Sahar Hawija, Our suffering became insignificant amidst all the tremendous events
- By: Mona Katoub
- updated: October 26, 2021
- reading time: 11 Minutes and 58 seconds
Born in the countryside of the city of Salamiya, in the Governorate of Hama, Sahar Hawija lived in Salamiya until she finished secondary school. In the 1980s, she moved to Damascus to study and work. She settled in the Taqaddum neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Yarmouk Camp. The area where she settled was a densely-populated neighborhood which was home to people from several regions in Syria as well as many Palestinians due to its proximity to the famous Yarmouk Camp. Sahar had to leave her area as did thousands of others who lived there. Describing the deteriorating life standards in the area during that period, Sahar says, “In 2012, most of the Camp’s residents were displaced as a result of the fighting and indiscriminate shelling. As for me, I continued to visit the area every weekend, despite the lack of services. We had to walk hundreds of meters on foot, and we were subjected to humiliating searching at the entrance to the Camp. The remaining residents were forced to go out on a daily basis to secure life necessities. I will never forget the sight of people standing in line at the checkpoint to be searched and asked why they were entering the Camp. A great deal of humiliation, violence and arrests accompanied this interrogation. We saw large amounts of bread being confiscated so that they would not reach the militants. Displacement was not an easy task. However, living through the Syrian crisis, and witnessing the killing, arrest and destruction had a great impact on our consciousness. We no longer cared for our personal safety. Our personal suffering became an insignificant detail amidst all the tremendous events taking place.”
When the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, Sahar had already been waiting for a time when the Syrian people would tear down the wall of fear which was built by the dictatorship over decades of oppression. She wished that Syrians would follow in the footsteps of their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “There was an objective and pressing need for change,” she says. “We had to rid ourselves of the rule of a totalitarian regime which had become a historical anomaly. It is a deeply-corrupt regime which is unable to achieve anything positive for the people. The only thing it is good at is the oppression of people using an apparatus specializing in persecuting and detaining any dissenting voice. All independent civil and political activities were banned under the rule of Emergency Law and Extraordinary Courts. The Syrian people are a proud nation and there had to come a time when they would break away from these chains.”
“I was overcome with joy at the first news of demonstrations,” Sahar adds. “Like many regime opponents, I became addicted to following the latest news and developments using any available means. I always made sure to be at the place of the event if it was advertised. I followed every little detail on all available sources, from TV stations to social media. Facebook was especially important as a platform for the Coordination Committees through which they advertised points of demonstration, voted on naming the next Friday, and covered the demonstrations.”
Sahar joined the civil movement quite early. She took part in the first sit-in in front of the Ministry of Interior in Damascus, and in another activity in front of the lawyer’s Bar Association. She was also deeply involved in the action in her home town of Salamiya. However, her most enduring input has been through her writings and political analyses. “I was on a non-stop news-watching cycle. Whenever I heard of any activity or martyr funerals, I would make sure to be there,” she explains. “My experience in writing and analysis gave me the ability to evaluate events while putting aside my feelings and emotions. I made sure to deal in a critical manner with developments as well as with many things that were considered absolutes.”
About her personal motivation to take part in the Revolution, Sahar says, “I have opposed this regime and joined secret political parties since my teenage years. I was imprisoned for over four years, and participated in the Damascus Spring by attending forums and writing intellectual and political articles. My understanding of the Syrian situation, my rejection of the authoritarian regime, and my belief in the necessity of changing it, were an ever-increasing part of me. I always advocated for a country ruled by law and democracy backed by an active civil society, a country that recognizes the existence of political opposition and believes in the transfer of power.”
“The demands of the Syrian people will remain legitimate and cannot be erased with the passage of time. These demands will only be achieved through national political formations based on the values of justice and democracy, with women forming an essential part of them.”
Sahar’s fascination with politics started at an early age when she was a mere teenager in secondary school. “At my family’s home, we had a large library filled with mostly Russian books which were brought by my brother who lived in Russia,” she says. “I started to feel inclined towards Marxism through reading these books. Nor was this an oddity, for Salamiya was a hotbed for Marxists and Marxist-leaning thinkers. At that time, the infamous events of Hama took place. We had several family and personal ties linking us to the people of Hama, especially because several people from Salamiya worked in Hama. Despite all the efforts to cover up the massacre in the media, we were still deeply affected by the events through the news that reached us from survivors who sought refuge in my town. My opposition to the regime grew even stronger. I was in contact with some opposition parties in my area through some relatives and friends. I was following the publications of the Communist Labor Party, and I severed any ties I had with the ruling Ba‘ath party publicly in front of school students. I also ended all my connections with all the regime-supporting parties like the Syrian Communist Party (Bakdash). I was an avid reader and there was a period of time when I became an influential figure amongst students, so much so that several parents started to fear my influence on their children. I have been, in a way, stigmatized because of this and the stigma became stronger after my arrest on the basis of my membership in the Communist Labor Party. I spent four and a half years in prison. During my incarceration, Marxist ideals started to look too narrow for me. Massive upheavals were shaking the Soviet Union. It was then that I decided that I should review my convictions and re-evaluate my experiences. After my release, I left the party but I remained a keen follower of public affairs, always looking for ways for political activism that were in line with my convictions and principles.”
