- Syria remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters, with 129 media workers and journalists killed since 2011. Local reporters comprised 90 percent of journalist deaths.
- Despite the dangers, there are at least 196 active, non-state media outlets in Syria as of 2016. Of those organizations, 37 percent are pro-regime, 36 percent are pro-opposition, 20 percent are independent, and seven percent are aligned with Kurds.
- A study of independent media outlets by the Syrian Female Journalists Network found that female representation was relatively high, making up 35 percent of the print media workforce and 54 percent of radio. Women, however, remain underrepresented in leadership positions, making up only four percent of senior journalists.
New media sources have emerged on all sides of the Syrian conflict since 2011. These outlets present a wide range of ideologies and are distributed through print, the internet, and radio waves throughout the country.
Women have been instrumental in establishing independent news sources in independent news sources, founding leading media outlets like SouriaLi Radio, Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN), and Enab Baladi. SouriaLi and Enab Baladi both have staffs made up of more than 50 percent women, while SFJN currently works with 77 male and female member journalists to train them in gender issues.
Journalists and other media activists are targeted not only by the Syrian government but also by opposition forces, both radical and moderate. Syria now ranks 177 out of 180 countries in press freedom and is currently ranked the deadliest country for journalists. Seven male journalists and one female journalist have been killed since the beginning of 2017 in Syria.
After Bashar al-Assad’s ascent to power in 2000, there was a brief period of optimism that he would ease the media censorship of his father’s era, but additions to the Penal Code like the 2001 Publications Law that bans any content threatening “national unity” and allows censorship of foreign media, dashed these hopes. News outlets were owned and operated by the government exclusively until 2001, when the same Publications Law made private newspapers legal. However, all periodicals require a license issued by the prime minister, which can be denied for almost any reason, so these publications are primarily aligned with the regime. Due to such strict regime controls on media licensing, the majority (86 percent) of non-state media sources in regime controlled areas operate online, though they are publishing pro-government content.
The head of Syrian National Television and Assad’s leading media adviser are both women, Diana Jabbour and Bouthaina Shaaban respectively. Despite the presence of women in such high-ranking media roles, some women view these positions as merely ceremonial.
The Syrian Female Journalists Network conducted a study of gender equality in emerging Syrian media (ESM) between 2011 and 2015 that found while women’s representation is relatively high—they make up 35 percent of the print media workforce and 54 percent of radio—women remain under represented in the upper echelons of leadership. Only four percent of senior journalists are women, and those who are were generally founders of their organization. Additionally, coverage of women’s issues remains shockingly low: Barely 200 articles were published between 2011 and 2016 by the outlets surveyed. There are, however, organizations working to change this, seeking to diversify women’s narratives beyond merely victims of violence by empowering women as journalists and telling the stories of women who otherwise might not be heard.
The aforementioned security concerns also create a difficult environment for women working in journalists. Restrictions on freedom of expression and movement prevents female journalists from being able to convene for training sessions on journalism and writing about issues disproportionately affecting women. These issues are amplified by societal distrust of women in the public sphere. Some male relatives will not allow women work outside the home, fearing for their lives, while other men refuse to be interviewed by a woman.
The Islamic State does not allow women to work in any kind of journalism, but does use women and girls as recruiters on social media. Additionally, there is a manifesto published by the all-female morality police, al-Khansaa Brigade, that sharply critiques Western feminism, asserting instead that women should be pleased serving their husbands within the home.
Facing such barriers, many women operate in the citizen-journalism realm. There are activists who operate in cities occupied by armed opposition groups, like blogger Lina Shamy who used Twitter and Facebook to post blogs and short videos reporting on the ongoing conflict in Aleppo. Zaina Erham, another citizen-journalist living in Aleppo, received the 2015 Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism for her work on training close to 100 citizen-journalists, 30 of whom were women. However, these individuals face grave dangers if caught by the government or opposition forces and increasingly have chosen to flee the country.
Policy Implications and Problems
The highly publicized nature of the Syrian conflict has given rise to a “propaganda war” between all those involved. Attempts to address this have come from the United States and the European Union with programs to promote good journalistic practices and constructive dialogue while countering “extremist discourse”. The U.S. program, Support for Independent Media in Syria, reportedly reached a total of $31.6 million by 2015 focused primarily on just nine networks, while the EU set aside €4.2 million for media projects in 2016. These projects, however, were initially conceptualized as short term “seed money” and efforts to grow and sustain these programs remain in progress.
