As the world focuses on men fighting in the Middle East, there is a wave of dedicated young women in the region who are risking their lives, promoting non-violent resistance by documenting events and training youth at community levels throughout the conflict-ridden parts of the Middle East.
Their voices are not heard, and most are not being supported financially. But their work has the potential to make all the difference. Haya Al Ali, a 27-year-old Syrian woman is one of them and, remarkably, she has pursued this work while surviving ISIS rule over her hometown, Raqqa, Syria.
Raqqa is a tribal area and, indeed, Haya belongs to a tribe. That did not mean she could not move freely or study or speak her mind when she was living there, before fleeing ISIS: Arab women are known for being feisty and strong within their communities. Belonging to a tribe, though, did mean that she had to guard her reputation. Her individual honor was part of the collective honor of the family and the community. So when she joined the revolutionary movement, distributing information on organized demonstrations to rally the public, she was taking a risk: if government officials noticed her and arrested her, the price would be hefty in terms of her reputation. When women get arrested they are vulnerable to sexual abuse. But Haya did not let that stop her: “The revolution started an important chapter of my life,” she says. “I knew my activism was a risk to my reputation. I am the daughter of a tribe and the tribes had tension with the government. So if I got arrested, it is a big risk. But I had to do my work. I felt it is important that we teach the youth a new way of resistance. Our young men feel that they have the right to pick up the guns and fight back as their first response. But that can’t be the only way of fighting. I focused on raising awareness for nonviolent resistance against the regime even when the regime started shooting at us. I believed that I must do that: Even if my influence was minuscule, still I had to try.”
Haya did eventually get arrested and interrogated for a whole day by Assad government officials. She was roughed up but, thankfully, not sexually harassed or assaulted. She went low-key for a while until ISIS — or Daesh as it is referred to in Arabic — entered her town. “Daesh entered like a poison in Raqqa. When they arrived, they started kidnapping and killing activists – some were my friends. They did not enforce their rules immediately. So a group of youth – including myself — organized a demonstration in July to protest Daesh. The town was ours and we made it clear we fought against all oppressive regimes, not only the Assad regime.”
As ISIS was fighting other factions in the area, from Al Nusra Front to the Free Syrian Army, they were starting to slowly apply pressure for social change in Raqqa. In particular, Haya talks about the practice ISIS members took on of spitting in girls faces if they were not covered up. “I had many men spit on me as with many women who are not covering. They spit in your face or any direction at you if they see you not covered. One day I spit back on the man who spat on me. I was walking and he was in his car. When I spat back, he came out of his car to hit me. But I am a strong woman. When I saw his aggression, I went into my aggressions as well. These days people still had courage. A crowd surrounded us and managed to get us away from each other and saved the day.”
Women and girls started covering up as a security measure and to save themselves from humiliation. But in January 2014, ISIS formally declared Raqqa as their territory, after getting rid of all other militias in the region, and with that they enforced Niqab – a complete covering of a woman’s body from head to toe except for her eyes.
Haya was not about to witness that in silence. “I didn’t mind the Niqab,” she says “I can keep my activism going while covering my face. But I had to think about a strategic way to mobilize the youth … this way if I get caught, at least I will be killed for a good reason.” She started Young Syrian for a New Future, a group focused on mobilizing young women to organize secret resistance against ISIS. “We wanted to get our voice to be heard in the world, to show the horror of Daesh, not as they were showing it to the world by killing and burning people. They were producing these images themselves and were proud of it as it gave them power and world attention. They were already horrifying people with their violence. I wanted to show how oppressive the life under them is and for the world to see that part of Daesh.”
Haya picked up her own camera and, hidden in her niqab, started secretly taping life under the ISIS regime. “I wanted to show how weak they were,” she says. “Our own fear is what made them bigger. They were not that strong at the beginning. That is why I wanted to videotape life under them… to show their weakness. When they executed the foreign journalist, they used violence to bargain and get the attention of major countries. I took my camera as my weapon”.
Without the knowledge of her parents, Haya started documenting day-to-day life under ISIS territories. She talked to young schoolgirls who expressed their hatred of ISIS. One elementary school girl Haya interviewed said, “I hate hijab now because they are forcing it on us with cruelty. If they asked us nicely maybe we would do it. But as they force everything on us with violence, we hate them and hate everything about them.”
Haya caught a French woman who willingly joined ISIS in a conversation she was having with her family in an Internet café, and documented how young boys were playing football with people’s heads as encouraged by ISIS. “I wanted to contribute to getting women and girls voices delivered in the real way of what ISIS life is like.”
Haya does not deny her fear though. If ISIS had found any footage in her possession, they would have killed her. With the encouragement of her mother, who knew her daughter would not stop speaking or fighting back, Haya escaped to Turkey. She paid $100 to smugglers (now it is closer to $1,000 for the same journey), walked and slept one night in the wilderness, then arrived in Turkey and joined her friends who had managed to escape before her.
The first thing she did was to talk to the media: The French media were particularly interested, given the footage she had of the French citizen who had joined ISIS. Though Haya gave the interview wearing the niqab, ISIS identified her just from her eyes, her voice, and the details she was sharing. They accused her of being a spy and started a campaign of threats against her using phone calls and social media messages, and harassing her family back in Raqqa, threatening to kill her 21-year-old brother and pillaging their house in search of whatever Haya may have documented.
Haya had to escape from Turkey, as her life was under threat from ISIS members. Her family had to flee Raqqa, and hid for three weeks in small villages until they managed to get to Turkey. Eventually they all made it to France as asylum seekers.
It’s been a little over a year since Haya arrived in France. She was given accommodations with her family. But Haya is still not at peace. “It was tough to come to France. It was not in my dream to leave my country. I never wanted to leave my country and my city. In France, they are fascinated at me for being a Muslim woman against ISIS. But that annoys me. My religion is not relevant to be against ISIS. I am against ISIS because they are bad. It does not make any difference that I am a Muslim. I resist how they corner me as only one identity.”
The struggle for Haya shifted from the Assad regime’s oppression, to ISIS violence, to life in a country struggling with issues related to refugees and Islam. Though she is aware of French hospitality and the safety they provided for her and her family, she struggles on a daily basis to find the meaning of freedom, and sometimes feels judged by the French social service authorities charged with supervising her asylum process. “The other day the social worker assigned to my family and me complained upon visiting the very meager apartment we were given that the family smokes cigarettes. She felt we should save our money instead of smoke. She thinks we are here for economic reasons. She doesn’t know the house we lived in in Syria, the life we had there. We are not beggars. We left the country out of being forced out not because we want to be here.” Haya continues an appeal: “Please treat us with respect and with some understanding of where we came from.”
Haya’s is a voice not heard in the region. Syrian women have been portrayed as silent refugees and victims of ISIS or cultural oppression. But Haya is just as Syrian as the “victim woman” of western portrayal, and there are many like her. Her courage, her strength, her resistance may contradict the horrifying stereotype of what it means to be a woman in the Middle East. But it is her courage, her views, her activism that need to be supported and heard as a potential path to change in the region. When these young women’s voices are not heard, the loss is not theirs alone, but the region’s and the world’s. Haya now waits in France for the day when she can contribute to rebuilding Syria. Having worked on a film called La Rebelle de Raqqa (The Rebel from Raqqa) today she continues to explore ways to use the footage she collected, to promote awareness not only about the horror of ISIS, but also its weakness.
Watch La Rebelle de Raqqa, a short documentary on Haya Al Ali (in Arabic with French subtitles):
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.