Change in flavor

A member of the Free Syrian Army talks to a woman during a patrol to search for pro-government forces in Haram town, Idlib Governorate on October 26, 2012
Teaser Image Caption
A member of the Free Syrian Army talks to a woman during a patrol to search for pro-government forces in Haram town, Idlib Governorate on October 26, 2012

Women back off when fighters proceed

In October 2011, Razan Zeitouneh, a woman lawyer and a leading member of the Local Coordination Committees, wrote as status on her Facebook page: “I was in the city of Douma this morning to participate in the huge demonstration. A man came to me and said, ‘You should go to the other side where women are;’ and I was very saddened.” This is one of the earliest signs of the change in the Syrian revolution. Razan, who had played a remarkable role in planning, coordinating, and leading revolution activities for month now was asked to step aside and join the harim. Since the beginning of the revolution, and even before the uprising broke out, women in Syria were leading members of the movement of “dignity and freedom,” as has been described many times by Syrian rebels. Women were in the first rows of public protests, were part of the few people who designed them actually, covered them and helped relieve the Syrian people who were affected by the government’s repression. Towards the end of 2011, this role began to fade away, and throughout the tragic developments of the 2012 and the first months of 2013, it remarkably diminished.  This paper will briefly shed light on how and why the woman’s role was step by step becoming less visible, who was responsible of that and what are the consequences of such retreat.

The Syrian woman on the eve of the revolution

On March 15, 2011,  a small group of young Syrian men and women marched though the old souk of Hamidiyah, chanting slogans calling for freedom and dignity. There is no reliable source on how big the participation of women in that event was, but among the five people who were arrested, two of them were women[1]. If this had any significance at all, it would be that since the very beginning, the Syrian women played a leading role in organizing its events. But way before that, the Syrian women activists were involved in the first rows of activists who planned for the protests and who had been activists for years in the domain of civil society.

In fact, three major areas in the civil society activities in Syria were characterized by the significant presence of women: women empowerment, human rights and refugees relief. The women rights movement has always been resilient and proactive, contrary to many neighboring countries in the region. Women activists in groups such as the League of Syrian Women and the Social Initiative were in the lead in combating honor crime and against imposing a regressive personal status law that the regime was planning to do in the few years before the revolution. Activists such as Nawal Yazigi, Sabah Hallak, and Sawsan Raslan were among many others leading members in the community that worked day and night to fight against injustice towards women.[2]

Women also played a key role in the human rights field. Under one of the cruelest regimes in the region for decades, the human rights activists ventured their lives and personal safety to defend prisoners of conscience who have always been victims to the regime security apparatuses. Women lawyers were always present to help prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners. Female rights activists such as Razan Zeitouneh, Daad Moussa, and Serin Khoury, were always present at courts in their black robes, or in prisons, and doing the important work to keep talking to prisoners’ families.[3]

When in the years before the revolution the drought hit the Eastern region in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people left their home towns and villages and came to Damascus countryside. Civil society activists rushed to provide them with food, shelter and toys and education for their children, risking their own safety in fact as the regime opposed any social solidarity outside its umbrella. Young men and women, including young woman activist Doha Hassan, defied the government restriction to provide assistance and draw “a development plan to help them return to their schools and homes.[4]

But the women’s role was not limited to civil society activities. Women also played a role in the political scene in Syria. Although the political scene – be it government or opposition in a country like Syria -  is dominated by men, women were not absent. They managed to occupy important positions in the Syrian opposition to the rule of the Assad family over all the past four decades. Among these for example Hassiba Abdul Rahman  played an essential role in re-forming the Communist Action Party, a small but influential opposition group in the pre-revolution era. Hassiba was been arrested several times and spent altogether 10 years in Assad’s prisons and detention centers.  Whenever Hassiba was released, she would resume her activities in regrouping the party members and helping to re-organizing its activities. Her fellow party leading member and inmate Nahed Badawiyeh also played a primary role in anti-Assad activities in Syria in the past two decades. Like Hassiba, she was arrested several times but that did not keep her from resuming her political activities upon release.

