Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women
- Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women
By KATHERINE ZOEPF
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
Its true that they dont 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 womens 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
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 Syrias 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 countrys 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 50s 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 20s 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 were 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 womens prayer group,
seemed to single out the daughters of wealthy and
influential families and girls who were seen as
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 womens 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 theyre 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 womens 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. Kaldis best friend, said she believed that the
older generation, by which she meant women now in
their late 20s and their 30s, 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 cant really ask questions.
Its because 10 years ago Syria was really closed,
and there werent so many Islamic schools. But society
has really changed. Today girls are saying, We want
to do something with Islam, and for Islam. Were more
active, and we ask questions.
Ms. Ghayeh and Ms. Kaldi each remember with emotion
the day, early in President Bashar al-Assads 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 Partys ideology is
taught, and began allowing soldiers to pray in
Those changes have been popular among Sunnis, who make
up 70 percent of the countrys 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 Syrias 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 cant do that
because of religion, when in fact it is only
tradition. Its 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 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
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.