March 15 marks the anniversary of the popular uprising against tyranny in Syria. A few days before that date in 2011, Syrian citizens were already demonstrating in front of the Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian embassies, to support the mobilizations that spread throughout the region starting in late 2010. Men and women stood in solidarity with the struggles of their neighbors, which Syrians could very much relate to. Three years into the uprising, Syria Untold looked at Syria through the eyes of three women who have actively worked to promote justice and freedom in the country.
A women's uprising?
Since very early in the uprising, women worked hand-in-hand with men in the organization of protests and other civil disobedience initiatives. Marwa Ghamian was one of the first persons to be arrested for calling for freedom in public, on March 15, 2011, during a demonstration in Damascus's Hamidiah market.
For decades, freedom of expression and assembly were forbidden in the country, so there was no room to engage in free independent discussions on any issues, including those affecting women. “With the beginning of the uprising, I felt there was a space for personal and public freedom that I had never experienced in my life,” Khawla Dunia said to Syria Untold. “I could raise my voice, speak up, demand my rights, in the streets of Damascus and elsewhere.”
“This was the case for women from very different intellectual and social backgrounds, who were involved at every level of the protests,” Razan Ghazzawi added.
If women played a crucial role during the peaceful stage of the uprising, they have been less instrumental in the armed struggle. “As militarization gained ground, the role of women decreased significantly, and became mostly reduced to humanitarian aid and relief,” Yara Nassir said.
In areas free of regime control, however, the participation of women has ranged from very active to anecdotic, depending on who controls the area. The nature of power in each city and village, which varies from civil to moderate Islamic ruling in some, to Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in others, makes a big difference regarding women's freedom of movement and action.
Hammered by the regime's oppression, and by new impositions
“Syrian women today continue to be hammered by the regime's oppression on the one hand, and by new impositions on the other,” Nassir added. “The situation is dramatic, as women continue to suffer in areas under regime control, while in many liberated areas they are pushed out of public spaces and decision-making processes. Women continue to look for a civil space where they can freely develop and express themselves. The fact that the revolution did not incorporate women's rights at its core is part of the problem. Gender equality was not at the center of the movement for change.”
A change in mindset is needed, Dunia agreed, and that is what drove Syrians to the streets in the first place, but current circumstances have not allowed this change to come about.
“I often get interrogated at checkpoints about what I am wearing, where is my family and whether I am married or not, questions that men never get asked,” Ghazzawi highlighted. “As if I could not work freely for my own country, the country I own a passport for.” She blames her fellow activists, both from the armed and peaceful struggle, for not speaking out against the treatment female activists receive in some of the liberated areas. “I have not heard one of my comrades publicly denounce such restrictions against women,” she complained.
Nassir's experience in the liberated areas is quite different. “All the time I was there, I never covered my head and I was not once mentioned this issue, neither by the local population nor by any soldier.”
Regarding the different sources of violence, the activists agree on the regime bearing the ultimate responsibility for the abuses taking place in the country. “The comparison between violence coming from the regime and that coming from the opposition is a false one. The regime targets the population as a whole, engages in massive detentions, torture and killing,” Ghazzawi said.
Today, women find themselves trapped between the struggle against the regime and other daily threats, such as the ones posed by extremist groups filling the power vacuum in the liberated areas, that have a chilling effect on women´s rights. In addition to that, many are asking whether this is the time to discuss such issues, considering them to be luxuries in the face of death, hunger and deprivation on the ground. However, as Dunia said, it is not about women's rights only, but about the demands of justice, equality and citizenship that took Syrians to the street since March 2011.