BY ROBERT ASHER, PHOTOS BY ANDREAS STAHL
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkish-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with a multitude of various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijab and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime; their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks; and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she strokes her rifle as she recounts how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but each other, sad stories, and some guns.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies; because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hardline Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the most well-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organization), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
Stoking sectarian divisions in Syria has been a key strategy of Assad’s forces, and it arguably seems to be working in his favor. When the revolution began, he arrested and executed countless people who believed in the power of nonviolence while releasing hundreds of Salafists from prison—Salafists who have no intentions of granting women equal rights. Assad has also long used women as a propaganda tool for his secular policies, promoting Alawite and Shiite women to positions of power in the military. Recently, when the US reformed its military policies to allow women to fight on the frontlines, Assad followed suit, parading his own brigade of women soldiers through the streets of Homs.
As our visit at Auntie Mahmoud’s home came to an end, I felt frustrated. I had come to see women who were preparing to ship out to battle. Before my trip, I envisioned them shooting their guns and operating checkpoints but quickly realized that I had been a bit delusional—even though they are ready to fight, their Islamist frenemies won’t let them. I wondered how extremist groups could prevent women from fighting when the Quran states that jihad is for women too. Our fixer, Safa, suggested that I speak with some members of the Jabhat al-Nusra to glean their stance on the matter.
Safa set up a meeting the following evening with Mohamed Abdul Salam, a captain in the Jabhat al-Nusra, at an FSA commander’s house. He told me that they don’t allow women to carry weapons and explained that when the men finish fighting, then the women can have their turn. He claimed that, for now, women were needed at home with their families. When pressed on the specifics in the Quran concerning the rights of women during jihad, he replied, “I cannot answer that at this time.”
Mohamed did admit, however, that he believed women should be allowed to arm themselves for defense. It has been widely reported that Assad’s army and paramilitary thugs known as shabiha have used rape as a demoralizing tactic against women who support the rebels. According to the International Rescue Committee’s recent report, “Syria: A Regional Crisis,” many women have been raped in their homes and in public. These violations, sometimes committed by multiple perpetrators, often take place in front of the victims’ family members. Roadblocks are ubiquitous throughout Syria and have become especially perilous for women. The IRC’s women’s protection team in Lebanon was told of a young girl who was gang-raped and forced to stagger home naked, magnifying her shame in a society where modesty and chastity are so valued.
Am and her comrades are attempting to overcome their predicament by engaging in a dialogue with those in the local community—including Islamic militant groups and their commanders—who are opposed to women joining the front lines. Creating a visible presence in the town is their first objective, and Safa, our fixer, is a perfect example of a modern, independent woman who actively supports the revolution. When the protests against the regime erupted in Aleppo in March 2011, Safa attended as many as she could. When carnage and bloodshed engulfed the city, she and her family relocated to Atmeh for safety. Safa then took it upon herself to help the children in the camp: using money from her own savings, she provided children with entertainment and art therapy to escape from and deal with their trauma. She now works as an administrator and a translator at a secret hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.
Perhaps better than most, Safa understands the difficulties facing Am and her brigade. “This revolution is not only against Assad,” she said. “It is also a youth movement against the previous generation. It was the older generation who refused to stand up to Assad. When we defeat Assad, I believe there will be a second revolution to completely change society from the old ways of the previous generation.”
Am and the women in her brigade represent the embodiment of the struggle for equality in war-torn Syria. They find themselves in the middle of two ominous forces: criminal totalitarianism and Islamic extremism. But if Am, her comrades, and Safa have anything to do with it, the revolution will not be over if and when Assad falls; it will be over when women are able to take their rightful place in Syrian society.