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Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women

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  • Zafar Khan
    Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women By KATHERINE ZOEPF Published: August 29, 2006
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2006
      Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women
      Published: August 29, 2006


      DAMASCUS, Syria — Enas al-Kaldi stops in the hallway
      of her Islamic school for girls and coaxes her
      6-year-old schoolmate through a short recitation from
      the Koran.

      “It’s true that they don’t understand what they are
      memorizing at this age, but we believe that the
      understanding comes when the Koran becomes part of
      you,” Ms. Kaldi, 16, said proudly.

      In other corners of Damascus, women who identify one
      another by the distinctive way they tie their head
      scarves gather for meetings of an exclusive and secret
      Islamic women’s society known as the Qubaisiate.

      At those meetings, participants say, they are tutored
      further in the faith and are even taught how to
      influence some of their well-connected fathers and
      husbands to accept a greater presence of Islam in
      public life.

      These are the two faces of an Islamic revival for
      women in Syria, one that could add up to a potent
      challenge to this determinedly secular state. Though
      government officials vociferously deny it, Syria is
      becoming increasingly religious and its national
      identity is weakening. If Islam replaces that
      identity, it may undermine the unity of a society that
      is ruled by a Muslim religious minority, the Alawites,
      and includes many religious groups.

      Syrian officials, who had front-row seats as Hezbollah
      dragged Lebanon into war, are painfully aware of the
      myriad ways that state authority can be undermined by
      increasingly powerful, and appealing, religious
      groups. Though Syria’s government supports Hezbollah,
      it has been taking steps to ensure that the phenomenon
      it helped to build in Lebanon does not come to haunt
      it at home.

      In the past, said Muhammad al-Habash, a Syrian
      lawmaker who is also a Muslim cleric, “we were told
      that we had to leave Islam behind to find our

      “But these days,” he said, “if you ask most people in
      Syria about their history, they will tell you, ‘My
      history is Islamic history.’ The younger generation
      are all reading the Koran.”

      Women are in the vanguard. Though men across the
      Islamic world usually interpret Scripture and lead
      prayers, Syria, virtually alone in the Arab world, is
      seeing the resurrection of a centuries-old tradition
      of sheikhas, or women who are religious scholars. The
      growth of girls’ madrasas has outpaced those for boys,
      religious teachers here say.

      There are no official statistics about precisely how
      many of the country’s 700 madrasas are for girls. But
      according to a survey of Islamic education in Syria
      published by the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, there are
      about 80 such madrasas in Damascus alone, serving more
      than 75,000 women and girls, and about half are
      affiliated with the Qubaisiate (pronounced

      For many years any kind of religious piety was viewed
      here with skepticism. But while men suspected of
      Islamist activity are frequently interrogated and
      jailed, subjecting women to such treatment would cause
      a public outcry that the government cannot risk. Women
      have taken advantage of their relatively greater
      freedom to form Islamic groups, becoming a deeply
      rooted and potentially subversive force to spread
      stricter and more conservative Islamic practices in
      their families and communities.

      Since intelligence agents still monitor private
      gatherings that involve discussion of Islam, groups
      like the Qubaisiate often meet clandestinely,
      sometimes with women guarding the door to deter

      The group is named for its founder, a charismatic
      Syrian sheikha, Munira al-Qubaisi.

      A wealthy woman in her 50’s living in Damascus, who
      has attended Qubaisiate meetings and who asked that
      her name not be used because she feared punishment,
      provided a rough description of the activities.

      A girl thought to be serious about her faith may be
      invited by a relative or a school friend to go to a
      meeting, the woman said. There, a sheikha sits on a
      raised platform, addresses the assembled women on
      religious subjects and takes questions.

