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A History of Syrian Women

Sami Moubayed - There's not much to be proud of in Syria today. The economy is in bad shape and our morale is low. So to uplift my spirits, I write about good times in Syria's history. I turn to the likes of legendary writer and poet Nizar Qabbani. In the mid-20th century, his work called for the emancipation of women.

Nizar was heavily criticized for his writings. The novelist Abd al-Salam Ujayli charged that when Syria was ablaze with anti-French riots, Nizar just wrote about love and female empowerment. Nizar replied confidently by asking Ujayli why the Syrians had been spilling blood against the French since 1920. When Ujayli replied, "for independence," Nizar snapped back that Syria, just like a healthy human being, needed two legs to live properly. One leg was for independence, the other for freedom. If the Syrians never obtained freedom, they would never enjoy independence, Nizar argued. The country would remain like a one-legged human, crippled.

Along with the right to live a dignified life, Nizar also argued that a woman had an obligation to remain feminine. Now I wonder, how much of Nizar's vision have women achieved in Syria since 1945. Have they maintained dignity and femininity? I turn to history and the present for answers.

First, Here's A Brief History of the Feminist Movement in Syria:

In 1906, a young 22-year old girl from Damascus named Mary Ajamy graduated with a nursing degree from the American University of Beirut (AUB). In 1910, she founded the first journal in the Arab East calling for women emancipation entitled al-Arous (The Bride). It was published in Damascus. Ajamy served as its editor-in-chief and employed a small number of educated Syrian girls on its editorial board. Most of them wrote under false names to avoid harassment by male-dominated society.

The magazine's opening statement called out:

To those who believe that in the spirit of women is the strength to kill the germs of corruption, and that in her hand is the weapon to rend the gloom of oppression, and in her mouth the solace to lighten human misery.

Ajamy was a brilliant journalist whose genius was inspired by the execution of her fiance in downtown Damascus on May 6, 1916. He was hanged for his anti-Ottoman views by the Governor of Syria, Jamal Pasha. This event transformed Ajamy into a revolutionary spokeswoman for the anti-Ottoman movement.

The magazine introduced Ajamy into the literary circles of Syria, and she began to attend intellectual salons to discuss politics, religion, poetry, and philosophy with male statesmen. This all occurred at a time when most women were confined to their homes to raise children. While she defended women's rights and demanded equality, most women rarely appeared in public. They never ventured out with men other than their husband, brother, or father.

Ajamy teamed up with two like-minded women from Beirut, Ibtihaj Qaddura, and Julie Demashkieh, and began caring for families that were affected by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. They founded a charity club, a hospital in Damascus, and an orphanage in Beirut.

Another lady, Naziq al-Abid, began writing in the Damascus press around the same time under a male name. She too criticized the Ottoman Empire and wrote on various topics related to women such as suffrage, divorce rights, and civil marriage. In 1919, she founded the first women NGO in Syria called Noor al-Fayha (The Light of Damascus). That same year she headed a women's delegation to meet a diplomatic U.S. mission sent to Syria by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to inquire on Syrian sentiment towards establishing a French Mandate in the Middle East. To tell the Americans that she desired a more secular and liberal Syria, Abid even took off her veil before the U.S. diplomats.

In 1919, deputies in the Syrian Parliament tried passing a law granting women their voting rights (one year before such a law was passed in the United States). They faced strong resistance from the conservatives in Parliament called the Syrian National Congress. They were the Latakia deputy Munah Haroun, the Aleppo deputy Saadallah al-Jabiri, and the Beirut deputy Riyad al-Sulh. Their proposal was backed wholeheartedly by King Faysal I.

Ahmad Qudmani, a deputy from Damascus, spearheaded the opposition claiming that "God created her with half a mind, how can we give her the right of political decision-making?" Jabiri replied, "One educated woman is better than a million ignorant men!" The deputies continued to argue about women's rights until the French Mandate was proclaimed in Syria in July 1920, toppling Faysal and dissolving Parliament.

