For the women of Syria, the war has not only brougt bombs, displacement and violence. The breakdown of a normal society has also sent them back to a life controlled by ultra-traditional and very conservative norms. A life where the value of a woman is measured by her ability to have sons and where her virtue is more important than her life. The Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim has written this account with a number of snapshots and experiences of the lives of women in wartorn Syria.

 

First Scene: Proliferation

A lady holds the tip of her long black dress in one hand while carrying a pile of blankets cradling a small baby in the other hand. She tries to get on the bus but fails with a pained look on her face, a girl notices her and gives her a hand to get inside.

She sits down slowly on the seat, placing the baby on her lap, thereby freeing her two hands to hide her crying face.

In the old green bus that transports Syrians going back from Turkey to Syria through the Bab al-Salamah-crossing in Aleppo, as she reveals the baby, a women in her 50s approaches her, saying: “I hope this is a boy!”.

The mother dries her tears and replies in a deep voice “No, it’s a girl”, the older woman frowns and starts preaching to us, the women in the bus, “This is not supposed to be happening, we women have to give birth to boys to replace all the men we are losing, war is not girls’ time”.

Another lady tries to ease the tension by asking the mother: “When did you give birth”? “Two days ago, but we don’t have enough money to stay in the Turkish hospitals to recover, so I had to come back while having childbed fever” she replies.

about Zaina Erhaim

Zaina Erhaim is a Syrian journalist educated in Syria and at City University in London. She now works as the Syria project coordinator with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
She lives in the opposition held areas in northern Syria and was selected by Reporters Without Borders as one of a very select number of female journalists to mark International Women’s Day

She has lived most of her life in Syria, and have been working as a journalist for 9 years with different outlets in Damascus, London and Turkey, such as Alhayat newspaper and BBC which she left to go back to Syria.

KVINFO met Zaina Erhaim  in 2009, when she took part in a workshop for female culture journlists from Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Denmark under the DOXBOX09 film festival in Damaskus. The reporters were producing the daily festival paper, Point of Vies, and at the same time they were having a workshop about gender arranged by KVINFO and DOXBOX. 

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Read a personal interview with Zaina Erhaim in French
 

I leave the new mother who is not merely in pain but also straddled with the guilt planted in her by the other woman for having given birth to a girl instead of a boy.

In a women’s clinic in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood in Aleppo, which has recently been bombed and destroyed, the story continues. A nurse tells the midwife the story of Umm Ahmad: “Poor her, the doctor told her that she was having a boy, so her husband pampered and spoiled her, but she gave birth to a girl, so he left her at the hospital and when she came back home, he beat her and then divorced her”.

The talk is disrupted with the entry of two women dressed in black, the 16 year-old failing to hide her girlhood though using the formal clothes of an older woman. Her mother anxiously asks the midwife: “I want you to check what’s wrong with my daughter, she has been married for six weeks and she isn’t pregnant yet!”.

A younger girl, a 15-year old, comes to the clinic bleeding, she lost her baby after being told that her husband had been killed on one of the Aleppo frontlines.

For the older ladies, (i.e. in their 40s according to the local traditions), there are also chapters of the story in the women’s clinic.

A lady approaches the midwife, raises up her niqab (full-face veil, Ed.), and asks her: “My sister got married while in her 40s, she has been bleeding for two weeks, and we don’t know why. Her husband wants to divorce her, he is disgusted and accusing us of giving him damaged goods!”.

Another woman waits for her pregnant daughter-in-law goes to the examination room before asking the midwife for medicine to bring her old ovaries into the birth circle again: “For the satisfaction of my husband”, she says coquettishly.

The newborns here aren’t registered in any official records, neither IDs nor passports for them, even their parent’s marriages are unrecognized by any authority. They are born stateless, a best case scenario being a handwritten birth certificate from a field hospital. No special clinics for them either, as the doctors who haven’t fled yet can hardly meet the needs of those injured daily by the bombings of the Syrian army.

Also, this year, Assad’s air force committed two massacres in elementary schools in the western neighbourhoods of Aleppo, killing tens of pupils and their teachers.

Despite this, the births continue, leaving kids to die every day while struggling for their minimum rights.

