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In the Women’s Centre

An interview with a female activist in Kafranbel.

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

As part of our project on the legacy of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid, Syria Notes spoke to a female activist in Kafranbel about her experiences with the Mazaya Women’s Centre and Radio Fresh, and her memories of Raed and Hammoud. She asked to stay anonymous. We began by asking her to introduce herself, and to tell us about her work.


Anon: I’m a Syrian female activist from Kafranbel. I’m twenty-one years old.

In the beginning of the revolution I used to participate in demonstrations organised by Raed and Hammoud, and other activists. This is how I got to know Raed for the first time.

At that point when the revolution started, I was under a lot of social pressure that was depriving me of my rights, and of getting education. I finished high school, and I wasn’t allowed or given a chance to study further in university or any other institution. They wouldn’t allow me to do anything after high school. Back then there was a women’s centre, a very basic women’s centre, and it was the only one in our area. This centre was founded by Raed, and his work supported the existence of the centre. I took refuge from society in that centre. I used to go there to learn, to develop my skills, to take a break from the social pressures around me.

I took media courses, journalism, photography. I learned how to use a camera. After a while I started working in that centre. I became the centre’s media person. I used to document their activities. And then my self-esteem became stronger. I became more aware of my rights and duties, of what I need to give and what I need to pursue. I had a very strong ambition to always keep learning, and to always gain more skills.


Mazaya Women’s Centre, Kafranbel. Photo: fresh-syria.net

Syria Notes: What are the main things that women activists managed to achieve?

Anon: When we first started at the centre, we were a small group of women with a varied set of skills. We volunteered, and we started teaching courses. We did sewing courses, nursing courses, and tutoring children at the elementary level. We tried to cover the needs of our society that had arisen after the war. The war had taken away our opportunities for education, because people became afraid to send their children to school.

We had come under constant bombardment by planes and artillery. Those planes—it was the first time in our lives we saw or heard these planes. There were always people being injured, and it required having someone able to administer medical aid available all of the time. Huge financial burdens were weighing on people, and women needed to find financial opportunities to help their families. We thought that in this way we could open possibilities for ourselves and other women.


Syria Notes: How did women’s activism influence the local society?

Anon: We felt our activities were always under pressure. From the start we were under pressure, and the society didn’t allow us much space to operate. People were critical. Some families forbade women from attending the centre. That oppressive social order was very present then, with views such as: ‘How can we allow women to go out of the house and work—women’s roles are only for the home and for children, and that’s it.’

People were afraid of new ideas. People rejected anything that would change the status quo.. On top of all that, Islamist militia forced their way into our centre. They attacked us, and they stopped us from being able to work for a while. We did not give up, and despite the threats we went back to work.

With time and perseverance, and with showing a good work ethic, people started to understand what we were trying to do, the need for education and development that we were trying to fulfil, the need to provide families with new sources of income. More women attended, and slowly it became popular.

So after some time, and a lot of work, we opened other centres, in the town of Kafranbel and the surrounding area. It was a fulfilment of the ambitions and the needs and the dreams of local women. It was also a reflection of what women could do socially and on the revolution front. Raed was very supportive, and it was a part of his overall vision.


Syria Notes: Can you tell us about Raed and Hammoud, and your relationship with them?

Anon: All through this period of time I was in contact with Raed. He always supported me to keep going and to be strong. He was a true supporter and ally. He was like a father. Raed asked me to join the team, and to help make my dream true: my dream of becoming a journalist, so I can get the voice of the people heard and tell the wide world about their suffering, so I can be an example of the Syrian women who defied the society, the war and tradition, the Syrian women who are equal to men and have the same rights and duties as men.

I started working with Radio Fresh. I had a lot of stories about success and about suffering. I wanted the people to hear these stories. One time I had an idea to make a radio show that focused on social reform, to shed light on social issues, like child marriage, also lack of opportunities to get married, and disagreements in the local communities. Problems facing widows who lost their husband and now have difficulties in dealing with teenage children, and such issues.

