2008: Gender and Activism in Damascus, Syria

Civil society in Syria is vibrant, alive, and eminently prepared to investigate the complex issues facing women in Syrian society

Susanna Ferguson
Summer 2008
Coggins Fellowship Report

Susanna Ferguson
Susanna Ferguson

As a recipient of the Chase Coggins Memorial Fellowship for Summer 2008, I spent six weeks in Damascus, Syria, as an intern for al-Thara, a women’s rights magazine based in Damascus, and parent organization Etana Press. Through al-Thara and Etana, I was offered a unique opportunity to experience the dynamism and vision of the repressed Syrian civic sector first-hand, and my experience changed the way I think about the Middle East and myself as a student of the region.

When I arrived in Damascus to intern for al-Thara and conduct research about the intersection between gender and activism in the Middle East, I did not know what to expect. I had been told that local activist movements in Syria were not permitted to operate at all, let alone allowed to tackle the tough issues often associated with the rights of women. What I found, through my experiences in Damascus and my association with al-Thara, was that most of the things I had been told about Syria were wrong. After a summer spent building relationships with passionate Syrian activists (both male and female) and working with al-Thara and similar organizations, it was clear to me that civil society in Syria was vibrant, alive, and eminently prepared to investigate the complex issues facing women in Syrian society.

sunset over damascus
sunset over damascus

As an intern for Thara, I was involved in their projects in a variety of capacities. At the most basic level, I served as an editorial intern, going to the office each day and translating articles from Arabic to English to be posted on their website. I also sat in on interviews with women and journalists reporting on women’s issues, and on meetings with contributors and cartoonists. I got to see the day-to-day operations of the Thara magazine, observe their interactions with the government officials who came regularly to check up on their activities, and share their sense of commitment to their work and hope for the future.

I also got the opportunity to spend several days shadowing Ma’an abd-al-Salaam, the director of Etana Press (the parent NGO which runs Thara, along with a variety of other programs). With Ma’an and his associate Rania, I heard all about the office they were planning to open in Beirut and attended several meetings of the seminar on gender in Syria they were offering to a group of students and community members, who were about to leave for Germany to take part in an international conference on women’s rights.

I came into my experience at Thara feeling as if I knew nothing about where I was or what my role should be in such a viscerally unfamiliar context. All of my sense of intellectual preparation fell away, and I felt utterly foreign, unqualified, and unprepared. But this sensation, at first so uncomfortable, proved to be one of the most important things I experienced in Syria: it helped me to begin to reevaluate myself as a student of the Middle East. As I pursued my internship at al-Thara, I understood that I, too, had come to Syria with a set of expectations: I had hoped that the criticisms levied by the Western press about gender in the Middle East would prove unfounded, and that my findings would sustain my skepticism about international media coverage of the Middle East. As I delved deeper into these issues with my colleagues and mentors at al-Thara, however, I realized that I needed to lose sight of the answers I wanted to hear in order to ask more creative questions. I became a student in a way I’d never been before–I had no tools at my disposal but humility, confusion, and curiosity, which seemed to deepen with each question I asked.

Ultimately, what my experience in Syria did was to return me to a sense of wonder. After focusing academically on the language, history, and formation of the modern Middle East during my time at Yale, I realized in Damascus that what I love about the study of foreign cultures is not the collection of answers, but the constant expansion of my ability to ask questions about my passions–culture, society, and development in the Middle East–as my language skills grow. I also realized that the kind of local civic development work that organizations like Etana do is one of the best ways of effecting real change that matters to people on the ground, and I plan to spend the next several years exploring (both professionally and academically) how I can best contribute to that process. Thanks to the Chase Coggins Fellowship, I will never look at the region, or at my own study of it, in the same way.