The Biggest Myth About Women In Syria — And The Journalist Who's Fighting To Debunk It

One of the untold stories of Syria is the role women are playing.

It's hard to imagine anything positive coming out of the Syrian Civil War, but if you ask Rula Asad, you might get a surprising answer. Asad is the co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN), which trains local citizen journalists on gender-sensitive reporting and helps empower female media professionals in Syria. But according to Asad, none of her work would have been possible without the devastating civil war that started in 2011.

"Most of the aspects coming from the conflict is very negative," Asad said in a sit-down interview with A Plus. "People fighting each other, civilians — they are dying… but there is also a very positive aspect to the conflict. People are much more open to accept the new things, so, after 2011, it was the right moment to have… a civil society in Syria."

Asad studied journalism at the University of Damascus and got her start as a sports and culture reporter. She eventually shifted her focus to writing about social change in Syria and zeroed in on the voices of women and issues related to gender equality. 

Part of her motivation stemmed from her own personal experience of being discriminated against as a female journalist in the workplace. She didn't see female journalists being given the space to tell stories about women and mothers in the same way male journalists were being given the space to elevate the voices of other men. That lack of opportunity and lack of storytelling platform propagated the myth that women in Syria are solely victims, as opposed to also being activists and aid-givers.

So Asad decided to start a network of female journalists with her partner Milia Eidmouni. 

"We are working on both levels to take care of ourselves as women journalists and to find our way within the media sector," Asad said. "But also to look to the content and see how we can change it to make it much more gender-sensitized."

For the 40 years before the civil war started in 2011, Asad said the country was oppressed in a way that made it impossible to found an organization like the SFJN. Once the war started, Asad and other women tried to organize as activists and demonstrate for issues they cared about. But when they were forced off the streets by the government, she started to think about how she could use leverage her skills and career to help build the society she wanted to see in Syria.

Syrian women on the Turkish-Syrian border demonstrate against al-Assad in 2011.

Asad says women's perspectives need to be taken into account in every single discussion about Syria. One example, she said, is the shelling of cities that takes place across the country. While everyone risks injury from the shelling, Asad said it's particularly difficult for women who, in comparison to men, already struggle to access medical care. Women are prevented from moving freely in areas of the country that are under the control of an armed group. If bombing starts, they have more trouble getting out of harm's way or getting to safety and medical care than a man might.  

"Imagine a woman having every day a fight to take her children from home to the school," Asad said. "This is a kind of very basic right, but I don't read about it in any western media."

Asad, who now lives in the Netherlands, said her experience living outside of Syria informs her about how she can help change the country where she was born. After World War II, many women in the Netherlands came together in solidarity, similar to how women are coming together in Syria. 

Unlike other organizations, SFJN isn't focused on a singular mission.  Asad insists they don't have all the answers on how to end the war. Instead, they see themselves as laying the groundwork for the rebuilding of Syria that has to take place going forward. And they are contributing to local and international efforts to bring peace with small but meaningful contributions across the country, like teaching women how to leverage the internet and media to raise awareness about issues that are important to them.

One of the big stories that goes underreported, according to Asad, is exactly what women are doing on the ground to contribute to peace-building. A lot of humanitarian initiatives inside the country are led by women — whether it's caring for injured people or protecting children by opening at-home schools in areas that ISIS is trying to recruit. By bringing kids into classes in homes across the country, children are off the street and at a much smaller risk to be approached and recruited into ISIS. 

A group of SFJN's members and guests at Out of the Shadows' Exhibition in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2017. SFJN

Asad doesn't expect that the war will come to an end anytime soon. She thinks it will take world leaders standing up to Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime, but she knows it won't be as simple as that. What she is sure of, though, is that women will be an integral part of putting the country back together and righting the ship. And she is emphatic that they are more than just victims.

"If you ask me, I see women in all levels," Asad said. "But when I see the media, I don't see women at all levels. We only hear the voice of men when it comes to Syria."

People outside of Syria can help too, Asad said. Organizations like the Global Fund for Women have given grants to SFJN and other organizations on the ground in Syria. But Asad says the biggest thing non-Syrians can do is show solidarity with the people in the country.

"People inside Syria really want to know and to see and to feel like people all over the world don't forget them," Asad said. "Don't wait 'til [the number of people dying] escalates to 100. If one person dies under a brutal attack, it's the same as 100."

Cover image via Shutterstock /  dinosmichail.

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