Bits and pieces of information about the growing uprising in Syria are coming our way through mainstream media sources like Al Jazeera. But dig down deep, and you’ll find a revolution with women forging the way, and with a news gap that’s being filled by Syrian expatriate females.
Let’s begin with a little known fact: The youngest known convicted prisoner of conscience in the world is a Syrian citizen. Her name is Tal al-Mallouhi, a young blogger who has been in prison since 2009, when she was seventeen years old. Tal’s poetry and political interests and activism chaffed with the authorities. After being held in jail for more than a year, in February 2011, Mallouhi was sentenced to 5 years in jail after being convicted of spying for the U.S. The case of Tal became part of Syrian consciousness, particularly among women—the idea that young people were increasingly disappearing, often later found tortured or killed—was sounding an alarm in villages across Syria.
During a recent conversation with Rafif, a female Syrian expatriate activist living in Northern Virginia, I learned some of the deep grievances that were at the core of decades of citizen activism in Syria. “There is a kind of gang mentality in Syria that goes beyond politics. You either support the government-supported mafias, or you are excluded from ‘inner circles’ that allow you some economic leverage. All major industries, like tourism, mobile communications, and petroleum industries are regime-controlled. In any business, you have to strike a deal with the regime in order to operate without too much government interference,” she explains. “It is a culture of bakhsheesh, meaning tip or bribe. Those who cannot afford to pay off every level of government or businesses are excluded, and therefore don’t benefit economically.”
The case of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself afire outside a local municipal office and sparked Tunisia’s revolution, resonated for average Syrians who too had been suffering such indignities all their lives. It is a system of total psychological, social and economic repression. For the average Syrian, it is total humiliation… long waits for basic services, bribes each step of the way, and a long chain of corruption. Syrian activism for decades had been around ending this system of corruption, and this unifying theme was slowly shifting.
I am told that Syrians watched the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in awe. Early this year, a few young students aged 8 to 15 years old were emboldened by the unfolding events in the region and wrote graffiti in their school in Dar’a, a poor area south of Damascus. The youngsters were arrested for scrawling the word “freedom” on the school wall. They were beaten and dropped off to their families. As Rafif describes it, “The city went crazy.” Many demonstration and marches followed as people publicly expressed their outrage at the regime’s tactic to suppress a revolution: the torture of children.
Several weeks later, Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy, again from a village in Dar’a, became the symbol of the Syria’s blossoming revolution. He was tortured to death for participating in a demonstration. Dar’a citizens staged massive demonstrations. For so many years, people had been mobilizing around reforming the system, but suddenly the focus shifted to the overthrow of the regime, as was happening in Tunisia and Egypt.
The women of Syria, both young and old, have been courageously leading many protest activities throughout the country. For them, it is personal, and they are deeply invested in the idea of change. In April in the city of Bayda, nearly every adult male was imprisoned in an attack on the town to repress government opposition. More marches and protests followed.
Women have also been active in funeral processions, traditionally the domain of men (women normally mourn at home). When women began coming out in large numbers, they too became victims of the regime’s violence. And they adapted. Syrian women traditionally do not cover their faces in public, but they are doing so during protests to protect their identities, as are many men. A clever adaptation to the face veil can be seen here, as women use the Syrian flag as a face cover, doubling as protection and a message to a regime that accuses them of being part of a foreign-led regime change plot.
Women, both expats and in the country, are extremely active. Still, protestors on the streets are mostly men. And the aspiring transitional government, the Syrian National Council, are mostly men. Between the protestors and the aspiring government, there is the wide middle wherein lies a huge network of people, many of whom are women. That network is helping document disappearances, deaths, forced detentions and torture. And they are communicating the news to the outside world through technology tools like social media and video posts on YouTube. Women are recording their actions on the ground and sharing that information with Syrian expatriates in London, Paris, Northern Virginia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and New Jersey.
“I didn’t realize how Syrian I was until this uprising began. I am a U.S. citizen by birth and have spent only a few years in Syria, as a child and later as an adult. I was disappointed,” my friend reflects, often with tears welling. “Now I realize that what I hated about my country: it was the system.“ Another Syrian expat woman, Mohja Kahf, writes regularly and provides analysis, video and photos of the ongoing revolution, particularly women in resistance. Their work is full of risks. Many Syrians expats who are active in the movement understand that they are being watched by Syrian intelligence agents. Rafif and other Syrian women from around the world translate news and spread it through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They spread awareness globally and also offer information to the insiders on effective civil disobedience.
Rafif explains her motivation to take part in the uprising: “I get to do this while Syrians inside the country are getting shot at. Seven and eight year old children who even speak of freedom are considered enemies of the state. When they take to the streets, it’s like a suicide mission. But they’d rather die than be silent. I look at how these children are being harmed, and I think, ‘that child could be my son or daughter.’ As a mother, a woman, and a human being, how could I not get involved?”
She recognizes that some may see them as supporting the revolution from “9 to 5.” Rafif acknowledges that she gets to go home each night in relative safety. But she is confident that many Syrians on the inside are appreciative of the support from their fellow Syrians on the outside. “We are helping broadcast the revolution and building global awareness,” Rafif explains between tears and determination, gripping her laptop full of first-hand accounts and resources.
* The author has chosen not to use the interviewee’s full name in this article.