Organizations like SouriaLi and Syrian Female Journalist Network cited donations from Freedom House and National Endowment for Democracy, but reported that their funding often came tied to short-term projects dictated by Western interests. These pieces center on primarily on violence and perpetuate the image of Syria that these groups specifically aim to disrupt. The short nature of these assignments make it difficult for local women journalists to establish themselves and to create a sustainable living. The employment and empowerment of women in media has the possibility to meaningfully change societal conceptions of women’s potential, but must be prioritized and cultivated in order to do this.
The Fight – and Plight – of Syria’s Female Journalists
The rise of independent Syrian news outlets created more opportunities for women in the media, but many of Syria’s female journalists still face higher security risks than their male colleagues and rampant sexism in the workplace.
Marvin Gate does not look like a Marvin. This masculine pseudonym became essential to her security in 2015, when she began secretly working with a motley crew of photographers in cities across Syria, documenting the daily lives of ordinary people during the war. The multimedia project would later become known as Humans of Syria.
“I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing, even my closest friends,” Gate told Syria Deeply.
She was living in a Syrian government-controlled area at the time – which meant that she didn’t necessarily face the daily bombardments and chaos endured by many other members of Humans of Syria in opposition-controlled areas. However, the constant government surveillance, and enforced loyalty to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, made it difficult – and often dangerous – for her to report and communicate, even in secret.
Many of her days working against the government directly underneath its watchful eye were spent wondering which checkpoint or intercepted phone call would be the one to give away her identity.
“I wasn’t only putting myself at risk. We lived in constant fear of being discovered, and something terrible happening to a friend, a family member or someone on our team,” she said. “We weren’t doing anything wrong. We were only telling stories of ordinary people, who are artists, photographers and teachers – but the regime only wanted them promoted as terrorists.”
Gate grew increasingly disillusioned with life in government-controlled areas of Syria, and while her work grew more and more dangerous, she no longer felt that it had a significant impact. She fled to Turkey.
Gate is one of thousands of citizen journalists and media activists who have been pushed out of Syria and forced to report on their country from abroad. Thousands of others remain, but their jobs are growing increasingly dangerous as their colleagues leave. The result is that fewer and fewer journalists are able to report the news from inside Syria. In some ways, this has created greater opportunities for women to be part of the media.
By the end of 2015, women represented 35 percent of the workforce in independent print media and 54 percent in radio, according to a report from the Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN), a nonprofit organization that trains both male and female journalists on issues of gender and media, and challenges stereotypes facing female journalists in the region.
In Turkey, Gate continued working with Humans of Syria, which in addition to uploading photographs and stories to social media had become a de facto news agency, frequently deployed to gather breaking news and confirm information for journalists unable to access stories themselves. Gate disseminated news to international media outlets using her vast network of media activists and documentarians inside of Syria.
“We understand that our stories might not necessarily change what happens,” Gate said, recalling a piece she put together for the Mail Online, questioning whether or not the United Kingdom should intervene in the Syrian civil war.
“But these stories are like a paper for our history,” she continued. “We want to make sure that history has a paper that says that we, as Syrians, did not want more bombing – that we knew that this was not going to help our situation.”
In addition to often being highly educated, many of these journalists have an advantage over their male colleagues because of their gender alone. As women, they have a unique insight into the humanitarian impact of the conflict, which has disproportionately hit women and children. They are also able to conduct interviews with women in conservative areas of Syria, bringing stories to light that their male colleagues could never access.
The plethora of media outlets that opened to disseminate news of the revolution increased the number of opportunities for women. In addition, many women were forced to become primary breadwinners for their family, shifting from traditional roles out of necessity – and most importantly, shedding light on the cultural debate of whether or not women should be allowed to occupy professional positions in Syria.
Nevertheless it remains more challenging for women to work as journalists and newsgatherers than it is for men. In addition to the occupational hazards of being a journalist in Syria – such as Gate’s experience of extreme surveillance and distrust in government-controlled areas, the aerial bombardments and chaos of the front line in opposition-controlled territory and “the increased stigma of detainment” in Syria – female journalists still face enormous sexism.
“It’s extremely dangerous to live and work under shelling and heavy weapons, as well as the constant threat of detention of one of us, or our families,” Sarah al-Hourani, the head of the media office of the Free Women Assembly in Daraa (FWAD) and a volunteer documentarian for the Syrian Civil Defense, told Syria Deeply.
In addition to the sexist environment in which many women work, the rise of extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State, further endangered working women by causing them to go from controversial figures to targets, al-Hourani added.
“The military presence, and deteriorating security environment impacts us, as women, that much more,” al-Hourani said. “We also have to factor in the social environment around us.”
