Samar Yazbek, founder of Women Now for Development, writes to you on our ninth anniversary.
Samar Yazbek: In Defense of Dignity and Rebellion
It might sound strange to talk about “Women Now” in personal terms. It is not what we usually do on occasions that require factual reporting. But for me, the personal is political and the political is personal.
I have for so long been fascinated by messages sent at the dark moments of mankind’s brutal upheavals; messages that continued to see light at the far end of the tunnel. I have been a rebel and turned my back on society at an early age. I would defend my rebellion all over again if I were to relive those days. Yes, I never regretted my decision to break away from societal bonds and traditions. I was lured by the idea of freedom, and by liberating myself from the yoke of servitude. That servitude scared me. Many rebellious women knew it, while both men and women knew the political servitude that enslaved us all. The price we paid was huge. It happened in the mid-Eighties of the last century. I revolted against the hypocrisy of traditions and society’s double standards. Revolting was an integral part of my perception of what a wider scale and more inclusive political revolution required. I knew we had to disregard the gully of pain lurking in our souls, which the revolution was bound to leave behind. As a woman, my personal freedom has always been an important motivation. Freedom was an act of choice: both deliberate and responsible. My literary and intellectual output were an expression of my pursuit of freedom.
Freedom was the momentum linked to society’s enlightenment achieved through the change of individual behavior.
The Syrian revolution began in 2011. I had multiple literary identities at the time; I was barracked in the space Virginia Woolf called “ a room of one’s own”. I worked non-stop to live in dignity, the dignity that all Syrians aspired to. I was totally immersed in my glorious world of “writing fiction” and winning my personal battle to live life in dignity as a free independent woman.
It would not have occurred to me, not even in my worst nightmares that I would have to write off this noble personal component when I battled the numerous raging fires that were set to burn me. I was the witch of the Middle Ages pursued by the Inquisition, defying death no matter how many times they tried to kill her.
The first attacks appeared on websites operated by the Syrian regime’s apparatus and its security institutions to delegitimize my narrative about its atrocities. I was an easy prey, having been a woman who revolted against society. The same fabrications made the rounds in intellectual circles when my writings about the ongoing Syrian carnage gained grounds internationally. Recycling the violence did not end there. Divisions in our collective Syrian identity had already taken their toll.
Some of the Assad regime’s opponents fomented their sectarian fires; opponents of the revolution have already done that a while earlier. The fiery onslaught continued unabated by all. Faced with slander, lies and reprisals, I took the fifth and bit the bullet. I had never entertained abrogating the “personal” before the revolution, but I willingly did afterwards. I said to myself: it is our cause. It started at that point, at the fringes of dignity that we Syrian women and men dreamed of; it was an uprising against servitude. I had to rise to the challenge, to be as noble as the cause of our revolution. I continued to believe in this despite the changing times and the diabolic war that engulfed us.
I killed the beast that was supposed to grow inside me and make me indifferent to the suffering of others. I then looked hard at my various identities. The novelist /artist within me who was consumed by the flames of frailty paid the ultimate price.
My plans to finish my project on writing a novel on memory came to a halt; “ A Woman in the Crossfire”, “Gates to the Wasteland” and “19 Women” became a manifestation of a new exile intersecting with many other exiles I experienced throughout my life. In retrospect, when compared to the magnitude of our catastrophe, it seemed to be the right price to pay.
True, we can be independent women working and writing outside the realm of prevailing religious and societal stereotypes. We can also take responsibility for our actions and choices, first without being stalked physically and second without having to forfeit our creative mental capacity. Once again, that same faint light spoke to me. My battle was the battle of all women: those who are yet to come, those who came before me, and Women present Now. My main concern was not to survive the blaze. I was actually burnt, but I did not die. I continued to think that maybe years from now, young girls who would be women by then, might be waiting to hear the end of my story. The novelist inside me, taking refuge in the power of imagination, defended me. Literature was the invincible force that protected me. I deliberately declined protection if it were conditional on my enslavement.
Why do I say this now many years after the fact? I would not have forced it on the narrative had it not been for my belief that the personal is political and the political is personal. “Women Now” was nothing more than a safe haven, a life savior to guard against sliding into the slippery slope of human mediocrity. This perhaps is the most politically correct way to describe what happened to me in the past years. I felt protected with “Women Now” by my side, invigorated and driven by an infinite energy and mystical hope to work, write and travel. Right before my very eyes was the “Syria” that has become more and more elusive.
