Last month marked 10 years since the beginning of the Syrian uprising when peaceful protesters, galvanised by the Arab Spring, went out on to the streets demanding freedom from an authoritarian regime and were met with bullets.
President Bashar al-Assad vowed to crush dissent. In doing so, he set in motion a proxy war, creating what the UN’s human rights chief has called the “worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II”.
Countless studies have shown that women and girls are disproportionately affected by war – both during and after – as existing inequalities are amplified and there is heightened vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation.
“As women, we didn’t only stand against the regime, we had a bigger battle because we had the patriarchal society, the armed groups or the extremists, and the warplanes of the regime and Russia,” explains Ghalia Rahal. The 47-year-old had to leave her home in Kafranbel, southern Idlib and now lives in the Barisha IDP camp in northern Idlib.
She founded the Mazaya Centre in 2013, converting her hairdressing salon into a safe space to empower women through vocational training and support. It expanded into a network of centres, but several had to be shut because of heavy fighting.
Rahal says every week some eight women who have been abused come to the Mazaya Centre looking for help. “Sexual harassment and abuse existed before the war and it is not only in Syria. But because of the war, it increased.”
She says that widespread poverty has made women particularly susceptible to exploitation from NGOs and civil society organisations. “As a conservative society, we are still afraid to talk about this publicly, because it’s very hard for a woman to come forward and say I was abused or I was assaulted in exchange for a food basket or in exchange for a job.”
She has experienced this firsthand. “A while ago I had a message on my phone from an unknown number. I think he had mistaken me for someone else. He said: ‘Hey, if you still want this job, just send me your CV and fulfil your promise to me and the job is yours.’ I wanted to find out what this man was talking about, so I spoke to him on WhatsApp and asked him ‘What promise? What do you want from me?’ And he said he wanted sex in return for getting me the job.”
Rahal tracked him down and found out that he works at the local council and is responsible for distributing food baskets. “Just the idea of this man being in charge… What has he done to other women?”
She reported him anonymously and an investigation revealed he had done something similar to another woman, so he was arrested. “I wanted to do more [about this man] but it’s really hard to find people who will support you.”
She says the main problem in Syria is that men are in control of everything, from civil society to humanitarian organisations. This is why Rahal is trying to encourage women to take on more decision-making roles in society. It is not easy. She says her job is “exhausting” and she has had a lot of “bad experiences where I thought of suicide”.
In 2016, her eldest son, a journalist, was assassinated and she has also faced threats from the hardline group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, which opposes her work and burned down the Mazaya centre in 2014.
Despite this, Rahal will not stop fighting for women’s empowerment. “I do not fear anything,” she says.
‘Seen a lot of death’
For Rabia Kusairi, “Fear has become a part of my life,” she says, “but I know that whenever there is a bombing instead of feeling this fear, I should go and help others and the fear will be gone.”
The 23-year-old is one of 230 female volunteers who works for the White Helmets, a humanitarian rescue organisation well-known for being the first people on the scene after a bombing.
She recalls her first time going on a search-and-rescue mission in 2020 after an intensive bombing in Ariha, a town in northern Syria near where she lives. She rescued civilians and evacuated them to hospital. She says although the war has not affected her physically, “something inside me has died”, adding she has lost her home, many of her belongings, and “I’ve seen a lot of death.”
Kusairi is the leader of the White Helmet’s women’s centre in Shanam village, where they go house-to-house or tent-to-tent in Idlib administering first aid and providing essential medical referrals. She says being a woman in a Muslim community means they have better access to women in order to treat them as “it’s not easy for a woman to be treated by a male volunteer”. Despite doing this important work, “I face a lot of attempts to silence me or to reduce my role”.
Part of this, she explains, is the conservative community’s disapproval of her being a single mother. She was a victim of early marriage, something that has increased since the beginning of the war, and was only 19 years old when she became a wife. It was her decision to divorce him. “When I started going to school [studying medicine] and then working, I realised that I don’t want to continue [with the marriage]. So I left and am now raising my daughter by myself.” Her three-year-old daughter is “the most precious thing” in her life and she hopes she “will have a better future”.
‘Living in a cage’
Hasna Issa, 36, says she believes the youth of today will live in a free Syria.
