Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syria: Defying Tradition to Join the Revolution

Conservative values make it harder for women to take part.
By Hanan Lakoud
  • A picture taken during the annual celebrations marking the start of the Syrian revolution in the Bustan neighbourhood of Aleppo. (Photo: Salah al-Ashqar)
    A picture taken during the annual celebrations marking the start of the Syrian revolution in the Bustan neighbourhood of Aleppo. (Photo: Salah al-Ashqar)

On the night of April 20, 2011, I was hurrying to join a candlelight vigil. I had hesitated about attending, but eventually decided to go, without my husband’s knowledge.

En route, I came across a 30-something man with a chubby face, talking to some men who seemed to be trying to calm him down. At first I found it hard to understand what he was saying. He kept repeating the same sentence so angrily and loudly that the whole street could hear, “Why did you allow women to join the demonstration?”

It was nine in the evening and too late for a woman to be out of her home, according to customs here in Darayya.

I squinted to get a better look at him. Did I know him? Did he have a wife or daughters? How did he treat them? Did they love him? Did he believe they had any right to offer their own opinions?

That man’s words continued to ring in my head throughout – the whole demonstration. I mentally flipped through images of all the men I knew – my father and brothers, my husband and his brothers, our neighbours Abu Salim and Um Azzat’s husband, our neighbourhood grocer, even my schoolteachers and university lecturers.

Would they feel the same anger as this man because I was attending a demonstration?

My husband wasn’t a fanatical extremist in his views of women, but he was a man who had absorbed all the brutal images that the regime had imposed upon Syrians – all that had happened in the 1980s, that had happened afterward and what was happening now.

I knew that within our revolt there were many revolutions – my own rebellion against myself and my fears. And the burden my rebellion placed on the community, on my husband, and on families afraid of women getting arrested and bringing down shame on all the men in the household.

My father never asked about my activism, but I used to see the fear in his eyes. He knew that behind the discussions, there were concrete actions. My mother objected to what I did while simultaneously repeating that “this regime is criminal”. That only increased my resolve to go protesting and to continue engaging in revolutionary activism.

According to the customs of my community, political engagement conflicted with my supposed future as a bearer and raiser of children.

The women were just like the men in totally opposing their daughters taking part in the revolution. Although some were against their sons joining for fear that they might be killed or arrested, their opposition to any activism by their daughters was tenfold.

Female participation in the revolution came as a shock to traditional society, a bolt of lightning for those terrified of leaving the dark ages behind. How was it possible for a woman to be stronger and braver than a man?

It was as if those women who participated in demonstrations were succeeding in tearing down all the barriers in the vast familial hierarchy, and finally achieving equality with men as we strove to change the political system.

How could a woman dare do something like that? That’s exactly what that man had been screaming about.

I reached the site of the vigil a few minutes before it ended. They gave me a candle and a small flag. I held them both very carefully as if they were treasures I’d never held before. There were barely 20 women there, whereas the men numbered around 100.

My thoughts had exhausted me and depleted all my energy. I was drained by thinking so deeply about all of my society’s problems. It was clear that this was a revolution against the corrupt, oppressive regime, but it was also a revolution against a social system that crushed dissent against those who held all the power.

I was already exhausted by all the stories of death and rape I had come across in The Shell [a 2008 book by Mustafa Khalifa about detention] and Negative [by Roza Yassine Hassan, about female political prisoners in the 1990s] as well as other memoirs of detainees who had managed to escape from the clutches of those criminals.

The only thing about death that frightened me was the loss my children would experience. Who would hold them when they cried? Who would clean and bathe them? Who would watch over my daughters as they grew and tell them about all the changes women had to undergo so they would indeed attain maturity?

Who, and who, and who?

With all of these thoughts and images crowding my mind, I had forgotten that I was still at the demonstration. And despite all these conflicts in my head, there was still hope burning in my heart, and a feeling of freshness and happiness pulsing through me.

The time for freedom had arrived.

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.