In her early 30’s she stands as a one woman crusade against the dominant Arab male culture and all its stupidity, “I want to make the man I love happy, I want to make his food and even clean his clothes, but when my brother beat me so bad, because I refused to make him food, that I ended up in hospital it was too much, my father never even supported me then”. Her father has always beaten his daughters, but never his son, her last beating was just 5 months ago (she hasn’t spoken to him since), “This is the Arab world” she says, “I hate Arabic men!”
Sitting opposite me is a beautiful women wearing make-up, and a brightly coloured low-cut top designed to cause a stir here, when we walk the streets I see looks of horror from veiled women and hear lewd comments from men.
To them she says she is seen as a ‘bitch’. A bitch here is a woman who has slept with a man before marriage – or in some cases just kissed one. She recounts the moment she kissed her first and only Arabic boyfriend, “The moment I let him kiss me he left me, calling me a bitch, because I’d let him kiss me I was a bitch, this is the mentality here”.
Today it is her life commitment to promote the rights of women, though she feels almost alone in her struggle, “Women should not be killed if they are not virgins when they marry but it happens here, and is accepted. Until laws are passed to protect women this region will always be in the dark ages”
A week ago I met a man whose ex-girlfriend had written asking him for financial help. She had fallen in love and was to marry but needed an operation to make it appear she was a virgin again, as this man had taken her virginity he felt obliged to help her with money for the operation.
On a day-to-day level Syria looks deceptively “modern”, bars, night clubs… in the street scantily clad women mingle with half-veiled and fully-veiled women. It is the mix of Christian, and Alawite Muslim (a Shi’ite offshoot that wears no veil and is allowed to drink alcohol – President Assad is Alawite) that makes Syria appear more open and modern than other Arabic societies.
But scratch the surface here and lurking beneath this modern facade is a very traditional Arabic society riddled with social mores and customs that always seem to favour men against women. There have been some small changes, a law passed recently makes ‘honour killing’ a crime, though it only offers a 2 year prison sentence – as with many Arabic countries the issue of women’s rights is one that will continue to plague it for a long while yet.
We walk through the streets unable to avoid the stares and whistles aimed towards her, finally I wave goodbye, and she walks defiantly into the night.