 

Second Scene: Patriarchy

Patriarchy has aggressively increased its charge as the war on civilians in opposition controlled areas gets harsher, worsening with the displacement of families, after every massacre committed by the regime, as the masculine armed men become the source of power and the protection.

At the beginning of the revolution, women created their own spaces even on the front lines, as medics and citizen journalists. Later on, they were kicked out from that social space, and then from many other social spaces, and some of them were even deported out of Syria by their revolutionary husbands, who forced them to seek out a safe place in Turkey to raise their children, while the men continue living inside Syria visiting their wives and children occasionally.

A few of the international NGOs, especially in the field of education, have applied a woman’s quota on their staff, forcing closed-minded husbands to accept and give their wives the permissions to work, because the job market for women is bigger than for the men who lost their jobs with the state.

Still, women are expatriated from most of the decision-making positions, and when they are present, this is mostly because this is what the donor wants, and its superficial. In Syria, there are no active women in the local councils, courts, battalions, medical NGOs, Relief NGOs, development NGOs etc.

There is no feminine graffiti on our walls, no space for the women martyrs’ pictures in our memories, there are no active real projects on the ground cultivating gender equality, despite the many “vertical” projects.

 

Third Scene: Women-Objectifying Organizations

Responding to the international donors’ desire, many local and international NGOs do include women in their proposals and reports, but whether they really work effectively inside Syria and with women refugees - this is a controversial idea which needs further research.
Many organizations that are supposedly empowering women, are actually just using them in different ways.

Some are using them as characters in their business, making sure that they have both veiled, un-veiled, and a mixture of women from various sectarian backgrounds, to present a particular image in order to tempt attract more funds.

E.g. one of the “women’s NGOs” made all the women attending its training sessions sign a membership application to a network led by the head of the NGO herself, and after receiving equipment (laptop, camera, smart phone for each), all the attendees signed a document which led some internationals to consider the network as representative of the women of Syria.

Also, some projects for Syrian women are being designed without even consulting Syrian women by men who, four years ago, didn’t know where Syria is located. Their projects are not only built on sand and a waste of money, but are also ignorant of the risks that could kill the activists they work with.

This is not far from the goings on within the Syrian opposition institutions and the NGOs: “We need a woman, would you participate with us?”. I received this irritating “invitation” many times, they sum up all of my qualifications, experiences, hard work, and achievements in just one innate thing: My gender.

Such behavior is more humililiating to me than being treated as a “subordinate” by closed-minded extremist men, who were raised in that way by their own mothers.

 

No Scene: The Heroines of The Show

Behind all these curtains, some women activists are still working in the opposition-held areas in northern Syria.  They are a minority that is being reduced by different means - and they have not had the attention that some of the ethnic minorities got from the international community and media.

The heroines are building tunnels through the thick walls constructed to suppress them by the various builders: patriarchal society, armed chaos, the traditions, and the “forbidden” norms.

Ahed, one of the pioneer protesters who hasn’t left Aleppo at all, says: “I can’t replace my gas canister, I need a man to accompany me home at dark. I have to face the surprised looks on the faces of the shop clerks when they see a young woman buying groceries or meat. I face many problems because I travel without a male guardian, but I am doing what thousands of men don’t dare to do, I am here, still working under barrel bombs”.

Ahed worked as paramedic in the field hospitals, when rebels entered Aleppo in 2012, she was on frontlines with them, offering first aid and treatment, yet her friends call Ahed “the troublemaker”, because she doesn’t give up on her rights, she always speaks up, and fights those who dare to interfere with the way she dresses and the length of her jacket – something which once led her to be imprisoned by one of the militias.

Waed, hasn’t been in this part of Aleppo before, she left university out of fear of being arrested by the regime troops for participating in the freedom demonstrations. She has lived in a field hospital and became the only woman citizen journalist in the north of Syria. Waed says that she: “belongs here rather than in safer places”, and she is ready to “sacrifice her life for freedom and to document what is happening to the people”. In this land there are far more restrictions places on Waed than on the others. The public doesn’t understand how a woman could hold a camera and be a journalist unless she is foreigner. Many times, although Waed speaks Arabic with them, people still reply in English.

To Idlib (a province in northwestern Syria, Ed.), where armed men attacked the Mazaya Women’s Center twice, and its head, Ghalia Rahhal, has also recently survived an assassination attempt, a car bomb which destroyed her car.

