Samar Yazbek’s 19 Syrian Women Who Resisted

8 November, 2020

Samar Yazbek by Jean-Luc Bertini


Samar Yazbek is the first woman to be profiled in a new TMR series on trailblazing Arab, Iranian and other women of the Middle East and North Africa. Next, Nada Ghosn will speak with Kuwait’s feminist activist, Dr. AlAnoud Al Sharekh. 


Samar Yazbek is a Syr­i­an nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist. Born in Jableh, Syr­ia, in 1970, she stud­ied Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Latakia and is the author of sev­er­al nov­els, as well as short sto­ries, screen­plays and film reviews. She is also a promi­nent voice for the defense of human rights and espe­cial­ly wom­en’s rights in Syr­ia, ranked accord­ing to The Glob­al Gen­der Gap Report 2020 as the third worst of ten coun­tries with respect to gen­der equal­i­ty. In 2013, she found­ed Women Now for Devel­op­ment, an NGO based in France whose aim is to empow­er Syr­i­an women eco­nom­i­cal­ly and social­ly, and to sup­port chil­dren’s education.

In 2011, Samar took part in the pop­u­lar upris­ing against Bahar al-Assad’s regime and was forced into exile a few months lat­er. She pub­lished A Woman in the Cross­fire : Diaries of the Syr­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion in 2012, receiv­ing the pres­ti­gious PEN/Pinter Award in the UK, the Tuchol­sky Award in Swe­den, and the Oxfam/PEN Award in the Nether­lands. In 2016, after sev­er­al clan­des­tine trips to north­ern Syr­ia, she pub­lished The Cross­ing: My Jour­ney to the Shat­tered Heart of Syr­ia, describ­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion, which received France’s Best For­eign Book award and was trans­lat­ed into 17 lan­guages. Some con­sid­er The Cross­ing a mod­ern polit­i­cal clas­sic. Yazbek’s nov­el La marcheuse (Stock 2018) was short­list­ed for France’s Fémi­na prize.


Often com­pared to Svet­lana Alex­ievitch (Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture 2015) in the press, Samar Yazbek’s books have great­ly con­tributed to illu­mi­nat­ing the human aspect of the Syr­i­an tragedy in all its com­plex­i­ties. Her lat­est non­fic­tion book is 19 Women, fea­tur­ing the col­lect­ed tes­ti­monies of Syr­i­an women who resist­ed in var­i­ous ways to the var­i­ous fronts of repres­sion. Says Yazbek, “19 Women is the result of a series of inter­views I con­duct­ed with Syr­i­an women in their coun­tries of asy­lum, as well as with­in Syr­i­an ter­ri­to­ry. I asked each of them to tell me about ‘their’ rev­o­lu­tion and ‘their’ war. All of them have described the ter­ri­ble ordeal they went through. I am haunt­ed by the duty to con­sti­tute a mem­o­ry of the events that would counter the nar­ra­tive that seeks to jus­ti­fy the crimes com­mit­ted, a mem­o­ry that, based on indis­putable facts, would pro­vide proof of the right­eous­ness of our cause. This book is my way of resisting.”

We met Samar Yazbek in Paris, where she lives, for an interview. 

Foreword and interview by Nada Ghosn

I expe­ri­enced a per­son­al rev­o­lu­tion in detach­ing myself from my fam­i­ly, my social milieu and my com­mu­ni­ty by get­ting divorced and leav­ing. What I went through was much more dif­fi­cult than the rev­o­lu­tion itself. My choic­es were heavy to take on vis-à-vis the extend­ed fam­i­ly, the neigh­bors, or the neigh­bor­hood. I want­ed to be an inde­pen­dent woman, with­out being called a slut. After my mar­riage, I moved to Cyprus. There I worked as a wait­ress and a dress­mak­er and did oth­er odd jobs. Then I returned to Syr­ia and got divorced. You might say I seized my free­dom, but my life was difficult…I’m not sure I’ve lived. Women suf­fer the vio­lence of soci­ety more than men. That is why I am work­ing with them today.

“Women are generally silenced, especially in the interior of the country. Exile and displacement have only exacerbated the situation. I won’t forget that I was constantly ordered to keep quiet because I was a young girl. I don’t regret anything I did… but I regret not having done more because of social pressures. In spite of everything, the revolution made me a new person, it gave me a soul, an experience, a strength. It allowed me to get out of the shackles imposed by our society.” – Sara

The Crossing   : My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria

Before all that, I con­duct­ed research on the sit­u­a­tion of women in Syr­ia. It is dif­fi­cult to talk about the sit­u­a­tion of Syr­i­an women in gen­er­al; it depends on the region. Talk­ing about one Syr­ia refers to total mil­i­tary con­trol of the ter­ri­to­ry by the regime. Already before the war, their sit­u­a­tion was dis­parate with­in the ter­ri­to­ry, even if one could draw gen­er­al lines. At the begin­ning of the demon­stra­tions, women were present in the cities and in the coun­try­side, although in dif­fer­ent ways. In the cities, secu­ri­ty men sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly inter­vened to arrest them, and then the shab­bi­has (secret mili­tias) appeared.

