A story relayed to me by the editor of this fine publication has it that an elderly woman in Homs used to leave her house each morning and, on her way to the local bakery, encountered Syrian Army soldiers standing by their tanks. She knew very well who these men were but without fail would greet them with a polite “Shalom.” This went on for several days. Finally, one of the nonplussed soldiers was given to inquire: “Grandmother, why do you pass by us every day and say ‘Shalom’?” The elderly woman replied: “Oh, you speak Arabic? You’re Syrians? I thought you were Israelis,” before continuing on her way to her daily bread.
It’s a shame that the term chutzpah is not more commonly associated with Arab feminism. In a week that has seen the passing of one Iron Lady, and the decidedly softer agitprop of Ukrainian mammaries, it’s worth remarking on one of the least addressed yet perhaps most significant aspects of the Syrian revolution; namely, how important women have been to it and how important it has been for them.
Typically characterized in the Western press as grieving widows and childless mothers – bit players in an overlong masculine tragedy – Syria’s women have been prime movers in the two-year-long struggle for emancipation, which carries a double meaning in this context. Women have led the earliest demonstrations against the regime, they’ve chronicled the uprising and its repression in vivid detail, they’ve coordinated humanitarian relief efforts, and they’ve taken up arms. Judging from what I’ve witnessed of the extensive reconstruction planning being undertaken by the Syrian diaspora, women have also been the best organized and most willing to bypass the pettiness and factionalism that have stunted their male counterparts. (Martin Amis’ notion of a “gynocracy” is especially intriguing in light of the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Any reckoning with a post-Assad society will necessarily be a reckoning with the status conferred on half the population. Two worthwhile projects that are trying to redefine that status merit discussion. The first is called Syrian Women at Work, which is sponsored by the Syrian-American Alliance and does exactly what its name suggests. Women refugees in Antakya, Turkey are given jobs in the handcrafting of fabric bric-a-brac for sale in the United States. (This charity was started by my friend Mahmoud Elzour, of whom I’ve written extensively over the past year; it was he who first suggested to the young male activists of liberated al-Bab that they needed to include women in all spheres of emerging municipal governance.) In much the same vein, Syria’s Future Lies in the Hands of Its Women is the nicely titled initiative being underwritten by the new NGO Watan Syria. This organization is teaching 200 refugees in Reyhani, Turkey basic computer skills, nursing, social advocacy, and foreign languages. It’s also putting them to work making garments and accessories for sale abroad. The idea, as relayed to me by Mouna Hashem, one of Watan’s volunteers, is simple: professional autonomy is the only way to stop the horrors of auctioned-off child-brides and coerced prostitution that have added misery upon misery for the ever-growing number of female refugees. “Syrian women are so resilient and strong,” Hashem told me. “They want representation in every aspect of the political and economic sectors in Syria.”
By representation, Hashem means something other than the sham sexual equality peddled by the Assad crime dynasty, founded as that has been on the presence of women in elite positions in the regime. Bashar’s mother Anissa is to this day thought of a combination between Lady MacBeth and Connie Corleone, and I suppose there still must be people out there who believe that Bouthaina Shaaban testifies to social progress under Ba’athism more so than Leni Riefenstahl did under Nazism. By contrast, the extremities of war have allowed for, if not demanded, a dramatic reconsideration of traditional gender roles.
Razan Zeitouneh, the de facto leader of the Local Coordination Committees and the recent recipient of a prize named for Anna Politkovskaya, told Al-Arabiya: “At the beginning of the revolution, I heard young men shouting ‘Al-Bayt lil neswan’ (Women should stay home), and now I hear them say ‘Hayyou ‘alaeneswan’ (Cheer for women).”
“This revolution also freed us from the tyranny of our homes,” Amina Ahmed Abid told Newsweek in describing her leadership of inaugural protests in Latakia.
Abid’s husband had sought to keep his own head well below the parapet but didn’t dare restrain his spouse from risking hers. Farah Nasif, a liberal Damascene explained that the feminine garb of the pious had now become a useful prop in the underground: “We’ll wear a hijab to look like the local women if we’re heading to a conservative area. I hide medicine, sometimes money, in my pockets and in my clothes, and I don’t really get any questions.” As for the men who remained confined to their homes, Nasif was mordant: “I am happy for this. Keep men in the home and kitchen.”
