There appears to be an orientalist disposition by Western society towards progressive movements in the Middle East. . . There is the assumption that aims for democracy in the Middle East by Middle Easterners, and even more so by Middle Eastern women are overly ambitious. I’ve heard this remark quite a few times. These are views which we need to actively dismantle within progressive movements themselves in order to increase the visibility of women from different backgrounds in a unified fight.
Presentation to Los Angeles Left Coast Panel on New Directions for Socialist Feminist Resistance
Before beginning, I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers of this panel, my fellow colleagues and the people in attendance.
During the next 10 minutes, I aim to present a macro and micro depiction of women’s struggle in the Middle East with an emphasis on the Syrian revolution.
The points I will focus on, are the following:
1- The state of women and the working class before the revolution.
2- The struggles that led to its destruction
3- The initiatives taken by women activists to combat authoritarian and extremist dogma. I will name a few Syrian women activists as well.
4-Finally, I will share the struggles and forms of resistance we have in common and what we can do to achieve a form of international solidarity.
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Growing up, I was been afforded to live in 3 different countries in the Middle East but mostly Syria. Each experience offered a glimpse of how women are represented, their appraised value in a community as well as the similar and varying struggles they face under patriarchal and capitalist policies.
To start off, I will suggest that the construction of the women’s identity is directly made in relation to the man. By that I mean she is not recognized as an independent entity but serves to play a subservient role in society. Because of that rights such as reproductive rights, equal opportunity, protection and rape laws, divorce laws are often neglected. The woman is through and through coerced in to submission.
Coerced into submission is how I would describe the state of the working class, of people and women before the revolution in Syria. A monopoly on resource and power accompanied with nepotism, corruption and mandated violence perpetuated a dogmatic rule over the Syrian people for nearly 50 years.
Since 1971, i.e when Hafez al Assad , Bashar al Assad’s father, took office, a form of predatory capitalist economy ensured the concentration of wealth among the Syrian elites. Unlike the many claims that have been made, the Assad regime was never socialist. It is crony state capitalist functioning under military domination. Workers have very few rights and women even fewer.
Under Bashar Al Assad’s neoliberal revisions, unemployment rose by 20% and poverty up to 44%. Rami Makhlouf who is the cousin of Bashar Al Assad has been estimated to own 60% of the Syrian economy, making him the richest man in Syria. The Assad regime is also far from being secular, a claim that has also been repeatedly made. Positions of leadership and the general army are reserved for its far majority by Alawites’ linked through different ways (familial, tribal, regional and clientelism) to the Assad family. It restricted positions for Sunnis and denied Kurdish citizenship. The Kurdish language and cultural practices were banned and the Syrian-Kurdish people were systematically arrested, imprisoned and tortured. It must be noted however that not all Sunnis were discriminated against, some maintained very close ties to the Assad and in upper echelons of the regime.
What we are left with is severe economic disparity in a segregated class society under a regime backed by an intensive intelligence agency and brutality on an industrial scale. The deployment of barrel bombs and the torture of political prisoners are an example.
For these reasons and more, I consider the Syrian revolution the greatest act of bravery I have had the privilege of witnessing and being a part of. At the heart of it was a call for freedom of expression, the end of political persecution and social justice against neoliberal policies.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived. There are several reasons that led to its destruction and this is what I will discuss now.
Firstly, the violent retaliation, bombings, sieges, arrests by the regime in order to repress the mass demonstrations which had been peaceful. This resulted in the militarization of the opposition which eventually escalated to a civil war.
Other countries such as Iran and Russia came in to support the Assad regime by armed reinforcement. This backing was done for obvious sectarian and geopolitical reasons. Other powers such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey which intervened and claimed to be against Assad, still wanted the oppressive regime to stay or at most be replaced by another oppressive regime. None of these mentioned states cared about the Syria people, women and children.
This leads to my second point: It is the reductionist approach of the struggle to mere geopolitics that was up taken by some Western leftist that hurt the revolution. It almost advocated for one form of imperialism over another and simultaneously disregarded the socio-economic factors that led to the uprising in the first place.
The revolution could not stand without support. The people themselves became fragmented as the regime implemented a ‘surrender or starve’ strategy. There was also an influx of religious extremists groups.
