A new, more self-confident Syrian woman

The magazine "Saiedet Souria" would like to be the mouthpiece for a new generation of Syrian women. Juliane Metzker spoke with editor-in-chief Yasmine Merei about the battle for equal rights under the Assad regime before and after the uprisings in 2011

By Juliane Metzker

Why did you launch a Syrian women's magazine?

Yasmine Merei: When the revolution began in Syria, there was only one magazine for women, and it was religiously motivated. We wanted instead to give all Syrian women a voice. Mohammad Malaki, the head of the media centre Smart for Media was the first to come up with the idea for "Saiedet Souria" – a magazine that seeks to raise women's awareness of politics, society and justice by having women write about and for women.

What is the significance of the magazine's title, "Saiedet Souria"?

Merei: For a long time, people spoke only about one "Woman of Syria", meaning Asma al-Assad, the president's wife. She was elevated to the status of the female icon of Syrian society. We no longer wanted to accept that because we are all "Saiedet Souria" – women of Syria. It is important that we are finally perceived as a central part of Syrian society and also begin to see ourselves as such.

Cover of an edition of the women's magazine "Saiedet Souria" (photo: Saiedet Souria/Facebook)
"It is important that we are finally perceived as a central part of Syrian society and also begin to see ourselves as such," says Yasmine Merei, editor-in-chief of the women's magazine "Saiedet Souria"

What socio-political role are women playing in the civil war in Syria, which has now been raging for over three years?

Merei: Every day, Syrian women are burying sons, brothers and husbands, regardless of whether they fought for or against the regime. They are losing almost everything and yet still have to continue providing for their families. This makes them incredibly strong. They are the only members of society who can bring peace to Syria.

And how do they intend to achieve that?

Merei: We want to expand women's knowledge of political developments in Syria. Only five women are on the Syrian National Council in Turkish exile. To encourage more women to venture into politics and take up other influential posts, we must equip them with the necessary tools of the trade. This is why we publish articles that focus on issues in the areas of politics, the economy and human rights.

"Saiedet Souria" is currently produced exclusively in Turkey. Are there also editorial offices in Syria?

Merei: No, not yet. We are planning to open branch offices in zones liberated by the Free Syrian Army around Damascus, and in Daraa and Aleppo. We also distribute the magazine there. We want to stay in touch with people there so that we know exactly what's going on inside Syria.

Who writes for "Saiedet Souria"?

Merei: A total of around 50 journalists are working for us, most of them natives of Syria or Lebanon. We also frequently call in experts to provide their views on various topics. Most journalists employed by us have in-depth knowledge of the fields of law, psychology or sociology. We also co-operate with prominent Syrian women activists, such as the politician Basma Qadamani. We also publish articles by men who champion women's rights too. We consider this very important, because when a man writes about women's rights, it reaches more male readers.

Basma Qadamani is a former member of the Syrian National Council. Does that mean that "Saiedet Souria" sees itself as a magazine that endorses the Syrian revolution?

Merei: I think that we can no longer call a war a revolution. We wish it were indeed still a revolution. We are against the violence perpetrated by the regime and by the Islamist groupings, but "Saiedet Souria" is dedicated first and foremost to all Syrian women, regardless of whether they are for or against the regime.

What was women's standing in Syrian society before the upheaval of 2011?

Cover of an edition of the women's magazine "Saiedet Souria" (photo: Saiedet Souria/Facebook)
Yasmine Merei said that "Saiedet Souria" is "a magazine that seeks to rise women's awareness of politics, society and justice by having women write about and for women" so that they can consolidate the social status and the freedoms they have won

Merei: It varied from region to region. In the cities, women were able to study and then get jobs. Nevertheless, there were still family power structures they were unable to breach. The father – or later the husband – was in charge in many respects. Women therefore enjoyed only a thimble-full of freedom, but had no real autonomy to make their own decisions. In the villages, most women did not even have a modicum of self-determination.

You have spoken with many women who fled over the border from Syria to Turkey. What is everyday life in the refugee camps like for them today?

Merei: Women have a hard time in the camps. Many came without their husbands and adult sons, who are either dead, in jail or still fighting in the Free Syrian Army. The men who made it to the Turkish camps are not looking for work, but waiting for help from human rights organisations. They dominate the women in the camp. And many girls who are not even 16 marry such men because they believe it will mean a better life for them, but this is not necessarily the case. What's more, many of the women who once studied or had a job are becoming demotivated. This is because they are surrounded by women who think more traditionally.

It's not only the women, though. Men are also suffering the consequences of the war in Syria. Wouldn't it be more effective to address both women's and men's issues so that both sides could develop a better understanding for each other?

Merei: Up to now, we have not devoted special attention to "men's issues" – with the exception of an article about psychological support for former fighters. Men still have more rights than women and it is much easier for them to become politically involved. We are convinced that, after the conflict ends, men will try to push educated women out of politics again. This is why we want to support women in their efforts to consolidate the social status and the freedoms they have won.

Interview: Juliane Metzker

© Qantara.de 2014

Translation from the German by Jennifer Taylor