On the afternoon that Syrian soldiers finally forced their way through Raifah Sammie’s front door, they were surprised to find her stomping right toward them, shouting angrily, having just finished putting her headscarf on. “You can’t just barge into someone’s home like this!” Sammie scolded the men. “Don’t you have mothers and sisters? There are women here! We need time to cover up.” The soldiers had been searching homes in the rebellious province of Idlib in eastern Syria, and at first they demanded to know what had taken Sammie so long to open up. They had knocked and shouted repeatedly before her son let them in. But as the soldiers surveyed the scene—four women sat nervously with their kids, while the formidable Sammie stood guard before her 22-year-old son, who she proudly noted was attending medical school—their suspicions gradually eased. “I’m just a housewife,” Sammie said.
Once the soldiers left, Sammie reached between a bedroom window and shade and retrieved the hard drive she had stashed there while the soldiers were busy pounding on her door. She had also been frantically deleting contacts from her two mobile phones, while tearing up pieces of paper with the phone numbers—from Romania, America, Turkey, France—of Syrian contacts living abroad who regularly sent over large sums of money that she then channeled to the rebellion. Sammie was indeed a housewife, just as she’d claimed. She was also a key cog in Idlib’s revolutionary machine, having graduated from organizing demonstrations to distributing funds to rebels who needed money for arms.
On a recent afternoon near the Syrian border in the Turkish city of Antakya, where she took refuge last month, Sammie, who was wearing an elegant pink headscarf and a carefully tailored black abaya, recounted the ruse with a grin. It was just one of many successful operations, which also included helping people to defect and raising cash for the rebels.
“I was a lady with a lot of connections, and people started to pay attention,” Sammie said. “I’ve done everything possible for the revolution.”
When the uprising began early last year, women took part in the peaceful protests right alongside men. But as the conflict turned increasingly bloody, with the Assad regime bombarding rebels and civilians with heavy artillery and fighter jets, and the death toll reaching at least 30,000, according to the activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, men came to dominate the front lines.
Behind the scenes, however, women still play a crucial role, smuggling cash, medicine, and arms, while also manning field hospitals and media centers and organizing humanitarian relief.
“The media are covering the front lines, so you only see men these days. But we’re still out there working in huge numbers. Only now a lot of our work relies on secrecy,” says Rafia Salemah, an activist, using her nom de guerre because she continues to work in Damascus and the regime has begun cracking down on women. Women activists say the scrutiny of women at checkpoints by security forces has increased exponentially in recent weeks, with the regime apparently clued in to their work.
The dissident Suhair Atassi was among the revolution’s first high-profile arrests and has since become a top figure in the opposition. Razan Zeitouneh, another early Damascus organizer, who was forced into hiding, is widely seen as the leader of the Local Coordination Committees, one of the revolution’s most prominent activist groups.
Rama al-Assas, a young activist who friends say was targeted for her extensive relief work in Damascus, has been missing since Aug. 27. Friends say she left her home that day to pick up medical supplies and was instead dragged into a car by regime-loyal thugs. They also say she knew she was being watched but refused to give up her work. “She considered herself a freedom fighter. And fighters never pull back,” one friend says.
A recent report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that at least 1,900 women have been killed in the uprising so far. And the Observatory’s Sipan Hassan says the regime has also arrested many women, though numbers are hard to come by. “For the regime, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man,” he says. “Women are playing a huge role in the revolution right now. And many of them have been arrested for it.”
Stories of courage abound. Amina Ahmed Abid’s husband recounts how he hid out at home while she led demonstrations in her neighborhood in the Assad stronghold of Latakia. “This revolution also freed us from the tyranny of our homes,” Abid says.
Damascus, where rebel fighters have lately been striking at the heart of the regime with a series of sophisticated bombings targeting military and intelligence brass, is a good example of how women play a special role in this uprising—in part because, wearing hijabs and abayas, they are able to move more discreetly through the city despite increased patrols and by now ubiquitous checkpoints.
One liberal activist in Damascus, who goes by the name Farah Nasif, says she’ll happily don a headscarf if it helps the cause. “We’ll wear a hijab to look like the local women if we’re heading to a conservative area. I hide medicine, sometimes money, in my pockets and in my clothes, and I don’t really get any questions,” she says. “We’re good at hiding stuff, and we’re good at lying—it’s true.” If security forces try to initiate a search, she wails, she says. “No! You can’t touch me! I am like your sister! Blah, blah, blah.”
Nasif also works as a partisan journalist and, as a woman, has access to stories that men don’t, she says. “It’s easier for me to get around, and people are sometimes more comfortable talking to a woman than a man,” she says.