Syrian women have endured hardships bestowed by the synthesis of capitalism and patriarchy. They have continued to battle regressive attitudes even from the opposition who did not enable equal access or representation of women in the political sphere and local councils.
Now, I’m going to talk about the women, the revolutionaries, the mothers, the teachers, the lawyers, the rescuers who really came to the forefront to tackle this adversary, this cumulative exploitive authoritarian antagonist.
First, I’m going to talk about Razan Zayitouneh who was a civil society activist and a human rights lawyer mainly defending political prisoners. Razan believed to her core in the fundamental right of human liberty and dedicated her time to standing with the oppressed against injustice. During the uprising, she founded the Local Coordination Committees which became the largest network of grassroots activists. Through it the people created unified stances and demands in protests and also trained other media activists.
Razan also established a Violation Documentation Center which monitored and recorded human rights abuses done by any group. . Due to her work , Razan was targeted and threatened by the security forces and religious extremist groups. In December 2013, Razan was kidnapped along with her husband and two other activists who became known as The Douma 4. She is a true symbol of women’s resistance not just against the Assad regime but all forms of authoritarian oppression.
There are many Syrian and Middle Eastern women who represent such strength and bravery. I wish I could go through them all. For the time left, I’d just like to talk about Samira al Khalil who was dubbed the symbol of continuity. A freedom activist who managed the Women Now center and wrote extensively on human rights breaches. Samira had been arrested a couple of times by the security forces for being an activist in the Syrian Communist Labour party. In December 2013, Samira was kidnapped along with Razan Zaitounah, making her part of the Douma 4.
I’d like to mention Bayan Rehad who along with 5 other women including teachers organized survival initiative and provided relief during the Assad regime’s siege of the Ghouta enclave where 400 thousand people were trapped with little to no access to food and medical supplies. The revolution turned into war in Syria changed the direction of many women’s lives.. They have become stronger decision makers.
Many readers know about the strong involvement of Kurdish women in the Kurdish region in Northern Syria and in the struggle against ISIS. I would also like to mention an article by Leila Al Shami which describes the women in Idlib who are in the forefront of challenging extremism. (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2018/07/05/women-are-at-the-forefront-of-challenging-extremism-in-idlib/ ) Women’s volunteer groups in Idlib were successful in abolishing some fundamentalist laws by organizing and repeatedly raising awareness. In addition, Eman Hashem was recently elected as the first female leader of the council in the rebel-held region of rural Aleppo.( https://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/meet-rebel-aleppos-first-woman-council-leader-641947091)
Such representation of strong revolutionary women rarely makes it to mainstream media. This I believe is a common struggle with women in the West and the Middle East. Media stereotypes of women are often used to reinforce a patriarchal narrative which paints the women as victims, weak and incapable. Of course, capitalism profits from this systematic subordination. The voice of strong independent women in the Middle East and the West is constantly interrupted and underrepresented in many domains starting with mainstream media to positions in decision-making and legislative councils. Opposing sexual harassment, demanding reproductive rights, fighting casual and overt and internalized misogyny, fighting for emancipation from gender roles, are all struggles we have in common. If there is one concept that unites us, for me it is the recognition of a woman’s right to autonomy.
My view on oppression, be it enforced by capitalism or patriarchy or racism, is that it is an interdependent body which cannot function separately. To oppose it successfully requires an international form of solidarity. We can do this by recognizing and raising awareness, which is always a first step, issuing statements of solidarity and joining movements and causes to establish one solid front.
Before ending I would like to bring to light a problem that concerns me: There appears to be an orientalist disposition by Western society towards progressive movements in the Middle East. By that I mean, Middle Eastern progressives are often disregarded when talking about prominent progressive discourse. So, there is a kind of white-washing of movements if you will. We talk about the workers movement in Catalonia and Paris and rarely touch on anarchist revolutionaries of Egypt or the Palestinian-Bedouin women. Moreover there is the assumption that aims for democracy in the Middle East by Middle Easterners, and even more so by Middle Eastern women are overly ambitious. I’ve heard this remark quite a few times. These are views which we need to actively dismantle within progressive movements themselves in order to increase the visibility of women from different backgrounds in a unified fight.
Thank you so much for having me here.
August 25, 2018