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Syrian Women Organize for Security, One Tent at a Time

 

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

Resistance takes many forms. It can be a sit-in outside Justice Palace, as happened in Damascus during the early days of the Syrian revolution. It happen in protests, marches, demonstrations, protest songs and graffiti — as we have seen throughout Syria for nearly three years. Civil disobedience was constant in December 2011, when Syrians went on strike, held sick-ins, wore only black or white on per-arranged days, and filled public fountains with red dye to symbolize the staggering violence of the repression that nonviolent resisters faced. At the time, around 30 activists were being killed each day.

In 2013, civil resistance in Syria takes on radically different forms. It is virtually impossible to stage a protest because of the looming threat of being hit by regime bullets, artillery and missiles. The regime has even targeted civilians waiting in bread lines — no act of disobedience there — with missiles, barrel bombs and cluster munitions. One can no longer organize a group of women to lie across a highway, not when there is the threat of a chemical weapons attack, or when rape is being used systematically as a tool of war. Today, the death toll has risen to approximately 150 per day, and rape houses are commonplace in major cities, such as Homs and Aleppo.

Despite the mounting death tolls, the escalating violence and the increase in tit-for-tat acts of barbarism, nonviolent civil resistance in Syria is still alive. Unsurprisingly, the voices of nonviolent activists are steadily being drowned out by competing domestic and foreign agendas, an ever-increasing proliferation of weapons, and the growing savagery that creates an environment where the oppressed sometimes behave just like the oppressor. Yet Syrians continue to take to the streets when they can.

At home and abroad, they continue to deliver relief to impoverished communities, sponsor orphans and distribute gifts during religious holidays. The Local Coordination Committees continue to set up elementary schools in converted garages, abandoned buildings and empty shops. All these efforts are purely voluntary, and they represent a struggle to reconstitute basic civil society. Women activists are conducting teach-ins for impoverished children who have not set foot in a proper classroom in more than two years. Women’s political organizations are being formed, and we are electing leaders. Meanwhile, charity drives raising funds for baby milk, diapers and basic health services continue to take place.

One of these new initiatives (which I am involved in, as director of FREE-Syria) is the Jasmine Tent Project. It’s a way of saying “no” to gender inequality, the oppression of women and rape. The Jasmine Tent is also a positive affirmation of the needs of women to have a place where they can plan for the future, cope with the present and heal from the past.

The Jasmine Tent, for now, is still just a concept. It will be a series of safe zones for women and girls in Syrian refugee camps and cities throughout the country. These spaces will be accessible to all women, regardless of ethnic, cultural, religious or political background. They will provide practical support and services; the priorities for the services provided will be determined by women in their respective geographical areas. Jasmine Tents are to be places of healing and development for women who have been impacted by trauma, loss, hunger, sexualized torture and other effects of the Assad regime’s assault on civilians. In particular, Jasmine Tents are places where women can say “no” — no to the Assad regime and no to the jihadists trying to replace it. No to oppression, repression, censorship and violence.

Negotiations with local authorities have led to plans for the first Jasmine Tent to open shortly in Atmeh Camp in Idlib, with the support of local imams, armed groups and community leaders. FREE-Syria is purchasing the actual tent and staffing it with two trained female volunteers. With the experience from the first Jasmine Tent, other Jasmine Tents will follow across Syria, first in Aleppo and then in Deir Ezzor.

In our current plans, the Jasmine Tents will be safe zones in a country torn apart by a despotic regime willing to go to any lengths to remain in power. But in the future, the Jasmine Tent — at least the concept behind it — must extend across all of society, ensuring that women can conduct routine business without fear of abuse. Thus, a Jasmine Tent can be an office, a bank, a hospital, a place of worship, a home and anywhere else that women, Syrian or otherwise, can be secure, empowered and free to say “no.” This should be a worldwide movement in the ongoing effort to combat violence against women.

Fundraising for each Jasmine Tent is being conducted on a grassroots level worldwide, although several non-governmental organizations in the United States, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany have expressed an interest in supporting the project. While the support of governments and NGOs is welcome, this effort needs support from the entire world community. The Assad regime has tried to destroy everything: our spirit, our social fabric, our very existence. It has used sarin gas, chlorine gas, and “conventional” bombs and bullets. But our people keep coming back. Civil society, or whatever is left of it, is taking on more and more creative forms of civil disobedience. Just as activists once launched thousands of ping-pong balls bearing the words “freedom,” “dignity” and “democracy” from Qassioun Mountain in Damascus, a simple and creative act of perseverance can be a powerful act of resistance.

Image above: A child walks on top of a tent in a refugee camp in Atimeh on the Syrian-Turkish border on Oct. 23, 2012. (Freedom House/Asmaa Waguih)