      Qubaisiate members, the woman said, tie their head
      scarves so there is a puff of fabric under the chin,
      like a wattle. As girls and women progress in their
      study of Islam and gain stature within the group, the
      color of their scarves changes. New members wear white
      ones, usually with long khaki colored coats, she said.
      Later they graduate to wearing navy blue scarves with
      a navy coat. At the final stage the sheikha may grant
      them permission to cover themselves completely in

      Hadeel, a Syrian woman in her early 20’s who asked to
      be identified only by her first name, described how
      her best childhood friend had become one of the
      Qubaisi “sisterhood” and encouraged her to follow

      “Rasha would call and say, ‘Today we’re going
      shopping,’ and that would be a secret code meaning
      that there was a lesson at 7:30,” Hadeel said. “I went
      three times, and it was amazing. They had all this
      expensive food, just for teenage girls, before the
      lesson. And they had fancy Mercedes cars to take you
      back home afterward.”

      Hadeel said she had at first been astonished by the
      way the Qubaisiate, ostensibly a women’s prayer group,
      seemed to single out the daughters of wealthy and
      influential families and girls who were seen as
      potential leaders.

      “They care about getting girls with big names, the
      powerful families,” Hadeel said. “In my case, they
      wanted me because I was a good student.”

      Women speaking about the group asked that their names
      not be used because the group is technically illegal,
      though it seems the authorities are increasingly
      turning a blind eye.

      “To be asked to join the Qubaisiate is very
      prestigious,” said Maan Abdul Salam, a women’s rights

      Mr. Abdul Salam explained that such secret Islamic
      prayer groups recruited women differently, depending
      on their social position. “They teach poor women how
      to humble themselves in front of their husbands and
      how to pray, but they’re teaching upper-class women
      how to influence politics,” he said.

      The Islamic school where Ms. Kaldi, the 16-year-old
      tutor, studies has no overt political agenda. But it
      is a place where devotion to Islam, and an exploration
      of women’s place in it, flourishes.

      The school, at the Zahra mosque in a western suburb of
      Damascus, is a cheerful, cozy place, with soft
      Oriental carpets layered underfoot and scores of
      little girls running around in their socks. Ms. Kaldi
      spends summers, vacations and some afternoons there,
      studying and helping younger children to memorize the
      Koran. Her work tutoring has made her an important
      figure in this world; many of the younger girls greet
      her shyly as they pass.

      The school accepts girls as young as 5, who begin
      memorizing the Koran from the back, where the shortest
      verses are found. The youngest girls are being taught
      with the aid of hand gestures, games and treats.

      The atmosphere is relaxed. The children share candy
      and snacks as they study, and the room hums with the
      sound of high-pitched voices reciting in unison.
      Several girls, preparing for the tests that will allow
      them to progress to higher-level classes, swing
      one-handed around the smooth columns that support the
      roof of the mosque, dreamily murmuring verses aloud to

      After girls in the Zahra school have committed the
      Koran to memory, they are taught to recite the holy
      book with the prescribed rhythm and cadences, a
      process called tajweed, which usually takes at least
      several years of devoted study. Along the way they are
      taught the principles of Koranic reasoning.

      It is this art of Koranic reasoning, Ms. Kaldi and her
      friends say, that most sets them apart from previous
      generations of Syrian Muslim women.

      Fatima Ghayeh, 16, an aspiring graphic designer and
      Ms. Kaldi’s best friend, said she believed that “the
      older generation,” by which she meant women now in
      their late 20’s and their 30’s, too often allowed
      their fathers and husbands to dictate their faith to

      They came of age before the Islamic revivalist
      movement that has swept Syria, she explained, and as a
      result many of them do not feel an intellectual
      ownership of Islamic teaching in the way that their
      younger sisters do.

      “The older girls were told, ‘This is Islam, and so you
      should do this,’ ” Ms. Ghayeh said. “They feel that
      they can’t really ask questions.

      “It’s because 10 years ago Syria was really closed,
      and there weren’t so many Islamic schools. But society
      has really changed. Today girls are saying, ‘We want
      to do something with Islam, and for Islam.’ We’re more
      active, and we ask questions.”

