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Syria's women: Fighting a war on two fronts

By Arwa Damon, CNN
updated 6:24 PM EST, Thu March 7, 2013
A woman participates in a demonstration in support of the Syrian people on July 7, 2012, in front of the Pantheon in Paris.
A woman participates in a demonstration in support of the Syrian people on July 7, 2012, in front of the Pantheon in Paris.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Role of women in Syrian uprising is little reported, but many have played a key part
  • Syria no stranger to seeing women in high power roles: Lawyers, bankers, politicians
  • As the unrest reaches its second anniversary, women are working as activists and medics

Editor's note: Editor's note: This feature, by CNN's senior international correspondent Arwa Damon first appeared in Turkish Policy Quarterly.

(CNN) -- The conversations with Catherine al-Talli over Skype were cryptic, no voice, only text, and they were deleted once the conversation ended. An anti-regime activist, there was no way I could have used her name in my report without putting her in danger.

In the summer of 2011, and I was in Damascus with a CNN team on the first official visas the Syrian government had granted our network since the uprising began around four months earlier.

We knew we were being watched: The intelligence agents in their drab suits trying to hide their faces behind newspapers outside our hotel were impossible to miss. Opposition activists warned us all phones were tapped, and suspected our hotel rooms were as well.

Catherine is no stranger to the ways of the Assad regime. Her father, a longtime activist, was detained in 1992 for eight years. Simply coming out to meet us was a formidable risk for her to take, considering the regime surveillance.

We'd previously arranged hand signals and a meeting point on a crowded street. I was with a female colleague, CNN producer Jomana Karadsheh. We pretended we were shopping, with a small flipcam buried deep in a handbag.

We tailed Catherine through the narrow alleyways of Old Damascus, nervously looking over our shoulders before finally following her into a dark apartment building, where one of her friends lived, and where we could talk.

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Catherine, a human rights activist and lawyer, took part in some of the first demonstrations against the regime in Damascus in March. A couple of months later she was detained and imprisoned for 48 hours.

"I saw how they treat prisoners there, they don't treat them like human beings," she told us. "I saw how they forced a prisoner to drink toilet water, and I saw how they called a woman activist dirty words."

She believes she was released because of her prominence as a lawyer, but it forced her to effectively live in hiding.

Like other Syrian women I met during the course of my reporting, Catherine was taking charge and playing a significant role in the revolution.

Protesters shot, beaten

Her focus at the time was to document Syrian government violations, to build a future case to prosecute regime officials and compile evidence of government brutality. She attended dozens of demonstrations, cataloging shootings, beatings, and detentions.

She recalls one protest where activists were chanting for the unity of the Syrian people, the unity of Muslims and Christians.

"Suddenly, the security forces guards jumped in front of the protestors, less than 10m away, and the security forces start shooting the protestors." She remembered. "We were in the frontlines and at least five next to me were shot and killed at that time, I saw that by my own eyes.

"You asked me about why I am going out when it's really risky: Because it's our country, in simple words," she explained. "It's our responsibility to make it better."

A few days later we snuck out once again to attend a secret meeting of opposition activists held at a school in an upscale Damascus neighborhood. Again, they asked us not to use their real names.

Like many of the activists I have met, they have now disappeared, perhaps detained or perhaps, like so many of the more moderate voices of the revolution, driven underground.

One of the women, a Christian, going by the pseudonym Maria, said she used to demonstrate until she nearly died after security forces fired tear gas followed by bullets at a protest she attended.

Why am I going out when it's really risky? Because it's our country, it's our responsibility to make it better
Catherine al-Talli, Syrian activist

Another young woman, a lawyer and a Muslim, who asked to be called Sana'a, was briefly detained and began working behind the scenes to get other activists out of jail.

For many watching events in Syria unfold, mostly through YouTube videos, it would seem that women are not a factor. But delve behind those first appearances and you will discover that's not the case.

They may not be as visible as their male counterparts, but women are playing a crucial role, one that is arguably going to grow even more critical. And the nation's women are from all different backgrounds and beliefs.

Underground clinics

Back in Damascus, some six months after my first meeting with Catherine, I met three women, clad in black from head to toe, in the neighborhood of Kafarsouseh. They said that fear of sexual assault by security forces kept them off the streets.

"We want our voices to be heard, women also want freedom, this is our Syria as well," they said, echoing one another.

They were from conservative Sunni backgrounds, but they insisted they did not want to live under Islamic law.

All university students, they had dropped out of school and now spent hours stitching together opposition flags, making face masks for the men to wear, and running secret underground clinics to treat the wounded, having gone through a crash course in first aid.

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"It was a shock at first," Insisar, at 19 the youngest of the three, said of seeing gaping wounds. "But we have a goal that we need to reach, so we have to deal with it."

They also tracked down the families of the dead or detained to provide them with food, blankets and whatever financial aid they could.

Since our meeting, a year has passed, and the phenomenon of the "radicalization of the revolution" has ingrained itself. Extremist groups, like the Nusra Front which the U.S. recently designated a terrorist organization, are at the forefront of the rebel fighting force and seeing their capabilities, influence and ranks grow by the day.

In Aleppo in December a Salafist commander joked that the only thing between him and the Nusra Front was a cigarette. The Front does not allow its fighters to smoke, and he did not want to give up nicotine. That line is a widespread joke I heard more than once during my two weeks there.

We ended up walking with him into a former sweetshop recently turned into a field clinic.

He overheard a conversation I was having with one of the medics, a 19-year-old high school senior who asked us to name her Aya.

Fear and bravery

"You did what?" he asked her, his voice dripping with contempt.

Aya, glared straight at him, her dark eyes lined with bright blue eye shadow, her young face framed by a pale pink headscarf.

"I left my husband and came to volunteer here," she responded, her voice quiet but defiant.

He gave her a look of utter disgust before he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.

Relief spilled across Aya's face, and the faces of her colleagues, but quickly gave way to anger: She was not about to let the Syria she was fighting for be ruled by the likes of him.

Aya's English is nearly impeccable. She once dreamt of being a lawyer. A new bride, her husband had recently joined the free Syrian army and she left home -- with his and her family's blessing -- to train as a medic.

I just can't take a gun and fight because I am a girl, so I decided to come here and help
Aya, volunteer medic

"With everything happening in this country, I decided that I am supposed to do something and I just can't take a gun and fight because I am a girl," she explained. "So I decided to come here and help in another thing, like... saving people."

The first time she saw blood, she said she almost fainted.

"Of course I was scared, I scared too much, but there was something inside me telling me that there is something that I am supposed to keep doing," she says softly.

"I can't just be afraid and go, I am supposed to stay, and time after time I learn and I have more courage to do this."

Freedom and democracy

Now, dealing with the influx of wounded has become almost mechanical, part of a macabre daily routine. Despite the horror of what she is witnessing, dwelling on her own emotions is a luxury she cannot afford.

Aya is from a conservative Sunni family, and when it comes to the future of Syria she is fighting for, she says she wants to see something of a blend of both an Islamic and a democratic Syria.

"But democracy is better," she adds. "We need freedom, we need democracy, we need to say what we want without anyone saying to us, 'Why are you saying this?'"

Also in Aleppo, I met a young woman who goes by the pseudonym Sama. She walked into the room at a hospital run by the opposition, sporting jeans and long mud-covered boots, her brown hair tied in a loose ponytail, carrying a computer and with a camera slung around her neck.

Having grown accustomed to hearing male voices narrating the various YouTube videos, and having only come across male "media activists," we were surprised, to say the least.

Sama, in her early 20s, was living with the hospital "staff" -- now made up mostly of young men and a handful of women, many of whom had no prior medical experience.

Women are still not doing enough to advocate for themselves... if women don't work for it, men won't care about it
Rajaa al-Talli, Syrian activist

At the onset of the uprising she had been among the many who organized demonstrations at Aleppo University. With aspirations to go into journalism, she picked up a camera and began filming the dead and wounded. It's something she says one can never get used to.

The day before we met an artillery round had slammed into a crowd of people waiting for bread.

"Despite all the chaos and the pressure around four to five times I just wanted to put the camera down and sit and cry," she told us.

"But you think to yourself there is a message you have to get out, it is hard and harsh, but it has to get out, it's your responsibility. You get depressed but then you force yourself to be strong again."

Trading ideas, ideologies

Among her colleagues at the hospital are people of different backgrounds -- moderate, conservative, Islamist, Salafi -- and they debate what the future Syria should look like on a regular basis.

In some ways, the revolution has brought together individuals who would never have interacted, traded ideas and ideologies.

"We even shout at each other," Sama tells us with a wry smile. "I was with the revolution from the start, the revolution is one line, it's not Islamist, it's for all Syrians, and Syrians are from all sects.

"At the end, the revolution's original ideals are going to endure because we are here, those that started it will be there at the end," she adds. "If something happens and this changes it means it's our fault because we gave up."

There is a growing sense of awareness among female activists about the need to ensure the empowerment of women, now more than perhaps ever before.

The fact that Syrian women were among the first to demonstrate against the regime is little reported.

The country is no stranger to seeing women in high power roles, as lawyers, bankers, and politicians.

But despite that, women remain grossly under-represented when it comes to the local opposition councils inside Syria and the opposition bodies that exist outside of the country.

Rajaa al-Talli, Catherine's younger sister, was in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, studying for a Masters in mathematics in Boston, when the uprising began. Since then she has co-founded the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria.

Rajaa, now based in southern Turkey, has been researching the part played by her fellow countrywomen in the Syrian revolution, and running workshops focused on boosting their role.

Through her work and research with some of the underprivileged women at refugee camps, she found their main concerns for Syria's future were education and the economy. Politically speaking, they wanted freedom, justice and dignity, though some believed that women should not have leading roles in legislation or governance.

Two-pronged battle

"Some are very inspirational and some are willing to learn," she explains, speaking over Skype. "In Syria we are not exposed to politics and some women would really like to be involved, they just don't know how, and we don't have the advocacy or lobbying skills.

"The men, especially the men now involved in politics, they have more opportunities to educate themselves and gain experience."

Rajaa is focusing her efforts on empowering women from different levels of society, giving them the skillsets to make their voices and their demands heard.

"My approach is that women are still not doing enough to advocate for themselves, and we are not lobbying each other," she says. "If women don't work for it, men won't care about it."

Just back from a recent Syrian women's conference in Doha that brought together between 15 and 20 female activists, she said that among the many discussions was the role that women needed to play in a post-Assad era, from transitional justice, to rule of law, to governance, and getting women more involved in the decision making process.

The groups set an ambitious target: 50% representation for women in government, and to try to alter the dynamics of local councils and opposition bodies by demanding and working for more female representation.

"The pillars of extremism and radicalism are usually [used] to oppress women," Rajaa says. "Having more women empowered is hitting one of the pillars that support extremism."

She and others fully realize that the next set of rules may want to sideline them, to relegate them to the shadows.

For the women of the Syrian opposition, this is a two-pronged battle: Fighting for freedom against an oppressive regime, and battling just as hard to ensure that their individual rights do not perish in the process as the landscape and dynamics of the Syrian uprising shift.

It is by no means an easy goal, nor is its success ensured, but the majority of Syrian women I have met over the last two years through my reporting are not going to sit silently by and watch while their freedoms are stolen from them or their future dictated to them.

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