Syria: Women's Liberation in Islam
- In Syria, a quiet Islamic revival
The New York Times
August 28, 2006
DAMASCUS Enas al-Kaldi stops in the hallway of her Islamic school for
girls and coaxes her 6-year-old schoolmate through a short recitation
of 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," 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.
There, 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
Though officials vociferously deny it, Syria is becoming increasingly
religious and its national identity is weakening. If Islam replaces
that identity, it could undermine the unity of a society that is
ruled by a religious minority, the Alawites, and which contains many
different 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 that it helped to touch off in
Lebanon does not come back to haunt it at home. In the past, said
Muhammad al-Habash, a lawmaker who is also a Muslim cleric, "we were
told that we had to leave Islam behind to find our futures."
"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, almost uniquely
in the Arab world, is seeing the resurrection of a centuries- old
tradition of shaikhas, 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 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 approximately 80 madrasas in
Damascus alone, serving more than 75,000 women and girls, and about
half are affiliated with the Qubaisiate.
For many years, any kind of religious piety was suspect here. 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.
In Syria, 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 Syrian 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 shaikha,
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 group's
A girl thought to be serious about her faith may be invited by a
relative, or a school friend, to come to a meeting, the woman said.
There, a shaikha 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 shaikha may grant them permission to cover themselves
completely in black.
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
became 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 possessing leadership potential. "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 Qubaisiate asked that their names not be
used because the group is still technically illegal, though it seems
that the Syrian authorities are increasingly turning a blind eye to
"To be asked to join the Qubaisiate is very prestigious," said Maan
Abdul Salam, a Syrian women's rights campaigner.
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," Abdul Salam said.
The Islamic school where 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. Kaldi
spends summers, vacations and some afternoons there, studying and
helping younger children to memorize the Koran.
After girls in the Zahra school have committed the Koran to memory,
they are taught to recite the holy book with the proper prescribed
rhythm and cadences, a process called tajweed that usually takes at
least several years of devoted study. Along the way, they are taught
the principles of Koranic reasoning. And it is this art of Koranic
reasoning, 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 Kaldi's best
friend, said she believed that "the older generation," by which she
meant women now in their late 20's and 30's, too often allowed their
fathers and husbands to dictate their faith to them. 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 same way that their younger
sisters do. "The older girls were told, 'This is Islam and so you
should do this,'" Ghayeh said. "They feel that they can't really ask
"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."
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