News / Middle East

Women a Small, Symbolic Part of Syrian Fighting Force

Similar to female fighters who run checkpoints for forces of Bashar al Assad in Damascus, a female member of the Al-Ikhlas [Loyalty] Battalion stops a van at a rebel checkpoint, Aleppo, March 31, 2013.
Similar to female fighters who run checkpoints for forces of Bashar al Assad in Damascus, a female member of the Al-Ikhlas [Loyalty] Battalion stops a van at a rebel checkpoint, Aleppo, March 31, 2013.
Reuters
Walaa's parents used to force her to stay indoors, fearing for her safety in the war-torn city of Homs. Now she proudly walks the streets each day with a Kalashnikov and camouflage uniform.
 
For many women like Walaa, living in hard-hit areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, it is the first time in months they have been able to rejoin the outside world since Syria plummeted into civil war.
 
In a conservative region where laws and custom typically restrict the rights and opportunities of women, they are playing a part in Assad's paramilitary forces, evidence of just how much the conflict, after more than two years and 80,000 dead, has reshaped and militarized Syria.
 
"I was an office secretary before 2011. Then the kidnappings started in Homs, and the war here began," the 32-year-old told Reuters. "From then on I stayed home. All I did was watch the news and argue with my parents."
 
"In mid-2012 people started to talk about the creation of the National Defense Forces (NDF). I thought this could be my opportunity to get out of the house and get some work."
 
The NDF were formed to regularize militias that backed Assad. Groups that once were accused by the opposition of brutal massacres now have uniforms and salaries paid by the army. They call themselves a new kind of military reserve force.
 
Walaa got three weeks' training in firearms, first aid and military drills. Like the men, she gets 15,000 Syrian pounds ($150) a week — no small sum in a country whose economy is collapsing.
 
Women like her who have joined the NDF do not go into combat and are never near the front line, but they are an increasingly common sight for drivers going through checkpoints.
 
Fashion statement

More than the risks or economic rewards, most women interviewed talked about joining the NDF as a social and perhaps even a romantic opportunity.
 
"A lot of my girlfriends are in the NDF. I went home a few weeks ago to check it out, and it seemed really cool ... All the girls seemed happy, and the environment is friendly," said Nisreen, a Homs native currently living in Damascus.
 
She is considering going back to Homs to join up.
 
"A lot of girls in my family joined. And hey, you never know, I may even find myself a husband," she joked.
 
The trend is still small — NDF fighters say female recruits number in the hundreds — but the number is rising, and is higher if you include women who have signed up for training as a self-defense skill but not to work.
 
Vendors in Assad strongholds say militarization has become a marketable fashion statement.
 
"I've bought lots of camouflage shirts and sweaters, and lots of girls buy them now," said Yasser, a Tartous shopkeeper.
 
"It's a really good business for us small shop owners."
 
Gender roles

Syria's laws are less restrictive for women than in many parts of the Middle East, but gender roles were still largely determined by conservative societal norms, and wartime severely curtailed their opportunities.
 
The NDF has given them back a small public role.
 
"From the beginning it was completely accepted, and I was surprised. I didn't expect that. So we started to organize things better," said an army officer in Homs, who asked to remain anonymous.  "This is an investment in our national pride. It doesn't have to be materially effective; it's about raising spirits."
 
Women are in NDF units in central Homs and Hama province as well as coastal Latakia and Tartous. There are also plans to expand training for women to Damascus, the officer said.
 
The symbolism of the NDF women feeds into the sectarian divide that has deepened during the civil war. For Assad's supporters, largely drawn from minorities like his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, putting women in uniform and at checkpoints demonstrates the more liberal and tolerant image they want to project.
 
"This reflects the regime's claim of being a secular state," said Rakan, a 30-year-old NDF fighter in Homs.
 
He says there are concrete benefits, too.

"It's helped us a lot with them at the checkpoints; it lightens our burden," he said.
 
It is also a way to provoke opponents they call Islamist "terrorists," most of whom are from Syria's more conservative Sunni Muslim majority.
 
"We see them as whores for Assad. This is just to taunt us for our morals," said Ahmed, a rebel in Aleppo. "Guys make rude jokes about what they would do if they caught them."
 
Rebels have occasionally filmed female "fighters," their faces wrapped in headscarves, saying they had no choice but to take up arms. Most opposition activists admit this is a media ploy to stir up their followers.
 
Militarized society

Syria analyst Joshua Landis says the embrace of women in Syria's traditionally male army environment is a sign of how much fighting now defines this country of 23 million.
 
"Every aspect of society is becoming militarized," he said. "This is particularly pressing for the state side. Alawites have around three million people. If you are trying to use that for most of your fighting force, it's very limited."
 
Rebels, he said, have less need to turn to women. They have a much larger pool of young Sunni male combatants.
 
Wary of rising sectarian tensions, other women say they are preparing for an all-out war.
 
Fadwa, from the mostly Alawite town of Masyaf, has lost a brother, cousin and brother-in-law to the fighting.
 
She fears for her four young children and husband and believes that given her town's proximity to pro-opposition Sunni areas, the fighting could one day hit her army-fortified town.
 
"Alawites are under threat. We are targets. This is the least we can do; learn to defend ourselves," she said.
 
Fadwa kept her job as a teacher instead of joining patrols.
 
But she is encouraging women in her family to join the NDF, or at least get training.
 
For Walaa, joining the NDF was about regaining the dignity she felt she lost when armed men took charge of her streets.
 
"The way people look at me has changed," she said. "I feel like I regained old parts of my life. I feel confident again. I feel respected."

You May Like

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More