The Erasure of the Female Syrian Voice of Resistance

by Anna Kaminski of CodePink

In the post 9/11 era, all eyes have been on the Middle East. Whether it is Egypt, Bahrain, or Palestine, Americans are inundated daily with the crises in the Arab world. While the media reports widely on the events occurring in the Middle East, the Western view has been incredibly limited in scope. Both the political discourse and the media have helped to characterize the Middle East as an inherently violent place. Whether it is the not-so-carefully-crafted words of President Obama, who regularly propagates an orientalist view through his use of language, the rhetoric of the 24-hour news cycle, or the orientalist and racist lens manipulated by the popular entertainment industry, the slander campaign against the increasingly mythical Middle East and Islam seems to not only be gaining traction but becoming trendy.

Unfortunately, the characterization of the Middle East as violent is not just limited to the post 9/11 era but is rooted in centuries of compounded biases and stereotypes about Arab men. This has resulted in Arab men being deemed fundamentalist aggressors. For the most part women have been left out of this narrative. Their inclusion often only reinforces the opinion that Arab men are somehow inherently violent or oppressive and that women are victims of patriarchy, helpless, and passive bystanders not only in war but also with regard to cultural achievements.

In addition to this, there are a limited number of Middle Eastern scholars focusing on Arab women who have made significant contributions to the cultural or political landscape of the Arab world. Rather than focusing on Arab women’s achievements, academic condemnation of gender norms and patriarchy in the Middle East is common. This is true not only of scholars but also among journalists, human rights activists, and politicians who know little about the cultural landscape of the Arab world. While the universalist approach to human rights can be effective in drawing attention to grave violations in nations like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the discourse surrounding women’s rights in the Arab world has generally lacked the recognition of Arab women who are either participating or leading movements for equality and peace. The public and academic discourses further have often failed to include narratives of female dissidents, thinkers, and artists who have been active in countries like Syria.

While it is partially true that there have been fewer women writers, artists, and intellectuals, it is important to point out that women’s stories and cultural artifacts are simply harder to find. It is also important to understand that stories of Arab women’s achievements have been stifled in the West and trumped by the image of the male aggressor. This hasn’t always been deliberate, but rather, is a result of historical and cultural scholarship that does and nearly always has revolved around war. The image of the male aggressor has worked in favor of state leaders like Bashar Al-Assad, who used orientalist stereotypes to his benefit by reinforcing the visual trope of the aggressive male ‘rebel.’ This visual trope further has aided the West in justifying its involvement.

Women are generally underrepresented in both the academic as well as public dialogues on resistance in the Middle East. In the Western discourse surrounding the Syrian conflict there has been a small focus on artists and intellectual dissidents who are leading the resistance movement against Assad both from within Syria and in the refugee diasporas in the UK, Lebanon, and Jordan. While this dialogue has been productive in showing a vital aspect of the unarmed resistance, it has also been dominated by male narratives of the war. The televised post-war imaginary, thus, has also been defined and shaped by men.

At the beginning of the revolution in 2011 women were heavily involved in the resistance against the state as a part of the movement called ‘Freedom and Dignity’ which aimed to infuse feminist themes into the greater resistance movement against Assad’s regime. This engagement follows a long history of women’s involvement in Syria. Not only have many female activists been engaged in civil society and the political system but many have also been actively involved underground in organizations like the Communist Action Party and engaged in creative expression that confronted systemic violence and criticized the state. It is important now more than ever to un-silence the voices of the unarmed female resistance both within Syrian borders and in the refugee diasporas which have given birth to Syrian artist collectives in cities around the world.

Samar Yazbek, author of A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution and Miriam Cooke, author of Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official are two of the few scholars that are working to show the role of women in Syria today. Both aim to illustrate that women’s voices have existed under erasure and strive to highlight women who are engaged in the conflict through their use of creative protest and efforts to mobilize and improve conditions in cities like Homs and Aleppo. Yazbek, who was embedded with the Free Syrian Army in 2011 and 2012, points to this when discussing the role of women in the Syrian revolution, “The idea of a revolt had been brewing for years… we mobilized on facebook, through art and writing.” In a personal interview with Syrian artist, Hala Abo Saeed she reiterated this sentiment. “Art is one of the strongest means of change. It is an effective tool to defy and challenge the political regime. Consequently, the Syrian regime has repressed many artists and intellectuals.”

Hala’s work includes haunted portraits of women who reach to the audience and express their anguish and show the effect of war on the individual. Her most recent solo show at Jadal, a gallery in Amman founded by a group of Syrian artists and dissidents in the diaspora, gave an accurate portrait not of what war is, but rather, what it does.

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Hala’s work and other artists like her is only a small part of what women are doing to both solve local humanitarian problems and draw international attention to the massive social and infrastructural devastation in Syria. Though the actions of women have existed under erasure, women have been active and committed to solutions and non-violence.

Such participation by women has resulted in initiatives like the Violations Documentation Center and the Women Waging Peace Network, which worked directly with The Day After Project to develop a plan for the reconstruction of Syria post war. Moreover, the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace developed the Syrian Women’s Charter for Peace, which laid out a roadmap for the end of the war. This roadmap was presented at Geneva II in January 2014. Also initiated by the Women’s Forum for Peace is the “Peace Walls” project, an initiative that gets women involved in painting murals on cemetery walls to serve as a reminder that life will go on after this war.

It is of crucial importance that women’s voices be legitimized through attention by the Western media. Too often in the West if mentioned at all, Arab women have been characterized as voiceless victims of a world torn apart by male aggressors, rebels, tyrants, and terrorists. Changing the narrative or making it more inclusionary of the female voice could not only shape the post-war social and political landscape but could help get to the post-war period. This will first and foremost require addressing the stereotype of Arab women. It will require activists, scholars, and journalists to push beyond the war narrative that revolves around the battle and will require paying more attention to women engaged in non-violent resistance. While the narrative of war has been shaped by the image of the “Arab male aggressor,” women are at the forefront of the peace movement. Women have both drawn attention to grave human rights violations as well as have worked creatively to develop tangible solutions and create a roadmap for peace. Their efforts are not only deserving of recognition but recognition could indeed move forward the peace process.