In the coun­try­side, demon­stra­tions were not mixed. Let’s not for­get that reli­gion is very present in rur­al areas. From the moment there were arrests, women no longer demon­strat­ed, because of the sex­u­al vio­lence and the shame it would bring on fam­i­lies that could lead to hon­or killings.

After a sex­u­al assault com­mit­ted dur­ing a demon­stra­tion, the men of Barzeh for­bade the women to par­tic­i­pate in the gath­er­ings. This was at the end of 2011. I went to see those who had made this deci­sion to tell them that women make up fifty per­cent of soci­ety. But for them, our par­tic­i­pa­tion was reli­gious­ly illic­it. I remind­ed them that half of those par­tic­i­pants in the ral­lies orga­nized by the regime were women. Then they said to me, ‘Wom­en’s hon­or is a red line.’ After a long debate, they final­ly autho­rized us to demon­strate, but sep­a­rate­ly from men. —Rim

The rev­o­lu­tion thus began as a social rev­o­lu­tion. But the war brought out all the vio­lence against women. The only thing that can affect a man’s hon­or is the rape of his wife. It is a sym­bol­ic mur­der, the woman being his prop­er­ty. The rapes com­mit­ted by the shab­bi­has were the first crimes of the regime. This indus­try of evil was one of the first caus­es of the rev­o­lu­tion’s slide into vio­lence. Daesh (ISIS) and the Islamist mili­tias per­pet­u­at­ed these prac­tices. The rape of Alaouite women by one side and Sun­ni women by the oth­er became a weapon of war.

In the cities or in the coun­try­side, in the first year, women were sym­bols, the show­case of the rev­o­lu­tion. But they were sym­bol­i­cal­ly mur­dered by their com­rades. They were the tar­gets of the regime, of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, as well as of the mili­tias that oppressed them polit­i­cal­ly. With the war, the ten­sions with­in Syr­i­an iden­ti­ty since the coun­try’s inde­pen­dence explod­ed. Our iden­ti­ty became frag­ment­ed. Intel­lec­tu­als proved to be com­mu­ni­tar­i­an and sep­a­ratist as well. Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have not been less lim­it­ing for women. They want­ed them to remain con­fined with­in the home; they did not ask for social rev­o­lu­tion, only polit­i­cal, because they did not want Islamists.

In our city, there were reli­gious move­ments such as Naqchan­bandiya [a pow­er­ful Sufi broth­er­hood in Syr­ia] and Salafism. There are also polit­i­cal par­ties such as the Social­ist Par­ty. None of these move­ments, reli­gious or not, spared women (…) Dur­ing the siege of Douma, I con­tin­ued to work with the Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women, but very soon I had a con­flict with one of its mem­bers because Jaysh al-Islam had end­ed up con­trol­ling every­thing. The rise of armed men was accom­pa­nied by reli­gious rad­i­cal­iza­tion. —Fat­en

In areas con­trolled by Daesh, women dis­ap­peared. They accom­pa­nied the men and took care of the chil­dren. They orga­nized them­selves to move life for­ward, how­ev­er, they were not coor­di­nat­ed with each oth­er. As a result of the dis­per­sal of fam­i­lies, women had to fend for them­selves and make deci­sions alone. They became more inde­pen­dent. I thought I knew their sit­u­a­tion, but when I went to the coun­try­side of Alep­po and Idlib in 2012, I dis­cov­ered these excep­tion­al women of the peo­ple. I was very hap­py to see them. That is why I wrote my book 19 Women. I want­ed sev­er­al voic­es to be heard. I want­ed to con­sti­tute a mem­o­ry of women, at least a small part of it. I believe that every­thing we do, one day, caus­es a change. These tes­ti­monies are for the future. 

When I went to the north of Syr­ia in 2012, I also felt the desire to work with women. Thanks to the prizes I received for my books, I was able to found my NGO Women Now For Devel­op­ment in 2013, to sup­port ini­tia­tives that enable wom­en’s eco­nom­ic auton­o­my and chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion. The idea of my orga­ni­za­tion was to build a net­work of grass­roots women. In the regions con­trolled by the regime, only 2% of the mid­dle class remained. The rest of the pop­u­la­tion emi­grat­ed. We relied on this edu­cat­ed class to train women with lit­tle or no edu­ca­tion in our orga­ni­za­tion. This work con­tin­ues today, even though we had to change our name to work in this region. I com­mu­ni­cate with the team there every day. Today we have built a net­work of 11,000 women and 120 employ­ees between north­ern Syr­ia and the Bekaa in Lebanon. 

