I would like to show you this 45-second clip from Syria. It is about what I experienced there during a bombardment. It is the beginning of one of my reports. Please look at the pictures and listen to the sounds of war. Get an idea of the situation in Syria and how men – but especially women – live in it.
Women’s rights in Syria. Sure, I am very much interested in the subject of women’s liberation in the Arab world, and I know that you are as well.
So I would have loved to start this talk by mentioning names of women fighting for women’s rights within the revolution throughout Syria. I would have loved to tell you that women are raising their fists, chanting slogans, standing on barricades. Demonstrating for change, equality and for women’s rights.
But there are hardly any women left inside Syria playing a leading role in this conflict.
During the first year of the revolution – during the times of demonstrations – there were some female activists. But the protests have, by now, developed into a full-scale war. More than 70,000 people have been killed. Almost all female activists were either killed or detained by the regime, or they have fled the country. Female voices are heard on the Internet or outside Syria, but are not present any longer in Syria itself.
Syria’s revolution has no Joan of Arc.
And this is not such a strange development.
I have visited war-torn Syria frequently. The Assad regime won’t give me a visa, so I am bound to sneak illegally into Syria and travel with rebels through opposition controlled areas. There are no hotels open anymore, so I stay with families. And every time I ask these families, men and women, “Is there a leading female figure in your community?” The answer, again and again: “No, there isn’t.”
And, frankly, I almost feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes asking local Syrian women about women’s rights. A bit embarrassed even. Because as I try to discuss women’s rights with women in Syria, grenades fly over the house, exploding a couple of hundred meters away with a loud bang. I just showed you the clip and these kinds of situations happen very frequently in Syria. You live in constant fear. Scared to get wounded, scared to die. Always on alert for the next bombing or shooting.
My point is this: Syria is generally a conservative society, especially in the countryside. Most women there are housewives who generally stay at home and take care of the family. Of course there are exceptions, but what I am describing is the norm.
And then such a society is in the midst of a war. These ladies have much bigger issues to worry about right now than women’s rights.
To them, every day is about this: Will my children and I survive these rockets and grenades? What about my husband, who is on the front line? And how do we get food today? With most salaries gone, where do we get money from?
These daily worries comprise 99.9 percent of what goes around in the mind and lives of women in Syria.
What women tell me on the ground is this: First the war and the killing should stop, and then we can start to think and talk about the role of women in Syria again. Currently, women’s issues are a luxury. Nobody inside Syria can afford it.
Even after the revolution, Syria will not be a Western-style feminist stronghold. Based on the ground reality, I would advise you to stop expecting that Syrian women, or Arab women in fact, will follow the same path as Western feminists do. Because they won’t. Don’t mirror your own set of rules and morals and think that Syrian women will abide by these same rules.
Different societies are simply different, and not everything is a mirror of the West. If you think the revolution will create groups in Syria like Femen whose members protest nude, you will be disappointed. Women’s rights in a future Syria will be dealt with in the context of being a male-dominated society, and a society with very strong religious and traditional feelings.
[!]Let me give you a short example of how this works. In Aleppo, I met 21 female policewomen. Fully veiled, faces covered with the niqab. I carry my camera; they carry their Kalashnikovs. When I show their pictures to Westerners, many are like, “Oh my God, what is this? This has nothing to do with feminism.” By the way, some Arabs also think like that! But let me tell you that these same women, before the revolution, did not have a job, did not leave their houses. So they may now feel like, “We are useful to the revolution and actually have a role in it.” You might not see it like that, but to them this is a step forward.
I just gave you this example to show you how complicated and different women’s rights are in the Arab world compared to traditional feminist dogma in the West.
Again, I am not judging whether it is good or bad to dress up like this. I am just showing you the reality.
Some people will now say: “The revolution in Syria is very Islamic and bad for women. Look at the pictures you just showed. Assad’s regime is at least secular, and women are much freer.” There is some truth in that. There is indeed more freedom for women on the Assad side. But the economy of Chile during the rule of dictator [Augusto] Pinochet did pretty well – should Chileans not have rebelled against dictator Pinochet? Take the Taliban. Some people say: During Taliban rule in Afghanistan, at least there was security and peace. Should the Afghans have accepted the Taliban forever?
The same goes for Syria under Assad.
Let me end with another picture. These are also girls from Aleppo, born and raised in the same city as the fully veiled policewomen you just saw.
These are Kurdish female rebels, fighting the Assad regime. Within Kurdish society and especially in PKK circles, women more or less have the same rights as men. I joined these ladies on the front line. The one on the left is a sniper, and the other two were shooting in front of my eyes at a tank. To my knowledge, most Western armies – American, Norwegian, French – do not allow women on such active combat duties.
While we were sitting in a destroyed house, machine-gun fire was in the back; shells were hitting nearby. We were talking about the subject of women in Syria and women in the Middle East. [One woman] told me something that I think is very important, and that pretty much sums it all up. She said: “How can you expect women to be free if the whole society is not free?”