The center is guilty of getting the women out of their houses, offering a women-friendly space to meet and learn, and above all, the center equips women with the necessary skills to find jobs and be financially independent.

After the first fire, Ghalia went to the center. As the flames were still burning, she walked through the intense heat and dust in order to reach what used to be the administrative office. She leaned down and picked up some cardboard: “these are women’s dreams, they wrote them only yesterday”, she told me. She cleaned some of the boards which were only partially burnt and read out loud: “I dream of becoming a hairdresser”, “secure life”, “freedom”, “peace”, and “beautiful daughter”. Ethar, who was covered head to toe in dust after having extinguished the fires all through the night, leaned barefoot against the door: “I told you Ms. Zaina, we don’t deserve to dream, you told me yesterday, we can do anything we wish for? See, everything is against us!”.

 

Fourth Scene: Harmful

He stands in front of his house in Sakhour (an eastern district of Aleppo, Ed.), faceless with torn clothes, screaming his voice out: “medics, help me!”. A fighter with paramedic experience responds by running to where the man is pointing, the male survivor then gets annoyed and shouts at the helping man: “Don’t! My women are not covered, there are women inside”. The paramedic ignores him as the shouts of the wounded women inside increase, the man tries to stop the paramedic from going in, but he pushes him aside and enters. “Two ladies wearing long coats without a headscarf, in their 40s, one is injured in her stomach and the second in her head, both were bleeding heavily”, the paramedic says. “They survived death, but they might be beaten by the jealous man because they dishonoured him by not covering their heads while reeling between life and death”.

And when a barrel bomb hits al-Mashhad neighbourhood, a whole family is stuck on the ground floor. They make it to the front of the building, a 12-year old girl a couple of steps ahead of the rest of the family, a civil defense worker stretches his hand out towards the girl, she freezes and doesn’t respond, he keeps his hand out while asking her to hold it. Then her father intervenes: “Go ahead, we should get out!”, so she does while tensing up. Suffocating under the rubble is a better choice than facing the scandal of neighbours’ watching her touching the helping hand of an unknown male paramedic!

 

Last Scene: Masculine Death

Between two skeleton-like bodies, lay her skinny body dressed in a black pajamas, her headscarf fallen to her neck. Her hair was a mess, as if the security forces had dragged her by her hair from her cell to the mass grave.

Rihab Allawi appears as if she were asleep in the picture; on the forehead the killer had written 2935/215, the latter indicating the number of the security branch where she was killed.

Rihab’s picture is the first, among the 11,000 detainees killed under torture in Assad’s prisons, which shows a woman. These pictures have been leaked by a defected officer named Caesar.

Beside the usual debates, these pictures also raise the question of whether it is ethical to share them, if it is fair to the families who are still going through them, searching for the face of their beloved among the pictures of detainees.

The picture of the young civil engineer, Rihab, raised new discussions: “Isn’t it forbidden to publish a picture of a veiled woman without her veil?”, “how to publish a picture of a dead woman, what about her honour?”. Some even had to defend her, which made the whole scene so disrespectful of her heroism. Even after death, her torture is continued, this time by different men. As if she needs their approval to confirm her “chastity”.

If her name hadn’t been published by a news website it wouldn’t have been made public, perhaps we wouldn’t even have heard her name. Arrest, for women, is a stigma (of  rape or sexual harassment) to be faced when released or even after being killed. 

It’s not that different for women activists killed in bombings, their families usually don’t publish their names; everything about women in these conservative societies is kept under wraps. 

Bushara Shiekho was killed in the Syrian army bombing of the Shifaa field hospital in Aleppo in 2012 while helping the injured. No articles about her, no pictures.

Abir Alshab, was killed while distributing food baskets in Aleppo in 2013, very few activists from Aleppo know about her.

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No streets, no groups, no schools are named after our women heroines, only one contest launched by the NGO, Souriyat, used the name of Samira al-Khalil for a writing award. Samira is a brave revolutionary woman who was kidnapped (in December 2013, Ed.) by an armed group in a Damascus Suburb.
All other public recognition, honouring the dead by naming places and institutions as an act of remembrance, is reserved for men whose public appearances neither dishonor their families nor brings shame to their society.

 

English language editing by: Maria Zennaro