By: Lina Sinjab
Maya, a Syrian activist who uses a pseudonym, was arrested at her first demonstration at the start of the protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
She was filming a group of Syrian women who had agreed to hold a silent protest at one of the busiest markets in the capital, Damascus, in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in the southern city of Deraa.
“This scene shocked people in the market,” Maya says. “As soon as we reached the central square, security forces arrested the young amongst us.”
Maya’s experience in prison helped her break through the barrier of fear.
Since that day, she has become involved on a daily basis in the uprising. But she is now concerned about being arrested and has gone into hiding.
“I had to run one day from them and hide under a car in a car park. Today, I have a year of work as an activist against the regime and if they get me, it won’t be easy,” she explains.
Maya’s mother was detained for a week by the security services and interrogated repeatedly. She was used as a tool to get her daughter. Now, Maya and her mother can only see each other in secret.
Maya has long been involved in defending women’s rights in Syria, but she says her primary goal now is “freedom”.
“When you are under heavy gunfire, women’s rights are considered luxury.”
Almost everyone you ask among the opposition says Syria’s uprising started in reaction to what happened in Deraa last March.
Locals took to the streets after 14 children were arrested and tortured for writing on the walls of their schools the slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
They wrote the graffiti because their school teacher was arrested for expressing her wish that the revolution would start in Syria.
Since day one, women have been behind the dissemination of news about the protests in Syria and the state’s crackdown on them.
Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer, has been among the main sources of such information.
Her network of lawyers and human rights activists on the ground are telling the world what is happening in Syria.
Ms Zaitouneh, along with many other activists, formed an opposition network that is now called the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC).
She is now in hiding in Syria, having been accused of being a foreign agent. In the search for her, security forces detained her husband and brother-in-law for weeks.
Women have also sought to challenge critics of the uprising, who have said it is dominated by conservative Islamists and is sectarian in nature.
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In the suburbs, where women used to stay at home… [they now] get out of their houses and speak out loud”
Many have pointed to video and pictures of anti-government protests across the country, at which the faces of the majority of women are covered.
Activists say this is not because the women are conservative Sunni Muslims, but because they need to hide their faces out of fear of arrest.
“Women from all parts of society are involved in the protest movement – Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives,” says Rana, a 25-year-old secular Muslim who has been active in the protest movement along with her husband since the start of the uprising.
Rana points to an example from Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, where women ignored the belief held by many conservatives that they should not sing in public and chanted: “A woman’s voice is a revolution and a man’s silence is a sin.”
The women wanted to encourage more men to protest, Rana says.
“I am not that involved with women-specific groups,” she adds. “We work hand-in-hand, men and women, not only in organising, but also influencing the slogans that are coming out and always trying to criticise any violent actions.
“We also work in providing humanitarian aid to affected families.”
Rana’s liberal background allows her social freedom. Still, she says, women who are in conservative areas have proven to be strong and influential.
“When I go to affected areas where there has been a heavy crackdown by the regime, I see another layer of the revolution,” she says.
“In the suburbs, where women used to stay at home, there is a social revolution on going. Women get out of their houses and speak out loud.”
Douma, another suburb of Damascus, is an example.
Many Muslim women there wear the niqab, a full-face veil, live traditional lives dominated by family and led by men, and rarely engage in social activities.
But when Salma’s brother was killed in the first month of the uprising, she took to the streets, and moved door-to-door urging women to come out with her.
Salma often stands alongside other women in front of the state security building in Douma’s central square, holding banners calling for the release of their husbands and sons.