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Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution

The outcome of the Syrian uprising remains unclear, but what is clear is that a wide array of social groups, many once its supporting pillars, have turned against the regime.

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Executive Summary

The Syrian uprising has defied conventional expectations and patterns established elsewhere in the region from the outset. It happened, first of all, and to many that in itself was surprising enough. The regime was not alone in believing in a form of Syrian exceptionalism that would shield it from serious popular unrest. Once the uprising began, it did not develop quickly, as in Egypt or Tunisia. Although it did not remain peaceful, it did not descend into a violent civil war, as in Libya, or sectarian affair, as in Bahrain. To this day, the outcome remains in doubt. Demonstrations have been growing in impressive fashion but have yet to attain critical mass. Regime support has been declining as the security services’ brutality has intensified, but many constituents still prefer the status quo to an uncertain and potentially chaotic future. What is clear, however, is the degree to which a wide array of social groups, many once pillars of the regime, have turned against it and how relations between state and society have been forever altered.

The regime’s first mistake in dealing with the protests was to misdiagnose them. It is not fair to say that, in response to the initial signs of unrest, the regime did nothing. It decreed an amnesty and released several prominent critics; officials were instructed to pay greater attention to citizen complaints; and in a number of localities steps were taken to pacify restive populations. But the regime acted as if each and every disturbance was an isolated case requiring a pin-point reaction rather than part of a national crisis that would only deepen short of radical change.

Over the past decade, conditions significantly worsened virtually across the board. Salaries largely stagnated even as the cost of living sharply increased. Cheap imported goods wreaked havoc on small manufacturers, notably in the capital’s working-class outskirts. In rural areas, hardship caused by economic liberalisation was compounded by the drought. Neglect and pauperisation of the countryside prompted an exodus of underprivileged Syrians to rare hubs of economic activity. Cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs witnessed the development of sprawling suburbs that absorbed rural migrants. Members of the state-employed middle class, caught between, on the one hand, low salaries, shrinking subsidies and services and, on the other, rising expenses, have been pushed out of the city centre toward the underdeveloped belt that surrounds Damascus. The ruling elite’s arrogance and greed made this predicament more intolerable. Meanwhile, promises of political reform essentially had come to naught.

Much of this has been true for a while, but the regional context made all the difference. That the Syrian public’s outlook was changing in reaction to events elsewhere might not have been manifest, but telltale signs were there. Well ahead of the mid-March 2011 commencement of serious disturbances, the impact of regional turmoil could be felt in the behaviour of ordinary Syrians. In what had long been – or forced to become – a depoliticised society, casual discussions suddenly assumed a surprisingly political tone. What the regime used to do and get away with came under intense and critical public scrutiny. Subtle expressions of insubordination surfaced. Previously routine – and unchallenged – forms of harassment and extortion by civil servants met unusual resistance on the part of ordinary citizens, emboldened by what they had seen in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. More broadly, Syrians – who like to imagine themselves as the Arab vanguard – increasingly were frustrated at being left on the sidelines of history at a time when much of the region was rising up.

Taking small steps to coax the population, the regime also repressed, often brutally and indiscriminately. That might have worked in the past. This time, it guaranteed the movement’s nationwide extension. Wherever protests broke out, excessive use of force broadened the movement’s reach as relatives, friends, colleagues and other citizens outraged by the regime’s conduct joined in. Worse still, the regime’s strategy of denial and repression meant that it could not come to terms with the self-defeating social and political consequences of its actions.

The regime also got it wrong when it tried to characterise its foes. Syrian authorities claim they are fighting a foreign-sponsored, Islamist conspiracy, when for the most part they have been waging war against their original social constituency. When it first came to power, the Assad regime embodied the neglected countryside, its peasants and exploited underclass. Today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. It has inherited power rather than fought for it, grown up in Damascus, mingled with and mimicked the ways of the urban upper class and led a process of economic liberalisation that has benefited large cities at the provinces’ expense. The state abandoned vast areas of the nation, increasingly handling them through corrupt and arrogant security forces. There is an Islamist undercurrent to the uprising, no doubt. But it is a product of the regime’s decades of socio-economic neglect far more than it reflects an outside conspiracy by religious fundamentalists.