When the French Army advanced on Damascus, author Naziq al-Abid volunteered to fight in the Syrian Army. She paraded through the streets of the Syrian capital in full military uniform with a rifle strapped on her shoulder, and unveiled herself to prepare for combat, causing uproar in conservative Muslim society. Her unveiled picture made headlines in every newspaper across the country, which labeled her "The Syrian Joan of Arc." She fought at the infamous battle of Maysaloun on July 24, 1920, where the Syrian Army was crushed, and tried but failed to heal the wounds of General Yusuf al-Azma, the minister of war who was killed in combat. Faysal promoted her to the honorary rank of general in the Syrian Army. She was the first woman to attain such a title.

In 1921, she became President of the Syrian Red Cross and in 1922, founded her own organization, modeled on the international Red Cross, and called it the Red Crescent. In 1925-1927, she took up arms in the Syrian Revolt against the Mandate, living the life of an outlaw in the Ghutta orchards surrounding Damascus. In 1928, Abid was pardoned, returning to Syria to co-found the Damascene Women Awakening Association. Inspired by Syrian nationalism during the Mandate, women strove for political representation to change their social roles as subordinates, establish direct contact with the state over their right to vote, and share in the battle for independence.

Naziq al-Abid and the few women who shared in her views, all from the Syrian upper-class, saw no conflict between political rights and religious obligations. Inspired by the Egyptian activist Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947), who led the anti-veil movement at a train station in Cairo in 1923, they strongly campaigned to "root the veil from society." They took part in anti-French marches, with a group of other unveiled ladies, but continued to follow the pillars of Islam by praying, donating to the poor, and fasting during Ramadan.

In 1920, Mary Ajamy founded the Women Literary Club in Damascus, aimed at reviving what she labeled, "the Oriental female intelligentsia." In 1928, Adila Bayhum established Dawhet al-Adab (Tree of Culture Society) in Damascus. It was a cultural and literary society that managed to found an all-girls school in 1929 named Dawhet al-Adab, which became one of the finest schools in Damascus. In her own words, the school was created, "to offer an Arabic education and produce patriotic female citizens."

In the 1930s, Syrian women took part in public demonstrations and political campaigns, pitching in financially at times with donations to support the National Bloc, the leading anti-French movement that ironically, did not accept women members. A common practice was selling bracelets and jewelry to purchase arms for the Syrian rebels. In 1945, Bayhum organized a march of 500 women in Damascus to protest French refusal to grant Syria her independence.

When independence was finally achieved in April 1946, women began a battle against radical Islamic groups, predecessors of the modern Muslim Brotherhood that wanted to terminate the feminist movement, which was snowballing throughout Syria. By the time, women had become frequent moviegoers, were daily customers at ice-cream parlors, and had filled the labor force as secretaries, teachers, and nurses. Unveiling was becoming more common, and so was promenading on the hands of male friends, and dancing at nightclubs to the music of Frank Sinatra.

Islamic fundamentalists reacted by attacking unveiled ladies on the streets, showering them with rocks and declaring their death as "halal", meaning religiously authorized. Cinemas that welcomed women with someone other than their husband, father, or brother were attacked, and restaurants that served ladies dinning alone were shut down forcefully. But women continued to demand their rights and finally got them in 1949 when General Husni al-Za'im came to power in Syria. He passed the law with his Justice Minister Asaad Kourani.

In 1949, only the most advanced countries in Europe, like Great Britain, France, and Spain, had granted suffrage rights to women. Great Britain did that in 1928, France in 1944, and Spain in 1946. Switzerland, for example, did not grant suffrage to women until 1971 and in the Arab World only Iraq preceded Syria, having ratified such a law in 1948. Lebanon, the most democratic and liberal nation in the region, followed in 1952, and Egypt did the same in 1956. Morocco did not give women the right to vote until 1963, and it took Jordan until 1973.

The 1950s were fervent years of pan-Arabism with a monumental impact on the women of the Middle East. Women were enchanted by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt, demonstrating, sometimes against the will of their husbands and fathers, in favor of Nasser when he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 or created union with Syria in 1958. Adila Bayhum, for example, was a member of the steering committee in 1956 that prepared Syria for an "Arms Week" to pitch in to help Egypt in the Suez Canal War.

The Communist Party was also very attractive to the female urban elite in Syria. It broke the socio-religious restrictions of those who enrolled, a majority of whom were university-degree holders, encouraging them to unveil, work in public, free themselves, both psychologically and financially, from the dominance of men.

