On Jan. 10, while President Bashar Assad addressed his supporters in Damascus, the Syrian authorities handed the tiny tortured body of a 4-month old baby girl to her uncle in Homs. Arrested with her parents a few days earlier, one can only assume, knowing the Syrian regime’s documented brutality, that baby Afaf had been thrown into a cell with her mother and submitted to horrific treatment, terrorizing her and her mother and leading to her death.
In its violent repression of the uprising, the Syrian regime has made no distinction between men and women or between adults and children. There has been equality in oppressing, and equality in suffering. But there has also been equality in protesting, albeit in varying degrees of visibility and in different forms.
For the last 10 months of the Syrian revolution, many skeptics have repeated the tired refrain that women have been absent from the uprising and that it seems to be a male-dominated (read “Islamist-leaning”) protest movement. Such generalizations, meant to discredit the revolution, do much injustice to the women who have lived the uprising from the start at the side of their compatriots.
It is true that the initial Friday-centric demonstrations were, by default, overwhelmingly comprised of men. With no other option to gather freely, protesters met at the mosque and grouped at the end of Friday prayers to start marching and chanting, and week after week the presence of women in these demos was negligible. Moreover, there is little doubt that the sheer brutality of the regime, with its blind random shootings, led many men to insist that their female relatives remain at home in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s way.
In this, the Syrian revolution may have differed from others where women were visible from the start, especially as most other revolutions have begun in big cities. But no other revolution has been suppressed with the ferocity of the Syrian regime, nor has any other country (save for Libya after the military intervention started) endured so many casualties. Declaring the Syrian uprising to be woman-less, therefore, would reflect a rather skewed view on the situation and a superficial understanding of how the Syrian regime acts.
As repression got more brutal, the protests spread throughout Syria and extended beyond Friday prayers. This resulted in a noticeable increase of women on the streets of Syria, chanting alongside men and running under fire alongside men. Some organized women-only protests, others mingled in the mixed crowds and some took microphones to lead defiant chants at gatherings such as the woman who electrified Homs when she shouted to a roaring crowd that her children would not attend a school that had been used as a torture center.
Even when they weren’t taking to the streets, women’s participation in the revolution has been constant. They have made signs, helped give first aid to the wounded, and run charity networks to distribute aid to the neediest families under siege from the army. While these activities were not undertaken exclusively by women, they played an important role in the logistics behind the protests.
At the same time, civil activism began to develop into new forms, unveiling Syrian creativity and a pressing urge to raise the voice of the revolution. Initiatives included numerous film clips of women in nondescript interiors, their faces hidden with masks and scarves to protect their identity, holding signs that often centered around a single message that the viewer discovered as the camera went around the room. Such events made the rounds of the social networks in the most YouTubed revolution of the “Arab Spring,” letting the internet amplify the power of these peaceful protests.
Syrian women have also been essential components of the now famous flash mobs that have so angered the regime with their speed and their efficient messages. Often, women will join the group and start chanting while wearing a headscarf, then separate at the first sign of the infamous “shabbiha” and yank their hijabs off their heads as they melt into the crowd.
Examples of such varied participation are plentiful enough and put to rest the shaky theories about women in Syria’s revolution. In fact, when considering the number of prominent female activists, Syria seems to be a leader rather than a follower, rightfully boasting of the women active in civil society and in revolution. Activists such as Suheir Atassi and Razan Zeitouneh, veterans on the socio-political underground scene at the grassroots level, and writers such as Samar Yazbek, have been part and parcel of the civil society movement challenging the regime openly from inside Syria. Since the revolution began, more women have become focal points for the protest movement, including actresses May Skaf, who was one of the first artists to participate in protests and to be arrested, and Fadwa Suleiman, who has been chanting defiantly from the heart of embattled and besieged Homs.
Moreover, the women who have been politically vocal and active in opposition, including in the main organized groups, seem to easily outnumber, especially proportionally, those in other revolutionary countries. There have been numerous Syrian women discussing Syrian affairs on pan-Arab media, and most are well-known among their compatriots.
While they never imagined that their children would be such easy prey for the regime nor intended them to be part of the movement, Syrian women have from the start been an integral element in the revolution. There is no doubt that they will also be an integral component of post-revolution Syria.
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.