Reporting on the War in Syria as an Unveiled Woman

=Five long, shapeless tops; a pile of loose-fitting, dark-colored jeans; a knee-length coat; and a video camera. Those were the contents of my wardrobe for more than two years, when I lived in and reported on the rebel-held area of Aleppo, known as eastern Aleppo city. Few things changed between the seasons, as we had to dress conservatively year-round.
In my “real life” — my life as a layperson and not a journalist — I have only two to three dark pieces of clothing in my closet, hidden among dozens of green, blue, pink, and red garments. When I reported from Aleppo, the hardest thing for me was putting on a dark headscarf just before leaving the house after I’d carefully chosen my outfit for the day.
I refused to cover my hair simply because I couldn’t see why “all the women in our town do” was enough of a reason for me to do so as well.
Back in early 2011, when the uprising erupted in Syria, I finally started to feel like I belonged in my own country. The anti-government demonstrations demanding democratic reforms from President Bashar al-Assad represented everything I’d long hoped for: freedom of expression, a free press, elections, and an end to fear.
But even after experiencing all of that hope, I found myself fighting the same fight that I had won so many years ago: the fight not to wear a hijab.
IfIf you ask anyone why women in Syria should be covering their hair, they might cite the Qur’an. But why is this rule enforced so much more strictly now than it has been in the past? The answer is simple: many fundamentalist Muslims are now armed, giving them the unlimited power and impunity to suppress women, whom they believe to be the weaker gender.
I come from a conservative community in Syria, in Idlib city, and my family had tried to force me to wear the hijab at 15 years old. I won that battle: I refused to cover my hair simply because I couldn’t see why “all the women in our town do” was enough of a reason for me to do so as well. I will never forget the shame I was forced to feel when I was harassed and called names on the streets. I can’t count the number of times I was groped while on my way to school, in broad daylight. Even though I had adamantly refused to put on the headscarf, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for being touched inappropriately. But I never gave up.
After the uprising, 15 years later, I fought the battle again and lost. I had tried to resist. I had thought: I am not a foreign journalist who’s in Syria for a short trip to do some reporting before heading back home. This is my home, and I should force these people to accept who I am. I should once again fight the same battle I had fought as a teenager, this time with strange, armed men in a chaotic corner of my country, known as the most dangerous area in the entire world for journalists.
But I and other women activists and journalists had become “minors” in Syria. Any man had the right to check the length of our sweaters, the color of our outfits, who we were moving around with, and who we were talking to. They even had the right to scrutinize the fabric of our pants. Jeans signaled that we were not locals, or that we were activists, since many consider them to be a Western form of clothing.
I needed a man by my side to travel, to be able to move from one neighborhood to another. The chaperone had to be a mahram, meaning an allowable escort — a man who has a close blood relationship with me, such as my father or uncle. In my final couple of years in Syria, I had to fake having two brothers (I used their sisters’ IDs), four maternal uncles (my mother’s surname is not written on my ID, so this was easy), three cousins, and two husbands.
I ran into trouble many times. At a checkpoint in northern Aleppo in 2014, when I was still refusing to wear a headscarf, a guard asked my male chaperone, “Who is she?”
“She’s a Syrian journalist from Idlib,” my friend answered.
“A journalist? From Idlib? Are you kidding me?” the armed man mocked. “She’s obviously a foreign journalist. We don’t have any women journalists here.”
“Well, I’m from Idlib city — the Dabeet neighborhood, to be exact — and I have a heavy dialect, too. Here’s my ID,” I interjected, waving the document at him.
“Wow, you speak Arabic well,” he said. “Where did you learn it? And this ID could easily be fake.”
The idea of an impostor with fake Syrian identification papers who speaks in an authentic Idlibi dialect was, apparently, easier for the armed man to accept than the idea of an unveiled Syrian woman journalist.
AAfter a series of clashes like these with soldiers at checkpoints — many of which caused my male chaperones great distress — I decided to start covering my hair with the Palestinian keffiyeh, carefully wrapping it around my head in the way Arab men traditionally do to protect themselves from the desert sun. The change didn’t help to lower my profile, however, so in 2015, I started to arrange the keffiyeh around my head as if it were a full headscarf, covering my hair completely. By the time I left Syria for southern Turkey for good in 2016, I was wearing a long, dark coat along with a formal, regular hijab.
The only way I could challenge those dim colors while living in Syria was by wearing bright underwear and colored pins on my scarf. They were tiny dots of color, yes, but they made me feel better. I didn’t quit using my expensive antiwrinkle cream either. “There’s a helicopter hovering above our heads and a barrel bomb could be breaking both of us into pieces at any minute, so why the hell are you worried about aging?” my husband at the time, Mahmoud, would ask. There’s a chance we may live through this war and come out of it in one piece, I thought. And if we do, all of the hard work I put into sustaining my skin’s elegance will have paid off. I want to live a long life and to write about what I witnessed so that no one will forget what happened here. And I want to have supple, crease-free skin, too.
Helmets and bulletproof vests are common in my country: they’re used for protection by male reporters stationed at the front lines or as accessories for people to take photos with. Mine were mostly needed when I went shopping for groceries or when I filmed from hospitals and schools. Those were the most dangerous places to report from, because they were continually targeted by the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies, the Russian forces.
I have two particularly precious photos — souvenirs, you could say — of myself in a bulletproof vest. I was with my friend Hamoudi Bitar in the suburbs of Latakia. He was only 21 years old at the time, an ambitious architecture student, and he was acting as my fixer, helping me to arrange meetings and travel logistics. We’d just passed some extremist-controlled areas in the Jisr al-Shogour area. Even though we claimed we were cousins, we faced great difficulty when crossing through checkpoints. Hamoudi, in particular, had to bear the brunt of the questioning — why was he traveling on his own with a young woman?
After we’d finished the reporting trip, we drove along the beautiful mountains of Akrad, but I started to feel overwhelmingly depressed. I was where I belonged — my homeland — but I could not accept that I had to be this dependent on someone else. I felt weak. Hamoudi sensed my sadness and suddenly stopped the car at the edge of the road. “Get out of the car and bring your camera,” he said firmly. I thought someone was following us or that he’d spotted a land mine, until he said, “Take off your headscarf. Enjoy the air in your hair and be yourself,” and began to snap some photos of me.
Hamoudi was a conservative man from my city, Idlib. All of the women in his family were veiled, and he wouldn’t propose to a woman who didn’t wear a headscarf. However, in that moment, he supported me, risking his own life to give me a few precious minutes of relief.
In September 2013, a year later, Hamoudi was killed while filming a battle on the outskirts of our city. The journalistic norm of “keeping a distance with your sources” is, to me, an abstract concept, as removed from reality as “living alone on an island.” My sources are my schoolmates, relatives, and family members. And those death counts flashing on your screens contain my first lovers, teachers, neighbors, and friends.
AAfter deciding to revolt against the patriarchal society I lived in, I had to deal with the consequences of my rebellion. There were many. “You will go to hell.” “Surely, you will end up a spinster.” “You will ruin the family’s reputation and destroy our honor.” “You will bring shame to the city of Idlib.” These are some of the attitudes that I had to fight.
If I were sent back in time to the age of 15, when I had that very first argument about putting on the hijab, I wouldn’t do anything differently.
I have committed all the sins that could potentially be committed in such an awful war zone. I am a Syrian; a woman who lived in the most masculine of spaces; a journalist in a land of warlords; a secularist living among different kinds of extremists and foreign jihadists; and a human rights defender among war criminals, some claiming to be fighting for the other side, and some claiming to be pro-freedom, on my side. All of these combined meant I was far more scared of being assassinated than of being randomly killed by the Syrian army. I would be a great target, someone a fighter would be proud to have killed. After my murder, the killer would be guaranteed a place in heaven, where they’d be gifted with pretty girls. They would be a proud patriot because they would have eliminated a voice that threatened the image of Assad’s Syria.
One of the few common threads that run through the different parts of Syria (including territories controlled by the Kurds, ISIL, the Assad regime, rebels, Turks, or al-Qaeda) is that if you are deemed a propagandist or a traitor, you must be killed. In my weakest moments, I couldn’t even share stories, photos, or bits and pieces of news on my social media accounts. I had to harshly censor myself. My loved ones volunteered to do so on my behalf as well. They would read what I intended to make public, then tell me to either publish or not publish the content. Then I started taking notes of the things that I couldn’t make public — at least for now. Over the past four years, I have barely had 10 articles published, even though I have written 80 pages of outlines and notes saved in a file on my laptop entitled “Can’t Be Published.”
TThere were, nonetheless, advantages to being a woman journalist. If I wasn’t a woman, I wouldn’t have been invited to the closed segregated women’s community of Idlib. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able to film the women there moving about freely in their houses and as they worked. I was called hurma repeatedly during this time. This Arabic word carries with it multiple insulting connotations: haram, or “forbidden”; a form of weakness; someone who is dependent; a minor; a man’s tool for pleasure; his property; his possession; her gender role; and, finally, the eternal circle that a woman shouldn’t break — fertility and giving birth.
Because I was given access to these women, I stopped being bothered by the word hurma. Instead, I was choosing to be hurma to be able to capture their stories. I was able to obtain access to a very private gynecological clinic in Aleppo city, which men are not allowed to enter. I went in with my camera, and I was terrified at first. It was a place where women covered themselves up in black from head to toe. And their male relatives could have had me killed for showing their faces on camera (to preserve their “honor,” women should be kept hidden from the public eye).
While I was at the clinic, a 15-year-old girl wearing a black face veil walked in with her mother. She lifted her scarf to reveal the bright, youthful face of a teenager. Her mother then told the doctor that her daughter had been married for six weeks but wasn’t yet pregnant. She was worried. “What’s wrong with her?” she demanded. The girl started to blush and looked at the floor. Her mother requested a “pregnancy catalyst,” something that would “please” her husband.
Another woman in her mid-forties visited the clinic with her pregnant daughter-in-law. She whispered to the doctor, “I want to have a baby, too. If I get pregnant, my husband will sleep in my house more, instead of going to his new, younger wife’s home.”
These stories aren’t surprising to me, not only because I come from a community where such anxieties are common but also because I have witnessed firsthand that even empowered women activists who challenge the regime, their families, and tradition voluntarily turn into hareem (plural of hurma) after getting married.
IIt’s been two years since I left that version of Syria, and I’m still struggling to find my voice and my freedom again. I’m a 32-year-old journalist, but I’ve reported freely for only two years of my life, between 2010 and 2012, as the uprising escalated into a brutal civil war. The years 2012 and beyond constitute an awful chapter of my personal and professional experience.
I have survived extraordinarily painful conflicts — both external and internal — to be the woman I am today. A man would have been able to do it all quite easily, while I and other women have had to fight for our achievements. And I don’t want my daughter to have to do the same.
To be frank, if I were sent back in time to the age of 15, when I had that very first argument about putting on the hijab, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I would choose to recommit all of the sins that have accompanied my being born into the original sin of womanhood. I would still choose to become a journalist, a secularist, and a human rights defender. I would choose to travel along this same path. Every thought I can change or eye I can open to help people see the difficult lives the women in my homeland live — and the inequality they experience — makes this battle a worthy one
published on Zora Medium
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