I’ve evolved a lot thanks to the work I’ve done. I lived in very hard con­di­tions, with­out elec­tric­i­ty, with­out water…with the omnipres­ence of death. But the extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence of work­ing with women in a con­text of war and rev­o­lu­tion made me mature and allowed me to meet peo­ple from all walks of life. —Alia

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, I think that intel­lec­tu­als are con­cerned about the change in soci­ety. One can­not ask for jus­tice with­out act­ing to change one’s own life and make things hap­pen around one. Field­work is a part of me. Since 1995, I have been involved in orga­ni­za­tions for the defense of press free­dom, wom­en’s and chil­dren’s rights, but I cre­at­ed this orga­ni­za­tion in 2013 in order to give a voice to a gen­er­a­tion, and give it the tools to move for­ward. I want­ed to bring that momen­tum for­ward, and I brought togeth­er a group of peo­ple who want­ed to work towards that. The women con­cerned by our actions pro­pose the pro­grams accord­ing to their needs; it is an expe­ri­ence of democ­ra­cy that has led to very impor­tant progress in their liv­ing conditions. 


I work so that today’s vic­tims do not become tomor­row’s exe­cu­tion­ers. What we are work­ing on is fem­i­nist, even if there are also men work­ing with us. We are only at the stage of lay­ing the ground­work, offer­ing train­ing and psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port to women. It is not pos­si­ble to talk about fem­i­nist move­ments in Syr­ia, even dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. We can only speak of “women” because move­ments imply the pres­ence of a democ­ra­cy, and it still takes time to get there. 


In the 1950s, there were ral­lies fight­ing for wom­en’s rights, but they did not suc­ceed in chang­ing the con­sti­tu­tion. They were demot­ed in the 1970s because of the regime’s poli­cies. After the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion, Syr­ia com­plete­ly closed itself off. In the ‘80s, the dic­ta­to­r­i­al regime repressed the Islamists, and peo­ple returned to reli­gion. At the same time, left-wing move­ments began to dis­ap­pear in the Arab world, and social net­works pro­vid­ed a plat­form for those who advo­cat­ed reli­gion. The rev­o­lu­tion then allowed the emer­gence of the reli­gious already present in soci­ety. Mod­er­ate Islam that want­ed reform was not encour­aged because it would have brought an end to the regime. Instead, the gov­ern­ment strength­ened the qubaysiy­at [a move­ment of rigid Sun­ni women that appeared in the mid-1960s in semi-clan­des­tin­i­ty that takes its name from its founder Muni­ra Qubaysi (n. 1932), a preach­er from Dam­as­cus. While claim­ing to be of Sufi naqchan­ban­di Islam, it is char­ac­ter­ized by its rig­orism and its cul­ture of secre­cy]. With the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment, this group of women was able to estab­lish good rela­tions by recruit­ing fol­low­ers from the upper class­es. They invest­ed in the school sec­tor by cre­at­ing a large net­work of schools. 


When I cre­at­ed my orga­ni­za­tion, I tried to attract rich women. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, patri­ar­chal soci­ety is a mod­el of polit­i­cal and social think­ing. It fol­lows pow­er, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing “the strongest.” The first to insult women are women; the most abused women are abused by women. Raised in the patri­archy, women draw strength from it by sid­ing with the most pow­er­ful. And this is passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion: with­in the fam­i­ly, women enjoy an infe­ri­or sta­tus, they can­not express their wish­es, and the fam­i­ly evolves with­in a soci­ety that pre­serves traditions. 


I chose these women thanks to the net­work set up in Syr­ia. I want­ed to make them tes­ti­fy because I admire them. After the rev­o­lu­tion, it seemed impor­tant to me to nar­rate the Syr­i­an real­i­ty. Dur­ing these nine years since the begin­ning of the upris­ing, I have gained a lot of expe­ri­ence, I have changed. Before that, I had writ­ten arti­cles, nov­els, short sto­ries and screen­plays about “the world from below,” wom­en’s rights, Gha­da Sam­man’s spir­it of lib­er­a­tion, the mil­i­tary, and the clan­des­tine cir­cles in Syr­ia. There was always some­thing polit­i­cal in what I wrote. But today, it is the rela­tion­ship to evil that inter­ests me most; this is the sub­ject of my next book, which I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on.


Samar Yazbek


Samar YazbekSyrian revolutionSyrian womenwar reporting

Nada Ghosn is a Paris-based writer who has lived in the Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, where she has worked for the press and diverse cultural institutions. These days she works as a freelance translator and journalist, having translated several essays, art books, novels, film scripts, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry from Arabic into French. She regularly covers culture and society for such publications as an-Nahar, Grazia and Diptyk, and participates in art projects, conferences and performances.


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