“The war changed women’s lives in Syria,” says Amina Abdullmajid Albish. “Most women lost their husbands, the breadwinners, so they were forced to take on more responsibility. They had to support their family and work,” she told i from her home in Idlib province, northwest Syria, where the 34-year-old runs one of The White Helmets‘ women’s centres.
Her husband survived, but was arrested twice by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. She had to bribe them for his release after they forced him to join the military. They fled to the capital, Damascus, after their village in Idlib was captured by the regime forces. She describes almost being shot while doing laundry on the roof of her home.
They only returned to Idlib once anti-government rebels took the province, which is now the last rebel-held territory.
Every day after preparing her five children for school, she goes to work in the centre, where her main task is providing medical aid for the women who come in on a daily basis.
Over a month since the devastating twin earthquakes struck the region, exacerbating an already dire situation in a country where conflict has been raging for 12 years and 90 per cent of the population live under the poverty line, her job is essential.
When the uprisings began 12 years ago, Mrs Abdullmajid Albish, like many Syrians, was optimistic about the future of her country. She took part in the peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy that swept across Syria after seeing videos on social media of children tortured by the regime for graffitiing a wall in the southern town of Daraa.
The graffiti read: “Your turn, Doctor,” in reference to President Bashar al-Assad, who is a trained ophthalmologist.
Inspired by the protests happening around the Arab world in spring 2011, this anti-Assad slogan sparked a revolution, but it was met with brutality and violent suppression from Assad’s forces, descending into a bloody war. Since then the regime has inflicted a catalogue of human rights abuses on civilians, including chemical weapons attacks, bombing hospitals, and forced disappearances.
More than 306,000 civilians were killed in Syria between March 2011 and March 2021, according to the UN Human Rights Office.
“At that time [during the uprising], everything was changing and the Assad regime was falling apart and the demonstrations were everywhere. But now the situation is different,” she said.
Women face harassment and sexual assault
War magnifies gender inequalities, increases discrimination, and exposes women and girls in particular to sexual violence and exploitation – the conflict in Syria is no exception, says Farah Youssef, research fellow on Syria at the Arab Reform Initiative, an independent think-tank based in France.
“Today the main challenge is shelter; many women are living on the streets or in tents,” she says, adding that they don’t have access to clean water, medicine, or electricity.
“It is the same for men, but for women it is worse because they face difficulties going to the bathroom, they face harassment and sexual assault.”
“The most affected area [from the recent earthquakes] is the northwest and the women there have accumulated layers and layers of violence – they’ve been forcibly displaced and experienced many types of violence, so they are exhausted,” says Ms Youssef.
In regime-controlled areas, she says, women don’t even have the right to work distributing humanitarian aid – those that do are threatened with arrest.
When Syrians first took to the streets in 2011, she said: “We wanted freedom of speech, freedom of expression, we wanted dignity. But now activism is reduced to asking for food, asking for tents.”
Mrs Abdullmajid Albish says her main worry is the lack of safety. The northwest is still being bombed by the regime, as well as by their ally, Russia.
“We are in danger because of the bombings, the double taps,” she says, adding that she is also concerned about the psychological impacts of this on her and her children.
Lubna Kanawati, a Syrian activist and deputy executive director of Women Now Development, an NGO focused on empowering and advocating for Syrian women, says that her countrywomen have suffered rights violations during the war, but at the same time the uprising has changed gender roles and “opened a lot of spaces to women’s activism and contributions in the public sphere, showing the agency of women and the importance of their leadership.”
She adds: “I believe in us and we’ve done a lot in the past decade. I will always be thankful to be part of the Syrian feminist movement that was born because of the social and political change the 2011 revolution brought.”
However, this activism must now translate into political participation and representation, says Ms Youssef.
“We need to have a serious international will to push a political solution which is gender sensitive and co-designed with women,” she says.
Mrs Abdullmajid Albish is hoping for a brighter future for her own daughters, aged 17 and 6. She says she doesn’t want them to get married young like she did.
“My personal life before the uprising was totally different, I married after ninth grade at school [around 15 years-old] – there were no rights for women at that time.”
“I’m standing by my daughters and providing them with psychological support – I talk to them to try to overcome the effects [of war], the psychological impacts, the danger, everything. I’m trying my best to be a good mother to them.”