(Rif Dimashq, Syria) Governmental and non-governmental humanitarian organisations work inside Syria with displaced women, be it directly or indirectly, depending on the type of programs targeting women, such as rights, educational, vocational, reproductive health and awareness programs. However, some women have rejected this service for many reasons, despite its advantages. Good Morning Syria has heard the beneficiaries’ opinion in some of the areas where women’s organisations are active.
Non-feminist women’s organisations in Rif Dimashq — which include religious ones — consider the woman’s social role as limited to cooking, raising children, breastfeeding and make-up; some of them look at her as the second half of the society and do not accept the principle of gender equality.
On the contrary, feminist organisations focus on the intellectual level of women who should not be constrained in a limited role in society, according to the internationally-recognized human rights principles and the “Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)”. The CEDAW focus is on raising awareness among women in order to promote gender equality and empower them in society.
Both women and feminist organisations conduct cultural workshops and dialogue sessions and provide relief services to displaced women regardless of their divergent views. However, some women cannot accept the programs or the activists providing the services.
Umm Mahmud, a 41-year-old displaced housewife from Rif Dimashq, said: “The activists talk about our rights without taking into consideration our culture and religion, and tell us things we do not understand.”
Umm Mahmud goes to an apartment in secret to receive trainings –as the Syrian security forces do not authorise this kind of activities if they are not closely monitored — but she admits that her only motivation is to receive “sanitary cartons and anything they [the activists] would bring.”
Her neighbour Umm Manhal, a 33-year-old housewife, strives to understand the subjects of the workshops, but her daily problems are hardly addressed there. “I always think of my problems at home and how my life has become after war,” she told Good Morning Syria.
Umm Manhal feels embarrassed when the activists take photos of participants during workshops, not only because she believes it’s “against their religion” [Islam] and traditions, but also because the pictures will show their rags and uninhabitable houses.
Commenting on those criticisms, the lawyer responsible of recruiting the activists said: “In some occasions, The shortage of activists — due to asylum seeking, arrest or resignation — has made us employ people with basic professional skills.”
The lawyer went on saying that, even if those activists are inexperienced, they will be trained and they will learn to speak the language of those women and discuss their concerns.
You pretend to be free but in fact you are prostitutes working for dollars,” Umm Ahmad told the activist before leaving the room ignoring her upset reaction
However, she also admitted that sometimes gifts are distributed to attract women to attend the awareness sessions. As for the photos, according to the lawyer, the organisations are aware of how embarrassing this issue may be, but the funding agencies required them as a kind of documentation.
Other workshop participants are critical about the ʻdecencyʼ of some activists. “I argued with one of the activists because she wasn’t dressing appropriately in front of 20 women, and we could see her lower back whenever she moved,” said Umm Ahmad, a 45-year-old teacher.
“You pretend to be free but in fact you are prostitutes working for dollars [since your employers are funded by foreign donors],” she told the activist before leaving the room ignoring her upset reaction.
Regarding the subject of the workshops, Umm Ahmad adds that she doesn’t feel comfortable about the way the participants are incited to disobey their men; the same activist told her once: “Why do you let your men control you? Leave them, leave your houses and take off your veils.”
Good Morning Syria met with the aforementioned young activist, who is responsible of the social violence program at an international humanitarian organisation. Asked about her argument with Umm Ahmad, she answered: “It’s not my fault. All women should respect my freedom, as it’s necessary to convey the idea of freedom.”
The activist argues that her only intention is to reach the program’s target by teaching women how they can liberate themselves from their husbands and brothers’ oppression. “I think I communicate with women in a professional way. Even if some of them have left because they felt bothered, my program’s target amounts to 60% of the beneficiaries.”
A psycho-social support specialist who works for one of the international humanitarian organisations in Rif Dimashq commented on these shortcomings saying that they “are inevitable due to young age, lack of trainings and experience, and inattentiveness to cultural differences, but they must be addressed before they do more harm than good.”
As for the mistakes that happen when activists establish personal relations with those women, promise to help them or teach them how to disobey their husbands, the psycho-social specialist added: “The activists should know that they are not the women’s saviour, because at the end this will destruct the real meaning of psycho-social support, which is based on the beneficiaries’ will to progress and not on the others’ will.”
Other beneficiaries criticize the activists saying that the woman’s primary role should be to serve the revolution and not to change her role in society. A displaced illiterate woman in her twenties, Umm Zayn challenged the educated activists by asking: “Can those women, who only know how to talk, hide medications under their clothes and cross the checkpoints as we do? We hold a blade to cut our veins if the army arrests us.” As other displaced women, Umm Zayn had to smuggle medications into besieged opposition-held areas.
The divergences between activists and displaced rebellious women are of paramount significance. “The real Syrian crisis was between those who have carried weapons, paying a high price to overthrow the regime, and those who have considered themselves as their mentors and wanted to change their ideology, without considering the main reason behind their militarisation,” said a lawyer who works at an unregistered human rights centre.
In what seems to be a bleak picture, one of the activists’ achievements is concreted in Umm Wardah, a 26-year-old widow of an opposition combatant, who settled in a neighbouring city after her husband asked her to do so, because he wanted to remain to fight in his city.
“My husband didn’t want me to follow my studies, he forced me to stop going to university. Before he was killed, I used to attend sessions about women empowerment, conducted by the activists, which has motivated me to follow my studies and work in spite of my husband’s will,” she recalled.
The activists who followed her case affirm that they encouraged Umm Wardah to claim her rights, so that she challenged her husband in the right way and insisted to pursue her studies, until he finally accepted. Umm Warda has now become a teacher at the activists’ centre, and she will go back to university soon.
The activists have also played an important role in empowering illiterate women; for example, Umm Hasan, a 41-year-old illiterate woman who has been displaced from Rif Dimashq five years ago, has recently applied for the preparatory school exams, but she couldn’t pass the test. Although she has failed, Umm Hasan considers this step as a great achievement in her education, thanks to the activists.
A few days later, she had the chance to give a one-hour conference about gender equality to a number of displaced and illiterate women, as a psycho-social support for her and the audience. “Although some of the activists are particularly young, it’s good to be here with them,” she said, “because it’s the only place that gives us hope in the hell we live in. We do not feel this age gap even if they call us without using [reverential] titles.”
According to the responsible of the handicrafts and economic empowerment program at a women’s organisation, “it’s ok if the activists call the women by their names without using titles, because this removes age gaps between both sides.”
On the contrary, the psycho-social support specialist believes that “removing obstacles and titles may be good, but it also removes respect between them.”
In conclusion, most agencies working with women appear quite similar in their education, awareness, rights and relief programs, and what goes hardly unnoticed is that the majority of the activists are young women who put all their efforts without paying attention to cultural differences.
The interviewees decided to withhold their real names for security reasons.