One woman journalist interviewed for the SFJN study said, “my colleagues do not let me go on the ground with them, though I really want to and can.” Another interviewee, a male manager of a Syrian media outlet, said that “he fears that his institution will get the blame if something bad happens” to a female staff member working inside Syria.
The SFJN report found that, by the end of 2015, only 4 percent of senior journalists at emerging Syrian media outlets were women. Many women working at news agencies interviewed for the study said that their reports were being sidelined in the newsrooms, in favor of their male colleagues’ opinion pieces. Others report more blatant sexism, such as being called “unfit” for marriage, simply because they’re participating in public space and interviewing strange men.
Since many female journalists are also caregivers – looking after either children or elderly relatives – many have grown wary of the dangers of traditional war reporting, and try to minimize the risk to their lives and families by participating in the media as documentarians. Many spend long hours on the phone, confirming and following up on events, gathering testimonies of violations and war crimes.
“I realized how important this work was in 2013, when the people of Daraa were facing such difficult conditions,” al-Hourani said, recounting the trying days of the military offensive on Daraa.
“I am driven forward by the magnitude of the sacrifices made by the Syrian people,” she said. “Most of all, I am driven by the need to ensure that justice is served to the criminals who have committed countless crimes against the Syrian people.”
- Inside Syria, women are standing in opposition to the Syrian government, the Islamic State, and patriarchal norms by using traditional crafts, like weaving and storytelling, to call for peace and equality.
- Amid escalating violence, a large part of the Damascene art community has moved to Beirut, where it currently flourishes, but refugees are also using food and theater to preserve and promote Syrian culture abroad.
- The international community has largely focused on efforts to preserve Syria’s heritage sites and artifacts in response to the Islamic State’s systematic destruction and illegal trade of antiquities.
The ongoing violence in Syria poses a serious threat to Syrian arts and cultural heritage, but has also provided new creative spaces that previously did not exist. Artists continue to be targeted within the country, but Syrian art is undergoing a renaissance in diaspora, particularly in Beirut. In Syria, women are making their voices heard through diverse media, from weaving to animation, despite dismissive attitudes toward women’s issues and sometimes even direct violence. Among refugees, cooking, painting, and theater groups have helped to incorporate Syrian culture into life abroad.
There has been much international discussion and condemnation of the destruction of Syrian cultural heritage, but it has centered almost exclusively on physical artifacts. In 2016, there was an international conference organized by UNESCO and the German Archaeological Institute on the emergency safeguarding of Syria’s cultural heritage. The European Union pledged €2.46 for the cause, but there is significantly less international focus on the cultivation and preservation of the arts and other forms of living culture.
The Syrian art scene was on the rise from 2004 to 2011, with Damascus described in 2010 by the New York Times as a “hub of Mideast art” with galleries nearly indistinguishable from their counterparts in Paris or London. Politics, however, was usually off limits. The government kept a close watch over art and artists, requiring special permission to show work publicly and jailing or threatening those deemed too political. This greatly stifled Syrian creative expression and restricted art to the apolitical or protected elite.
During the revolutionary events after 2011, art was taken to the streets in the form of graffiti, posters, and chants. However, in the face of increasing violence, artists were forced to flee or halt their work for fear of detention. By 2014, 80–85 percent of Damascene galleries had closed. In 2015, café owner Bemar Jomaa set up an art exhibit of more nearly two dozen works by 15 Syrian artists who had fled the country, titled And They Left. The bulk of Syrian artists went to Beirut, transforming it into the de facto capital of Syrian art. One such woman, Raghad Mardini, established the Art Residence Aley, an organization that provides young Syrian artists with a place to live and materials to create their art. At the end of their stay, artists leave behind one piece, creating a collection of Syrian art from this pivotal moment in the nation’s history.
Sanaa Yazigi takes a similar approach with her website, Creative Memory, which is aimed at documenting the wide range of experiences and creative expression that has come out of the revolution from 2011 to the present. The pieces are sorted by art form, from graffiti to radio, and include a wide variety of political stances, with the idea that to protect Syrian national intangible heritage is essential, “as it belongs to the collective Syrian memory.”
Across Syria, women are using creative means to stand against oppression from the government, armed opposition groups, and even their own male relatives through subversive uses of art forms traditionally used by women. The women of Mazaya Center in Idlib wove the largest-ever flag of the Syrian revolution to remind President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Islamic State, and men in their own communities of the role women have played in the uprisings and to reiterate their call for equal rights. The center was burned down a month later, and after it was rebuilt, it was attacked again in 2015 by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters.