About the challenges facing political activism across the Syrian landscape, Sahar says, “One of the most difficult challenges is the absence of civil liberties like freedom of expression and the freedom to form political parties. Other challenges include the lack of democracy, emergency laws, and extraordinary courts which are used to restrict or annul civil liberties. The authorities prohibit any opposition political activity and prosecute activists by arresting them and denying them their civil rights, even turning the whole society against them. The totalitarian regime did its utmost best to disable society’s political involvement, and make all political activity meaningless. It turned politics into a hollow sham used in the service of the status quo. Access to leading positions became based on nepotism and absolute loyalty to the ruling elite. As a result, being in the opposition became a hard life and caused a lot of damage. But the challenges have differed now. After the wall of fear was broken, Syrian people started to form civil and political frameworks and entities, which had a certain margin for freedom of expression. This new atmosphere was helped by the fact that Syrians spread around the globe, gaining new knowledge, meeting new cultures and experiences, and engaging in media work, and civil and relief organizations in response to the immediate needs created by war.”
As for the challenges facing Syrian women in political work, Sahar says, “There are many challenges, such as the prevalence of the male mentality that excludes women from political work, especially from decision-making positions. There are also social traditions that give men a higher standing. As far as work is concerned, the public space is still considered a men’s club, while the role of a woman is restricted to serving her man and family. In addition, there is religious tyranny based on male domination and guardianship over women. On the other hand, the processes of political activism in the opposition still work, deliberately or ignorantly, to marginalize and exclude women. But there is an important and fundamental change, which is women’s awareness of themselves, their capabilities and independence. This was caused by several factors, the first among which is the situation women found themselves in. Many women suddenly had to pay attention to public affairs as well as support their family. As a result, they were able to stand up to traditions saying that men are the only source of income. Secondly, thousands of women were subjected to arrest and torture. Those who went through this difficult experience, whether in the prisons of the regime or the de facto authorities, found themselves facing society and traditions to defend their very existence. These women became an important resource for new roles for women to play in politics.”
“The third factor was displacement, which put women in confrontation with the hosting communities. Many women have been able to prove themselves as freedom fighters who have a cause that pushed them to escape in order to avoid death or detention. These women are an important asset for political activism, especially those who have become refugees in the West and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. In these countries, there is a margin of freedom allowing them to work on improving the educational and economic situation of Syrians, and learn from the experiences of other people. Moreover, women’s involvement in the civil society, especially women’s and media organizations, and the experience they gained through training and empowerment, should all help increase their awareness of their rights and independence, thus enabling them to reject all forms of violence and discrimination against women, whether they are legal, political, economic or social.
The most important positive effect of the feminist bodies has been highlighting the discrimination practiced by society and the regime against women, and working on guaranteeing Women’s rights by law.
When asked about the reasons that made her join the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, Sahar said, “I had political experience in the ranks of the opposition because of which I was arrested. This is a very special experience that has its social, economic and personal impacts. When I was released in the past decade, I did not receive support or protection. All I had was support from my family and personal relationships. I lost my job in the public sector and began to experience the gender-based discrimination, blackmail and pressure. When Damascus Spring began, I participated in the forums that accompanied it, as a person wanting to express their opinion. I also began writing articles to express my views, taking advantage of the margin of freedom that was available at the time. Even then, I felt marginalized. A woman’s role was dependent on her personal relationships, rather than her competence. Women’s abilities were seen as questionable. Personally, I refused to use flattery and lip service to win the favor of men because I did not need their confirmation to know my worth. After 2013, due to the changes that took place in Syria, as well as my existence inside Syria with the pressures from the regime, and due to the transformation in the nature of the Revolution characterizing it with violence, I moved away from political activism and turned to writing about women’s issues, discriminatory laws, and social and political obstacles. I try to deal with these topics with research and criticism. I wrote dozens of articles for the Syrian Women’s Network and Sayidat Souria Magazine. This culminated in the publication of a book entitled Women in the Light of Conflict, which was published in 2016. What I am trying to say is that the most important positive effect of the feminist bodies has been highlighting the discrimination practiced by society and the regime against women, and working on guaranteeing Women’s rights by law.
By following the movement’s news and activities, I found that it was unique in its work. I was further encouraged by the long experience in women’s work that several members possessed. I joined the SWPM after reading its aims objectives which focus on eliminating all types of discrimination against women, empowering women in any civil or political positions they occupy, and supporting them in the policies they adopt. I believe that the movement should work more and more on strengthening its feminist and political identity, and take the initiative to play a political role. In the future, the SWPM should become the place to find women with political experience.”Sahar concluded by emphasizing that the Revolution that the people started in the streets, despite the simplicity of its slogans and demands, was a revolution to restore our stolen rights, and to demand the freedom for whose sake thousands of Syrian women and men have died. The people demanded their rights using peaceful means. But when the people were silenced by force, we entered into a cycle of violence, interests, factionalism, and extremist fanaticism. Some people started serving foreign agendas which are hostile to the rights and interests of the Syrian people. The civil society was forcibly marginalized. Nevertheless, the demands of the Syrian people will remain legitimate and cannot be erased with the passage of time. These demands will only be achieved through national political formations based on the values of justice and democracy, with women forming an essential part of them.”