The idea was that I would be presenting the show with the help of a female sociologist. I told my idea to Raed and he was very enthusiastic, he really liked the idea and the boldness of the way I wanted to address the issues. But the Islamist armed groups who were controlling our area at the time limited our ability to air what we wanted. They were controlling everything. They stopped us from going ahead with this idea because a woman’s voice is Awarh [not allowed to be heard—the voice of a woman is nakedness].

They also went after shows that talked about corruption and stopped us from airing them.

Their threats intensified to stop us from working. They made real their threats when they forced their way into the station and abducted Raed. We had to stop for a while and the station was shut down. We didn’t give in to desperation. We pulled through and came back on air again. This was because of our determination, and the big ambitions that Raed had, and his creative thinking. Raed had lots of ambitions and life.

He asked the women in the Radio Fresh team to change our voices using computer software to sound like men, so the Islamist armed groups wouldn’t notice that women were back on air. We broadcast with rough-sounding voices just like men. Even the programmes that addressed corruption, they were on air again but this time we used comedy to address the subject.

Changing our voices using computer software was a temporary solution. We hoped to change the mind of armed groups so we could air women’s voices again. That was our plan, but sadly until today we are still forced to change our voices. It’s been more than two years. Of course the Islamist groups are not happy with the fact that we have not stopped working. They are not happy with our determination to make the voice of the people heard, to air stories about the suffering of the people.

Raed kept us going through this with his passion and determination. Raed kept me going—he was like a father. At one point I went back to studying and I did a course that offered degrees in business management. It took me a year and half to finish my studies. I wanted to enhance my skills and be useful to society despite everything standing in my way.

I was doing exams at the institute on the day they killed Raed. It was a tragic day. I was in shock and could not believe that Raed had died. I abandoned my exams and everything else in my life. Everything we cared for died on the day he was killed. Raed was the revolution for us. He was brave, full of dreams, and peaceful. He was my role model, and I hope that some day I might become like him. On that day we all promised to keep Radio Fresh going, and to keep the path that Raed started alive.


Syria Notes: In your opinion, who is responsible for killing them, and why were they targeted?

Anon: I believe Islamist groups are responsible for killing Raed and Hammoud. No one dares to say this in public. They were targeted because they had a free mind. They were always critical of the destructive actions of these groups. They stood against the corruption of these groups that led to the poor security situation, and to the abduction of media activists and many other things.

They did not stop just with killing Raed and Hammoud. They keep targeting activists, doctors and White Helmets volunteers. We reached such a level of fear that we don’t even feel safe on the doorsteps of our own homes.


Kafranbel women show solidarity with besieged East Ghouta, March 2018.

Syria Notes: What do you think Raed and Hammoud wanted to leave behind?

Anon: Raed and Hammoud died for freedom of expression. They always spoke out bravely. They didn’t fear anyone or consequences their freedom of expression might bring on them. No one dared to speak out against the Islamist groups, but Raed and Hammoud were defiant. They spoke our pain, and the pain of many people who were afraid.

The legacy they left in our hearts is boundless. They taught us to be brave, and that the voices of the oppressed must be heard despite all those working against it. We started a revolution against the Assad regime and we won’t agree to these groups controlling us, oppressing us like the regime and even worse.


Syria Notes: What are the things that are endangering civil efforts and media activism in Kafranbel and Idlib?

Anon: Today I’m afraid of the control the groups are gaining over Idlib. We are being targeted. All free minds are targeted. Media activists are risking their lives to work. But God welling we will keep going on. The revolution is an idea, and ideas don’t die.


Syria Notes: What are your hopes and dreams for Syria and the revolution?

Anon: I dream and hope that we get rid of all these extreme groups, get rid of all corruption and those who are taking advantage of our revolution.

I dream that our revolution will get back on track, and that we achieve our first goal, the goal that a lot of us died for and that Raed has died for: the goal to topple the Assad regime, our goal of Syria being free and inclusive of all Syrians, our goal that every Syrian has a role to do and a voice to be heard, for everyone to find justice and for no one to be oppressed.