Reporter's notebook

Revolutionary, ‘terrorist,’ mother

For some Syrian women, the desperate determination to be rid of Bashar Assad trumps even maternal instincts

Injured Syrian women arrive at a field hospital after an air strike hit their homes in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, last month (Illustrative photo credit: AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Injured Syrian women arrive at a field hospital after an air strike hit their homes in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, last month (Illustrative photo credit: AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

ANTAKYA, Turkey — When civil war came to her home town of Aleppo, Samar was one of the first people who supported it. She marched in the protests and she smuggled in weaponry from across the nearby border with Turkey. “I used to hide six Kalashnikovs [Russian-made assault rifles] under my abaya [cloak] each time I crossed over.”

I met Samar, who is 48, and her son Anwar when I recently traveled to Antakya, just across the Syrian border in southern Turkey. They were sitting in a corner cafe, discussing how to smuggle Anwar into Damascus with Firas, a “transporter” — someone who helps those who want to cross into Syria illegally.

“I am wanted by the regime, and my mom’s picture was on TV yesterday as a terrorist,” Anwar told me proudly.

Samar’s support of the revolution against President Bashar Assad is fierce, even fiercer than a mother’s instinct to keep her children out of harm’s way. She was sending this son to fight, because she couldn’t be there herself right now, she said, and she wouldn’t mind sending more children. “If I had 10 children, I would send them all.” Samar said.

Samar is not the only one. Thuwaiba, who was born in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus but lives in Canada, was in Turkey running secret support missions for the rebels. Firas, the “transporter,” described Thuwaiba as a well-trained and fierce fighter. When I asked her to describe her precise role, however, Thuwaiba demurred. She did tell me she had left her college-age daughter back in Canada to join the fight.

A third woman I encountered, a friend of Samar who did not want to mention her name for fear of the regime, is a professional Syrian TV producer and journalist who said she left her job to join the revolution. She was using her knowledge and international connections in the Middle East to support the revolution, she told me. “I was in Egypt, meeting with Egyptian female journalists, to see how they can help us from there,” she said.

Inside Syria, women are said to have organized in large numbers to join the uprising. According to Suhair Attassi, a female activist and a Syrian National Council member now in Cairo, there is a female brigade in Daraa, in the southwest of the country near the Jordan border, that numbers around 1,000.

Here in Antakya, near the border with Syria, I met a rebel fighter named Bassel, who had spent the past year fighting across the country. He confirmed, “There are women fighters in Daraa. They learned to carry and use weapons — to avoid rape, and to fight the Assad regime.”

He claimed that “Fatima, my cousin, destroyed two tanks from her balcony by throwing bombs on passing tanks.” Her home was destroyed in turn, he said, “as they shelled her building.”

The Syrian Constitution and Labor Law guarantees equality, but some laws remain discriminatory by Western standards. Women are required to have male guardians contract their marriages, for example. Penalties for adultery are harsher for women. Syria also has 200-plus annual so-called “honor killings” — where a woman or girl is murdered by a family member because of the belief that she has brought dishonor upon her family or community. Honor-based murders are not considered a serious crime in Syria; they carry a maximum of one year in prison.

Still, women in Syria compare relatively well to their Middle Eastern neighbors in terms of political participation. According to the World Bank, Syrian women hold 12% of parliament seats, compared to the average 9% in the region, and Syria has a female vice president.

Given this complicated scenario in terms of gender, with at least some regime support for women by comparison with regional cultural norms, female support for the revolution aiming to oust Assad might not be axiomatic.

For Samar, though, there was never a question. “It’s every woman’s duty to participate in the revolution,” she said, “not necessarily with guns but with whatever they have in hand — negotiating for medicine sales, aid, hiding Free Syrian Army fighters. It was a ‘must’ to sympathize with the injured rebels and provide them a safe haven.”

Pressed, she also revealed a more complicated motivation — women’s participation, she said, catalyzed the men’s activism. “Our participation is an encouragement for men to carry arms instead of us; we need men to go to the front line and fight, instead of us, while we can help by other means possible.”

She felt this strategy had been successful: “A lot of men who were observers of the revolution are now following our example and joining the fight. I used to show the rebels how to dress like women and hide beneath the khimar [full body veil].

The women of Syria are not the first to actively engage in what began last year as the Arab Spring. Women from Tunisia to Yemen have made themselves seen and heard, from fighting to tweeting. Most notably, Yemeni journalist, politician and activist Tawakel Karman won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for leading protests against the regime; at 33, she is the youngest peace laureate to date.

But post-revolution transitions in other Arab countries have been marked by the rise of conservative Islam — the Muslim Brotherhood, and also the stricter Salafists — and the relative marginalization of women.

I asked Samar and her journalist friend whether they anticipated a second wave of revolutions, reasserting demands for greater equality.

“There will be a sectarian and religious conflict after the fall of Assad regime,” they both said. And after that? “We have our preparations.”

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