those who refused to stay inside were stigmatized by the rebels, the regime and by their families. This also led to women losing trust in the revolution—because why should women revolt if it will not bring them any equality?
Patriarchal authority has become even more entrenched ever since the revolution turned into an armed conflict. However, intense fundamentalism and jihadism, represented by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, led women to reject the limitations imposed on them, and to go out on the streets. Before Ma’rrat al-Numan, women protested in Eastern Ghouta in 2015 against Zahran Alloush and against the Syrian regime. They challenged the Islamic State and demanded that their imprisoned husbands and children be returned to them. In Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra attempted to take full control of the city, and tried to intimidate women in an attempt to keep them from protesting. Jabhat al-Nusra not only imposed full hijab on women, and segregated schools and colleges, but it also killed many women for the sin of fornication. Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal was clear; to scare women, and to send a message that women who do not follow Jabhat al-Nusra’s laws are guilty infidels to be punished or killed. Many women activists have been harassed or killed, and many were forced to flee from the country.
Attacking Battalion 13 was a big mistake on Jabhat al-Nusra’s side—it was one of the opposition battalions that had supported Jabhat al-Nusra during the Wadi al-Dayf siege, and it is not one of the corrupt groups. The reasons behind that attack were purely strategic. Jabhat al-Nusra, just like the Islamic State, is considered a terrorist group, and therefore it will be crushed as soon as a political solution is reached. Jabhat al-Nusra knows that very well, and therefore it is in its interest to strengthen its position by supporting some small groups, and crushing others so that a political solution is difficult, and multiple Islamist groups remain to deflect at least some of the military attention away from Jabhat al-Nusra. Jabhat al-Nusra’s attack was a preemptive step to prevent small groups from uniting and fighting against it or against the Jund al-Aqsa group.
It is important to note here that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam have the ability to crush Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib and in Eastern Ghouta, but they do not, because the presence of a jihadist group like Jabhat al-Nusra allows the other two to be seen as the “moderate Islamist groups,” giving them legitimacy in the eyes of the West. This is similar behavior to that of the regime when it uses and facilitates the presence of jihadist groups in Syria in order to justify its unjustifiable operations in Syria.
Since Jabhat al-Nusra overtook Battalion 13 in Marrat al-Numaan on March 14, 2016, women have been protesting as a group, and together with men. The force they are up against is not insignificant, because Jabhat al-Nusra’s practices are as brutal as the regime’s, but in spite of this, both men and women took to the streets and chanted explicitly against Jabhat al-Nusra and against its jihadism. “Oh Jolani, look at the thousands and thousands of apostates here. They all, we all, no matter what happens, want you to leave. This is Muarrat al-Numan. Leave with your thugs and leave us alone. Our city is free and proud. We welcome those whom you call apostates. We will teach you what real religion is. Your days here are over,” people chanted on March 29, 2016. The remarkable thing here is that the battleground is now open for all, and women have claimed a central role in it.
Over the last few weeks, a strong debate has flared up in newspapers and on Facebook in regard to the conciliatory position that the regime’s Advisory Council for Women took. What requires examination here is that women’s position within the opposition is very weak, and the fact that their representation is minimal at best—there is a small number of women who participate in the opposition’s activities. This shows that although it has been five years since the revolution began, it still discriminates against women. Women’s participation in Marrat al-Numaan protests, in Eastern Ghouta, and against the Islamic State, despite all the impositions placed on them, proves that the revolution will not succeed until it brings women in as equal partners and players. Every group or party that does not include women is a patriarchal one, and is explicitly against women.
I am not talking here about a 30% quota that should be applied in all of the revolution’s and the state’s institutions. I am calling for full equality, and that requires major changes in the mentality of the opposition’s political, civil, social, and public service institutions, as well as the whole society. This also requires an explicit affirmation that women are equal to men in all rights and duties, and a rejection of all justification that keep women at a lower status than men, be it in the name of religion, or be it in the name of respecting social conventions.
We write these words as a tribute to the protest of the women of Marrat al-Numaan against Jabhat al-Nusra, who challenged barbaric jihadism while defending the Syrian revolution. Will the revolution do them justice?