In the face of the most prolonged government crackdown in the Arab Spring, Syrian women are protesting alongside men, showing the world they will not be silenced -- whether by their government or by fears of an Islamist alternative.
“The Arab Spring is a call for dignity, justice and freedom. None of the three can be achieved if women are left behind,” asserts Diala Haidar, a Beirut-based activist who started the Facebook page “The uprising of women in the Arab world” in October to raise awareness of women's issues in the region.
“We think it is our right moment in this region, and we have to be fully aware of this opportunity that the Arab Spring has revealed to us.”
In fact, from the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, the contributions of women activists have been indispensable in sustaining the protest movement.
“Women have played an incredibly active role, even though they're not as visible as men,” observes Rafif Jouejati, a spokesperson for Syria's Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella organization coordinating protests and relief aid among the country's towns and provinces.
A management consultant based in Washington, DC, Jouejati says she became an activist after hearing the news of children in Daraa being detained and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti on school walls, with no retribution to the security officials who perpetrated the outrage.
Jouejati emphasizes the variety of Syrian women's undertakings as well as their significance and risk. “They document crimes against humanity,” she notes, “they establish relief committees, and they have been critical to civil resistance. They're not just doing charity drives.”
Indeed, certain women have been particularly conspicuous -- despite the near-certainty of retaliation.Some of the earliest protests in the ongoing uprising were organized by Suhair Atassi, a Damascus-based activist. In March of last year, Atassi led a sit-in by families of political prisoners in front of the capital's interior ministry to demand the release of their loved ones. In October, human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh won the 2011 Anna Politkovskaya Award, awarded annually to a woman defending victims in a conflict zone.
For the past year, blogger Razan Ghazzawi has regularly written posts criticizing the government's violent response to civilian protests, despite being detained twice. And prominent Damascus psychologist Rafah Nached arranged regular interfaith dialogue meetings, aimed at easing mutual fears between Christians, Alawites and Sunnis -- until her arrest in September.
Meanwhile, actresses May Skaf and Fadwa Suleiman have publicly denounced the Syrian government's brutality on repeated occasions.
In November, Suleiman headed for the eye of the storm -- the besieged city of Homs. In a four-minute video she created while in the city, Suleiman issued an impassioned plea for Syrians to unite against their government and stand by the protesters.
She also vowed to continue her demonstrations and a hunger strike “to prove to everyone in the country the lies of the regime about the presence of armed gangs and Salafists, and of alleged Muslim extremists' intent to overthrow the regime and eliminate minorities.”
When three women from the Middle East and North Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their struggle for peace, the Nobel committee issued a statement saying, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
This is undoubtedly true of Arab countries -- including Yemen, from which Karman hails. Yet even as the Arab Spring continues to blossom, conservative religious movements appear to be gaining ground. The rise of newly empowered Islamist movements across the region has ignited fears that women's rights could be compromised.
In Egypt, concerns abound among liberals that previous gains made by women will be reversed by the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood party and the more conservative and hardline Salafists. Even the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), made up of senior (male) military officers from the previous administration tasked with overseeing the transition to a civilian government, has proven itself misogynistic.
Women activists have experienced routine detention and sexual harassment by SCAF forces, which have subjected them to so-called “virginity tests.” These exams were halted following a lawsuit by Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim, but the popular stigma that women rights' activists are morally disreputable cannot be easily washed away.
To make matters worse, the committee that drafted Egypt's transitional constitution included no women and did not impose a female quota on parliament -- a longstanding demand by women's rights' activists in a patriarchal country that sees few women elected to public office.
“There has been a backlash against women by Islamists and non-Islamists (SCAF as an example),” admits Haidar. “This proves again that deposing a dictator is much easier than deposing patriarchy. Women still have a long way to go.”
When compared to their counterparts in other Arab countries, Syrian women are often deemed to have fared well. Ever since the country's ruling Baath party came to power in 1963, the quasi-secular government has touted itself as a champion of gender equality. It cites good education and literacy rates, the relatively high proportion of women in parliament (over 10 percent), as well as the attainment by women of high-level positions in government as proof of its commitment to women's rights.
But Rime Allaf, a Syrian researcher with London-based Chatham House, cautions against believing that the situation of women in her country is bound to worsen should the Baath be toppled. In her opinion, such a view uncritically accepts the Syrian government's claim that it protects women.
“We already have problems with the secular regime,” she points out. “There isn't a liberal set of laws that a new government would undo,” she says, noting that under current Syrian law women still can't pass their nationality to their husbands or offspring, and that they lack financial freedom and adequate daycare for their children.
Of those who believe that the end of the Baath would usher in the repression of women, Allaf maintains, “I think they're jumping to a huge conclusion that's unfounded.”
Allaf sees a similarity between the Egyptian military's justifications for retaining power and the Baath regime's self-portrayal as a bulwark against Islamism. “The job of SCAF [in Egypt] is to scare people, and the Syrian regime is doing the same thing by saying [that if the regime falls] Islamists will come or there will be chaos.”
Similarly, Hind Aboud Kabawat, an attorney who divides her time between Toronto and Damascus, and who won the 2007 Women's Peace Initiative award, says she doesn't expect women to lose their rights if the government is overthrown.“In a dictatorship, men and women will lose their civil rights. And if, in the future, in a new Syria, somebody tries to take our civil rights, we'll go to the street and get them back.”
Syria's history of women's rights and activism long predates the Baath era. At the turn of the 19th century, Damascus, along with Cairo and Beirut, was home to some of the earliest literary journals devoted to women's affairs. And in 1949, three years after independence from France, Syrian women won the right to vote, the second such victory (after that of Iraq) for women in an Arab country.
Syrian women have also been involved in military resistance.
In the famous Battle of Maysaloun in 1920, Nazik al-Abid fought in the ranks of the Syrian rebel army against the advancing French military forces, earning herself the nickname: “The Syrian Joan of Arc.” The following year, she became president of the Syrian Red Cross, and then went on to found the Red Crescent.
Today, the vice president of the Syrian National Council, Basma Qadmani, is a woman, as are a growing number of activists -- although they are still far outnumbered by men.
“I am not pessimistic about the future role of women in Syria,” says Damascus-based professor and historian Sami Moubayed. “They have graced the world stage today, loudly advocating Syrian democracy, and cannot but be part of any upcoming formula for Syria.”