Storytelling for Change
Inaam Charaf and Youssef Shekho, Saiedat Souria
It is said that war does not discriminate, laying waste to victims young and old, rich and poor. But for Syrian journalist Youssef Shekho, the burden on Syrian women goes one degree further. “Syrian women don’t work on the ground,” he said. “They work underground. They live underground inside Syria and inside the refugee camps.”
They don’t have a voice. They don’t have rights. They don’t have anything.
Shekho, now based in Italy, works with Saiedat Souria, a newly established organization which publishes a monthly magazine by the same name written by and for Syrian women living inside Syria. To amplify its influence and reach, the organization also operates the Saiedat Souria website, which serves as an online platform for Syrian and Arab women to engage in storytelling, discover their voice, and access high-quality content on women’s rights.
Accompanied by his colleague, Inaam Charaf, the pair discussed how Saiedat Souria provides a rare outlet and opportunity for average Syrian women to tell their stories.
We’re not targeting the elites, but the average woman, the housewife. We’re also particularly targeting women that are marginalized inside Syria, in refugee camps, and who have escaped death and are now in Europe.
No one is listening to these kinds of women.
One such Saiedat Souria submission told the story of a young women who hailed a taxi to drive her to a nearby city. While in the car, the taxi driver tried many times, unsuccessfully, to assault her. Throughout the car ride, the young woman engages in a monologue with herself, imagining every possible outcome, struggling with what decision to make, and walking herself through the various ways that her story, this story, could end.
Upon reaching her destination, the young woman meets her husband, but chooses not to tell him about her ordeal, fearing that he would seriously injure or kill the taxi driver.
“We are not with the silence,” Charaf said, arguing that storytelling is, in fact, the opposite of neglecting these women’s voice. Rather, Charaf continued, stories such as this, and the hard decisions that they recount, are a key part of the peacebuilding process in Syria.
The idea is that the woman in this story did not tell her husband because she did not want him to commit a crime.
By making that difficult decision, Charaf continued, the protagonist is an example of a conscious decision to break the cycle of violence: a decision that empowers her as an enabler of peace.
Like the young woman in the story, Charaf said, “we believe that women can play a key role in peacebuilding because they have that influence. She can influence her family because, as a woman, she is the wife, she is the daughter, the sister, the mother; she can stop the killing and the revenge mentality, even with her husband, her father, her brother and her son.”
It is the power of storytelling that allows Saiedat Souria to make such positive changes in Syria, even in the face of great destruction.
But at the same time, the organization must walk a fine line between spreading their message and not attracting the type of attention that would jeopardize their work.
The international committee knows about our story and what is happening in Syria. This is a good thing. But now, we’re not just facing the regime, we’re also facing other extremist groups,” she continued “This is another fight.
“For example,” she described, “one of our offices was closed by Jabhat al-Nusra and they took everything. But we didn’t say anything, because we don’t want to be in confrontation with those people.”
To protect themselves from discovery, the Saiedat Souria magazine is distributed hand-to-hand: 7500 copies every month.
Saiedat Souria has also capitalized on female-exclusive spaces, especially in areas under extremist control, to distribute the magazine and support the needs of women in an excruciatingly difficult time.
Of course, at times, there are doubts.
In 2013, Shekho recounted, he visited a refugee camp near Aleppo.
There were many women there. They told me, you’re just a journalist. You will take some photos, take some information, and then go away. But we will stay here. And you will not change anything in our life.
But even in the face of great obstacles, Saiedat Souria is seeing its ability to effect real change through the power of storytelling.
This year, in the northwest city of Idlib, Saiedat Souria led a campaign in honor of International Women’s Day. Though the city is largely under the control of extremist rebel groups, nearly 200 women, most wearing the full face veil, or niqab, marched in the streets raising slogans about Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, more popularly known as CEDAW.
“They took the risk to do this,” said Charaf. “In this area, women are not allowed to talk. They do not have a voice. But they challenged everything and raised slogans with the resolution and the CEDAW agreement.”
“Through this work and our commitment to our activities for the revolution, it gives us hope that one day, we will see a good future in Syria,” she concluded. “Maybe we will not get the chance to live in this future, but we will prepare something for the next generation. For our children.”