Syrian Women Making Change
Houda al-Habash, featured in The Light in Her Eyes, is just one example of a prominent female leader from Syria. The activism of strong, change-minded women has shaped the country since the early 20th century and continues to do so today.
Women from the Past
Naziq al-Abid (1898-1959), known as the “Joan of Arc of the Arabs,” was born to a wealthy Damascus family. In 1919, Abid founded Noor al-Fayha (Light of Damascus), the city’s first women’s organization, and an affiliated publication of the same name. That same year, Abid led a delegation of Syrian women who appeared before the American King-Crane Commission. As a symbol of her desire for a more liberal, secular Syria, Abid removed her veil before the American commission. She was made an honorary general of the Syrian army after fighting in the Battle of Maysaloun, and in 1922 she founded the Syrian Red Crescent, an organization much like the Red Cross, dedicated to caring for those sick or wounded in war.
Abid’s work advocating for women continued throughout her lifetime. She co-founded the Damascene Women’s Awakening Society with Adila Bayhum in 1925, organizing workshops to train displaced and widowed Syrian women in various crafts. In 1935 in Lebanon Abid also founded the Association for Working Women, which lobbied for sick days, maternity leave and equal pay for women workers.
Adila Bayhum (right) with Syrian Red Crescent President Qamar Shora (left) in 1955
Adila Bayhum (1900-1975) was born into a prominent Beirut family. She began her career writing for several Arabic-language newspapers, where she critiqued the Ottoman Empire and its involvement in World War I. In 1918, she co-founded the Muslim Girls Club, which provided free classes in English, poetry and religion for Muslim girls. By 1927, Bayhum had established the Women’s Union in Syria and was serving as its president, a position she held until 1967.
Throughout her lifetime, Bayhum worked tirelessly for the emancipation of women in Syria, demanding female suffrage, the right for women to hold public office and the revival of the female intelligentsia. She headed the Syrian delegation to the Women’s Conference in Egypt in 1938, led the then-largest women’s march in Syrian history in 1945 and was awarded the Medal of the Syrian Republic by Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli in 1946.
Mary Ajamy (1888-1965) was a journalist from Damascus who founded the first journal in the Arab East calling for the emancipation of women. Her publication, entitled Al-Arous (The Bride), drew ire from conservatives but was enormously successful among women and the Syrian elite. In 1920, Ajamy petitioned the Syrian National Congress to grant suffrage to women, and she established the Women’s Literary Club, an intellectual salon for women.
Ajamy was regularly published in Naziq al-Abid’s feminist publication Noor al-Fayha (Light of Damascus) throughout the 1920s. She lectured on women’s rights and nation-building in Lebanon and taught high school in Iraq before devoting the rest of her life to charity work.
Women from the Present
Suhair Atassi is a Damascus-based political activist who runs the Jamal Atassi Forum group on Facebook, an extension of the banned Jamal Atassi Forum. The forum, named after Suhair Atassi’s deceased father, calls for political reform in Syria, including the reinstatement of civil rights and the end of the Syrian emergency law that has suspended constitutional rights since 1963. In March 2011, while protesting in Damascus at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Atassi was arrested. After spending a month in prison, she helped found a local network to organize demonstrations, document abuses and relay the story of the uprising. Atassi went into hiding for eight months, then made her way to Paris after being smuggled out of the country. Throughout it all, Atassi has used her laptop, Twitter and Skype to communicate with her allies.
Razan Zaitouneh is a Syrian human rights lawyer who is currently in hiding after being accused by the government of being a foreign agent. Zaitouneh’s reporting to the foreign media on human rights abuses committed against Syrian civilians through her website SHRIL (Syrian Human Rights Information Link) served as the main source of information abroad about atrocities committed by the Syrian army and police during the uprising. Zaitouneh is one of the founders of the Human Rights Association in Syria, and she is an active member of the Committee to Support Families of Political Prisoners in Syria. In 2011, Zaitouneh was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for her human rights work.
Fadwa Suleiman is a Syrian actress who transformed into an activist during the Syrian uprising. After leading a rally against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Homs, Suleiman became one of the most recognizable faces of the resistance movement. Disowned by her family and lauded by international human rights organizations, Suleiman has fled Syria and is currently in hiding. If caught, she expects to be beaten, tortured, imprisoned and killed.
Sources and Links:
» Al Jazeera. “Q&A: Syrian activist Suhair Atassi.”
» Andy Worthington. “The Syrian People’s Revolution, One Year On: Torture, Disappearances and Exile.”
» Khoury, Rana. “Women of the revolution: Syria, a battlefield for freedom.” Al Arabiya News, March 8, 2012.
» Moubayed, Sami. “Steel & Silk: Men and Women who Shaped Syria 1900-2000.” Seattle: Cune Press, 2005.
» Nobel Women’s Initiative. “Razan Zaitouneh Wins 2011 RAW in WAR Anna Politkovskaya Award.”