On the 13th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, just days after IWD, Syrian women describe how their activism has shaped the landscape of their society.

“We’ve broken the barrier of fear… we’re not afraid anymore,” Syrian women activists say, as they reflect on the past 13 years of ongoing oppression in their homeland.

Since 15 March 2011, Syrians have been living under the brutal bombardment of the Assad regime, which cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protestors and continues to threaten those who dare to stand against it.

The war has resulted in the displacement of over 13 million Syrians, the detention of tens of thousands of civilians, and over 500,000 deaths, the majority of which are at the hands of the Syrian regime and its Russian ally.

Syrian women emerging as prominent community leaders

Despite the immense losses suffered, women across the country have courageously assumed the roles of changemakers, advocates and leaders, as they work to rebuild their communities, advocate for peace and demand freedom for their people.

“A lot of women have assumed positions of responsibility. Today, I don’t just carry the weight of my own responsibilities, I make important decisions and bear their consequences,” Zahra, an activist, teacher and social worker from Raqqa, told The New Arab.

During the war, the teacher felt called to create an empowering safe space and support system for women, following traumatic experiences they had endured during the ongoing war.

So, she co-founded For Feminism, an organisation based in her hometown Raqqa, dedicated to supporting women and enhancing their skills, to enable them to contribute to their communities, “feel their value” and “believe they can make a difference.”

“We’d hold sessions for women to share and let their feelings out. We aimed to talk about all women’s issues, including laws, our protection, and rights.”

13 years on, the Syrian Civil War has created the largest displacement crisis in the world. In Syria, 16.7 million Syrians remain in need of humanitarian assistance  [Getty Images]

Making ‘difficult’ decisions

Zahra faced “difficult decisions” when deciding which responsibilities to assume. ISIS took over her hometown Raqqa from 2013 to 2017, and some women from the city married extremist fighters during the time, “due to difficult life circumstances”, as “many were forced against their will,” Zahra told The New Arab.

Upon their release from ISIS-controlled camps – which they left without their missing, or deceased, husbands – Zahra knew that the “vulnerable” women would “no longer be accepted by society.”

She decided to extend her work to them, by hosting wellbeing sessions for psychological support, despite knowing many within her community would reject such an idea.

“It was a difficult decision, of course, society didn’t accept ISIS and wouldn’t accept [the women who married them]… but women have been the largest victims of oppression during the war… and desperately need help… including those who made big mistakes,” she told The New Arab.

ISIS also banned education during their rule over Raqqa, so on top of the already heavy burden of war, Zahra was challenged with the task of home-schooling her children, which she bore the fruits of years later when her daughter entered medical school.  

Zahra’s commitment to activism and social work – which she also practised by teaching in UNICEF schools post ISIS’ domination of Raqqa – has also been mirrored by women alike across the country.

‘The woman is society’

“The presence of women in activism is very important. A woman conveys voices. She is a mother, a sister, a wife, the family, she is the society to me,” Lubna, an activist from Suweida, told The New Arab.

Lubna is deeply involved in local revolutionary activities, as she works alongside activist groups created for women, such as Sayedat Al-Hirak, and mixed activist groups, including Shabab Soriya Al-Ahrar.

She, too, emphasised that “women have had a huge part to play in protests and activism”, but highlighted that this has not come without its struggles.

“The Syrian woman has gone through a lot. She suffered oppression from the regime, and from society. The worst types of torture and insults were thrown on women in prisons,” she told The New Arab.

Weaponising fear and ‘shame’

“The regime knows the importance of women’s involvement in the revolution, and as a result, they have tried to silence society through women,” Lubna stated.

The activist says that the forces have weaponised both societal fears surrounding the protection of women and notions of “shame”, playing on conservative attitudes present in the country, in a bid to stop women from protesting.

Societal fears come from knowing women could be “vulgarly insulted” or even sexually assaulted in prisons if they were arrested following their activism.

Such instances could result in the woman affected becoming stigmatised by society, where it is highly probable “people would look at her with pity, or that her life would be considered over”, Lubna told The New Arab.

As a result, women have often been advised to, or felt that they should, refrain from participating in the revolution “to avoid bringing harm to themselves, or shame to their family”.

Illustrating change

Destigmatising such cases has also been employed within art activism across the country and among the Syrian diaspora.

Damascene artist Dima Nashawi, who left Syria to live in Lebanon in 2013, utilised her creative talents to illustrate Syrian struggles, “preserve parts of our narrative, and pursue our dream of changing the country”.

The artist, who also worked in social care with the UNHCR, has created illustrations calling “for the freedom of detainees, the destigmatisation of female detainees” and has written plays focusing on displacement.

“It became an urgent need to express my feelings in light of the difficult events in my country… and to stand up to narratives that stereotyped the Syrian revolution,” Dima told The New Arab.

“Women were targeted, raped, stigmatised, ostracised, killed… female detainees have been rejected by their circles because of stigmas surrounding honour,” she added.

The artist highlighted the case of Heba Haj Aref – an activist who was found dead in her home in rural Aleppo last month after receiving threats over her work – as just one example of countless violations against Syrian women who are simply demanding freedom.

“Authorities are afraid of brave women who confront them… they are afraid of her strength, and her ability to create change, so they threaten her or simply kill her,” she says.

Dima believes the traumatic experiences endured by Syrian women have “caused a shift, redefined women’s personalities and led many to become inspiring influential voices in defending women’s and human rights” within Syria and across the diaspora.

Strength in action

Despite the pain and trauma Syrian women have patiently endured, many remain set on continuing their fight for freedom and peace, regardless of the consequences, due to their firm belief that their cause will see victory.

“People might think we’re seeing dreams, but revolutions have always seen pain… continued fight will be what allows us to win, we will continue peacefully for the sake of our peace,” Lubna told The New Arab with clear confidence and certainty.

“The amount of time it takes is not important,” she added, emphasising “our cause is a cause of truth and it’s right”.

“Those who are righteous may face oppression, being killed, being displaced, they may face a lot of pain, but they are the standing on the right side. They aren’t afraid… and for that, they will be victorious.”

Aisha Aldris is a London-based journalist who writes on social and humanitarian issues alongside culture and the arts

Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris