A rose in the Desert, the title Vogue America’s Joan Juliet Buck chose for an article on Asmaa Al Assad, Syria’s first lady. So embarrassed was the magazine from the shower of criticism it received that it’s no longer in their archives. In a country of shadows, she says, Asma Al Assad runs her household democratically. It was no standalone phenomenon; western press positioned Arab first ladies (Queen Rania of Jordan, and Sheikha Moza of Qatar) as important public figures presented as models of Arab womanhood. Any superficial analysis of both western and local regime media reveal the systematic institutionalization of the First lady- rendering it a site of ideological contestation of public women and their political roles, constructing boundaries of empowerment and containment. Buck quotes Asma Al Assad stressing the importance of the Syrian youth engaging in “active citizenship”, and the role her NGO’s played in building that culture. Civil society was limited to islamicized forms of charity organizations, going to the rural and marginalized areas where Asma takes a photo standing next to hungry children with smiles. This discourse legitimated the brutal dictator and his regime as one that is modernizing, western, and progressive- chique, witty, and English speaking.
After the eruption of the Syrian revolution in the southern governorate of Daraa in March 2011, locals took to the streets after 14 children were arrested and tortured for writing on the walls of their schools the slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: "The people want the downfall of the regime."They wrote the graffiti because their school teacher was arrested for expressing her wish that the revolution would start in Syria.
Many have rushed to make statements on the role of women in the revolution. Accounts range between the rosy and the lame, the former claiming that there is a revolution within the revolution, a feminist emancipatory one, the latter complaining that in liberated Syrian cities cadres of the self administration authority created by local residents are of a predominantly male character.
Such simplifying statements depend on one of the most dominant binary oppositions through which Arab society is perceived and understood; the public/private divide. Two realms that are dichotomized along mutually exclusive gender divides. It is entirely unrealistic to deny the gendered nature of space, but accounting for the complexity beyond the public/private binary is absolutely necessary to give justice to revolutionary women in Syria.
Women from all walks of life have joined the revolution, the actress, the lawyer, the doctor, the engineer, the artist, the filmmaker, the novelist, the psychoanalyst, the intellectual, the mother, and the daughter. Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer who formed what is right now called the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), archiving regime violations against citizens and disseminating the most dependable information to the world. She is now in hiding in Syria, having been accused of being a foreign agent. In search for her, security forces detained her husband and brother-in-law for weeks.
Some women have become iconic to revolutionaries, such as Muntaha Sultan al-Atrash, a human rights activist and grand-daughter of the Syrian hero Sultan Basha al-Atrash, a commander of the Syrian revolt against the French between 1925 and 1927, is added, who was amongst the first to publicly proclaim that the regime needs to be toppled.
Marwa Ghamyan, a young woman who helped organize one of the first protests in the city of Damascus, long before the city joined the revolution in most of its quarters. It was symbolic in its strength precisely because Damascus was yet to become revolutionary. She was arrested and detained several times, and now lives in exile.
Thwaiba Kanafani, an engineer by training, left her family in Canada, and joined the Free Syrian Army to help in tactical and strategic plans of strikes.
Lubna al Merhi, speaking as an Alawite, the sect of Assad, was active in the revolution from day one until an arrest warrant was issued in her name and she fled to Turkey- in an escape arranged by the FSA. After appearing in a televised interview, her mother was arrested pressuring her to return to Syria.
Hanadi Zahlouta poet, and an engineer, was arbitrarily detained, attacked by regime lawyers in court both physically and verbally. Hanadi was charged with violating three articles from the Syrian penal code: establishing an organization that aims to change the social and economical entity of the state, weakening the national sentiment, and awakening sectarian and ethnic tension, and spreading false news that weaken the soul of the nation. She was sentenced for fifteen years of jail, without a fair trial.
How is one to work for women rights, engage in activism that has feminist politics and self organization at its heart while it is presumed to be a crime to “establish an organization that aims to change the social and economic entity of the state”? The names of women are numerous, and too many to account for in any article.
To speak of a public space defined by the exclusion of women in Syria is misleading. The primary exclusion by which public space is characterized is the exclusion of the political. Women in revolutionary Syria are not excluded from the plurality that acts. Bodies congregated, moved, and spoke together as they laid claim to a certain space as public; a space which is in no way given, but disputed and fought over when crowds are gathering.
Women angered, indignant, and rising up, are resisting in politics saturated by power relations, in a process that includes and legitimates as well as effaces and excludes. When the available political and organizational bodies that have claimed to fight for women’s rights are co-opted by the regime, it is essential that they attempt to re-situate their rage and destitution in the context of an ongoing social movement. Women in Syria are fighting for their right to have rights, a right that comes into being when exercised.
In demonstrations that often follow facts of public mourning, where crowds of mourners became the target of military destruction, we can see how the existing public space is seized by those who have no existing right to gather there collectively, and whose lives are exposed to violence and death in the course of gathering as they do. Traditionally, funeral processions are exclusively male. After the revolution, they often turn into anti-regime demonstrations where women are present, exercising a right that is being actively contested and destroyed by military force, and which in resistance to force, articulates its persistence and its right to persistence in an alliance that enacts the social order it seeks to bring out. It is in this context that the role of women in Syria is particularly revolutionary- as even demonstrations do not just appear in a vacuum, they also seize upon an already established space permeated by existing power- seeking to sever and disrupt existing norms that dictate right to public space.
It is not a rarity to hear that many women in Syria have split with their own families and neighborhoods after the revolution. Yara Nseir, a young woman from the Christian quarters of the old city in Damascus, was arrested while handing out revolutionary pamphlets against the regime in her neighborhood. Her neighbors caught her, detained her in their house and called upon security forces to arrest her. She was kept in for a month and a half, after which she was released and fled to Cairo to join the Syrian National Council’s media office. The importance of this particular example is that women revolutionaries are “defecting” for ideological/ political reasons, and joining a network where their primary affiliation is a sense of comradeship rather than the comfort of kin.
Women were outside politics and power and are now living out a specific form of political destitution, one that is in a revolutionary process of fighting for a democratic space that allows them to confront the other as a political opponent. They are part of the acting plurality, fighting for the right to have rights, those rights that predate and precede any political institution that might codify or seek to guarantee that right.
Clearly, the paradigm of politically castrated activism that Asma al Assad, with much help from American and French PR campaigns, attempted to disseminate failed to serve as a role model for Syrian Women. Nonetheless, it would be rather romantic to claim that Syrian women right now are experiencing a feminist revolution within the revolution. In a revolutionary process, they are discursively changing every paradigm in question, fighting multiple fronts; with the husband, the brother, and the dictator, laying claim to a public space as their own, in tandem with a social revolution asserting a popular will against the regime.