A very visible and prominent female politician was and is Suheir Atassi. The daughter of a veteran dissident who died in 2000, Suheir was only 29 when she started leading a political forum formed in 2000 after Hafez Assad's death and Bashar's coming to power. It was one of six political forums that in 2000 stirred hope around the country. She had to fight not only against the Assad regime to create a modern political forum but also against her father’s friends and comrades who did not like the idea that a young woman leads such a forum. In 2005, she was arrested by Assad’s security forces together with other leaders of the forum and was forced to close the forum.

The Revolution: a miracle comes true

When the Tunisian revolution broke, Syrian activists were taken by surprise. But whereas in Tunisia and Egypt Ben Ali and later Mubarak resigned, things in Syria did not go this way. In January and February, a bunch of young men and women started to meet in cafes, homes, and public places to ask one question: can we do the same in Syria? Young men and women started to organize sit-ins at the Egyptian and the Libyan embassies to express solidarity with the revolutions in both countries. Razan Zeitouneh, Dana al-Jawabra, Suheir Atassi, Razan Ghazawi, Hanadi Zahlout, Rima Flehan, and Samar Yazebk were among those who were working to mobilize people to take to the streets, when most of the “traditional opposition” was just overwhelmed with the tempest that swapped the Arab region.

Serious pro-democracy protests in Syria appeared started on March 15, as a group of 100 mostly young protesters gathered in the Syrian capital Damascus to demand reforms. The following day, a number of activists together with families of the prisoners of conscience gathered in front of the Ministry of Interior in Damascus to call for the release of their sons and daughter who had been in prison for years. At least half of the participants were women. Security forces wielding batons dispersed the protesters who had gathered in central of Damascus in what was described as the “most serious protest against Syria's ruling hierarchy since revolts spread in the Arab world.”[5]Ten women were arrested including SuheirAtassi, who was pulled by her hair and beaten badly, Nahed Badawiyeh, Dana al-Jawabra, human rights lawyer Serin Khoury, and Kurdish leader Hervin Ossi. Those who were not arrested continued to work, mobilizing demonstration, working in courts to release the prisoners, and creating an active media network to cover the protests and the violent reaction of the regime in response to those protests.

Many women had to leave the country, including the renowned writer Samar Yazbek, activist Rima Flehan, lawyer Katherine al-Talli, who continued their work from their exile; others had to go into hiding, including Razan Zeitouneh, who played an essential role in a new phenomenon that surface the political scene in Syria over the first 12 months: tanseeqiat, a word that referred to local group that included young men and women and were active on the ground and on the media. Razan also contributed to founding the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), an entity that was the first to understand the nature of the Syrian revolution and to contribute a political program with a transitional solution.

When Suheir was released, she co-founded an active group called the Revolution Tanseeqiat Union, which became later the famous General Commission of the Syrian Revolution. In this capacity, she joined the Syrian National Council and later the National Coalition, where she was chosen as Vice-president. 

In general, women have featured prominently since the early days of the conflict, as a recent article has argued, joining men in protests and intervening with security forces to prevent arrests. “Like their male counterparts, they have felt the backlash – many have been the subject of brutal retaliation by Assad security forces, and have been raped and tortured in Syrian prisons.”[6]

In some cases, female activism has opened doors for men. Hundreds of women blocked the main highway in the Bayda neighborhood of Tartous in April 2011, in an effort to win the release of husbands and sons held by security forces[7].

Change in flavor

The demonstrations which started out peacefully and with the participation of all societal, cultural and political parties, changed as a response to the regime’s excessive violence and mass killing. Citizens responded to the excessive use of force to suppress demonstrators by resorting to counter-violence, with some of them taking up arms to defend themselves or in revenge for the victims. A Syrian activist tries to find an answer for the confusing question which many people in Syria and across the world continue to ask: why the Syrian Revolution took such a violent turn, despite the bravery and selflessness of so many of the early protest leaders. In his attempt to answer the question, he suggests several reasons, including the sociopathic, criminal and sectarian tendencies of the Assad family and their handpicked allies within the ruling elite; the prevalence of sectarian ethos premised on a longstanding and deeply ingrained persecution complex on part of pro-regime troops and militias; the sectarian and regional cleavages of Syrian society; lack of vision and leaders with moral weight among opposition groups; and the presence in the opposition of elements (Islamists and Tribal) who were ideologically and traditionally more susceptible to the ethos of violent struggle[8].

