Immediately after we’d finished discussing the challenges facing Aleppo in front of a large audience I was asked by a friend of mine, a leading figure in the Syrian civil society movement, how I was able to appear so unmoved, without anger or emotion, even when talking about the most painful experiences of my life and my losses, such as my mother being martyred; the interrogations I had faced, or other similar incidents, experienced by all Syrian activists such as myself. Sometimes, he said, he was afraid he might one day break down on stage and they’d say ‘Those Syrians! Babies. So emotional!’
‘It’s so much easier for me’, I replied. ‘I’m a woman’. We practice this self-control every day: with our fellow Syrians, with our co-workers, and at times, with ourselves. We never stop trying to be taken seriously.’
I started my current job as director of a civil society organization more than two years ago. Over time, I regretfully came to accept that I would be begrudged every word of praise I received, and that when it came, men were the standard by which I was judged. ‘Sister of men!’ I was called. ‘I swear Marcell, you’re worth a hundred men!’ came as a compliment; and I got used to ignoring the looks of surprise and eyebrows raised whenever I’d offer an opinion on politics.
As I summed it up: ‘For a woman to succeed in public life is an exception that is thought to deserve the closest scrutiny, as though it meant a man must have failed.’ In the beginning, every detail about my presence had to be cautiously monitored in order for me ‘to be taken seriously’: What I wore as a woman constantly surrounded by men; how I was to sideline my gender in all my professional interactions. For a long time I disguised my femininity. I wore loose or strictly formal clothing; smiling as little as possible; holding all and any pleasant advances from the opposite sex at arms’ length, with a determination that sometimes bordered on hostility; my hair tied back.
To be taken seriously I also worked to be as far removed from people’s pre-conceptions as possible. I anticipated their accusations, and fought to show that I am not in this job because I ’m a pretty young woman, or because I’m associated with a man, or because I’m looking for a man, or because they need to meet a gender quota, or some ridiculous quantum of non-hijab wearing women in the workplace. And in order to resist all these accusations – sometimes voiced, sometimes just implied – I was obliged to devote all my time and redoubled effort to this same principle: taking care of the details.
Even now, after speaking publically about my organization’s achievements or the challenges I face as an activist in Syria, some people still think it’s entirely appropriate to ask questions like ‘but do you dress like that in Syria?’ The fact that I don’t wear a hijab (or to reverse it: that I have a number of co-workers who do) is still seen as some vitally significant summation of what I and my fellow women represent in life. Even now, during the job interviews I conduct for the organization, I’ll encounter applicants who assume I’m the secretary, and that ‘Marcel’, the Executive Director, will be along shortly to sit in on the process.
The questions posed to me by my interrogator at the security branch still make me laugh. ‘Why are you supporting the revolution? Are you in a relationship with a Sunni man, perhaps?’ It’s a neat abridgment of who I’m presumed to be: a ‘Christian’ woman whose political position must be down to some man seducing and brainwashing me.
Effort on effort, the details’ details, all so we don’t lose our tempers. They say our moods affect how we run our organization: that we mustn’t cry if we don’t want to be told that our decisions are ‘emotional’. Details on details, so we don’t get trapped in the cliché where some seek to confine us: Middle Eastern women who cling to big tough men.
To be taken seriously, we women mustn’t disagree with one another, even when it comes to politics. It might be that we don’t agree about some position or other – ‘Imagine… the United Women Party don’t all hold the same position on Geneva, or the opposition, or armed revolution, or federalism, or the oil price…!’– but it is far from easy to express those differences.
Men however frequently disagree in public life: Islamist vs. secularists; those for the armed revolution and against it; for liberating new territory and against; no-fly zones, no no-fly zones. They fight out these positions in articles and through boycotts; they withdraw and break away, while we live our lives under pressure, unable to speak our dissent to avoid being subjected to idiocies like ‘the first enemy of women are women!’ or ‘you women don’t support one another’, or even ‘you women don’t like one another!’
Men are expected to show dissent when expressing their political views. Women just love or loathe each other.
To be taken seriously we must resist all the uses to which we are put in public life. We are used as pawns by dictatorships to motivate or repress their populations without bloodletting. We are used as symbols by political movements to signal liberal attitudes they don’t believe in. We are used as tokens by players in the international community to promote the idea that ‘Syrian women’ have a decision-making role in the political process when the truth is that all Syrians, men and women alike, have been excluded from making any decisions when it comes to Syria.
We must resist these stereotypes that are foisted upon us. The victim – from whom we well-intentioned onlookers will cheerfully purchase any handcraft, however poorly-made, purely because ‘she’s a Syrian refugee.’ The saintly heroine who never breaks down, no matter what, because she represents the ‘honour’ of the glorious homeland. The devoted helpmeet of the soldier or jihadist who fulfils misogynist dreams of the Oriental woman ‘dancing in the background’ – or, in Syria’s case, murmurs of ‘sexual jihad’ and the like. To be taken seriously, we are expected to be constantly present and ready for anything. We are forced to prove our qualifications, our years of experience and employment, and sometimes of detention and revolutionary activism. We must draw attention to the languages we speak, our special skills and talents.
Men in public life don’t face many questions about their talents or their right to be there. Any comment they make about gender equality, representation, and participation, is followed by ‘though they must be qualified. ’ Men are ‘qualified’ by virtue of being men, of course. Although Syrian men might face this kind of questioning themselves when they enter the world of international civil society organizations and encounter their employees, we face it every day, and in all languages.
To be taken seriously, we are constantly having to convince others that our political interests go further than The Women’s Bureau, or the women’s councils, or the Advisory Board, or issues connected with the rights of women and children. That we are interested in democracy, not just in ‘working towards peace’.
We are activists and feminists and defenders of human rights. We are not just the martyr’s mother or sister, or the detainee’s wife. We have to brandish our history and our sacrifices to gain any legitimacy. To be taken seriously we have to fight all the time and on all fronts, within our organizations and outside of them, and yet, at the same time, in all these battles, we must avoid being seen as angry or tense.
And when the battles are over – battles that countless Syrian women have fought and won – they put us neatly into the box marked ‘exceptions’ and rest easy.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger
This article is published by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung