Despite the considerable involvement of Syrian women in the uprising against the Assad regime since 2011, regions in northern Syria still under rebel control are ruled by armed factions with Islamic leanings, which oppose women's involvement in the public sphere and equality between men and women. Syrian activists and organizations concerned with women's rights in these areas report that they are forced to operate in secret for fear of persecution. Moreover, reports indicate that the past year has seen quite a few incidents of hostility towards women activists in these areas. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights records 67 incidents of attacks on women between March 2020 and March 2021 in the parts of Syria outside the control of the Assad regime.
Two incidents in the city of A'zaz in the Aleppo district, a stronghold of Islamic Syrian factions backed by Turkey, shed light on these factions' attitude towards women and sparked a heated debate on the issue of women's status and rights. The first incident was an August 6, 2021 sermon delivered at the Grand Mosque of 'Azaz by Sheikh Osama Al-Rifa'i. This sheikh is the head of the Syrian Islamic Council, which was founded in 2014 in Istanbul and is a source of authority for Sunni Syrian organizations opposed to the Assad regime. Moreover, on November 20, the council announced that it had appointed Al-Rifa'i, who is also a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), as Grand Mufti of Syria after President Assad abolished this position. In his August sermon Al-Rifa'i warned against organizations that are spreading ideas contrary to the values of Islam in the guise of dispensing humanitarian aid. "The UN and other elements," he said, recruit women who spread depraved and un-Islamic values among local young girls, such as women's liberation and gender equality. The other incident was the reported establishment in A'zaz of an Association for Polygamy, aimed at encouraging men to take Syrian war widows whose husbands were killed fighting the regime as second wives.
These two events evoked angry responses from Syrian women's rights organizations and activists, and from women media figures. They accused the clerics and Islamic organizations of inciting against women activists by presenting them as foreign agents out to corrupt society, which puts them in danger of violence and attacks. They also accused the Islamic elements of spreading, in the guise of religion, a primitive mentality that presents women as inferior and promotes their exclusion from the public sphere. Stressing the important contribution of women to the Syrian revolution and to the future of the country, they stated that the Syrian people will not attain their freedom unless they grant Syrian women their equality and rights.
Syrian women's protest against the Assad regime (Syria.tv, August 22, 2021)
This report reviews the recent statements by Islamic elements against women, and the responses they evoked.
Islamic Elements In Syria Incite Against Women Activists, Promote Polygamy
Sheikh Al-Rifa'i, head of the Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council, delivered his sermon during an August 2021 visit to the rebel-controlled areas in northern Syria. In the sermon he harshly attacked civil society organizations, which he said are "subordinate to colonialist, infidel and depraved countries that strive to spread un-Islamic deviation among the youth and the women." These organization, he added, purport to dispense humanitarian aid, but their real goal is to spread immorality and sexual perversions that contravene the values of Islam and of Syrian society. He came out especially against the women activists in these organizations, saying: "There are Syrian women who speak our language and come from our cities, who arrive [in Syria] after being recruited by the UN and by other organizations… They come from the centers of deceptive thinking to spread [notions of] so-called women's liberation and of gender, especially among our young women… They say to our women: 'You are enslaved to your husbands, your fathers or your elder brothers'… Then they teach these women misguided and misleading values of nudity and disrobing, and everything that deviates from the frameworks of Islam. They are recruited by the most senior bodies in the West to corrupt our women."
Sheikh Osama Al-Rifa'i preaching at the A'zaz mosque (Source: Facebook.com/syrian.islamic.council, August 10, 2021)
As for the Association for Polygamy, reports in October 2021 state that it was established in A'zaz with the aim of promoting marriage among Syrian widows. The director of the Association, Ahlam Al-Sa'ud, said that it is "concerned with women's rights and acts to support the basic unit of society, which is the family." She added that "women have the right to marry and build a new home after the Assad regime destroyed their first home, so as to go on hoping and living." In the spirit of Al-Rifa'i's sermon, she stressed that the association "inculcates the authentic values and principles of our society and rejects foreign and corrupting traditions."
The reports on the establishment of this society evoked mixed responses. Islamic elements affiliated with the Syrian opposition welcomed it. Syrian Islamic Council member Hassan Al-Daghim, director of moral guidance in the Syrian National Army, a coalition of pro-Turkish factions, tweeted that the association would help widows "and enable women to fulfill their role in life under the sponsorship of a loving man." Islamic jurisprudent Sheikh Ahmad Al-'Alwan, who supports the pro-Turkish Syrian opposition, wrote on Facebook that the establishment of the association was "an excellent step towards… providing appropriate solutions for [the problem of] the growing number of widows in our society. May Allah reward everyone who is involved in this [action]."
Conversely, women's organizations and many social media activists came out against the association. Amid the heated debate on this issue, the A'zaz local council clarified on October 19 that it had not issued the association a license or approved its activities, and that it had therefore been closed down.
Syrian Women's Rights Organizations Respond To Al-Rifa'i: Incitement Against Women Activists Puts Them In Danger; Women's Equality An Integral Part Of Syria's Future
Sheikh Osama Al-Rifa'i's statements drew fire from Syrian women's rights organizations and feminist activists, who regarded them as incitement against civil society activists that could lead to physical attacks on them. The Syrian Feminist Lobby, an independent organization promoting gender equality in Syria that has been operating from Turkey since 2014, wrote on its Facebook page: "The discourse… that incites some of [our Syrian] people against [various] sectors, individuals or organizations based on differences of religion or ideology, or because of their beliefs or activity in the sphere of human rights, is despicable and unacceptable, especially when these people and organizations are accused of [serving] a foreign agenda or of spying, without any basis in reality. This is incitement that can put these people in danger, especially in areas controlled by armed organizations, some of which are extremist.
"The feminist movement and the [Syrian] human rights activists, both men and women… have never been subordinate to or recruited by [any foreign element]. On the contrary, they arose in response to the suffering and anguish of women throughout history, which stems from their social, legal and political oppression. [These activists] and they are an integral part of the Syrian people's struggle for freedom and dignity. Statements like [Al-Rifa'i's], which malign feminist activists and civil society, do not serve the interest of Syrian society as a whole. In fact, they [only] exacerbate the conflict between its many ideological currents and serve the interests of the regime and its propaganda. Rights cannot be attained without the integration of women [in the public sphere]. Women's liberation, dignity and equality are an integral part of the future Syria – [the country] that we, all Syrian men and women who believe in fighting tyranny in all its forms, are striving to establish."
Feminist activist Muzna Dureid, who, since coming to Canada as a refugee during the war has been helping fellow Syrian refugees there, and is also an officer in the White Helmets civil defense organization, stressed the danger faced by women as a result of the religious discourse against them. She said: "Why did [Al-Rifa'i] deliver this sermon? What are his motives? We women are headed in the right direction, although change is hard and takes a long time. Al-Rifa'i's sermon is [actually] clear proof of the progress that has been made [in the sphere of women's rights], which troubles men… [This discourse] puts the lives of women in northern Syria in severe danger, for it is an explicit call, backed by religious [authority], to target women working in the public sphere… Al-Rifa'i's statements take us back hundreds of years, not to the time before the revolution, but to the situation as it was before the 1950s."
The Musawa ("Equality") organization for women's rights and empowerment also condemned Al-Rifa'i's statements, stressing that "the fierce war waged by the extremist forces against us is nothing new for us. They use many means to malign our struggle, our goals and our demands, [trying] to convince the public that [our] goal is to destabilize society, destroy the family and renounce all moral values… We will never allow anyone accuse us of treason. Everyone knows that we took an active part in our people's revolution, fought against tyranny and paid a heavy price – facing pressures, arrests and expulsion – and we continue to help all Syrian women inside the country, as well as displaced and refugee women. We provide them with services, fight the violence against them and empower them to become active members of their societies… We expect those who fight tyranny, demand freedom and justice and support the revolution of our people to support every just demand that upholds the rights of men, women and children."
Syrian Activists, Organizations: The Association For Polygamy Is A Disgrace; Can Women Be Empowered Through Polygamy?
The reports about the establishment of the Association for Polygamy in A'zaz also drew condemnation and scorn from Syrian organizations and activists. The Al-Rafed organization wrote on its Facebook page: "An office of the Association for Polygamy has been opened in A'zaz to support women!!!... Can women be empowered, and can their dignity be defended, through polygamy? In the 21st century, have we lost all the creative projects that support women in the areas of economy, technology and ideology, leaving us with polygamy as the fairest way to empower women?... Every time we claim to have reached rock bottom, we discover there is a bottom we have not yet reached. The establishment of this association is a dishonor and a disgrace…"
Activist Manar Azzady tweeted: "The Association for Polygamy in A'zaz, Syria is the greatest possible humiliation for women and for their rights and freedom. It's as though women are a commodity to be bought and sold. A curse on anyone who trades in our cause and our bodies for the benefit of some political or religious organization."
Some saw the establishment of this association as ridiculous when Syria has much more serious problems. Activist Amna Ali tweeted sarcastically: "Thank God, Syria is in good shape. The war is over, the birds are chirping… all our troubles have been resolved and people are beginning to envy our lives. We have only one problem left, which is [insufficient] polygamy. So sister [Ahlam Al-Sa'ud] decided to form an association for polygamy to solve this great problem that is troubling us."
Syrian Activists: These Events Demonstrate The Failings And Twisted Logic Of The Religious Current
Users on social media directed harsh criticism at Muslim clerics, especially for fighting women's rights instead of helping the Syrians overcome their severe economic and security crisis. Activist Ahmad Al-Hiraki tweeted: "I listened to the sermon of Sheikh Osama Al-Rifa'i… and [now] I wish I hadn't. Oh Sheikh, [we've had] ten years of war, in which the Syrian citizen witnessed the hypocrisy of all elements, especially of the Islamic currents – and you warn us about the danger posed to the youth by [civil society] organizations, and especially by their women members? Everyone has failed the test of Syrian [reality], especially the religious current."
Mu'tasem Alsyoufi, executive director of The Day After, an organization promoting democracy in Syria, wrote on Facebook: "The worst thing is that one of the clerics who support this initiative [of opening the Association for Polygamy] said that its goal is to protect the honor of the martyrs' widows and enable women to fulfill their role in life. What twisted and wretched logic, at odds with the most basic human values! We must defend women's honor by strengthening their role in public life, regardless of their social and marital status. Marrying or remaining unmarried is a matter of personal freedom, unconnected to honor or role. Whoever cares about the martyrs' widows should defend and empower them in the spheres of education, economy and law, instead of taking advantage of their tragedy…"
The director of the Association for Polygamy, Ahlam Al-Sa'ud (Source: Syria.tv, October 19, 2021)
Syrian Writers: Islamist Elements In The Liberated Areas Incite Against Women
Similar criticism appeared in several articles by Syrian oppositionists. Syrian writer and poet Rasha 'Omran wrote on August 22: "Sheikh Osama Al-Rifa'i did not say anything new in his last sermon. He only calmly repeated the narrative that [reflects] the mentality of the clerics, who never discuss anything that [really] impinges on the honor of their followers – like ensuring them a dignified life, improving their wretched economic or security situation or [ensuring] their children's future – and do not present any practical or effective plans. All they do is incite violence against anyone who disagrees with them, primarily women, of course, who are described as [beings that] arouse sexual urges… [The clerics behave] as though women are not a central part of Syrian society and as if they never pioneered the Syrian revolution… Does Sheikh Al-Rifa'i know that the German women are the one who rebuilt Germany after World War II? Why do they insist on downplaying the role of the Syrian women and stopping their activity by inciting against them in populist and emotional sermons?"
Syrian journalist Samer Al-Suleiman wrote on October 20, following the reports on the opening of the Association for Polygamy: "Several months ago Sheikh Osama Al-Rifa'i visited A'zaz and directed a harsh attack at women who work for civil society organizations or preach equal rights for women and men, and now an office [of the Association of Polygamy] has been opened [there]… Polygamy cannot be defended by hiding behind the religious texts… The problem lies in exploiting and politicizing the issue of polygamy by opening associations and meeting men's desires… and [thus] encouraging a primitive mentality cloaked in religious terminology… Providing job opportunities and [promoting] small businesses, raising women's awareness of their rights and supporting them, providing psychological treatment for women and encouraging them to participate in political life in the areas outside the control of the regime – those are only a few of the issues that must be advanced, instead of taking advantage of the woman's distress to hand her over to a man who will treat her only as [a tool] for pleasure and childbearing… The opening of an office for polygamy is the worst thing women can face, for it increases their inferiority and exclusion, and [implies] that their role in the world is to bear children, please men and cook.
"Life in the liberated areas is supposed to be more progressive than in the areas controlled by the regime, but… [in practice] the liberated areas are not presenting any example or model for plans that can appeal to the Syrians living under the regime. This is because they are controlled by leaders who love war and inter-faction conflicts, and by Islamists who are uninterested in social matters… Until the economic and social situation improves, an association [for polygamy] is just a commercial enterprise taking advantage of women's suffering and satisfying the desires of influential men in A'zaz and elsewhere. The worst thing is that it constitutes exploitation of religious legislation and a distortion of the conditions [set out in Islam] for polygamy."
* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 Alhurra.com, August 13, 2021.
 Sn4hr.org, March 8, 2021. An October 2021 report by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, which measures women's well-being throughout the world's countries based on parameters of inclusion, justice and security, ranked Syria second-to-last among 170 countries. See https://giwps.georgetown.edu/the-index.
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