Out of the Ashes
The voices of women have typically been written out of the history of conflicts and omitted from efforts to rebuild societies in the aftermath of war. In Syria, one organisation is looking to change that.
Late in 2012, a mortar shell hit the Syrian home of Alia Omran, a young pharmacist and mother. Her children’s school was destroyed in the same random attack. “At that time,” she says, “it became clear that the area I was living in had become extremely unstable and very dangerous for my two children.” Alia saw no choice but to leave. She and the children, then just two and eight years old, moved to Beirut, Lebanon, while her husband, an engineer, remained in Damascus because of his work.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances that led her to leave her country, and the responsibility of being the sole carer for her children in a new home, Alia took up an opportunity to further her education. It had been her dream to achieve a master’s degree in toxicology, something she had not been able to do at home. “[That] was a big challenge in a society still governed by customs and traditions that restrict women and determine their priorities without [considering] their opinion or desires,” she says. Alia went on to complete her higher studies with honours and, in 2014, presented her work to a global congress in her field — an achievement that she considers to be, not just her own, but all Syrian women’s.
In 2015, mother and children finally had the opportunity to return home. For Alia, coming back at that time was deeply affecting. “After three years of war,” she says, “basic needs like security, fuel and electricity were disturbed.”
“Violence against women goes beyond the physical and emotional harm. It is a means of social insubordination, limiting women’s access to public life and participation in opportunities that would empower them and provide them with space to have their voice heard.”
But together with her long-time friend Dana Abdeen, who had been working in civil society organisations for over a decade by then, Alia saw a particular opportunity.
“We were in war and everything around us was destroyed,” says Dana. “But over those three years, women had played a very important role. All women supported their families, whether the husband was here or not. We wanted to say Syrian women are very clever and strong, and can find a way to help society on a local level. We wanted them to understand women’s needs and rights, to help her to express herself, to motivate her to become an agent of change, to be part of her community.”
For Alia, it was education that would be key to this change. “I believe [it] is our weapon to get rid of that ugly ghost of war; education that makes real change in our society, education that leads to critical thinking, digital literacies, and the freedom of women,” she says.
The history of the international recognition of the role and experiences of women in wars is surprisingly recent. It was not until the turn of the new millennium, in fact, that the UN security council adopted resolution 1325, which called on the world to formally recognise the impacts of conflict on women and girls. Although championed by official delegates from Namibia and Bangladesh, both countries with troubled histories whose memories of war were at that time still uncomfortably raw, its urgent calls had been firmly inspired not by political elites, but by the more traditionally silent, or silenced, members of society.
Violence against women, seen time and time again in modern conflicts, has unequivocal, immediate consequences for their physical safety. Such consequences also quickly become compounded by a cascade of effects allied to the threat of violence. These are far-reaching, preventing women from accessing not just security, but basic needs: food, water, shelter, education, sources of livelihoods, and essential healthcare — including around childbirth. As Alia is acutely aware, almost a decade of conflict in Syria has affected all the country’s healthcare resources. But, for women, basic needs are not the only casualties of war.
In most countries, the pernicious impacts of conflicts that delimitate women and girls build on an existing firm foundation of deeply ingrained factors that have long affected women’s ability to participate in the social, political and economic contexts of their lives. In a message to the UN security council, penned six years after resolution 1325 was instated, women from Southern Sudan felt compelled to send a bracing reminder of why the status of women in conflicts is also a fundamentally pressing issue, and one that demands accountability. “Violence against women goes beyond the physical and emotional harm,” it said. “It is a means of social insubordination, limiting women’s access to public life and participation in opportunities that would empower them and provide them with space to have their voice heard.” Indeed, as the impacts of conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda and Sierra Leone in the 1990s continued to enmesh vast numbers of women and girls, resolution 1325 made public note that these women had remained conspicuously absent from any process of resolution, excluded from decision-making, negotiations, peace talks, and in post-conflict reconstruction.
With Damascus still in the midst of war, Alia and Dana decided to use their voices and connections to help women at the local level become key decision makers and improve their working lives. Based on their belief that education would be the foundation of their country’s rebirth and sustainable development, they designed a theory of change for Syria, with the goal of skilling more women leaders, advocating and promoting gender equality, changing discriminatory social practices that block women’s progress, and expanding access to female-centred services. To make these goals a reality, in September 2016, the women started a community organisation, Hayat, Arabic for “life”, to support local women and youth to rebuild their society in the wake of the destruction brought to their country by war.
“Hayat gave me the chance to find the right way to express my belief that woman is the whole future as well as the pillar and the basis of the reconstruction of Syrian society,” Alia says. That included empowering Syrian women in higher education through leadership training and supporting access to special programmes offered by international universities so that more women could access the type of opportunity Alia had found in Beirut.
