Antakya, Turkey: Hiba Al Haji’s flight from Syria was sparked when she was summoned for interrogation after she encouraged her university students to join protests against the government.
Her inquisitors never realised the trunk of her car parked outside was full of guns she was running for the rebels. Afraid it was just a matter of time before she was found out, Hiba says she left Aleppo the next day for Turkey, where she founded the Free Syrian Women Organisation. She now channels her revolutionary spirit into distributing food and medicine for refugees, and counselling women who were raped before they, too, fled the civil war in their homeland.
“This is my Syria, my beloved Syria,” said Hiba, a devout Muslim who wears eyeliner that matches her colourful headscarves. “I have to do something for her.”
Women and girls were in the forefront when the uprising began nearly two years ago with peaceful protests, in part because they were considered less likely than men to arouse the suspicions of the government’s security apparatus. But now — largely because the men in their lives urged them to stay away as the revolt turned into a much more dangerous civil war — they are playing a more traditional role in humanitarian relief, bringing food, medicine and clothing to refugees. The fighting is almost exclusively the province of men, and relatively few women are among opposition political leaders.
“Syrian culture is open-minded when it comes to women, but not like in Lebanon,” said Nagham, a politically active woman who asked that her last name not be used to protect relatives in Syria. In Latakia, a port city in western Syria, “the men asked their female friends, sisters and daughters not to come to the demonstrations anymore,” Nagham said. “It didn’t have anything to do with religion. It had to do with a culture of protecting women. We have almost equal rights in Syria.”
The most prominent woman in Syrian opposition politics is Suhair Al Atassi, the daughter of a founding member of the ruling Baath Party. A well-known secular activist, she is a co-vice president of the opposition government in exile, which was recognised late last year by the United States and several other governments as the representative of the Syrian people. But at the grass-roots level, few women attend the political conferences held around Turkey to discuss building a transitional government and institutions if Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is toppled.
“About 200 people were at a conference I attended. Maybe ten of them were women,” said Rania Kisar, a Syrian-born American who moved to Turkey last spring and founded a group that has organised several workshops teaching girls to make jewellery they sell to earn money for food. Nagham says women are not as common as they used to be at meetings held in Turkey by the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella organisation of opposition groups. She expects few women to play a leading political role when the conflict ends.
“A lot of women could do a great job in politics,” she said. “But society, and the traditional culture, won’t take them seriously.”
Nagham, 44, sat out the first half year of the uprising, not sure it would stick. She was in Kuwait, where her family moved in the 1970s after her father argued at work with a relative of then-President Hafez Al Assad and decided his family’s future, and lives, were in jeopardy. But a year ago, she quit her job as a school administrator, sold her house, her car and most of her possessions, and moved to Turkey. She raises money to buy tents and medicines for refugees living in border-zone camps inside Syria and often delivers them on foot, hiking through the mountains lugging supplies. She is determined to move back to Syria if the regime falls. “I’m not going to run all my life,” she said.
Many women operate without benefit of an organisation to back them and fund their work. They venture into Syrian territory to visit refugees living in areas that have been subject to air strikes. They sometimes avoid official border crossings because not everyone in their group has a passport, trekking over steep mountains carrying backpacks laden with medicine. They are exposed to refugees who have scabies, lice and other infections.
Rania, 38, who was born and raised in Syria but moved as an adolescent to Pittsburgh when her parents immigrated to the United States, quit her job as an admissions officer at a Dallas university in April and relocated near the Syrian border. Living off her savings, she gets money from her family, friends and people she has met in Turkey to buy 37-pound (16kg) bags of food, which she delivers to refugee families. She films the food deliveries on her iPhone and sends the images to donors so they know how their money was spent.
Rania said women’s contributions have been overlooked as the uprising became militarised. “They’re spreading the ideology. They’re helping the wounded. They’re teaching children. They are leading the relief aid,” she said. “We do it for freedom and equality.” Many women say they hope not just to shed a brutal regime, but to ensure women’s rights are protected in whatever government emerges. Although Syrians are accustomed to seeing professional women as lawyers, doctors and judges, some Syrian women say laws governing marriage, maternity leave and divorce need overhauling to be more fair to them.
“We hope after all the bloodshed, things will change,” said Tasneem Hamoude, 30, the daughter of a religious leader who fled her village of Bdama in Idlib province and now works with Hiba in the Free Syrian Women Organisation.
“We want to get rid of many social traditions. We want to have rights.”
Attitudes may be budging. Hiba has noticed a subtle shift in language. Before the war, men commonly called out to passing women, “Ya, herme,” which loosely translates as, “Hey, woman.” Now, she said, they are as likely to address her as “sister.” But she also has noticed the growing presence of Islamic fundamentalists in the conflict. Recently, an Islamist working at a refugee camp in Syria she was visiting criticised her for wearing make-up.
“I’m concerned,” is all she would say. Hiba, 26, who would like to run for public office someday, said Syrians gossip about her because she lives alone in an Antakya apartment, filling a spare bedroom with toys and clothing she buys for refugees, often with money her parents send her from Syria. Male rebels have not always appreciated her contributions. They have laughed, she said, when she has asked, “Don’t you think I deserve to work with you?” “You’re a woman,” she said they have replied. “We left everything in Syria,” she said. “We left our jobs, our families, our homes. We did it for the simple right of women to be part of what’s going on. I deserve to be part of society.”