The Syrian women fighting to save their city
Who would want to be a woman in Aleppo? The female population of Syria’s second city find themselves threatened both by the murderous misogynists of Islamic State (Isis) and the Russian allies of the president, , whose bombing raids mean that now even bad weather offers the city no respite.
“Before, Assad’s forces were not able to drop their bombs when it was raining or cloudy, so those were days we were glad to see,” said Zaina Erhaim, a documentary filmmaker from . “But now the Russians have come and they can bomb in these conditions, so there is no relief any more from the death that comes from the sky.”
Amid the carnage and suffering, Erhaim has just completed a documentary that attempts to a tell a story that was in danger of being forgotten: the story of the women who chose not to leave, but to stay and help a city to survive its darkest hour.
“It’s not just men fighting the war in Syria; it is women, too, and they feel forgotten,” she told the Observer. “The women activists are working harder, against more problems, but are forgotten as the west obsesses on . It is just Assad against Isis, but we are still here in this ruined place and now we are facing two enemies, Isis and Assad.”
In Erhaim’s film, entitled and made over the past 18 months, she profiles some of her friends who have helped to document the war, deliver supplies to civilians and provide medical services in ways that some within their country now regard as unacceptable behaviour for women. “Our patriarchal traditions now have guns,” she says.
“Despite the insult the word implies, I’m not bothered any more by those who call me hurma, suggesting weakness, dependency, minor, his pleasure tool, his property, his possession,” she said. Erhaim is project co-ordinator and trainer with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in .
“As a trainer, I need to put in more effort to be taken seriously by my male trainees, who think ‘the hurma is training us!’ and ‘how could the hurma know better than the most ignorant man?’ They say that, as a woman, I have always to look for a man, any man, and assign him to be my guardian for the checkpoints. The armed men talk to my guardian at the checkpoint and he answers on my behalf, because as a woman I’m expected to be too fragile to talk to a stranger. This is the general rule, but I’m an exception, along with hundreds of women revolutionaries who resist all this.”
Erhaim filmed five women: Ghalia, Waed, Manar, Zein and Ahed. Manar has since pulled out of the project because she fears for her family’s safety. Waed persuaded her father to let her leave her family in a government-controlled town to move to Aleppo and work as a paramedic on the front lines. “Men went on the front lines,” she said, “and I worked on the front lines, too. Men carried weapons; I carried weapons, too. Men worked in field hospitals; I did that, too.”
Waed is angry that she has no rights over how she dresses and who she talks to. When she can she goes with her husband over the border into Turkey, where she can wear a dress and remove her headscarf.
Community activist Ghalia has faced repeated attacks and assassination attempts. Her teenage son waits every day for her by the door of their house until she returns safely. He has learned to cook and prepare food and to clean, duties that before the war Ghalia would have done as the woman of the house.
“I miss my old life,” she said. “I miss cooking and cleaning my home for my family.” Instead she has founded a series of centres that provide vocational training to local women, offering safe places for women to meet as well as learn first aid and other crucial skills in their war-torn lives. One of the centres was bombed by extremist Islamic forces.
“In 10 years’ time,” said Erhaim, “I want a young woman who looks on the internet to find out what happened in Syria to find evidence of the roles women played. This is why I have made this film and why all the women risk their lives to appear in it.”
She lives in Aleppo with her husband and says she is determined to go back when her film tour finishes in the US this week. Two of the women featured were supposed to travel with her but they were refused visas by Britain. They will join her this week in Washington.
“We are Syrian: we must be terrorists,” she said ruefully. “This is your nice country, thank you, but we don’t want to stay. It is my home, where my friends are, I have no intention of leaving,” she said.
The killing of many activists since the beginning of the revolution means she cannot let their deaths be in vain.
“You were with people on the demonstrations, chanting ‘I won’t let my country down and we’ll pay with our lives’, so they pay and you just leave? I can’t do that.”
Two of her friends are now working as paramedics in field hospitals from which the real doctors and nurses have long fled. Zein and Ahed both talk about how they cry while tending injured people. Both of them have suffered serious beatings by soldiers of Assad, by Islamic State and by men from other factions.
Zein spent 14 months in a government prison for taking part in demonstrations. “The detention centre is a cemetery for the living,” she says. At one point government soldiers raped a male prisoner in front of her. When she was released she found her home had been destroyed and her family had gone. “I only wanted the Free Syrian Army. I got FSA, the al-Nusra Front and Isis. We said Syria is for all. Everybody joined in.”
Zein has given up hope of getting married, or having a family. Erhaim, too, says that her husband gave up “nagging her” to have a baby after they both witnessed the aftermath of an airstrike on a nursery school near their flat. So many schools have been targeted that parents fear sending their children to school.
“I met one woman who sits outside the school all day while her five children are inside,” said Erhaim. “I said to her, you cannot protect them by sitting there. And she said ‘no, but if the classroom is hit then at least I will die with them’.”