The anonymity of the internet somewhat alleviates these dangers for the women behind Estayqazat, an anonymous online feminist group that takes stories from Syrian women and turns them into short, animated films about female sexuality and empowerment focused on the collective rather than the individual. Though not exposed to physical harm, the backlash they received on their Facebook page was emblematic of the widespread resistance to the discussion of women’s issues in Syria. Some commenters called the pieces inappropriate and told the women to be ashamed of themselves, while others said the topics were trivial in comparison to the violence of the war, and still others accused the women of exaggerating, arguing that women were not really oppressed in Syria.
Within the Jordanian refugee camp, Zaatari, a group called the Jasmine Necklace formed to paint the drab buildings to reflect different regions, greenspaces, and archaeological sites of Syria. Another group, Art is Zaatari, seeks to reconnect refugees with their heritage through three stages: recreating models of lost monuments, showcasing Syrian folk art and ancient folk traditions, and creating original works of art that directly engage artists’ experiences of the war.
Theater is also being utilized as a tool for therapy and empowerment among women refugee populations in both Jordan and Lebanon. Syria Trojan Women was founded in 2013 in Jordan as a therapeutic drama and advocacy group and in 2016 staged an adaptation of Euripides’ anti-war play, The Trojan Women, to demonstrate the timelessness of war and women’s plight within it. A documentary, Queens of Syria, was made about their adaptation, following the women on their tour of Britain.
Catholic charity Caritas runs a cooking program in Beirut in which each woman creates her own version of traditional cuisine, sharing experiences and techniques across ideological bounds as well as calling attention to the rich diversity within Syrian food and culture. Similarly, one of SouriaLi Radio’s most successful programs is Fattoush, a radio cooking show that spotlights regional cultures and communities, including Kurdish, Alawite, and Christian voices, because “food is something that brings people together.”
Policy Implications and Challenges
Despite the varied forms of cultural expression, media coverage and policy discussions surrounding the preservation of Syrian heritage have centered almost exclusively on the protection of physical artifacts. All six of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged or destroyed, and this violence has been perpetrated by both the Syrian government and extremist groups such as Islamic State. In 2016, a task force compiled a report titled #CultureUnderThreat, and called for the Pentagon to use air strikes to protect heritage sites. The United States Senate responded by banning the import of ancient art and artifacts from Syria in an effort to discourage illegal trafficking. France offered $30 million toward a proposed $100 million for the protection of Syrian heritage sites. Despite the increasing sectarianism and unraveling of Syria’s social fabric, the only form of intangible culture deemed “under threat” by UNESCO is falconry.
UNHCR helps to fund a few projects focused on arts and culture, such as Syria Trojan Women, but there has not been an organized, international effort to preserve non-archaeological aspects of Syrian culture. Parties on all sides of the conflict have sought to silence and subjugate the Syrian population, particularly women, but the arts are an essential means to push back against this violence. While the protection of Syrian archaeological heritage sites is important, it is equally important to preserve living cultural heritage and narratives, and international policy must take steps to reflect this.
Women at the Forefront of Saving Syria’s Heritage
Syrian women at home and abroad are leading efforts to safeguard Syria’s cultural heritage and ensure that traditions are preserved in the wake of years of conflict and widespread displacement.
BEIRUT – When Fadia Mrad, 25, graduated with a degree in fine arts, she never imagined she would end up at the vanguard of a group of women preserving Syria’s traditional cultural heritage amid the war.
“Women are capable of playing an important and influential role in this sector, but they need to be given opportunities to unleash their potential,” says Mrad, who works with the Day After Project, a U.S.-funded initiative to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage by teaching traditional handicrafts. Mrad, who first worked as a teacher following graduation, noted that in the past, women were often marginalized in traditional industries.
Syrian women – architects, journalists, academics, writers, filmmakers, collectors, craftswomen or cooks – both at home and abroad – are now leading efforts to safeguard their heritage. From sharing their stories to sharing their recipes, many are working to ensure their culture and traditions live on despite years of war that have scattered Syrians around the world.
Women also have more active roles than ever before in efforts to preserve Syria’s heritage sites, many of which have been damaged or destroyed during the war.
Archaeologist Lina Kutiefan has been with the Syrian state-run Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) for 27 years, and has worked on everything from restoration to registration of new sites for possible inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
With the start of the conflict, she was appointed director of Syrian World Heritage Sites at DGAM, and she and her team began documenting damage of heritage sites. Preserving “this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest because it protects a vital cultural legacy for coming generations,” Kutiefan tells Syria Deeply.