In the early 1950s, the schoolteacher Thuraya al-Hafez ran for Parliament (but was defeated), began to openly write in the Damascus press (in a newspaper named Barada owned by her husband Munir al-Rayyis), and held a political saloon at her residence in Damascus.

Women flooded the work force in the 1950s, making up 36% of the 7,374 schoolteachers in Syria. Today, according to a recent UNESCO report, 95% of all kindergarten teachers in Syria are women, while women make up 57% of the total number of schoolteachers in the Syrian Republic. They are also well represented at the Syrian universities, where 20% of all full-time professors are women. Some of them hold important teaching positions in departments such as Chemical Engineering, Veterinary Medicine, Agriculture, and Economics.

In 2000, Dr Layla al-Sabbagh, a veteran professor at Damascus University, was voted into the Arab Language Assemblage, the highest scientific authority in the field of Arab language and literature worldwide. The Arab Language Assemblage was the most prestigious foundation for Arab men of letters in the twentieth century and Sabbagh was the first female member since its establishment in 1919.

In 1971, women became deputies in the Syrian Parliament, holding four seats out of a total 173. By 1981, the number of women deputies had increased to ten, and by 1994 it had reached an impressive twenty-one. Today, women make up 10.4% of the Syrian Parliament.

In the mid-1980s, due to the increased influence of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, conservatism spread like forest fire. Overnight, a strong religious trend took over Syria. There was a sharp increase in the wearing of the hijab at an early age. In 1976, trying to combat female seclusion, Asad appointed Najah al-Attar, who holds a degree in Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh, to be Minister of Culture. She held this post until 2000. She was the first woman minister in the Arab World. In 2005, she became the first women vice-president in the Arab World when she was appointed deputy to President Bashar al-Asad.

Another prominent woman to rise in official posts was the novelist Colette Khury, who became presidential advisor on cultural affairs, in 2006. Both of them were non-Baathists. Other appointments in recent years include making Siba Nasser, a veteran diplomat, Syria's ambassador to France and Buthaina Shaaban, a university professor, the Minister of Expatriate Affairs. Another prominent politician is Wisal Farha, the secretary-general of the Syrian Communist Party who serves as a member of the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of socialist parties operating under umbrella of the Baath.

Currently, there are 2 million Baathists in Syria, 613,866 of whom are women. Within the Communist Party, for example, there 5 women on the Central Committee and within the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), an approximated 30% are women.

Currently, women make up 10% of all lawyers in Syria and 6% of all judges. In commerce and industry, there are 767 women entrepreneurs, 396 who own private businesses and 371 who own and direct private industry. Two of the twelve founders of the Syrian Young Entrepreneur Association (SYEA), the first business NGO in Syria, are women.

This new role for women is evidenced by the public role given to Asma al-Asad, who since her marriage to President Bashar al-Asad in 2001, has dazzled Syrians and Westerners alike with her eloquence and elegance.

She is the first high-profile First Lady in Syrian history. She drives her own car around Damascus, attends conferences, and has made headlines on her state visits with Asad to Spain, Russia, and Great Britain. She has established FIRDOS (Fund for Rural Development of Syria), a pioneering NGO that plans on bringing IT technology to rural districts and providing intelligent but poor citizens from rural districts with scholarships for study, opportunities for a well-paying job, and the chance to enjoy a better life in Syria. If anything, she is a clear manifestation that the role of woman seclusion in Syria is coming to an end.

The women of Syria have passed through the stages of Nizar's "rights" with dignity and enchanting beauty. They have independence and femininity.

The veteran Palestinian journalist Jihad al-Khazen of al-Hayat newspaper wrote about the women of Syria in 1998 saying that they were the most beautiful and feminine in the Arab World. He insisted on making that statement, knowing that by saying so, he would anger the women of Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. Even his native Palestinian women are more beautiful when they live in Syria than they are when living in Palestine.

Is it the Syrian women who give beauty to Syria, or is it Syria that gives them inner beauty, dignity, and femininity? Inner beauty, which every woman mentioned in this article had, is achieved when a woman feels free and respected as Nizar envisioned years ago.

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