Since the conflict began in Syria over three years ago, Syrian women have demonstrated exceptional creativity and resilience. Often left as the sole caregivers and breadwinners for the families after their husbands are killed, captured or otherwise separated from them, they have had to take on new responsibilities while dealing with the scars left by war.
One group, the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace, is focused on empowering women to play a constructive role in efforts towards peace building. The Damascus-based NGO was founded by Mouna Ghanem, who explained why and how they are helping women make Syria a colorful place to live, most recently with an initiative to paint the walls of a cemetery in the town of Nabek.
Syria Deeply: Who are these women and what are they doing?
Ghanem: We are a group of female artists from all around Syria. The message we want to convey is that women will rebuild Syria and will make it a colorful and happy place to live.
Nabek witnessed a lot of violence during the last three years, but there was a cease-fire and reconciliation, so it’s a peaceful city now and people are slowly starting to rebuild their lives.
After a photography exhibit, a group of us were wondering what to give people for the Eid holiday. Many people who live in or come back to Nabek have seen dead bodies on the street.
The idea came about to draw on cemetery walls in Nabek, so that when people came to visit their dead relatives they could feel like life was still possible.
Syria Deeply: What kind of challenges do women face in a community like Nabek?
Ghanem: Our programs officer is a very powerful woman and a director of a Nabek municipality. She insisted that as an opposition member, she still had a right to work for the government. She stood by her political beliefs and didn’t resign. Our ideology is that state institutions are owned by the people, not by a political regime.
There are many women in the local communities like her, but also many are held back by traditionalist views on women’s roles, which is what we are trying to break through by organizing events where women can distinguish themselves and be a part of a local community. We believe that power is with women in their local communities.
Syria Deeply: Why did these women feel that this project is important?
Ghanem: When you live in a war, you have to put a lot of effort into survival, to get out of feelings of frustration and depression. Despite the death and destruction in Syria, we are trying to bring our people a message of hope. You can’t live without hope, which is why our women choose to bring color to the people of Nabek.
Syria Deeply: How does this group represent the challenges of women across the country?
Ghanem: There are women from all backgrounds in our group. We have a very conservative woman in our group, who wears a hijab, who runs our events, and she is fully supported by all women.
Women and men came to us from Suweida, Tartous, Damascus and Nabek, which enabled us to represent a wide geography of people. Most of them are young women who face different realities.
We have much fewer men in Syria now, and the economic and cultural constraints and stereotypes don’t allow women to remarry and have children. There is a wave of freedom among young women, regardless of religious and political background, felt throughout Syria.
Syria Deeply: What kind of programs are these women involved in as they try to pull together communities?
Ghanem: We are launching a radio called Radio Souriat FM in the hopes of bringing the voice of women to a national level. This radio will be the first of its kind in Syria. The idea behind it is that every woman in our group will have a voice on the radio. We aren’t just going to focus on professionals to speak for us. This is what makes us unique and special.
We are trying to use ideas that are outside the box. Freedom comes from the mind, so if we are able to produce this, we are free people.
We have a chorus led by a famous Syrian musician that meets every two weeks to sing for peace. Sometimes it is very dangerous for people to leave their homes to come to us and sing, but women still insist on coming.
We are going to commemorate our second-year anniversary by bringing women together to sing about their country, love and peace. We will sing songs from all around Syria so that we represent a unified Syria.
I can see the impact we have on the women: the women feel empowered, they find themselves through music and singing.
My favorite project is an initiative called: “I am a Distinguished Woman” where we work on self-empowerment techniques. Women are the core of the people. Women have so many hidden parts of themselves that others don’t take the time to discover.
We can help the country if we help women become empowered and build their self-esteem.
We teach a lot of different things. I taught a course based off of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and [Elif Shafak’s] novel The 40 Rules of Love.