“I believe that cultural heritage can provide an automatic sense of unity and belonging within the Syrian people, especially during this hard crisis,” she says. “It will allow us to better understand the unique history of where we come from.”
In addition to making the work of archaeologists more vital than ever, the war has allowed more women to “take center stage, notably in governmental jobs,” in this field, she says. Kutiefan’s advice for women interested in this sector is straightforward: “You must be able to work hard. You have to know more than anyone else. Learn to pay attention, read, attend educational seminars and join us in these hard times.”
Though the war may have helped highlight the important role women play in this field, working to preserve the country’s heritage still comes with significant danger and social stigma in some areas of Syria.
“Few women on the ground in Syria are active in preserving cultural heritage because of social taboos over women working in such a field, in addition to the lack of financial support,” says Nwayrat al-Qaddour, who works with The Day After project on emergency response to protect artifacts and archaeological sites in the northern province of Idlib.
However, according to the 27-year-old who studied history at the University of Aleppo before the war, it is key for women to take on a more active role.
“Woman make up 50 percent of society and are no less important than men. Cultural heritage is part of a larger Syrian national identity, and protecting this identity is as much a national duty for Syrian women as it is for men,” she says.
Noura Alsaleh studied architecture at the University of Aleppo before the war, where her primary focus was the rehabilitation of the buffer zone around the UNESCO borders of Aleppo’s old city.
“I did several studies and my graduation project on how can we preserve the cultural significance of that area and its heritage,” she tells Syria Deeply.
Today, Alsaleh is a scientific assistant at Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany, where she is writing her doctoral thesis on the post-conflict reconstruction of the old city of Aleppo and the role of cultural heritage in the rebuilding process. Her thesis is part of the research network supported by the German Foreign Ministry.
She is an active member of both UNESCO’s newly established young expert forum to safeguard Syria’s cultural heritage, and its expert roster for heritage on Syria issues that cut very close to home. Alsaleh’s home city Aleppo was destroyed last winter.
“I felt a personal responsibility to contribute to the reconstruction process of the Syrian cities and cultural heritage sites, of which many are still threatened by destruction and damage,” she says.
Alsaleh hopes that the rebuilding process “won’t be a second destruction caused by the unregulated urban reconstruction, which could cause more damage to our heritage than the one by the conflict itself.”
Archaeological sites are just one part of the larger effort women are making to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage. Some women have focused their efforts on documenting and preserving Syria’s culinary traditions, which became particularly important as roughly 5 million people fled the country.
In the cookbook, “Our Syria: Recipes From Home,” filmmaker Itab Azzam and author Dina Mousawi compiled stories of Syrian refugees scattered around Europe, along with their traditional recipes, “to bring to the world the glories of Syrian food and in the process honor these brave women who are fighting back against the destruction of their home with the only weapons they have: pots and pans.”
Syrian-American journalist Dalia Mortada used a similar concept to create “Savoring Syria,” a website dedicated to the stories and recipes in the Syrian diaspora. As a member of the diaspora herself, she knows the importance of traditional food when far from home. (She’s tested and tasted all the recipes herself, to be sure of the measurements, she said.)
“Even if I was born and raised in the U.S., my family is Syrian and I was raised that way,” Mortada tells Syria Deeply. “I arrived in 2011 to be a journalist in Turkey, and after a few years, more Syrians started settling in Istanbul, opening bakeries and restaurants. They came with their own ingredients, like the fresh coriander that was impossible for me to find here.”
In May 2015, she began organizing food-related events in the U.S., Europe and Turkey to help foster ties between local communities and refugees around Syrian dishes.
For her, telling the stories of Syrians displaced by conflict through food is a way to eliminate the “victimizing angle, because the war is not the whole thing, and taste and flavors have their place in their narrative.”
She also feels it is a way to preserve their culture and traditions: “It was so new that the recipes hadn’t changed yet, not adapted to the new ingredients and environment. It says a lot on the culture and history of a whole country, and I’m happy I got to know a lot about it through this project.”
But she expects that, with time, the recipes will be adapted, influenced by local flavors and changed. “My grandmother used to send my mother recipes by fax that my mother would copy and transform because some are impractical to make. Now, I use this same cookbook and copied it in English, adapting the recipes, too, exchanging new ingredients or developing other techniques.”
In a country that has been marked by war, with a population that has been forced far from home, more women have taken on the crucial mission of preserving ancient heritage sites, cultural history and even one grandmother’s tricks to roll the best waraq enib (stuffed grape leaves).