This introduction, which should have been much longer, is dedicated to our team. To the women and men I worked with I say : I am personally grateful for the life we shared over the past eight years as we enter the ninth. We suffered daily. We lived through moments of strength and weakness, war and peace, good and evil. We had clarity of vision at times and confusion at others; we experienced alternating states of misunderstanding and reflection, cruelty and kindness, impatience and suffocation. We had to deal with our torn and mixed identities; we insisted on openness and engagement. We laid ourselves down like bridges for our compatriots but were able to cut the umbilical cord when necessary. We have seen effortless killing, but also forgiveness and mercy; we recognize that it is always possible to forgive , till the earth, and spread the seeds of justice. Yes. I can now say that I know the place I came from.
Acknowledging how evil is manufactured, formed and alternated between accomplices and victims is easier than denying it. To deny evil means to be willing to let it be. Acknowledging evil leaves the door open to its demise, which is what we as a team at “Women Now” do together.
Why is “Women Now” formerly Syrian Women?
In 2012, I thought I could permanently return to Syria from the northern borders. I found that the idea of a revolution could be best served by turning social constructs upside down, and finding an organizational framework far removed from traditional political frameworks. The choice was to set a margin that would allow a civil society movement to emerge. One of the most important reasons for my return – other than the guilt haunting most of those who left Syria, those who were supposedly saved but not totally so – was to become a part of people’s lives. I believed that the intellectual can play multiple roles. I am not a believer in “art for art’s sake”. Somewhere in my multiple identities, I believe in the potency of the personal, culturally relevant hands-on involvement, following Gramsci’s model.
At that moment in June 2012, the organization saw the light.
Between 2012 and 2013, work was intense and frantic as was the violence. I had a vision for an alternative project: services that must be provided by a secular state. I wanted to establish women’s centers because women were the most affected segments of the population. They suffered disenfranchisement, marginalization and enslavement. I visited some of the areas that were no longer under the Assad Regime’s control in Idlib’s countryside, the same areas that were later taken over by Jihadi militia groups. I wanted to understand what was going on and to report it. The idea of building the centers was born after I visited various villages in the Idlib countryside and saw for myself what was going on. In my mind, I already had a blueprint of what was needed. I was aware of the importance of networking and transferring individual capacities and local initiatives into a collective output. Organizing women into networks that cut across geography, class and faith would be one way of creating a one contiguous Syria. I spent hours with many researchers earnestly looking into what can be done to straddle the fault lines resulting from the trauma of bombardment and destruction. I wrote the proposal that I sent to many actors to implement inside Syria. We agreed that we would start in the Damascus Ghouta and Idlib countryside.
We became friends, Razan Zaitouneh, and me after working closely on many projects prior to launching our centers. She, a lawyer by training, and others received my proposal for Ghouta and Idlib. We agreed to work together.
I wanted to establish five centers for women and their children in Idlib countryside and five in Damascus Ghouta. Each center will host programs for educational, cultural, economic and psychological empowerment. To support those who opted to stay despite the violence, we believed that we can continue to make a difference if we provided the minimum human conditions necessary for living.
In August 2013, I left Syria for the last time through the northern border after the chemical attack and the entry of ISIS. Razan and her friends were still under siege in Douma. We decided to start working with Dr. Maria Al-Abdeh who joined our team and began to implement the project with Razan.
Months later, Razan, Samira Al-Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wael Hamadeh were kidnapped. Razan was our colleague and partner. She and her friends were kidnapped by Islamist military groups we could not exactly identify, but Jaysh al-Islam ( The Army of Islam) is said to be the perpetrator.
I was working with Razan on preparing a reading list of the books we should distribute to the libraries we planned to add to each center. The last email I received from Razan a day before she went missing discussed the books. The name “Syrian Women for Development” was replaced by “Women Now for Development”.
Why we changed “Syrian Women for Development” to “Women Now”?
Razan established a tailoring and knitting women’s center in Ghouta and called it “Women Now”, managed by Samira Al-Khalil. When we decided to work together, we agreed to annex the atelier to the economic empowerment section of the operation. Samira continued to manage the center until she was kidnapped.
