Mohja Kahf's blog
Four young Syrian women staged a women’s march for nonviolence through the middle of Medhat Basha market in Damascus, Syria, on November 21, 2012. In the finest tradition of subversive street theater, all four dressed in bridal gowns and veils, carrying red banners with white lettering that said, “Stop all military operations in Syria. 100% Syrian.” For this exercise of their freedoms of speech and assembly, the “Brides of Peace” were immediately detained and denied due process by Syrian security forces. Rima Dali, Rowa Jafar, and sisters Kinda and Lobna Zaour went to prison in white wedding dresses.
Who populates the Syrian revolution? The Syrian revolution has three core populations: urbanite survivors of the 2001 Damascus Spring, disenfranchised classes rural and urban, and the traditional opposition. Local histories, not dissidents abroad or foreign entities, created this revolution. Yet some international analysts remain blind to the people of our revolution.
One major engine of the Syrian revolution comprises those who began activism during the short-lived Damascus Spring of 2001, educated youth then in their late teens and 20s and 30s who are now young professionals.They are mostly secularists (and incidentally, in my experience, often three-or-four-pack-a-day smokers). These democracy advocates a decade ago formed groups such as the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms (for example, young democracy activist Jiwan Ayo, Kurdish, was active on this committee, and during the revolution was imprisoned on September 4, 2011), and now also have younger cohorts who saw them struggle over the past years. They are an extremely diverse grouping in terms of sect and ethnicity, including Alawite activists such as feminist Hanady Zahlout and longtime dissident Habib Saleh, and some of Syria’s most prominent human rights activists from the heavily Druze region of Suwayda.
The democracy-activist population of the revolution organized the Family Vigil for Prisoners in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus. There, 150-200 kinfolk of political prisoners amassed nonviolently on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Large numbers of women participated, along with children and men. The vicious response of security to the peaceful crowd, including against the ten-year-old son of a woman prisoner, grandmothers, and a late-term expectant mother (my friend Maimouna Alammar — not among the smokers), turned this into a trigger for subsequent protests.
Four women planned that March 16 Vigil. All four women are secularists, one from a Christian background. All four were Damascus Spring activists, one a blogger and three of them human rights lawyers who have been defending prisoners of conscience in Syria for years. One of the four was lawyer Catherine Altalli, who was imprisoned for two weeks in May, and joined the Syrian National Council after fleeing Syria; I had a chance to review the March 16 event with her, and have been in touch with the other women involved in organizing that event.
Two of the four lead core organizational coalitions in the revolution: Suhair Atassi, who was imprisoned for ten days in March because of the March 16 Vigil, leads the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, a coalition of local committees, and recently had to flee Syria after living in hiding for months. Lawyer Razan Zaitouneh heads the Local Coordinating Committees, coalition of 14 to 17 local councils (there is flux), and has been living in hiding in Syria for ten months; her husband Wael Hamada was imprisoned as hostage for her, for several months. (I’m not saying all of them smoke, but Razan’s Facebook status the other day, January 15, 2011, was “Never mind the Little Match Girl, I can’t even find a lighter for my morning cigarette!” with which dilemma I deeply sympathize.)
These women did not consult overseas men in suits about planning the revolution.
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.