The factions fighting in Northern Syria have been using their military authority to create a religious backdrop to legitimize the conservatism that limits women’s freedom and restricts their contribution to leadership roles within the community. However, female participation, as was witnessed in the governorate of Idlib, demonstrates that women have succeeded in breaking some of the traditions and overcoming the pressures that surround them.After the opposition took over Idlib in March 2015, calls for obligatory veiling have increased, with support from the factions. This appears to be the decision of the “Army of Conquest,” an organization which, at the end of October of this year, called for the need to impose the Hijab on all women and to prevent the selling of “scandalous” attire and makeup in stores.
The citizens of Idlib, however, have not upheld this decision in its entirety. Only the Women’s Da’wah committees, subordinate to the “Army of Conquest,” have attempted to enforce it. Similarly, the faction called “Jund al-Aqsa” (Soldiers of al-Aqsa) has tried to prevent women from “adorning” themselves in the streets of the city by distributing billboards demanding that women abide by their standards for what is “legitimate” attire.
According to several women in Idlib, this dress code was not obligatory, and non-compliance was not met with “severe” punitive measures. However, it did contribute to the perpetuation of customs and traditions that limit the participation of women in the community, and to the legitimation of the culture of Sharia law in the Gulf.
“The Plane Problem” is the Foundation
Rania Qaysr, an activist in the field of community empowerment and the director of “SHINE” (Syrian Humanitarian Institute for National Empowerment), assessed that women’s realities do not rise to their potentials, explaining, “Women’s opportunities are limited and only present in certain locations. They are not able to participate in service of the people as fully as their potentials allow, and they have no room to expand.” From Qaysr’s perspective, this gap is a negative, but the positive is that “women persist, work, compete, struggle, and grow.”
Qaysr directs “SHINE,” which is officially licensed by the Idlib administration and accredited in the United States of America, and which offers two main services: education and training, and relief assistance.
Qaysr links the increased participation of women and the development of their roles to the stopping of the “Plane Problem” (continued airstrikes in liberated areas). This connection is primarily due to the tension and fear that those airstrikes provoked, which prevented women from taking to the streets.
The economic recession and scarce job opportunities has made it difficult for women to break into the labor market and compete with the men. For this reason, the priority is to “establish a generation” that is pious, according to Qaysr. She says “Today, the Syrian woman’s responsibility is very great. We are witnessing the birth of a new nation, and this birth will not be successful unless women are of sound mind and methodology.” Additionally, she stresses the need to empower and encourage women, and to give to her the means for education so that she can promote good values and principles within her children.
Women’s issues cannot be reduced to the Hijab
The civic activist refers to the question of the niqab and the calls for veiling in liberated areas, saying, “You can cover every woman with a niqab, but if their hearts are not pious, it will not make the society pious. It will be three generations before we see the spiritual development that we want and strive for and for which we took to revolution, and there is a chance that it can only be achieved through reforming the mother.”
Our conversation then turned to the institute, which Qaysr directs and which works through a legitimate scope. The institute separates young men and young women in attendance, and benefits from “the experience of the West” in order to assist the Syrian situation within “the frameworks of Sharia law.”
Samah Hadaya, the former Minister of Culture in the interim government, stresses that women’s attire eclipses the need to support the role of women, which until today had been considered problematic, in this struggle throughout which numerous authorities have controlled the cities and regions of Syria.
Hadaya called to not remove the hijab unless there is a deterioration of women’s freedom and role, saying, “It is a trivial topic, and as long as the humane and patriotic performances continue, their values will emerge from their positions, views, and work–not from what they wear.”
The department of the “Army of Conquest”: there is no harassment
Enab Biladi then took these questions to the department of the “Army of Conquest” in Idlib, which denied that there crackdown on women’s activities.
Mazen Hamid, an administrator in the “Army of Conquest,” says that “the department of the Army has concerns pertaining to the role of women and their activities, and it strives to provide the necessary assistance, according to stipulations that do not contradict Islamic Sharia principles.”
According to the leader, the department “does not oppose or stand as an obstacle in the face of any activity whose goals are to benefit the people,” citing the many female activities in the city of Idlib, among which is “the Institute for the Lawful Sciences designated for women, and all of its members (administrators and teachers) are women without any problems.”
Female teachers: following orders “under Chapter VII”
A female teacher in one of the high schools in Idlib, familiar with the work of women’s councils to regulate transgressors, reported to Enab Biladi that she witnessed numerous confrontations between female students and missionaries “unqualified for Da’wah, and not possessing the most basic attributes of a missionary in terms of knowledge of Sharia Law and the methods of Da’wah (wisdom and the good counsel),” according to the characterization of the teacher.
The teacher (who preferred not to give her name) stressed that the missionaries “were forcing young girls to dress according to their specifications of what constitutes legitimate attire, and anything else was considered unveiling. This continued until fist fights broke out between them. They had not mastered the styles of dialogue and persuasion, as they carried out military orders under article VII.”
The effect of that on the movement of young girls and their work is negative, according to the teacher. She recalled a young girl telling her, “I desire the civilian life that I was robbed of. I feel as though I have been forced into everything.”
The teacher denied that any cases of arrests of women, other than a missionary’s story about a young girl who attacked them, trying to remove their hijabs and shouting vilifications and insults at them in front of people, required the summoning of an arbitrator for “poor conduct.”
The teacher wears the niqab voluntarily, convinced that it was an imposition of God. She does not find it oppressive in movement or work, and does not think that it limits her participation, success, or standing in any field. Rather, she indicated that “many distinguished female role models succeeded and wore the niqab,” concluding that “the issue is not with the niqab, but with the coercion that separates the thing from the human. If people call for good manners, supported by evidence and proof, maybe their reaction would be completely different.”