      Ms. Ghayeh and Ms. Kaldi each remember with emotion
      the day, early in President Bashar al-Assad’s tenure,
      when he changed the law to allow the wearing of
      Islamic head scarves in public schools, a practice
      that was forbidden under his father, Hafez al-Assad.
      The current president, who took office in 2000, also
      reduced the hours that students must spend each week
      in classes where the ruling Baath Party’s ideology is
      taught, and began allowing soldiers to pray in

      Those changes have been popular among Sunnis, who make
      up 70 percent of the country’s population, but they
      carry political risks for a government that has long
      been allergic to public displays of religious fervor.

      The government has been eager to demonstrate in recent
      years, through changes like these and increasing
      references to Syria’s Islamic heritage in official
      speeches, that it does not fear Islam as such.

      During the weeks of war between Israel and Hezbollah,
      the government frequently used references to the
      Islamic cause and to the “Lebanese resistance,” as
      Hezbollah is called in the Syrian state-controlled
      news media, to play to the feelings of Syrians and
      consolidate its support. But it is still deeply
      anxious about Islamic groups acting outside the
      apparatus of the state, and the threat that they may
      lose to state control.

      The girls at the madrasa say that by plunging more
      deeply into their faith, they learn to understand
      their rights within Islam.

      In upper-level courses at the Zahra school, the girls
      debate questions like whether a woman has the right to
      vote differently from her husband. The question is
      moot in Syria, one classmate joked, because President
      Assad inevitably wins elections by a miraculous 99
      percent, just as his father did before him.

      When the occasion arises, they say, they are able to
      reason from the Koran on an equal footing with men.

      “People mistake tradition for religion,” Ms. Kaldi
      said. “Men are always saying, ‘Women can’t do that
      because of religion,’ when in fact it is only
      tradition. It’s important for us to study so that we
      will know the difference.”

      Chávez rolls into Damascus to charm another US foe
      Albert Aji in Damascus
      Thursday August 31, 2006
      The Guardian


      The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, said
      yesterday he and Syria would "build a new world" free
      from US domination.

      "We have decided to be free. We want to cooperate to
      build a new world where states' and people's
      self-determination are respected," Mr Chávez said
      after a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the Syrian
      president, Bashar Assad, at his presidential palace in

      "Imperialism's concern is to control the world, but we
      will not let them despite the pressure and
      aggression," the Venezuelan leader said.

      Speaking at Damascus airport on his arrival late on
      Tuesday, Mr Chávez said both countries agreed to stand
      up to the United States. "We have the same political
      vision and we will resist together the American
      imperialist aggression," he said.
      Pictures of Mr Chávez and Mr Assad lined the streets
      of downtown Damascus, and thousands of Syrians waved
      banners and Venezuelan flags as Mr Chávez drove to his
      meeting with Mr Assad.

      With Mr Chávez and Mr Assad looking on, delegates from
      the two countries signed 13 political and economic

      Mr Assad told reporters he saw Mr Chávez's visit as
      historic, and that the Venezuelan leader had made
      "great stands" in support of Arab causes.

      "We appreciate your sincere feelings toward the
      peoples who have their rights and are under
      occupation, as well as your sincere humanitarian and
      moral sentiments," Mr Assad was quoted as saying.

      Mr Chávez said he and Syria shared a "decisive and
      firm" stance against "imperialism" and American
      attempts for "domination".

      Mr Chávez has built close ties with Iran, Syria and
      other Middle East countries while his relations with
      the US and Israel have become tense. Earlier this
      month he compared Israel's attacks on Hizbullah
      militants in Lebanon to the Holocaust and recalled
      Venezuela's ambassador. Israel responded by recalling
      its ambassador to Venezuela.

      Syrian state-run newspapers yesterday hailed Mr
      Chávez's visit.

      An editorial in the Tishrin government paper called
      him a "brave man", and said his visit showed that
      Venezuelans and Syrians were "standing in one trench
      because their enemy is the same.

      "Damascus is receiving today a man of steadfastness
      ... who stands in the face of huge challenges and says
      'no' to US policies and plans," it said.
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