Civil society activist defies war and Islamist intimidation in her efforts to empower women

While running a beauty salon in the Idlib province town of Kafr Nubl for nearly two decades, Ghalya Rahal became intimately familiar with the problems faced by women in her community.

“I had a direct connection to the young women,” she tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar. “I heard them talking about child marriage and oppression, as well as freedom and the love of their lives.”

Those conversations drove Rahal, in summer 2013, to convert her basement—which was being used as a bomb shelter during government air raids—into a learning hub for women. There, she started organizing courses in hairdressing, first aid and English, with help from her sister and a friend.

Soon, Rahal’s idea grew into an organization, Mazaya, as women used the basement-turned-center to teach and learn everything from computer skills to communications, alongside lectures and discussion groups addressing women’s rights.

Rahal left her job to dedicate all her time to the center. “At first, they called me crazy,” she recalls.

Five years later, Rahal’s organization now runs eight women’s centers, two medical centers, a handful of children’s centers and a women’s magazine in the Idlib countryside. Rahal is also the only Syria-based member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, a pro-opposition network of female activists and civil society organizations that advocates a gendered perspective of the peace process.

Kafr Nubl, where Mazaya is based and Rahal still lives, was known for its vibrant civil society in the beginning of the revolution. However, throughout the war, the town fell victim to multiple power struggles between rival rebel factions. Today, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a group led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, controls checkpoints near the town.

The presence of conservative Islamist factions in and around Kafr Nubl has complicated Mazaya’s work, sometimes putting the lives of the women involved at risk. In recent years, Rahal has faced an assassination attempt and the main center was burned and raided.

Rahal, however, is determined to continue. “We decided that since [both] the regime and the radical Islamist factions are provoked by our work, it must be the right thing,” she says.

This week, Syria Direct is exploring the different roles Syria’s women take on in working for peace. In this fourth installment, we direct attention to the grassroots of the Syrian Civil society. Through her work, Rahal hopes to lay the foundation for a better Syria.

“Women have paid the biggest price in the war, and they are also the ones who will build Syria in the coming stages,” she says.


Women learn to knit at the Mazaya Center in Kafr Nubl on April 16. Photo courtesy of Mazaya.

Q: What motivated you to start the women’s center?

In early 2013, with the arming of the revolution, women’s voices and roles were weakened. Gunmen and Islamist factions started to spread in the liberated areas. The area became filled with displaced people and women withdrew. People were strangers to each other. We no longer saw women in the streets, working or even grocery shopping. It was all men. This is where the idea sprang from to open a center.

I had been running my own beauty salon for 19 years, so I had a direct connection to the young women [of the community] and heard about their problems. I heard them talking about child marriage and oppression, as well as freedom and the love of their lives. The conversations in my salon motivated me to continue my revolutionary journey as a leader.

I had a basement and many displaced women would come there, afraid of the bombings. Soon, large groups of women started to gather in this basement. I seized the opportunity. Volunteers helped me organize courses. I taught hair styling and Razan Ghazzawi—a [now-exiled] famous activist—was in the area and volunteered to hold a spoken English course. Another group taught first aid.

We also held discussion sessions in the basement about the political situation we were in, talking about our worries and finding out who needed help.

Little by little, the center developed. We named it Mazaya. The idea grew, and we started offering a range of courses. [Today], Mazaya encompasses eight women’s centers [in the area around Kafr Nubl], including childcare centers so that the women can leave their children while they take the courses. There are also two medical centers.

We also have a magazine produced by a journalist, Zeina Rahim, who also teaches a media and journalism courses to women. Graduates of the media course write for the magazine and for some news sites abroad, covering issues that relate specifically to women.

About a year ago, we started teaching women to run their own courses. Today, Mazaya employs 100 people, with 3,000 others registered for a job [if one becomes available]. But we are struggling a lot to get funding.

Q:How was did the society around you react when you first started your work?

At first, they called me crazy: How could I open a center and pay for it out of my own pocket for three months, leaving a job that provided me with a solid income? How could I open this center and waste all of my time working there?

When we first started, the work we did was incomprehensible to society. But little by little, women started coming to the center and the men heard from their wives about what we were doing there. So after three months and many difficulties, our work started to become known.

Mazaya became known for the important services it provided for women and children, so it was supported very much by the local community. Without that support, we wouldn’t be able to continue at all. Most of the men are supporting their women, giving them the opportunity to work, develop and prove themselves.

Q: What challenges have you faced?

[Some of] the biggest difficulties we have faced in our work after the revolution are because of the radical Islamist factions. In their eyes, I am just as bad as the regime because I organize activities for women. Any faction that wishes to control the area has a basic desire that women don’t work or move around freely. They don’t want women to have any significant role [in society].

Our center was set on fire by unknown people in 2014. Shortly after, I was subjected to an attempted assassination, in which they blew up my car. In 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra also raided the center and broke all the supplies.

Despite all this, we have continued as women of northern Syria. We decided that since [both] the regime and the radical Islamist factions are provoked by our work, it must be the right thing. We started over again and instead of that one center we opened five other centers and three children’s centers.

In general, it is hard to control women in these circumstances because they have latent capabilities and can do any work they want. I, for example, cover my face and have no problem doing this, [as long as] I can still reach my goal, which is what matters. The veil covers the hair and the face, but it does not cover the mind. Everybody has a mind.

Women [must] keep working, knowing their value and knowing how to present their ideas.Women have paid the biggest price in the war, and they are also the ones who will build Syria in the coming stages, God willing.


A media and journalism course at the Mazaya Center in Kafr Nubl on April 17. Photo courtesy of Mazaya.

Q: How do you compare the situation for women before and after the revolution?

Before the revolution, the regime marginalized us [women] and Idlib was not open-minded like many of the other provinces.

We didn’t know of any civil society or women’s organizations, because everything was monopolized by the regime and the Baath party. The Women’s Union [which has existed] since we were born, supports the government without changing the realities of women. [Ed.: The stated purpose of the General Union of Syrian Women is the ‘deepening of national consciousness of women in the country… [and to] enable them to contribute fully and effectively in the political, cultural, economic and social development’. The Union has close ties to the government and organized pro-government protests during the revolution.]

It is the circumstances of the revolution and war that have allowed the women to mature and become active in society. If not for these circumstances, it would be impossible for us to be visible, to go out and work any job. We as women have demanded freedom and dignity, as is our right.

The conditions of war and the bad economic situation has enabled women to work, especially in civil society organizations, politics, medicine, the civil defense and education.

If women’s husbands were killed or detained, it means there is nobody left who is responsible for them or who forbids them from coming and going. It also means they no longer have anyone to provide for them, so they are forced to go out and make their own living.

Q: What do you hope for Syrian women in the future?

As a Syrian woman still living in the country, I hope to build a democratic, pluralistic and equal state without any discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, religion, sect or even region. I hope that Syrian women will take their full constitutional and social rights in all circumstances. I am certain that Syrian women can build a modern, safe and peaceful Syria side by side with men.

Q: What is the role of civil society in creating peace, in your opinion?

The civil society is in the most direct contact with the people, and it is what creates [people with expertise] and awareness.

The civil society differs from the government, local councils and private enterprises in that it is non-profit and its members are not interested in titles or positions. It consists of the civilians themselves, so there is no difference between it and the people.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.