Women’s mass protests during the Syrian Revolution: A preliminary analysis
Women began protesting in large groups of women in late March However, because women were not seen street-protesting in the first few electrifying days of massive protests especially in Dara March 18-24, the Syrian revolution was early typified by the viewer reaction, “Where are the women?” This characterization of women’s absence deserves to be overturned, however.
Besides providing logistical work for protest activity, and moral and intellectual guidance for the nonviolence movement, and besides the fact that two very large coalitions of grassroots protest organizations are led by two women, Suhair Atassi and Razan Zaitouneh, Syrian women have in fact been participating in mass street protests, regularly and in relatively large numbers. By late April, one can say that almost no two days went by without a mass protest by women somewhere in Syria. To give a bare-bones count for one month, there are videos of twenty-six different June protests on YouTube characterized by their uploaders as “women’s protests.” By mid-October (to Oct. 14th), I counted 12 street protests characterized as “women’s.”
Women’s mass protest activity in Syria takes all the same forms taken by mass protests populated mostly by men: day protests, night protests, marches through main streets, marches through small neighborhood streets, candle vigils, sit-ins, interfaith and inter-sect rallies, silent marches (actually I don’t think men have used this last form). In addition, women have innovated one form of protest men have not done: the Indoor Protest, usually held in what often appears to be an events hall or somebody’s large living room, with curtains drawn. In the Indoor Protest, women at the front of the room may read a statement, while the crowd stands holding up signs and chanting protest songs. Women of Tal and Kisweh, for example, held such protests in summer.
Outdoors, women have had separate women-only rallies; rallies where large contingents of women form a wing in a rally with usually much larger numbers of men; family rallies which include men, women, and children; rallies which include women and children; and mixed gender rallies where a large number of women are marching side by side or in the middle ranks of men, as in a Binnish student rally on October 3 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34rhUsffexw). A woman’s voice is heard at the megaphone of the all-women’s rallies leading the songs, about as often as a man’s voice is heard. At times, women addressed rallies populated mostly by men, such as nonviolence teacher Hanan Laham addressing a Daraya rally on April 25.
Early rallies were done primarily with women’s faces bare. By mid-May, many women were wrapping their faces in protest videos to protect identities; later face-veiling became widespread at Syrian protests, among men, too. This is due to the enormous numbers of detentions that are part of the regime’s military response to the protests; videos are used by state police to pursue and imprison protesters. The number of women who face-veil in Syria under normal circumstances is far, far fewer than the proportion of face-veiled women in protest videos. Ironically, the regime whose severity causes them to mask their faces uses footage of face-veiled women on state tv to dismiss the opposition as extremist Muslims. Face-masking for identity protection has become quite creative among both women and men. In a July 25 protest by young women in Zabadani, little Syrian flags serve as face veils.
A turning point in the timeline of women’s rallies seem to be the Bayda women’s rallies of April 13. Nearly every adult male from Bayda had been imprisoned in an attack on the town, and the rally demanded their release. With this protest, women’s rallies seemed to gain more visibility in the consciousness of people following the Syrian revolution. Perhaps this is because of the drama with which the Bayda women’s rallies marched along the highway, including a moment when they blocked a tank on the highway and spoke directly to cameras. One video from this protest features an elder woman who declares “I am a free woman daughter of a free woman!” It went viral.
The most massive all-women’s rally seems to be the one held in Jasem, Dara, on April 28. The prize for most creative protest in my book goes to these schoolgirls of Zabadani, who on September 4 formed a living Syrian flag by wearing red, white, and black headkerchiefs. Two middle girls carry green stars.
The release of prisoners has been a rallying call in most women’s rallies. Prisoners of conscience are a key theme in this revolution from the Dara children imprisoned in February for writing revolutionary slogans on school walls, to the March 16 trigger event, a family vigil for the prisoners organized and highly populated by women, held in front of the Interior Ministry at Marjeh Square, Damascus. “The fall of the regime” became a call in women’s rallies at the same time as it became a general call in male-populated Syrian protests. Other rallying calls in women’s protests, as in protests with mostly male participants, are the names of the fallen, and solidarity with whatever Syrian city is under military attack by the regime that week. However, the release of prisoners as a rallying call seems more constant in women’s protests, overall. Thus, women of Syria seem to be keeping the prisoners, a trigger and theme of this revolution, at the forefront of consciousness.