We wanted to pay tribute to our disappeared colleagues. Our message to them was:” Although you are absent, you continue to be with us. We shall be with you for years to come”. By a vote, we as a team decided to call the organization “Women Now”. We continue to pray for their safe return and hope they would bear witness to our determination and dedication that continued while they were away. We want them to see what our network achieved in their absence. It is the only resistance act left to us, to prove to those who kidnapped them that our colleagues continue to be present with us until today.
“Women Now” Nine Years Later:
“Women Now” was conceived in Syrian hearts and minds, nourished by volunteers and supported later on by a small fund I won from literary awards.
When I first worked with “Women Now” I was a member of the team, volunteering like many others. We take our decisions collectively in consultation with teams on the ground. The decisions we take are built from the bottom up. Our dialogue draws its strength from the multitude of dissenting and conforming opinions among stakeholders, in which we take pride.
We are vivacious. Our minds are on fire; strained but not desperate. We draw strength from the courage and resistance of women on the ground. Although we were apart, we felt horrors of displacement, bombardment, detention, torture, asylum and exile, albeit from a distance . We did not challenge social norms directly because we were aware that the road is long. We built a relation based on confidence and provided social support . Our programs were tailored to their needs and responsive to their demands. One of our most important objectives was to encourage women and girls to build direct relations with host communities inside Syria, or in camps in countries of asylum, particularly Lebanon. We learned about local communities and met with women to design plans. This has been our strategy and vision for the democratic exchanges with our beneficiaries. We insisted on making women’s initiatives a priority that aims at creating the space for cognitive and intellectual innovation. We gave women the space to build and be creative. These centers were interconnected, giving the process a national dimension.
We provided psycho-social support programs to protect women and girls from all forms of violence. We designed a training manual on safe spaces for women to support them
in times of war and are willing to share it with parties that could be interested in developing it further. We provide psychological support not only for women but for children too.
We built human capacity to empower women economically. In one of our centers in Idlib countryside, we trained 180 women who eventually graduated and found gainful employment within a year. By becoming economically independent, they were able to live in larger freedom although the rural areas they lived in were controlled by Jihadi groups and were under direct attacks. In another area in Damascus Ghouta, we ran a survey to document the names of the most impoverished and marginalized women. We then provided them with support to launch their micro economic programs. While the program was underway, we identified and supported women who seemed to have the ability to advance and assume managerial roles. Those women eventually launched their independent projects. We continued to provide the support they needed until they became self-sufficient entrepreneurs capable of independently managing their projects.
The process of political empowerment and leadership has always been part of our programs. We designed a training manual following the same bottom to top approach on the ground. This process went hand in hand with the economic empowerment making it more challenging on more than one account. The war continued to rage , but society’s war against women has predated it to begin with. The challenges were horrific.
We also worked with women on the “Oral History” project and supported the campaign of “Families for Freedom” in cooperation with other organizations. We launched a program to support forcefully displaced women in Europe, inside Syria and in other countries of asylum. We even supported independent women’s initiatives including our own graduates who went ahead to establish their own centers. It is gratifying that “Women Now” became the incubator that generated independently operated women’s development groupings .
Our work on partnership and advocacy became the launchpad for many projects jointly carried out by men, women and girls. A case in point is our last campaign against early marriage. This was not a propaganda campaign imposed as an administrative order or bureaucratic process. It was driven by women themselves and conceived in partnership with men.
On the cultural level, in addition to adding a library to every center, we screened movies and organized literacy campaigns for reading, writing and IT skills. We established exclusively women internet centers because segregation of the sexes was still required in some areas. We provided childcare services in these centers as well.
We recently began working on developing our gender and legal research programs and departments. Young female researches currently lead our efforts to accumulate knowledge. Our goal is to develop our research capacity and establish a research and archiving section to train male and female researchers.
Despite the violent social upheavals we are currently experiencing, we are still determined to continue our work to bring about change. The challenges ahead are colossal. But we at “Women Now” started on our journey and we shall not despair. We shall continue be the voice of the voiceless, driven by a determination to uphold our rights: the right to revolt, the right to dignity and the right to justice.