True, areas with strong minority concentrations have been slow to rise up; likewise, Damascus and Aleppo have been relatively quiescent, and the business community has remained circumspect. But the loyalty these groups once felt for the regime has been under threat for some time. Most, in one form or another, have suffered from the predatory practices of a ruling class that, increasingly, has treated the country as private property. Even Allawites, a minority group to which the ruling family and a disproportionate share of the security services belong, long have had reason to complain, chafing at the sight of an ever-narrowing elite that does not even bother to redistribute wealth to its own community.

That leaves the security apparatus, which many observers believe constitute the regime’s ultimate card – not the regular army, distrusted, hollowed out and long demoralised, but praetorian units such as the Republican Guard and various strands of the secret police generically known as the Mukhabarat and disproportionately composed of Allawites. The regime seems to believe so, too, and has dispatched its forces to engage in ruthless displays of muscle, sometimes amounting to collective punishment. Over the years, these forces undoubtedly have served the regime well; in recent months, too, they have shown no mercy in efforts to crush the protest movement.

But here as well appearances can be deceiving. From the outset of the crisis, many among the security forces were dissatisfied and eager for change; most are underpaid, overworked and repelled by high-level corruption. They have closed ranks behind the regime, though it has been less out of loyalty than a result of the sectarian prism through which they view the protest movement and of an ensuing communal defence mechanism. The brutality to which many among them have resorted arguably further encourages them to stand behind the regime for fear of likely retaliation were it to collapse.

Yet, the sectarian survival instinct upon which the regime relies could backfire. The most die-hard within the security apparatus might well be prepared to fight till the bitter end. But the majority will find it hard to keep this up. After enough of this mindless violence, this same sectarian survival instinct could push them the other way. After centuries of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority, Allawites and other religious minorities concluded that their villages within relatively inaccessible mountainous areas offered the only genuine sanctuary. They are unlikely to believe their safety is ensured in the capital (where they feel like transient guests), by the Assad regime (which they view as a temporary, historical anomaly), or through state institutions (which they do not trust). When they begin to feel that the end is near, Allawites might not fight to the last man. They might well return to the mountains. They might well go home.

This report, part of a series on the popular movements in North Africa and the Middle East, is the first of two that will look in detail at Syria’s uprising. It focuses chiefly on the inception and makeup of the protest movement. The second, to be published shortly, will focus on the regime’s response.

Damascus/Brussels, 6 July 2011

 

‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Originally published in The Guardian

Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.

There are around 150 British women in the world who can be called “jihadi brides” – those who left places such as Luton, Birmingham and Burton upon Trent to migrate to the Islamic State and eventually marry its fighters – and Shamima Begum is one of the youngest. She assumed this status as a minor, and the use of the term “jihadi bride” by journalists and commentators to describe her is appalling, a heaping of further trauma on a groomed child.

Tabloid sensationalism flattens a complicated and necessary debate about agency: whether these women had any; and how much and the extent to which they should be held accountable for the spectacular violence Isis has inflicted, even if they were not directly involved and some of them were crushed by it, too. In trying to get to the bottom of these questions for a forthcoming book, I interviewed more than 20 Isis women.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word ‘bride’, so resonant and feminine.

