Idlib's female journalists battle against the regime, the patriarchy and misogynistic interpretations of Islam
This article is part of The New Arab’s States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series’ articles here.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) has banned the latter under threat of arrest, as the hardline Islamist group and de facto authority in Idlib continues to consolidate its suffocating policies towards journalists in Idlib, silencing those who speak out against its violations against civilians.
But HTS's oppressive security apparatus and strict monitoring of female journalists are not all they face.
Even worse is the stance of their own community, which sees women subjected to intimidation whenever they try to cover events, and their every movement scrutinised. They are fully aware that one misstep could endanger not only their professional life but quite possibly their actual one.
Added to these barriers are the issues faced by all across the war-ravaged region – the repeated bombardment of the opposition-held areas by the brutal regime of Assad, and the intentional targeting of journalists; in addition to logistical issues like electricity and internet blackouts as well as a lack of materials.
"Female journalists in Idlib face colossal challenges when it comes to doing their job, whether collecting information, contacting sources, or filming in public spaces"
About why she chose to become a journalist, ex-teacher Hana al-Mohammed (39) says: "I always felt things were unjust – like when I observed how everyone at the teacher training college for girls in Kafranbel was guaranteed secure employment and I wasn’t – instead I was forced to move from school to school […] barred from a fixed job, just because I didn’t have any connections in the ruling Baath party."
None of the certificates she obtained, the training courses she did or the experience she gained was enough to secure Hana a full-time teaching post. It was all "useless without the right connections – the most influential factor within a corrupt system which had long plundered our rights, dreams and aspirations," she says.
When the spark of rebellion ignited in Deraa and spread across the country, feelings that many women in Idlib had long repressed surfaced. On 27 April 2012, Hana marched for the first time with other women from her town, Kafranbel, brandishing a banner that read: "death over humiliation".
She wore a face veil, fearful of being recognised and seized afterwards by Assad's henchmen, who carried out arrests after every demonstration.
Soldiers and security services would raid people's homes, having received detailed reports about those participating in the protests from spies and informants. They would uproot the demonstrators from the arms of their families like "the soul is plucked from the body," in Hana's words.
Hana chose to quit teaching and become a journalist in 2015, to document what was happening in Kafranbel, which experienced repeated acts of terrorism at the hands of the regime and its Russian ally, and later extremist Islamist factions including the Islamic State group (IS).
"As a journalist, I focused on women, children, and other vulnerable groups and the challenges they faced in such a complex situation, whether health-related, economic or to do with the security situation," says Hana.
"Hana chose to quit teaching and become a journalist in 2015, to document what was happening in Kafranbel, which experienced repeated acts of terrorism at the hands of the regime and its Russian ally, and later extremist Islamist factions including IS"
"I had to contribute to the victory of our orphaned revolution in my own way, using my pen to transmit the hardships and pain of those grieving at a time when there was a huge amount of media misinformation penning alternative names for the revolution which bore no relation to the truth: betrayal became 'coexistence' and 'civic loyalty', the revolution 'a crisis', the revolutionary, an 'armed terrorist', the liberation of the land from tyrants, a 'war'," she further explains.
Hana wasn't afraid of taking on a new profession, even one that would invariably invite condemnation from Idlib's society, which clings to a stereotypical view of women and places them into a one-size-fits-all template that cannot be altered. However, Hana has broken the mould and continues reporting reality as she sees it in defiance of her circumstances.
Journalist Mariam al-Mustafa (40), for her part, faced continuous threats from anonymous figures who used bogus WhatsApp numbers, warning that she "would pay" for her attacks on HTS after she wrote a report documenting their repression against women in Idlib and their interventions to stop women working by claiming it violated sharia law and religion.
"The threats made me more cautious – I started using borrowed names and changing houses periodically. This has destroyed any sense of safety and stability for me and my family."
However, she keeps working. Despite seeing her brother arrested by the regime early on, then seeing him in the Ceasar photographs of the regime's torture victims, to the repeated destruction of her home under bombing raids – from which her and her children survived by sheer chance – to the suffocating oppression of the current de facto rulers, she has remained steadfast in her mission to continue writing and reporting, regardless of the risk.
"Heavily armed fighters from Jabhat Al Nusra, the group in control of the area at the time, stormed the women's workplace. They trashed the office and expelled the women, threatening to arrest them if they returned, accusing them of immodesty, being infidels"
Journalist Rawaa Al Bakour (39) tells a different story – one of the shocking responses of the local community to the launch of the Mazaya magazine (an organisation working to empower women in Idlib).
She and three other female journalists started the magazine in 2015; it was the first media experiment of its kind in the region. The four volunteers hoped the magazine would be a success, and chose article topics relating to women's issues – women's rights, lives, success stories, ambitions, and challenges. The magazine was printed and issued on a monthly basis.
The project had been going for less than a month when heavily armed fighters from Jabhat Al Nusra, the group in control of the area at the time, stormed the women's workplace. They trashed the office and expelled the women, threatening to arrest them if they returned, accusing them of immodesty, being infidels, and yelling obscenities, according to Rawaa.
"They deserved it, what do they want doing these things, they should feel ashamed, why aren't they at home looking after their husbands and children, by God, they've reaped what they sowed!"
These were the gloating words muttered by the men of Kafranbel who amassed outside the Mazaya's offices as they gleefully followed the course of events, words that still echo in Rawaa's memory.
"The men’s reaction revealed their deep-seated hatred and rejection of any activity women undertake in our society. A logical response would have been to feel proud of our work and what we were doing, and to reject such a blatant assault on our right to free expression."
"I, as a woman living in a traditional, patriarchal and conservative society, am not a 'lesser rib' – an idea that gets drummed into us! Actually, I am capable of a lot, of breaking the stereotypes, exiting the cage of custom and tradition and of fulfilling my potential"
Rawaa says journalism has changed the way she understands her life: "That I, as a woman living in a traditional, patriarchal and conservative society, am not a 'lesser rib' – an idea that gets drummed into us! Actually, I am capable of a lot, of breaking the stereotypes, exiting the cage of custom and tradition and of fulfilling my potential."
Jabhat Al Nusra's attempts to intimidate Rawaa and her colleagues didn't succeed. The journalists regrouped the following day, and a number of local women came to offer their solidarity. They reopened the office, cleaned up the mess and got back to work.
Rawaa continued with the magazine until late 2018 when the regime unleashed a violent military campaign across south Idlib, and she was forced to flee. But she hasn’t stopped working – currently submitting her articles to numerous media outlets as a freelance journalist.
Sahir al-Idlibi (30), works in electronic journalism and has trained many women in journalistic skills. She was deeply influenced by the burgeoning movement of individual social awareness, which reshaped her perspective on the demand for freedom, justice and democracy in a country where these ideals had long been absent during the Assad family's rule.
She says: "I came to feel my role was no longer just to record events, instead I felt I'd become a cog in the machinery shaping these events – an essential partner in the creation of a new phase of Syria's history."
According to Reporters Without Borders, there are 60 female journalists working in Idlib province, and The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression ranked Syria 174th out of 180 countries for press freedom in 2019.
The Syrian Centre for Journalistic Freedom (SCJF) said in its last annual report that "restrictions on press freedom alongside threats violating the safety and security of media workers and the freedom of the press, formed direct causes for the majority of documented violations during February 2022".
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko