Usama Ashour, A Feminist Facing Patriarchal Society

Usama Ashour is born in 1960 in Aleppo. He is an agricultural engineer and has a diploma in food industry from the Aleppo University. He worked as a quality manager in Golf Muller, a Syrian-Turkish company headquartered in Aleppo. Currently, he lives in Germany and works with the German Red Cross for helping Syrian and Arab refugees.

Usama attributes his early interest in politics to interest in literature; he was an avid reader of Arabic and international literature. For him, literature cultivates the human soul and strengthens human sense and eagerness for freedom within individuals. This has been reflected in his rebellion against oppression and the little confrontations in rejection of patterning. “We refused uniforms, compulsory membership in the Revolution Youth Union, Students Union and al-Ba’ath party as well as participating in the marches of glorifying the leader.” Usama says.

In the late 1970s, Usama joined the League for Communist Action, which became a party in the early 1980s, and he had to disappear due to the security campaign against the party. In 1982, he was detained. After ten years of detention he was referred to the supreme court of state security. He was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment with temporary penal labor and suspension of civil rights for another 15 years. Two years before the end of his prison time, Usama was transferred with his friends to Tadmur prison as they rejected the pardon conditioned with loyalty to the head of the regime. They weren’t released before the year 1998, due to international efforts, with different periods spent in prisons for each of them after the end of their sentences. Usama also participated in Damascus Spring and the phenomenon of forums, Civil Society Revival Committees and Damascus Declaration for national Democratic Change.  He also supported the revolution coordination committees and provided aid to refugees. Additionally, he is a member of the legal committee in the Syrian Woman Network and a member of the Syrian Woman’s Political Movement (SWPM).

Describing motives behind engaging in the revolution, Usama says “Revolution has always been the dream of all free Syrian citizens interested in the public issues that Syrian men and women suffer from, including authoritarianism, corruption and monopoly of power and public wealth by one family that owns Syria and Syrians, with complete absence of justice and law, unbridled repression, and civilization, humanitarian and economic degradation. I also have another motive, which is being a political opponent, subjected to additional extraordinary oppression, such as detention for a long time and deprivation from freedom, study, work, meeting the family and travel, in addition to systematic torture intended to break the will and erase the memory, along with attempts to destroy my future, even after the release from the first detention. All of the above, and the repeated arrests, although for limited periods, before the revolution, had convinced me that engaging with the revolution is a humanitarian and moral duty, in addition to being a national political necessity as well as a personal one.”

Usama’s first participation in the revolution was in the independence anniversary demonstration in Aleppo on April 17, 2011. Security forces forcibly dispersed the demonstration. Usama says that as IDPs started to flow from Daraa, Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo countryside, and the increase of the need for food, shelter and health service for them, he co-founded the so-called “Initiative of Aleppo People” aimed to secure food and shelter for IDPs, and raise funds to help them and help repairing damaged electricity and water infrastructure. With the coordination bodies in Aleppo city, Usama participated in reviving the peaceful political movement; and in distributing food aid to IDPs with Balad organization in cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent.

With the increase of demonstrations and as the countryside of Aleppo gradually started to get out of regime control, many coordination bodies belonging to the city and the countryside of Aleppo were brought together within a boarder political frame named Ahfad al-Kawakebi [al-Kawakebi Descendants] intended to improve political, civil, media and relief activities. The entrance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2012 to Eastern Aleppo exposed Usama and his family to repeated displacement after his house was bombarded. However, the entry of the FSA increased the margin for political activity in areas not under regime control anymore. So he was able to participate in many demonstrations that were staged almost daily in these areas. He also participated in Hreitan conference for revolution entities held mid-August, 2012, where a preparatory committee was formed with a view to gathering all civil and political forces in Aleppo city and countryside. The decision for transferring coordination bodies into local councils was made after locals approved the names of individuals nominated for running those councils.

In May 2013, Usama was detained for two months, and after release, he was under security surveillance, therefore, he moved to Aleppo countryside before leaving for Turkey where he stayed for a few months before moving to Germany, his current place of residence.

Recalling a beautiful memory during the revolution, Usama says that when Shabbiha thugs attacked one of the demonstrations he was participating in, he managed with three friends to run from the Shabbiha and hide in a dark building entrance. They were surprised with a woman getting out of the dark in praying clothes and with a candle in her hand. She told them to enter her house quickly, where they could stay till Shabbiha leave. To calm them down she said: “my son will come back soon and will be happy to see you. He is just like you against the gang and his brother was martyred.” When they were about to leave, the woman stood behind them and cheered loudly “we want freedom against the will of Assad”. Usama says that he is grateful to that women who saved him from another arrest and that he will never forget her strength and composure; “with all my experiences, I was out of action in comparison to that woman,” says Usama.

Describing the saddest situation that he witnessed and that influenced him, Usama says “the regime declared in mid-January 2013 that university students can resume their study and have exams. Students believed the regime’s promise of safety and went to university and groups of students gathered in front of their respective colleges. Before entering exam halls, a regime warplane appeared in the sky and dropped two missiles near the roundabout of the Architecture College, immediately killing 87 young men and women and injuring 160 others.” Usama was one of those who helped saving the wounded and collected body parts scattered everywhere. Usama adds that few minutes after cleaning the place, regime media, accompanied with Shabbiha thugs came to broadcast what they called ‘a popular march’ condemning foreign conspiracies against Syria and the massacre. Hundreds of civilians witnessed the bombardment of the victims by a plane affiliated to the regime army. However, the perpetrator of that massacre is still not held to account and the crime (the massacre) has been registered against an unknown perpetrator.

Usama believes that the biggest and primary challenge that has faced political work in Syria is the dictatorial, oppressing and corrupt regime that criminalizes politics, abolishes all forms of dialogue, prevents any role for the civil society, obstructs any entry points for reform and replaces national loyalty with loyalty to the president. After the revolution, the regime turned to a criminal regime with its figures turning into war criminals that made Syria mere areas of power for international and regional powers and wills, destroyed national and societal unity through inciting national, religious and sectarian fanaticism.  The second challenge is the growth of Islamist extremist military and political formations that managed to confiscate the spirit and values of the revolution, siege and seize civilians’ decisions in areas under their control and terminated all forms of civil and political work with the power of their weapons and their self-proclaimed religious legitimacy.

The third challenge is that political institutions and forces that assumed the representation of the revolution were trapped in dependence on foreign powers and they drowned in financial corruption, which harmed their image, their members and political work altogether, resulting in abandoning any political activity by a large segment of the Syrian revolting people. The fourth challenge, Usama thinks, is that national political forces that kept itself free from foreign influence remained scattered and divided, under the influence of old ideological and personal competition, instead of building on their common ground. That prevented them from accessing the grassroots and transforming into influential force. “One key factor that affected women engagement in political work is the masculine-dominated politics, where values of achievement and effectiveness are attributes to men only; a view that dominates all political forces whether they are affiliated to the regime, the opposition or Islamic forces,” says Usama.

“With the participation of women in the revolution my feminist insight improved and the issue of equality in rights and human dignity for women has become a core dimension of my perspective of any democratic change in Syria.”

On his interest in feminism, Usama says that to be a feminist, there should be two intertwined efforts, namely: upbringing and self-education. “I was lucky to grow up in an environment that does not distinguish between boys and girls and allows girls to have their own personalities and choices, where the role of brothers is to protect their sister’s decisions rather than imposing their opinion on them. My mother was an early feminist example; after the early death of my father, she worked to provide for us when we were at school and she continued her study at the same time. When we, her five children (three men and two women) were arrested from early 1980s until late 1990s, she faced oppression, injustice and the pressure of security apparatuses strongly, and she supported us as we were in prison and insisted on visiting us whenever she was allowed to.” says Usama.

Usama attributes his early awareness of feminism to the book “The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State” and the books of Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg, Nawal El Saadawi and Fatema Mernissi, along with other literature, drama and cinema works. “Dying of love and The Dollhouse movies made me review my masculine awareness as a whole, and with the participation of women in the revolution my feminist insight improved and the issue of equality in rights and human dignity has become a core dimension of my perspective of any democratic change in Syria,” says Usama.

One difficulty facing feminist men is the patriarchal society that is based on the oppression of males on females. Consequently, the masculine authority, like any other authority that derives its presence from power rather than from rights, rejects whoever doubts its legitimacy. Additionally, feminist man’s activities and attitudes are subject to suspicion not only by men but also by women, because no matter what he does to support the feminist cause, a certain group of women will remain cautious, out of their belief that men are authoritarian by nature and what differs from one man to another is the degree of authoritarianism.

“SWPM, in all its meetings, stresses the importance of increasing women participation in all political bodies and elected and appointed representative body to no less than 30% at the present time, up to 50% in the future, and works on achieving that.”

Talking about joining SWPM, Usama says “first, I am honored to be the first man to join SWPM. I joined for two reasons; first for moral reasons, as I see that my human dignity as a man is incomplete when I live in a woman-oppressing world without doing something against this oppression. The second reason is political; SWPM provides a new political vision with a forward look to eliminate all forms of family, community, institutional and political oppression imposed on the diverse Syrian people with non-violent means, in order to reach the pluralistic democratic state based on the principle of equal citizenship guaranteed by a constitution consistent with gender perspective.” Concerning SWPM achievements in regards to supporting and enhancing women participation in politics, Usama says that SWPM in all its meetings stresses the importance of increasing women participation in all political bodies and elected and appointed representative body to no less than 30% at the present time, up to 50% in the future, and works on achieving that.

SWPM provides a big opportunity for feminist women and men to engage in political work on humanitarian and moral bases and in accordance with integrity and transparency standards, with clear demands for a better future for Syria. Usama adds that the movement has many urgent tasks including encouraging women to be active and leaders wherever they are present, and to engage in nontypical roles like engaging in all fields of education and work as well as political and civil public sphere; paying attention to concrete and organized presence on the ground; enhancing the feminist perspective for men and women and engaging in political conflicts from humanitarian, moral and peaceful perspective along with promoting women’s role in decision-making; networking with civil society organizations especially those concerned with women issues to build social potentials for change and feminism issues; working with opposition political forces to pressure for fair political solution and the increase of women representation within these forces and empower women to reach decision-making positions; working with others to build an international coalition to put pressure for a political solution according to Resolution 2254 and Geneva terms of reference and block alternative tracks like Astana and Sochi; and finally working on drafting a new democratic constitution that conforms with gender equality and ensures full equality between men and women in the transitional period and in future Syria.

“Syria that I dream of and work for is a civil democratic state founded on equal citizenship for humans, men and women, who are equal in rights, duties and human dignity, as well as for all Syrian society components in. I dream of Syria that is free from dictators, eternal ruling, authoritarianism, corruption, and invaders whether they are foreign armies, or sectarian or nationalist militias. I dream of free Syria where women receive fair treatment, and have equal representation in administration, legislation and decision-making positions and all shapes of discrimination and violence against them are terminated,” says Usama.