“We are planting freedom and dignity and one day the new generation, including my daughters, will harvest those fruits,” the Syrian activist says. Issa and her nine-year-old twin daughters have endured a lot. Her peaceful activism led to her being detained by the government in 2014, where she shared a two-metre-square room with 15 women.
“There was no way everyone could sleep so we would sit down all the time and the bathroom was inside this room.” She says the officers gave them “very bad food” to eat and unclean water to drink, which caused disease. A pregnant woman miscarried inside the prison and Issa suffered internal bleeding. “I was interrogated and I got beaten, but luckily I didn’t get tortured as much as other women.”
After spending a month in detention, her parents bribed someone to release her.
The women she met during her detention spurred her in her work – she is a gender supervisor at a Syrian advocacy group called Kesh Malek (meaning “checkmate”, representing the removal of the king) – where she helps women of all ages to be better informed about their rights. “I believe that if women realise their rights, they will have more power to play their role and demand their space and to reach decision-making positions,” she says.
For Issa, the hardest moment of the past 10 years was when her younger brother was killed in a bombardment in Eastern Ghouta. Her other brother lost both legs.
“After eight years of continuous bombing and being under siege, we didn’t know whether we would live to the next day,” she says, running her hands through her dark hair. There were times when she could not find food for her daughters and when one of them fell ill she couldn’t get her treatment.
After fleeing Eastern Ghouta three years ago, she now lives in the Turkish-controlled city of Azaz. Despite the suffering she has experienced, she does not regret being part of the revolution. She recalls taking part in the first protests in 2011.
“I felt that before I was living in a cage and now I am free. I would go to the streets and demand my rights.” She says they protested in the “most peaceful and most beautiful way”, describing how young people in Western Ghouta protested, carrying roses and handing out bottles of water.
‘Carry the load’
Women are the “invisible warriors” of the revolution and the war, says Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American architect and co-founder of Karam Foundation. She describes hearing stories of how women would open their doors to protesters to help them evade regime soldiers and have food prepared and were ready to tend to wounds. She adds “in refugee camps, the women carry so much of the load and even outside of the camps they carry so much of the load of the workforce and of taking care of the children”.
Karam Foundation works with young Syrian refugees to help inspire them and teach them that being a refugee is just a “circumstance – it does not define you or limit you”, says Sergie Attar.
“I don’t know any child that hasn’t been affected by this war, whether it’s witnessing violence, experiencing multiple displacements, child marriages, or child labour, and it definitely affects girls more than boys, not being able to have access to basic human rights.”
The foundation has two education hubs – called Karam Houses – in Turkey. She says the Syrian girls she meets there always amaze her with their “limitless belief in the possibilities for the future”.
One of those girls is Eman, 18, from Idlib. In 2015, she moved to Reyhanli, a town on the Turkish border with Syria, from where she can sometimes hear the bombing in her home country. “It feels very scary that there is so much death right next to us,” she says. Karam House helped her to “know myself a lot better” and “made me feel like we are all part of a family”.
Eman is currently studying tourism at a Turkish university but is also applying to US colleges to study modern languages. Her ambition is to show the world Syria’s “real culture and real beauty”.
But, her ultimate dream – “like every Syrian” – is to live in a free, democratic Syria. However, she is doubtful this will happen in her lifetime. “Maybe my grandchildren will be able to live in a democratic Syria.”
Dima Moussa is a lawyer from Homs who is helping to pave the way towards that dream. She is a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, formed in 2019, the group is attempting to draft a new constitution for Syria under UN supervision, with representatives from al-Assad’s government, the opposition (which Moussa is part of), and members of civil society.
But, after five rounds the talks have reached an impasse. “We have not yet agreed on one single constitutional article or even constitutional principle,” says Moussa.
Thirty percent of the committee are women, however, in Moussa’s delegation they have the least amount of women with “seven out of 50 in the large body, and two out of 15 in the small body”, which is “about half of where we should be”.
Based on that, she says “women are not properly represented in our [opposition] delegation”. She adds this means “more than half of Syrian society is not being sufficiently heard”.
And without their voices being heard, how will women’s rights be protected in the development of their country’s future? As Rahal says, Syrian women “have huge abilities; they have creativity and knowledge, skills and experience to build peace,” and when you “empower women, you are empowering the next generation”.