While all these reasons are true, there is an additional reason that should not be overlooked: the regional forces which found it a good opportunity to use the Syrian revolution to settle old accounts among one another. A good example here could be Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two of which have support certain Islamist groups in Syria, and provided them with arms and logistics. The foreign support to Assad’s regime which comes basically from the governments of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, all of which happen to be Shiite, instigated a sectarian response from the Sunni majority in Syria, which already feels that it has been sidelined for decades in its own country.

Another very important factor has developed in the meantime. When the uprising first took place, it took almost everyone by surprise, including the regime and the opposition itself, which was suffering from several problems and was trying to remedy itself from the latest blow that it had received from the regime. Therefore, the opposition – including both the secular and the Islamist – was just paralyzed during the first phase of the revolution and had to make huge efforts in order to catch up with the events. In the meantime, a new political player emerged from within the revolutionary events, and a new generation of political leaders was introduced to the Syrians as well as to the entire world. Young activists such as Mazen Darwish, Razan Zeithouneh, Razan Ghazawi, and Rima Dali, were sought to be interviewed by leading media, such as the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Washington Post. This new generation comprised of men and women, and in a very fair proportion[9].It is just understandable then that the traditional opposition would feel unhappy and would try to return the situation to its norms. It is also normal that this opposition, in which women played little role, whether secular or Islamists, would not approve the bigger participation of women in the revolution and in the newly emerged political entities. This explains why women have very little presence and participation in the political formations that came to existence and claim to represent the Syrian people and revolution. In the Syrian National Council, a political formation that was announced in Istanbul in October 2011, there was one woman in the 11-membered Executive Bureau. However, it took her only 9 months to decide to resign and leave the SNCelected no women to its leadership in another sign that it is failing to represent a broad spectrum of society.[10]

Even a moderate Islamist leader, Najib Ghadban, notes that the coalition doesn’t have a political or empowerment program for Syrian women and describes the weak female participation in the coalition as “embarrassing.”[11]Mayya al-Rahabi, a political activist and feminist, accuses “all the opposition factions” of sidelining women and excluding them, which is evidence that they do not represent the Syrian people, while “excluding half of the society.” This, Rahabi adds, is an additional indicator of their “patriarchal mentality which rejects true democracy.”[12]

Back in the 2011, a writer and activist drew his readers’ attention to the danger of militarizing the Syrian revolution. Militarizing, he wrote, will be the end of the revolution as it will mean narrowing its social base. The young male fighters will be in the first rows of the uprising instead of the peaceful demonstrators who take account of women, children, and elderly citizens. In addition, the revolution will lose its moral superiority with no guarantee that it will mean the regime’s defeat in the end, as in the court of arms and violence there is no doubt that the regime has supremacy[13].

Islamization, militarization, regional influence, and return of the traditional opposition to the political scene have all contributed to the retreat of the women influence in leading the Syrian revolution. In 2011, Razan Zeitouneh gave hundreds of interviews and media appearances; in the past six months, she continues to write and the reports published by the Violence Documentation Center with which she is affiliated circulate widely. But apart from that, women’s voices have become rare. This is just an example of women’s role decline. But are there other reasons? A leading women rights defender believes that women sidelining is not a product of the revolution, but rather a product of 40 years of totalitarianism. For forty years, says Nawal Yazigi[14], women were treated as a rose to decorate men’s vests, which they can remove whenever they want. Both regressive and progressive parties treated women this way. The weak role of women is associated in fact with the weak role of the civil society due to the continuous oppression exerted by the regime against it. A third reason is the unprecedented malicious violence which the regime exerted on women during the revolution. An area where even Assad the father was a little more considerate, as only in few cases did he order women to be tortured and raped. A forth reason is the peaceful demonstrations had to draw back leaving way to violence and counter violence. A fifth reason is the youth migration of both sexes. And the sixth reason is the ambiguity of the active armed forces position regarding the Sharia courts and their sectarian statements.

