by Maria Al-Abdeh, Executive Director, Women Now for Development (Syria)
In the early days of the Syrian revolution, I belonged to the group of revolutionaries calling for peaceful protest. But I could understand, and sometimes overlook, violent responses to the regime, and I would not always condemn those taking up arms, because the regime had exercised violence against us, civilians, beginning decades before the revolution and culminating in increased brutality following it.
But after witnessing what the country plunged into, I now fully and staunchly condemn using violence in any form, even if it's being exercised against us. At the outset of the revolution, many people called for revenge and believed that they could bring down the regime using the regime's tools. They did not believe that peaceful protest could get us anywhere, or that it could amount to any political gains. But as soon as peaceful protesters took up arms, the regime found a stronger justification to bombard us, detain us, murder us, and wipe out our cities and villages.
We soon found out the dire consequences of turning our peaceful revolution into an armed one (or at least a fraction of it turning into an armed movement). The impact of violence on society is detrimental and long-lasting, let alone its impact on the individual. The ability and willingness to kill another human being, regardless of the circumstances of this action, transformed us. Look where we are now.
We need to learn how to access justice and develop mechanisms of accountability that are not outside the law, and that justice cannot happen by revenge. We cannot take up arms against a powerful and ruthless regime; we'd be playing the regime's game and we would never be able to win at their own game. Our power is that we are a mass protest, and our ability to stay peaceful and united. Our goal was never to avenge; it was to build a free and fair society, and violence could never be the road to that. Instead of calling for justice and freedom and a better future, suddenly we found ourselves in a violent civil war, and we were letting our children (our future generation) experience it.
From afar, people tend to divide Syrian society into two camps: regime supporters and revolutionaries; but the truth is that Syria is now much more divided. The revolutionaries are divided amongst themselves, and the division is sharp and deep and violent.
As the Syrian revolution turned from a peaceful one to an armed rebellion, the role of women subsided. The dominant rhetoric and culture was patriarchal and vengeful. In one of my visits to Darayya, a suburb near Damascus, a group of local activist women called the Free Women of Darayya organized a toy drive for children whose fathers were martyred in the rebellion against the regime. The women soon decided that it would not be true to their mission if they excluded children whose fathers were killed on the regime's side, so they decided that the toy drive would include all children who had lost their fathers regardless what side they belonged to. It was an example of how women actively opposed divisions, even during the midst of conflict, and worked against them as part of their fight for an equal country.
These women who took a sidestep after the armed rebellion — including those who had been forcibly displaced — re-emerged, turning their efforts to civil society and new forms of activism. They established humanitarian and women-led organizations, such as Hurass Children's Network or Families for Freedom. They believed in a peaceful movement and found nonviolent mechanisms to protest and demand freedom and justice and equality, regardless of the violent circumstances they experienced in reality. At Women Now for Development, we consider ourselves part of this movement and work toward reinforcing women’s visions for peace and justice.
We do not have or know another way than to be nonviolent. We won't be successful in our pursuit otherwise. Being violent and condoning violence does not build the society that we aim to build.