Still audible through the increasingly sectarian cacophony of Syria’s ongoing civil war, a small but influential group of Syrian and foreign women are telling the stories of the country’s destruction in unique and meaningful ways. Present in all aspects of the conflict, women are penning the history of Syria.
From the very beginnings of the initial and peaceful opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime, Syrian women have played a powerful role. Samar Yazbek, a female Syrian writer and journalist—herself an Alawite, a member of a religious group traditionally associated with the regime—was among the women who initiated oppositional activism. Women, she says, were among the first who went out and protested: “They organized these protests, formed coordinations and organizational bodies.”
According to Yazbek, as the peaceful protests turned to armed resistance and then into civil war, the role of women in the conflict changed. “Syrian women didn’t pick up arms, but kept helping the revolution by documenting violations, organizing, writing and in the media.”
Nour Kelze, a young photographer from Aleppo, is one of these women. An English teacher before the revolution, she began documenting the revolution with her cellphone before being given a camera by a professional photographer. She now spends her days on the front lines as photo stringer for Reuters.
The visible role of women in the early stages of the uprising is what drew American reporter Anna Day to the conflict, which she has been covering for two years. She says her involvement was mobilized by her original connections with women in the resistance via social media. “It was exciting, and as a young woman myself, I was incredibly inspired and felt privileged to tell the story of my peers in Syria fighting for their rights.”
Historically, Syria has a reputation for being a more equal society for women than other Arabic-speaking countries. This attitude, combined with the absence of sexual violence like that faced by female reporters covering Egypt and of the inherently male-dominated and militarily embedded reporting of the Afghan and Iraqi wars, means the Syrian conflict has drawn an unprecedented number of female foreign reporters.
For some, like journalist Jenan Moussa, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, or American reporter Clarissa Ward, the conflict has brought them wide acclaim. Others haven’t been so fortunate. Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed by shelling in Homs during the early days of the war, and just over a year later, Yara Abbas, a prominent female war reporter for Syrian state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV, was murdered by sniper fire in the same province.
Armenian-American journalist Lara Setrakian, founder of the digital media project Syria Deeply, says gender is not a disadvantage in reporting in the dangerous and unforgiving environment. “I think at this point it is a fallacy to assume that women cannot approach rebels or even rebel commanders in the field. I don’t think there is any gender barrier to accessing people involved in this conflict.”
In fact, Setrakian says, women bring a unique approach to the story. She cites female reporters’ unwavering dedication to the ongoing conflict and says those she works with are “extremely patient and diligent.” Comparing the Syrian conflict to a patient to a chronic illness, she says this approach is essential. “You don’t just leave the patient while it’s breathing. You pay attention. The women journalists I’ve seen working in Syria have that kind of consistency and ethic.”
In conflict, women often bear the brunt of tremendous amounts of suffering while attempting to maintain family life—and Syria is no exception. For Yazbek, the most tragic stories are those of women who struggle to preserve a normal home existence despite the violence. “Most important are the women who still live out a normal life under the shelling,” she says. Women reporters are usually those who represent female civilians’ stories. Yazbek and Day try to give these women a voice in their reporting.
The conflict has also brought suffering to the Syrian journalists and activists covering it. Last month Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the torture suffered by 10 female activists in Syria. Accordingly, for Yazbek, Syria is no longer her physical home—she has been living in exile in Paris since 2011. “I don’t live in a place now, I live in the idea of a country and a revolution. My home is my own head, filled with blood, the cries of children, and with the sound of airplane bombs.”
For Kelze, the price of war was physical. In February she was hit by shelling and broke her leg. “The shell hit the wall that I was using as a shelter to cover myself. There was half of a second when I felt like all I could see was black.” She said about the incident: “I tried to stand up when I realized that there was a problem with my leg.” Even in the immediate aftermath of her injury, Kelze’s first instinct was to tell the story: “I kept shouting, ‘Where is my camera?’”
For Western journalists, the impact of covering the conflict has been a desire to find creative ways to tell the story. Frustrated by lack of coverage and the limits of mainstream news, Setrakian left a successful reporting job to start Syria Deeply. The online project compiles news, interviews, social media, and background information to provide a detailed picture of the conflict. “I could see that this was a chronic story. It’s hard to follow, and it’s a very complex crisis. I was reporting to television, radio, and Web, and I could see that across those platforms we still weren’t really capturing the essence of what was happening.” She continues to develop the Syria Deeply platform and hopes to expand it to other news subjects in the future.
Day, shocked by apathy from both news outlets and audiences, has used social media to change the way she tells stories. “I did one experiment where I shared Instagram photos that showed snippets of some of the most haunting stories I covered over the course of an assignment.” Her project created a cohesive narrative arc focused on the civilian catastrophe, she says: “I found this brief but personalized way of telling the story to be effective in piquing the interest of people in my networks that may not follow world politics.”
As the conflict drags well into its third year with little sign of resolution, these dedicated women from varied backgrounds and nations all want to keep working to find new ways to get people to listen.
Each has a different hope for Syria and for herself. Yazbek laments the rise in sectarianism, which she blames on regime strategy. She insists she will return to Syria and be involved in the reconstruction of the country she has sacrificed so much for. Of herself, she says: “I have only one dream: the fall of Bashar.”