Khawla Dunia, a poet and activist, says that women do not look for little victories which men are excited to get; they look for continuity. Woman will continue their civic, peaceful struggle; and when “calls for revenge prevail, they will be the voice of wisdom.”[15] Something has changed, Khawla adds, and will never go back. “Our revolution,” she comments, “is a revolution against all taboos. We shall never go back to slavery again.”[16]


The Syrian revolution broke out mainly because people were suffering from injustice and humiliation. People took to the streets calling for equity and equality. Since day 1, women were part of the uprising. Even in areas which are known for being very conservative such as Douma and Harasta, women broke their ties, and took to the street, in many occasions against their husbands’ or fathers’ will. Um Obada has become an icon of those women. She is the founder of Tanseeqiat Douma for women, which started with ten women who would stand at the side of demonstrations in the city, silent, fearing their men’s anger. But this fear broke with the funerals of the city martyrs. Um Obada became a phenomenon when she led women in the demonstrations who shouted and chanted and even called for overthrowing the regime, even before “our men,” as Um Obada had to reveal one day. However the regime’s keen and cunning plan to depict the revolution as an extremist Islamist movement and to force people to take up arms led to the retreat of the Syrian women, as women “tend to construct, not to destruct; to maintain life, not to take it,” as one young female activist says.

It is true that the regime has succeeded to take the revolution to the field in which it is better off: violence, but it is also true that some opposition people swallowed the bait, and regional powers were happy to see things go in this direction. The result was a change in the revolution nature and flavor. The revolution, which Khawla Dunia described as a “female,” turned to become a weird, bloody, male creature. Not only women had to give way to the fighters; even men who do not fight are sidelined, as Razan Zeitouneh bitterly says[17]. This imposes a huge burden on activists who work outside arms; their struggle is doubled.

The change of flavor affected even the group that represented in the past the new political player: the Local Coordination Committees. An LCC activist complains that the LCC reputation in his area has deteriorated because people say LCC “is led by women,” which effects its activists’ position in front of the people there. LCC co-founder and co-leader Razan Zeitouneh shows how women in the revolution are busy in the efforts of relief, media, legal support, and on the ground. The risk of what they do varies from cooking for fighters to smuggling weapons and hiding wanted rebels. Still, while they risk doing all these tasks, they mainly carry out instructions, and hardly participate in making the decision, even within LCC, which was at a time the most progressive organization[18].

Has there been deception? A woman summarized the situation by saying: “We, women, have been cheated. Men chose violence which led to the retreat of women, but our suffering has become worse than men’s suffering, as killing, raping, and torture affect women and children more than men in armed conflicts.”[19]

[2] For more on the role of women in the civil society domain in Syria, see WaelSawah, Syrian Civil Society Scene Prior to Syrian Revolution, available at:

[3] For more about the role of women in the human rights domain in Syria, please see Masoudakko, al Maraa as-Souriabayna as-SiyasahwaHukouk al Insan, available in Arabic at: Also see Amnesty International annual report 2012, available at:

[6]KindaKanbar and Omar Hossino , Syria’s Women: Sidelined in Opposition Politics?, Syria Deeply April 11, 2013, available at:

[7] Ibid.

[8]AmmarAbdulhamid, Why nonviolence failed in Syria, The Syrian Revolution Digest, available at:



[9] For more details about the new political player, see:WaelSawah, Syria’s New Political Player, available at:

[10] Elizabeth Dickinson, Syria's main opposition group shuns women leadership, the National Nov. 12, 2012, available at:

[11]KindaKanbar and Omar Hossino - Ibid

[12] Adel Mansour, Syrian women condemn women’s exclusion by Islamist opposition, Women News Website,

[13]Yaseen Haj Saleh, On the three ‘Nos’ of the Syrian Revolution, available at:

[14]NawalYazigi to the author, via email on April 25, 2013

[15]KhawlaDunia to the author via email, April 20, 2013

[16] Ibid

[17]RazanZeitouneh to the author via email on April 23, 2013

[18]RazanZeitouneh, Women in the Local Coordination Committees: the Passive Voice, Tlihnaalhurriyeh, LCC Magazine,  March 6, 2013

[19]A woman called by the name Magda, Adel Mansour, Ibid