Many men now stay home, afraid to run even routine errands, as government forces are randomly rounding up men on the streets for military service. “I am happy for this,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek. “Keep men in the home and kitchen.”
A Damascus activist who goes by the nickname Nirvana relies on what she calls the “careless innocent girl” routine. A successful young professional in her late 20s when the revolution began, she has since become one of those women, like Sammie, with a network of contacts and a name that people trust. “How can I put it—a lot of people who donate money are afraid to do it publicly, or using their real names. So there are a few trusted people they give it to, and I go to these people and get the money,” she says. “And I have a car.”
Nirvana has often found herself rolling up to a security checkpoint with a trunk full of food or other supplies. A lifelong fan of American music, she reaches for her MP3 player when she sees a checkpoint ahead. “I just put some American song on the stereo and turn it really, really loud, and light up a cigarette, and act like I don’t give a f--k,” she says. “Anyone who sees me at a checkpoint will think that someone who looks and acts like that couldn’t possibly care about the revolution.” She adds: “Syrian police are known to be womanizers. So they just overlook everything else. They don’t even think twice.” Her revolutionary call to arms? This verse in a song by Tupac: “I see no changes/ Wake up in the morning and I ask myself/ Is life worth living/ Should I blast myself?’”
Nirvana knows her routine might sound amusing, but the stakes are deadly serious. She still shakes when recounting some close calls. Even the seemingly innocuous act of transporting food into a devastated neighborhood puts her under threat. “You can think of it like this: if the Army went into an area, destroyed the place, and bombed it, basically they did it because they think these people don’t deserve to live,” she says. “So how can you bring them food? According to them, these people are terrorists. You’re not supposed to help them.”
It’s the most devastated areas where women say they are needed the most. An activist who goes by the name Jodi Chou works almost exclusively in Daraya, the Damascus suburb where at least 300 people died in a mass killing in August, according to the Syrian Observatory. She says humanitarian relief has become the top concern after the onslaught, leaving women scrambling to fill the void—even the local warehouses where the rebels kept medical supplies were destroyed by the regime. “The women are leading this revolution in Daraya,” she says. “We work hand in hand with the men. They depend on us, and we depend on them.”
Women activists worry not just about torture and imprisonment but also about rape and other forms of sexual violence. Even if women are not assaulted, the stigma may hurt them. “It would ruin a girl’s reputation,” says an activist who goes by the name Hadel, who has been arrested herself but wasn’t assaulted.
“If a woman gets arrested, everyone gets worried, even more so than when men do. It’s a big problem. So it’s a very serious thing for them to be working for this revolution” says Hanadi Mahmoud, an activist who spent 50 days in prison for her work. While she wasn’t abused physically, Mahmoud says guards routinely threatened her. “We’re going to do this to you and that to you,” she remembers them saying. “That’s how they torture you mentally.”
The revolutionaries are a motley crew, a not-always-easy alliance that comprises both secular women and Islamist men who want to institute sharia and roll back women’s rights.
Before the revolution, the state of women’s rights in Syria was relatively good, compared with other countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, though many women point out problems with issues like divorce law. Social customs were a far greater concern.
Khawla Yusuf, a longtime Syrian activist now based in the United States, notes that even the Islamist groups backing the revolution say they will support a civil state. But no matter what comes after Assad, she says, “when it comes to women’s rights, we as women will have to fight.”
Some women express dismay that, among the rebels’ demands for political freedoms, women’s rights hasn’t been a bigger focus. “Until now no one in the opposition is talking loudly about women’s rights,” says Nasif. “This is what I feel as a woman: that I do a lot, but I don’t expect so much in return.”
Salemah, a women’s-rights advocate before the revolution, says she’s hopeful that her cause will be advanced by the fall of Assad—and not the other way around. “Women were really pushed aside before the revolution,” she says. “But they’ve become very important in the revolution. It really brought some momentum to the women of Syria.”
Most, though, seem concerned only with winning the war. Ranem Shahim, who hails from a village near Latakia, says she wasn’t that involved when the movement to oust Assad was purely peaceful. But she dove right in once it became an armed revolt. “My role became much stronger once this became armed,” she says.
In the days since, she has been running food and supplies to civilians and rebels in need. She helped smuggle another female activist out of the country and into Turkey when the fellow rebel was wanted by local authorities. Then, when authorities turned their attention in her direction, she was forced to flee herself. But she hasn’t given up the fight—there is always something to do. “If a woman can smuggle weapons, OK, let her do that. If she can’t, she can take care of a fighter who is wounded. And if she can’t do that, she can feed him. Women have to have a role in everything now.”