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Sunday 15 November 2015

Review: Syria’s Rebellious Women

By Clara Connolly

Zaina Erhaim is an award-winning journalist from Damascus, who currently works as project coordinator for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. This, her first film, is currently on a world tour, and for the showings she is accompanied by some of the women whose stories are narrated in the film. One had to drop her section of the film because of fears for her family’s security, and two others were refused entry visas to Britain. At the (fully booked) showing on Thursday 12 November in London, the Director was joined by Zein, one of the film’s stars. It was followed by a lively discussion between both of them and Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News.


We saw four short films documenting the extraordinary lives over 18 months of some of Erhaim’s women friends, working in free Aleppo and caught between the regime’s (and now Russia’s) constant aerial bombardment, and the jihadists. As Ahed says, ruefully, “I only wanted the Free Syria Army and I got FSA, Nusra Front and ISIS. We said Syria is for all. Now we got them all here.”

The first story is that of Waed, a lively young woman who joined the early demonstrations of her fellow students in Aleppo, and who persuades her father to let her leave the family (in a government controlled area) to return as a paramedic to Aleppo, volunteering in field hospitals and on the front lines. She becomes a video journalist. We see her working in Aleppo, and on leave in Turkey where she joins her young friends for life on the town. The contrast is stark: she dresses casually in Turkey with hair uncovered, but on the job in Aleppo she is carefully dressed so as not to offend the strict dress code for women that is now enforced there. She chafes at that, but accepts its necessity, and states that “freedom from Assad is only the first step in the revolution.”

Then we meet Ghalia, an older woman who was a housewife and mother in a small town in Idlib before the revolution, and is now a community activist. We see how her life has changed; she has trained her teenage son to cook and her family to become self reliant.

Despite the fact that the first women’s centre she opened was subject to repeated attack, she has gone on to found a series of these centres, teaching women (many of them war widows or with husbands at the front) the skills to help them to earn money to feed their families.

We meet Ahed, a cheerful tomboy who says she knows no fear: “the barrel bombs fly away from me!” She has always been known as “the troublemaker” among her friends; she organised women’s contingents in the Aleppo demonstrations which started off with just a few brave friends, but grew to significant size before being driven off the streets by aerial bombardment. She now does humanitarian relief work.

Last is Zein, a schoolteacher who now works in ‘field schools,’ underground because of the constant targeting of schools by the regime. We see her teaching in a rudimentary basement schoolroom, with few facilities, but the girls she teaches seem cheerful, like any other schoolchildren.

Unlike the other women, who seem remarkably carefree despite the extraordinary risks they face on a daily basis, she is sombre, and clearly marked by her experience of 13 months detention in Assad’s dungeons. She says she has given up all thought of marrying and having children, because the men who propose “do so out of pity, and I will not be pitied by anyone.” She is separated from her family, and lives in a house with other women, including Ahed. Because rape is so prevalent in detention, the assumption is that women who are released have been ‘dishonoured’ by their time there—whether this has happened or not.

It’s a bitter way for Zein to have won her autonomy, but she gives the impression that she is making the most of it.

What is moving about all the women is their dignity and rueful reticence—they clearly do not say everything on their minds. These are not ‘true confessions’ in the TV-tabloid sense. Neither are they boastful about their extraordinary courage and resilience. Although they are unusually free of family and community restraint, they are also ‘ordinary’, like anyone’s daughter, sister or mother. It is Ephraim’s achievement, and a testimony to the close relationship between her and her subjects, that the women are so natural and down to earth in front of the camera.


Lindsey Hilsum is well informed on the Middle East; but she started the discussion on a personal note, asking gentle but probing questions of Zein, who was seeing the film played back for the first time. Zein said it was difficult to watch, because she had to “remember all the details I shared with you,” but she recognised herself: “it was me.” She said that it was impossible to keep in contact with her family “because they live in an ISIS controlled area.”

She spoke of her work as a teacher: among the difficulties she mentioned are frequent absences because of the barrel bombs; and trying to answer questions from the children like: “why is this happening to us?” She is successful in persuading parents to send their children to school—including 3 children who lost their hands. She is dealing with the children’s physical and psychological problems constantly. When asked about her vision for the future, she said: “working to topple the regime, or be killed. We hoped that the international community would protect us, but the they let us down so we are on our own. The FSA protect us, I hope they can just hold on, and we can keep providing the basic services.” When asked what she wanted people to understand from the film she said: “We rose for our human rights, we are not monsters or extremists, we want to live with dignity.”

Zaina Ephraim started by saying she made the film to document women activists’ lives in a predominantly masculine society so that there would be a record of role models for the future. There are many women like this in Syria—some are reluctant to speak to camera, others are afraid because their families live in regime held areas. But many more women are simply no longer in the ‘liberated’ areas—they and their children have been sent to safety in Turkey and elsewhere while the men stay to fight the regime. She said that although ISIS is a huge threat to women, the main threat to civilians, including women, is Assad. She is disappointed that the world does not seem to understand that.

When asked if the international community helps, she said: “we could not survive without international aid, but we are concerned that most of the money is being spent on overheads and not getting into the besieged areas.” As an example, she said that the White Helmets (the Civil Defence) are paid 100 dollars a month, and their international monitors between 2 and 3,000 dollars.

The difference made to Northern Syria by the Russian intervention? The civilians now get no break from the bombing, because Russian unlike Syrian planes “can fly in all weathers.”

She believed that there are 100,000 more displaced people as a direct result. These people have nowhere to run except to the countryside inside Syria.

When asked about whether women’s lives would be better or worse in a future Syria, she said: “the women in this film work in Aleppo and surrounding areas, and although not religiously conservative themselves, try to conform outwardly to a society which was conservative before the revolution. The longer the war goes on the less likely that the future will be good for women. She admires the women fighters of Rojava but they have little effect on other areas in Syria; since the war the territory of Syria is fragmented and there is little contact between towns or even neighbourhoods. If the war were over soon Syria could be reunited and the women activists across the country could learn from and support each other. But she fears that there will be little left of Syria: there is a huge population drain, especially of the richer and more liberal-minded middle class.

Asked what sustained her and her women friends, she said, “there is a huge burden placed on us by those we have lost. We have to keep going for their sakes. I still believe in Syria; even the small gestures inspire me, like the Civil Defence, and the cleaners who mop up after the bombing raids. Like the work that the women in my film are doing, they keep life going.”

Read more about Zaina Erhaim’s films in Tracy McVeigh’s article for today’s Observer, The Syrian women fighting to save their city.

UK rejects visas for Syrians seeking to highlight women’s war activism, by Mary Atkinson, Middle East Eye,

UK denial of visas for Syrian female activists is counterproductive, Caabu press release.