At the heart of this problem is female militancy itself: the historical and near-universal aversion across so many societies to viewing young women as capable of dreadful violence, and the incentives for powerful governments and militaries to downplay or amplify the nature of female militancy and its implications. One premise underlying the term “jihadi bride” is that the debutante in question holds no valid political grievances, is indoctrinated into accepting grotesque violence as legitimate, and as “just” a wife plays a dangerous but marginal role in the working of the armed group to which she is wed rather than operationally affiliated. “In-house whores for Isis,” as one columnist memorably called them in 2015. The term also tilts toward characterising such women as civilian spouses of jihadist militants, akin to the German wives who held dinner parties for Nazi SS officers, rather than aspirant members who joined first and wed second, or at least concurrently.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word “bride”, so resonant and feminine. Its inclusion is almost antique, from a time when women had hysterics and doctors acting on behalf of the patriarchy had to pacify them with dubious sex therapies or lobotomies. But perhaps in the past this patronising view also served a social function: if militants’ wives were just wives, society could forgive them more easily and, once the fighting was over, they could serve as bridges back to some normalcy. Women could then try to explain what had overtaken their sons and husbands (as Osama bin Laden’s mother has done). As I wrote earlier this year, in Nigeria viewing women who voluntarily joined the Boko Haram insurgency as wives who didn’t commit violence has helped communities grudgingly tolerate their reintegration. Returnee men are often simply slaughtered.

But this inherited thinking has outlived its use, especially in light of the way militant groups themselves play on gender to recruit and swell their ranks. Ignoring women’s agency in this process obscures our understanding of all the ways, meaningful, oblique and direct, that women lent their power and numbers to Isis. Women in the caliphate served as doctors and midwives, language instructors, recruiters and intelligence agents, and morality policewomen who tormented locals.

With the flow of Isis men and women out of the group’s last patch of territory and the prospect of them returning to their countries of origin, there are loud voices now calling for the suspension of “jihadi bride”. But sometimes these reflect social and political forces with their own agendas, such as Sajid Javid’s early bid for the Tory leadership, which was signalled through the stripping of Begum’s status as a British citizen. In the rush to bestow militant women agency, there is a tendency to blaze past any legal and investigative process and hold girls such as Begum just as accountable as those who beheaded civilians. The haste to make her indoctrinated, feeble responses to journalists’ questions appear lucid and defining of her fate is reminiscent of the excesses of the post-9/11 period, when jihadists disappeared into the facility at Guantánamo Bay in a netherworld of lawless, indefinite detainment. Among those who directly suffered under Isis there is an understandable impatience with the attention such women receive, but among some voices from Syria and Iraq, the language about Begum is sometimes dehumanising, making her the focus for both justified rage at what transpired and a target for sectarian or ethnic hate.

Our need for new, measured and more forensic language to characterise female militancy and the agency that underpins it is now clear. Yet we must remain sensitive to the coercion and violence many female Isis members experienced themselves.

It is worth remembering that, after a certain point, it became virtually impossible to leave the caliphate. During the years I spent following the stories of female Isis members, I was in touch with women, or families of women, who were repulsed by what they saw unfolding and tried to escape. Kadiza Sultana, one of the three original Bethnal Green girls, saw she had made a terrible mistake and worked with her family in London to plan her evacuation. She died in an airstrike on the building where she lived, before the collapse of the territorial caliphate gave her a chance to flee.

It is no disrespect to the victims of Isis to hear women such as Begum attempt to explain their motivations. Perhaps not immediately after having a baby, in a fetid IDP camp, but later, in a courtroom – or, better, in a transitional justice hearing, where she could be confronted with the stories of Yazidi women such as Nobel peace prize winner Nadia Murad, the victims of Isis who were faceless at the time, about whose suffering Begum was, and remains, chillingly incurious.

There are legal bases on which to assess criminal accountability, which require investigations and collection of evidence. But we are also struggling to understand, as a society encumbered by loaded terms such as “jihadi bride”, how much blame to accord such women. This requires learning precisely what they did – and what might have been done to them.

The role of women in Isis is one of the most significant questions of the post-Arab spring period, the aftermath of a historic sweeping revolt that women often led and animated. The Syrian Isis woman who met Begum at the Syrian border that dark night in February 2015 and escorted her into Raqqa told me later how surprised she was by the Bethnal Green girls’ submissiveness. The driver snapped at them to cover their hair properly, and they smilingly complied.

This woman, a bookish university student, a Hemingway reader who had gone from demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad to working for Isis at the behest of her family, couldn’t understand what had brought these London girls to the hell that had become her country. They seemed bewitched. She herself was dissimulating each day, biding her time until she could just get out.