At one of the sit-ins earlier this month, Khozama was one of the roughly ten women who read out a statement in solidarity with the female political prisoners at Syria’s Adra Prison. The prisoners had just begun a hunger strike amid demands for fair trials, among other things. The week before, Salamia’s female protesters expressed their desire for a civil democratic state.
Though she lives in Damascus, Khozama, whose full name has been concealed to protect her identity, returns to her home town of Salamia in Hama governorate every Thursday. On Friday afternoons, she joins a group of approximately fifty protesters in an anti-Assad regime demonstration. On Saturdays, she meets with the city’s female opposition before returning home.
“The Salamia women’s movement is distinct in that the women did not stop protesting publicly, holding sit-ins, and participating in other forms of nonviolent resistance despite the regime’s strict control of the city,” Khozama said in an online interview. “Even when revolutionary activity in the city declined, the women were determined to keep going out, and they motivated the guys to join them.”
Although supporters of the current government have tried to paint the uprising as a sectarian, Sunni-Shi’a conflict since its infancy, the people of Salamia, most of whom belong to the country’s Ismaili minority, claim to defy that narrative. (Ismailis belong to the Shi’a branch of Islam.) Ismaili and Sunni Muslims joined the large-scale protest movement against President Assad just ten days after its birth on March 15, 2011. Though the city rarely gets any media coverage in the heavily covered conflict, they have not stopped.
Women have taken part since the very beginning. Khozama, who is forty years old, said she was one of five women who joined the thirty-person protest on March 25, 2011.
The protests grew week on week, she said, and eventually the women got to know each other well. Three months into the revolution, they began meeting independently and they established a committee for the women of Salamia, through which they planned various anti-government activities.
When refugees began flowing in to Salamia from Hama and Homs, the women organized relief efforts, including arranging accommodation and preparing monthly baskets of food for the new arrivals. They also reached out to other female activists across the country, though they failed in their attempts to establish a national Syrian women’s coalition. According to Khozama, the increasing violence in the country and the forcible displacement of people were among the reasons for the failure, as they made it difficult to coordinate efforts across the country.
Khozama believes the women of the city have led the way for other women in the revolution. They were the first women to take to the streets against the Assad government, and they were the first group to establish an exclusively female revolutionary group. She also said they have continued to participate in all kinds of anti-government activities in most Syrian cities for the past twenty-eight months; she is active in both Salamia and Damascus.
Nursing is the one area where Khozama sees the women of Salamia as lacking. Syrian women across the country have adopted the role of treating the wounded. But there are no female nurses in Salamia, because “we don’t need it,” she said. “The city is still safe.”
Her insistence on Salamia’s safety is surprising, since over the past eighteen months the armed elements of the Syrian uprising have overshadowed its nonviolent beginnings. In March 2012, the Independent Syrian Center for Protest Statistics documented close to 700 protests on Fridays, known to be the day of protest. This summer, the number has dwindled down to less than 100.
According to the United Nations, the Syrian death toll has reached 100,000. More than 4 million people have been internally displaced—including many who have come to Salamia from other cities—and many parts of the country have been reduced to rubble. These factors have all led to the decline of civil resistance, but Salamia has not given up. Women make up at least half of the crowd at its weekly protests.
“The women were the catalyst that kept the protest movement alive when security forces began cracking down,” said Aziz, a 26-year-old activist who lives in Salamia. “Us guys used to see them go out, and we would be motivated to join them.”
Khozama admitted that the relative safety of Salamia compared to other Syrian cities has helped maintain their civil resistance.
As of yet, Salamia has not come under heavy attack by the government, ostensibly because the armed opposition has no presence there. Assad’s forces have been known to retaliate against areas housing opposition fighters by fiercely bombarding them. While many of Salamia’s men have taken up arms, they have joined battalions that operate outside the city, wanting to spare it the unnecessary violence and destruction witnessed across Syria, including in nearby villages.
But that does not mean that the women’s movement in Salamia has been without its problems. Khozama, a separated mother of two, recalled an incident that took place about a year into the uprising.
“We were standing in the main square, carrying signs demanding freedom for the regime’s female detainees, when the [director of Salamia] came and hit one of the girls,” Khozama said. “She hit him back, and then the Shabiha [paramilitary forces] came and started hitting us and we hit them back as well.”
As security tensions in the city increased, Aziz said, the men began fearing for the women and asked them to stop going out publicly.
His fiancée, whose identity he chose not to reveal, was once an active member of the protest movement. But after her name was added to the government’s wanted list in September 2011, she snuck out of the country. Her family was eventually able to clear her name, and she returned to Salamia about a month ago.
“We don’t allow her to go out anymore,” Aziz said. “We fear for her. The fear never goes away.” Despite the danger, he does still encourage women’s participation in the protests.
“The presence of educated, secular women working toward a civil society is invaluable,” he said. “Salamia is one of the few areas where women continue to play a role in demonstrations and on the ground.”
Aziz’s former high school teacher, who goes by the nom de guerre Ornina, is one of these educated women. She believes that the women of Salamia are at the forefront of the Syrian female opposition movement, due to the fact that they are highly educated and are active members of society.
“Many people tried pushing me away from revolutionary work out of fear of arrest, and because everyone knows what happens to female detainees,” she said. “But I tell them, no matter what happens, I will remain free. I have been beaten by [government forces], but my voice cannot be silenced.”
Ornina’s daughter was once arrested by regime forces, as was Khozama’s 63-year-old mother: in March, her mother was detained for a week for participating in and initiating anti-government protests and, according to Khozama, she was subject to abuse.
[inset_left]I will remain free. I have been beaten by [government forces], but my voice cannot be silenced[/inset_left]
Khozama prides herself on coming from a politically active family. Her father, who was a two-time political prisoner under Hafez Al-Assad’s government and who was arrested twelve times during the current uprising, encouraged his wife to continue protesting upon her release from prison.
But Khozama cannot ignore the fact that fear of reprisal from government forces has indeed suppressed the women’s movement.
“The at-home sit-ins are no replacement for our protests in the streets, but they are safer,” she said, referring to the weekly meetings held by the city’s women in which they film themselves holding up signs and reading a statement. “We began meeting indoors out of fear of arrest by security forces. They have a choking grip on the city, and the sit-ins are one way the women can continue their civil resistance.”
The women have seen their personal lives and relationships impacted as well. Many of Ornina’s friends and colleagues stand with the government.
“Some of them respect my opinions and let me be,” she said. “But others try to bring me down, and others attack me. Some of them use obscenities when referring to the Syrian opposition, and others have told me they await my death at the hands of the Shabiha.”
Despite this abuse, she said, “I will revolt, until victory or until death.”
This article was originally published in The Majalla.