But there were also large numbers of women with little or no education, for whom the war had made life much worse. Damascus was safer than other provinces, meaning many families migrated there for safety. Some young women came to Damascus especially to pursue an education. “Their normal life was destroyed”, explains Dana, “and then as they moved around they got into more and more poverty.”
With a small team, Alia and Dana started reaching out to women from different socio-economic groups, both through physical networks in Damascus neighbourhoods and more rural areas outside the city, and through virtual platforms like Facebook. At first, what Hayat was offering was met with hesitation by some — a sense of bemusement, even — that despite the environment of loss and penury, Hayat was created to offer a long-term vision, rather than to meet basic daily needs.
To run this work, Alia and Dana applied for funding from UN agencies and international NGOs. As more funds arrived, more women were able to attend workshops, which were tailored through surveys to meet women’s individual needs. “We didn’t do any intervention without first surveying and engaging with the community,” says Alia. “[We asked] different questions, depending on the context they were in, then we went more deeply into the problems that they might face, and we asked them about how they might interact with their community.
“They came because they had the ambition to work, and to improve themselves. We helped them to learn the journey of implementing interventions in their own communities.” Using questionnaires to gather local information, the women took their community’s priorities and worked with local leaders to develop solutions together.
Hayat’s interventions were not just reactive. Many participants also brought their own ideas, so that Hayat also started serving as a small business incubator providing technical help and seed funds that allowed its members to rebuild or create new livelihoods. “Like any community in a war, there were very different needs,” Dana explains.
“It was not until the turn of the new millennium that the UN security council called on the world to formally recognise the impacts of conflict on women and girls.”
Today, Hayat works with more than 100 women, with a recent incubator for young adults drawing 700 participants. One of their early youth alumni was Oula Al Mamlouk, now 20, co-founder of a Damascus-based interactive theatre group called Tashkil. Oula’s passion had always been film and theatre, but these subjects were not offered at undergraduate level in Syrian universities. So she registered for a degree in English Literature instead, with the aim of travelling abroad to pursue film studies after that. The war put an end to those hopes.
“When the war started I was in high school,” Oula says. “I was one of the lucky ones who could continue studying because my school had not been destroyed.” It was the psychological trauma of war that prevented Oula from progressing to university. Instead, she began using art therapy to help local street children and people with disabilities. “It was hard at first, but I loved working with children,” says Oula. “I enjoyed noticing their development and improvement they made from week to week. Social work helped me to overcome my depression.”
It was during this time that Oula attended Hayat’s “active citizenship” programme, which included workshops to support effective volunteering, community participation, and community cohesion work. “The experiences of Hayat’s members are so varied, it reflects the Syrian communities. It gave me an insight into the context of the Syrian society as a whole.”
Oula’s later work with Tashkil would benefit from exactly such insights as understanding diverse communities and having access to a range of expertise. The theatre group is run by 19 volunteers with no dedicated funding. “Hayat gives us a place to train, provides logistics to gather and meet people,” Oula says. “They give us useful information and networks and appropriate support for what we need. When we want to prepare for a play, they discuss with us the topic, they share their experience.”
Over recent years, the topics Tashkil has tackled have included urgent issues exacerbated by the pressures of conflict-induced poverty and maintained by the religious beliefs or existing practices of some Syrian communities. “We work with different age groups and segments of the community, but particularly with women,” says Oula. “Interactive theatre is a method that reflects the issues and the problems of certain groups we target including women and survivors of gender-based violence. It helps show them, through acting, the problems they have, and elicits their own solutions to their problems.
“Hayat gave me the chance to find the right way to express my belief that woman is the whole future as well as the pillar and the basis of the reconstruction of Syrian society.”
“I’ll give an example. By Syrian law, girls can’t marry until 18. But by Sharia law they can marry whenever they are physically ‘appropriate’ for marriage — that could mean eight, nine, 13, even though the marriages cannot be registered with the government until they turn 18. So we would develop a play about the issue of early marriage, targeting a group who suffers from this problem. We take a typical scene in their life, and play that scene showing them the negative effects of this practice. With the scene we trigger them to discuss and find a solution to this problem.
“When tackling a topic, the targeted group is not only women, but all the influencing groups: men, religious figures, urban associations, and groups in that field who can come together find a local solution to this problem, because it highlights a problem that happens in their community.
“Hayat cared about the impact of our interactive theatre. They took us seriously,” Oula adds. “Every year now, more and more people are becoming active citizens because of them.”
For Alia and Dana, the efforts of the last four years have shown that their vision of creating opportunities for Syrian women to become agents of change does lead to progress. Through pressure from women’s rights groups like theirs, key amendments to Syrian law have been passed — laws that until 2019 had given international travelling rights over children exclusively to fathers, or had reduced punishments for those who authorised the “honour” killings of a sister or a wife.
Alia knows there is much left to address in Syrian society to ensure lasting change. “Hayat is well known now in Syria,” she says. “But we are working on a project in which we want to change women and society. And these are targets that need time. For now, we keep working very hard. And we are very optimistic.