“This is my Syria, my beloved Syria,” said Alhaji, 26, a devout Muslim who wears eyeliner that matches her colorful head scarves. “I have to do something for her.”
Women and girls were in the forefront when the uprising began nearly two years ago with peaceful protests, in part because they were considered less likely than men to arouse the suspicions of the government’s security apparatus.
But now — largely because the men in their lives urged them to stay away as the revolt turned into a much more dangerous civil war — they are playing a more traditional role in humanitarian relief, bringing food, medicine and clothing to refugees. The fighting is almost exclusively the province of men, and relatively few women are among opposition political leaders.
“Syrian culture is open-minded when it comes to women, but not like in Lebanon,” said Nagham, a politically active woman who asked that her last name not be used, to protect relatives in Syria.
In Latakia, a port city on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, “the men asked their female friends, sisters and daughters not to come to the demonstrations anymore,” Nagham said. “It didn’t have anything to do with religion. It had to do with a culture of protecting women. We have almost equal rights in Syria.”
The most prominent woman in Syrian opposition politics is Suhair Atassi, the daughter of a founding member of the ruling Baath Party. A well-known secular activist, she is a co-vice president of the opposition government in exile, which was recognized late last year by the United States and several other governments as the representative of the Syrian people.
But at the grass-roots level, few women attend the political conferences held in Turkey to discuss building a transitional government and institutions if Syrian President Bashar al-
Assad is toppled.
“About 200 people were at a conference I attended. Maybe 10 of them were women,” said Rania Kisar, a Syrian-born American who moved to Turkey last spring and founded a group that has organized workshops teaching girls to make jewelry, which they sell to earn money for food.
Nagham says women are not as common as they used to be at meetings held in Turkey by the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella organization of opposition groups. She expects few women to play a leading political role when the conflict ends.