Feminism Islamic style 480x332 Feminism, Islamic styleThe elaborate hoax of a lesbian girl in Damascus has shocked the world. For many it was impossible to conceive that a woman, let alone a lesbian, would be able to express themselves politically and socially in an Islamic country like Syria.

The irresponsible hoax however has diverted attention away from the real human rights abuses currently occurring in the country. The blog (inaccurately) tried to characterise Syrian women generally as afraid to stand up and speak out.

However this is opposite from reality – women are significant players in the most recent political revolt. The Arab Spring is not just providing a platform for political liberation, but also a platform for women’s liberation.

In early May, five days after the brutal crackdown in the town of Dara’a in southern Syria I received a text message from an unrecognised Syrian number. I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact a friend in the country for the previous week. All it read was ‘back from Dara’a, in chams (Arabic for Damascus), am safe’). I knew who it was from, and I was instantly thankful.

The person I received the message from had been instrumental in calling for political reform in Syria since before I first met her in 2008. She has been involved in getting young people onto the streets and calling for change, and I will refer to her as ‘K’.


I would later learn that the Syrian regime had confiscated K’s phone. Days prior she, in order to warn her friends, had posted private reports on Twitter of snipers on top of buildings shooting at unarmed protestors.

Her new application for a phone with MTN, a South African telephone company, was refused processing, at the request of the Syrian authorities.

‘K’ got off comparably lightly – Amnesty International and other human rights groups estimate over 1,000 protestors have been killed and over 10,000 have been imprisoned. Practices such as rape, sleep deprivation and beating are common practice for the Syrian authorities. The brutal mutilation, torture and murder of 13 year old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb shows Bashar al-Assad will stop at nothing to repress his people.

One day K will make an impressive female leader of Syria. She runs a halal cosmetics firm in Damascus. It employs only young women, and its office has turned into a de facto community engagement office and refuge. The firm’s employees have rallied on the city’s streets.

Unfortunately hoaxes like the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ divert attention from the instrumental role women are playing in leading the drive for freedom in Syria.

The lessons from my time and experience in the Middle East are clear: young women, who often have never been trusted with responsibility or opportunity, are reliable changemakers in the region. They will work the long hours, take the risks and provide the commitment rarely seen among young men. For many, the shame of failure is just not an option. They take their responsibility to others extremely seriously. The Arab Spring is partly due to the commitment and engagement of young women.

The new Syrian generation has grown up with pirated DVDs and internet cafes; they have seen what freedom looks like to the rest of the world. Perhaps unrealistically, ‘K’ believes that women can have it all, but is confronted by a government (and older generations) that think the opposite.

Younger generations have grown up in surroundings where their local sheikh and their parents are not the only source of religious inspiration. It poses opportunities and threats to moderate Islam across the region as young people can access the very best (and very worst) of religious teachings from the comfort of their local net café.

For people like K the combination of seeing freedom in Western countries through the internet and the availability of progressive teachings has meant a values shift has occurred – instead of listening to the sermons about the subservience of women, K went back to the Holy Qu’ran and read what the Prophet said about equality and fairness.

Having a generation question authority rather than accept it is the first step towards a liberal society.

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