Syrian women’s two-pronged battle

Syrian women’s two-pronged battle

In the summer of 2011, I was in Damascus with a CNN team, where I met Catherine al-Talli, a human rights activist and lawyer. She took part in some of the first demonstrations against the regime in Damascus in March 2011. A couple of months later she was detained and imprisoned for 48 hours.

Her focus at the time was to document the Syrian government’s violations, to build a future case to prosecute regime officials. She recalls one demonstration where the protestors were chanting for the unity of the Syrian people, the unity of Muslims and Christians.

“Suddenly,” she said, “the security forces jumped in front of the protestors and start[ed] shooting. At least five next to me were shot and killed.”

For many people who are watching events in Syria unfold mostly through YouTube videos, it would seem that women are not a factor. But that this is not the case. While not as visible as their male counterparts, women are playing an increasingly crucial role in events in Syria.

Some six months later, I met three women, clad in black from head to toe. They said that fear of sexual assault by security forces kept them off the streets. They were of conservative Sunni backgrounds, but they insisted they did not want to live under Islamic law.

Since then a year has passed, the phenomenon of the “radicalization of the revolution” has ingrained itself. Extremist groups like the al-Nusra Front, which the United States recently designated a terrorist organization, are at the forefront of the rebel fighting force and seeing their capabilities, influence and ranks grow by the day.

In Aleppo, at a hospital run by the opposition, I met a young woman who goes by the pseudonym Sama. She was living with the hospital “staff” – now made up mostly of young men and a handful of women, many of whom had no prior medical experience.

Among her colleagues at the hospital are people of different backgrounds – moderate, conservative, Islamist, Salafi – and on a regular basis they debate what the future Syria should look like. In some way, the revolution has brought together individuals who otherwise would have never interacted, to trade ideas and ideologies.

“We even shout at each other,” Sama tells us with a wry smile. “I was with the revolution from the start, the revolution is one line, it’s not Islamist, it’s for all Syrians and Syrians are from all sects.”

There is a growing sense of awareness among female activists about the need to ensure the empowerment of women. Little reported is that Syrian women were among the first to demonstrate against the regime.

Despite that, women remain grossly underrepresented when it comes to the local opposition councils inside Syria and the opposition bodies that exist outside of the country.

Rajaa al-Talli, Catherine’s younger sister, co-founded the “Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria” when the uprising began.

Now based in southern Turkey, Rajaa has been researching the role of her fellow countrywomen in the Syrian revolution and running workshops focusing on increasing that role.

Through her work and research with some of the underprivileged women at the refugee camps, she found that their main concerns about a future Syria were education and the economy. Politically speaking, they wanted freedom, justice, and dignity, though some believed that women should not have leading roles in legislation or governance.

Back from a recent Syrian women’s conference in Doha, she said that among the many discussions was the role that women needed to play in a post-Bashar al-Assad era and getting women more involved in the decision-making process.

Rajaa and others fully realize that the next rulers may want to sideline them and relegate them to the shadows.

For the women of the Syrian opposition, this is a two-pronged battle. They are fighting for freedom against an oppressive regime and battling just as hard to ensure that their individual rights do not perish in the process as the landscape and dynamics of the Syrian uprising shift.

It is by no means an easy goal, but the majority of Syrian women I met over the last two years are not going to sit by silently and watch their freedoms be stolen from them or their future dictated to them.

Arwa Damon is a senior international correspondent for CNN that is currently based in Beirut. The full version of this article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ). For more information, please visit