Can it be a coincidence that the most prominent Alawites who have given the lie to the notion that opposing the regime is an inherently ‘sectarian’ action have also tended away from the y-chromosome? Feminist novelist Samar Yazbek chronicled the protest movement only to discover she had become a part of it.
She fled Syria in 2011 after being given a guided tour of one of the regime’s torture dungeons and warned that what she saw there awaited her if she didn’t shut up. (Her PEN-winning memoir of the first months of the uprising, “A Woman in the Crossfire,” came out last year.) Despite being called a ‘whore’ and a ‘black stain’ on her sect, Yazbek has gone back to tour the liberated areas, putting her life at further risk. Joining her is Loubna Mrie, a 21 year-old Alawite whose father, Abu Muntazer, is – or was – a shabiha assassin. After participating in protests in Latakia, Loubna appeared in an online video, her face thinly disguised by the Syrian Independence flag she used as a bandana. She compared the ruthlessness of her own sect to that of the Salafists, who have been cast as the drivers of anti-Assad sentiment. As she later recounted on Facebook, her father “went to his brothers, cheered them up, and told them that he washed the shame that his daughter brought to Jebel al-Akrud” by murdering his own wife. Honor killings, it seems, are also the purview of ‘secular’ dictatorships.
Indeed, the regime’s well-documented sexual violence is clearly more than the psychotic outcroppings of totalitarianism. The horrifying industry of rape in Syria may target both men and women but it’s the latter’s case to not only shame and traumatize the individual but to “break the family,” as Lauren Wolfe of Women Under Siege phrased it in a haunting piece for The Atlantic. Husbands and sons are meant to turn against their ‘tainted’ wives and mothers such that society simply cannot be reconstituted. This is an actual war on women with nihilism as the intended endgame. Little wonder that some have chosen to fight back.
Em Joseph is a nom de guerre taken from a popular Syrian television mini-series that belongs to a 40 year-old rebel profiled by Time’s Rania Abouzeid as a Levantine Maid of Saragossa. She’s not afraid to tell the men to leave the real dirty work to the deadlier of the species:
Here, she’s one of the boys, and she’s as tough — or tougher — than most of them. She is a respected member of the unit, somebody the men say they are proud to fight alongside. “She’s a sister of men,” one of her comrades says, using a common Arabic phrase for a strong, independent woman. “She raises our morale,” says another, Walid. “When we see her in front of us, we push forward. May God keep her,” he says before offering her a hearty slap on the shoulder, the kind of slap a man might give another man, but not one a man would give a woman in a community where many women will not shake hands with a man they are not related to. Em Joseph was married only briefly and has no children; her parents are alive and live nearby. When asked what they thought of her fighting, she responds, “God willing, I have raised their heads high.”
It’s worth noting that Em Joseph fights for Suqoor al-Sham, a popular Islamist brigade in Idlib that is party both to the Syrian Liberation Front – a loose consortium of rebel formations that, although lacking a coherent ideological platform, espouse a vaguely defined Salafist-nationalism – as well as to the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command. I have no idea of what Em Joseph’s own politics are, but let us assume that once the war is over some of her bolder comrades-in-arms will eschew the hearty back-slapping and hosannas only to turn their attention to that brief marriage and that conspicuous lack of offspring. Will a Kalashnikov- and grenade-wielding veteran of air base raids find it necessary to submit to the misogyny of the blowhard clerics and politicians her bravery helped bring to power, or will she be emboldened to defy them as she did the Assadists?
The case should not be overstated that a violent conflict, particularly one set in the Middle East, is the cask in which the equality of the sexes can fully mature. Hamas has long managed to define female militancy in its Qassam Brigades as just another expression of a woman’s duty-bound domesticity. But there is at least now an opportunity, even if it has been forged in hell, for a second revolution in Syria to follow from the first. That is no small thing.