By Reneva Fourie
It requires a war, to genuinely appreciate the significance of peace. War creates enemies of friends. It rips families apart. It kills people – innocents and combatants alike. The infrastructural damage, whether it is homes, water and electricity plants, or roads and airports, is unfathomable; and the overall economic destruction is immeasurable. As Syria edges closer to peace and stability, women are playing a critical role in healing lives, restoring social fabric, and reconstructing their country.
This is not unusual, as women in Syria have an established history of industriousness. They are exceptional scholars and assertive role-players in fields traditionally dominated by men. The prominence of women leadership did not emerge organically; the breaking of the patriarchal barriers of society necessitated organisation and outspokenness.
Feminist conscientisation gained prominence in the late nineteenth century, as part of the Arabic Nahda, a period of cultural renaissance. The first Syrian woman journalist, Marianna Marrash, who was born in Aleppo, was already writing for al-Janan and calling for women’s liberation, as early as 1870. She was also the first Syrian woman to publish a collection of poetry, titled Bint fikr. Between 1893 and 1947, several women-centered magazines emerged, the first monthly magazine to be published by a woman, Nadimah al-Sabuni, being al-Mar’a.
Feminism gained structural manifestation during that period, as women gathered in literary circles to discuss literature as well as political, social and cultural matters. In addition to Marrash, who ran a literary circle from her home, journalist Maria al-Ajami could also be counted as among the prominent champions of women’s rights. She founded the first Syrian women’s magazine “Al-Arous” in 1910, as well as a leading literary association in 1922.
Informed by an understanding that the attainment of equal rights for women required a change in society, Syrian women were also activists within the general political and ideological spheres, including within the anti-colonial struggles. Nazik al-Abid was known as the “Joan of Arc of the Arabs” for her militant stance against Ottoman and French colonialism in Syria. In 1920 she joined the Syrian Arab Army and participated in the battle of Maysalun; and was the first woman to earn a rank in the Syrian Arab Army for her role in that battle and for forming the Red Star Society. Women also organised protest marches, one such protest being in 1922 against the French imprisonment of Syrian nationalists; petitions to the League of Nations; and assisted with the couriering of weapons to freedom fighters.
By 1928, a number of women’s organisations were in existence and the Syrian-Lebanese Women’s Union, comprised of twenty-three women’s organisations, was formed. Following the 1929 gathering of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin, and the first Eastern Women’s Congress, Adila Bayhum-al-Jazairi emerged as the President and founder of the Syrian Women’s Union and held the position from 1933 to 1967.
As women became more assertive about their rights, they rose to prominence in other professional fields. Dr. Laurice Maher was the first woman graduate from the Arab Medical Institute at Damascus University in 1930 and went on to become Syria’s first woman medical doctor. In 1941, Makboula Shalaq became the first Syrian female university student, graduating with a law degree in 1945. Alice Kandalaft was the first Arab woman at the United Nations, representing Syria in 1948. In 1949, Dr Najah Saati became the first female pharmacist in Syria. In 1953, Buthaynah Kayyali was the first Syrian woman to obtain a BA in civil engineering.
Syrian women also became more vocal about issues such as the work-family-life balance as championed by communist leader, Maqbula Shalaq; and the right to not wear a veil, as championed by Thuraya al-Hafez.
Given the increasing prominence of the role of women in the liberation struggle and in the Syrian society in general, it was only natural that the call for the right to vote, as initially demanded in the 1920s by women like Nazik al-Abid and Mary Ajamy, became louder. Soon after independence, Syrian women were granted the right to vote in 1949 through Article 7 of the General Election Law. Syria was the first Arab country to grant women the right to vote in elections.
Today, women in Syria continue to be active players in the academic, political and economic spheres. Syria has an unprecedented number of women with PhDs. Dr Najar al-Attar is the Vice President of Syria, in office since 2006. Prior to that, she was the Minister of Culture from 1976 to 2000. Dr Bouthaina Shaaban is currently the political and media adviser to the President of Syria. She first served as the Minister of Expatriates, between 2003 and 2008. Two hundred women stood as candidates for the July 26, 2020 Parliamentary elections. Although only 28 women were elected, given that Syria is a country transitioning out of war, the numbers are bound to increase as the country returns to normality.
There are also dedicated efforts to support Syria’s growing number of women in business. The Businesswomen Committee in Damascus Chamber of Commerce, for example, was established in the year 2000. Among its objectives are to, promote women’s participation in the industrial and trading fields; increase women’s level of career through specialised training courses; and to provide loans for businesswomen who start new small and medium enterprises.
Syrian women are hard working and ambitious. Their industriousness is best expressed by a young woman, who shocked by the fact that I do not work (it was too complicated to explain in Arabic that I am on sabbatical finishing off long overdue studies) stated, “Why do you not work? You look perfectly healthy to me!” It is that attitude, a determination by women, young and old, to work hard to rebuild their country, that engenders inspiration.
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently lives in Damascus, Syria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.