If there’s one thing Syrian Nawal al-Yazeji dislikes it’s having others dictate the law to her. As the eldest in a family of eight, she has felt this way ever since she was little – the numerous obligations, always having to help with the household chores. To her, this pressure felt like a straitjacket she wanted to cast off as soon as possible.
For Nawal, that opportunity came at the age of fourteen, when she went to college in far-away Damascus. Her desire for freedom was already evident from her appetite for reading. “As a teenager I devoured books by Voltaire, Alberto Moravia, Charles Dickens and the feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir,” she says in an interview in the Amsterdam Beurs van Berlage. Literature opened up magnificent new vistas and at the same time gave her access to a world of characters entirely different from the people in her oppressive environment.
Moving to Damascus gave her the chance to kill two birds with one stone: she wrested herself from traditional family life and did everything in her power to learn more, to get further. It was a time of political upheaval in Syria. A military coup in 1961 put an end to the United Arab Republic, which had been created three years earlier as the result of far-reaching political collaboration with Egypt. In 1963, the incumbent Ba’ath party seized power. By then, Syria had already abandoned the short period, in the 1950s, during which the country experienced democracy.
Nawal wanted nothing to do with the new rulers and their nationalist rhetoric, and turned instead to the Syrian Communist Party. She felt that this organisation in some way reflected her political ideas. The party had a history of rebellion: opposition to the former French rulers, religious institutions and conservatism. Nawal found a political home in the SCP.
For many years she was active in the party, which in Syria is very dangerous. Members of the party are banned and violently suppressed; they risk being tortured, sometimes even to death. Nawal, who made it to administrator at central committee level, experienced an internal conflict. Why, after all, should men and women in the party structure be strictly separated from each other? The issue of more women’s rights eventually led to a break with the party, with the historic International Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995 as a prelude. “We started talking more and more about violence against women, domestic violence, violence in society, about unequal treatment. The Communists did not like this at all, because in effect they were paternalistic,” Nawal explains as she vigorously takes a drag from her e-cigarette.
Raising the issue of women’s status in the family was and still is unheard of. ‘Who do these women think they are?!’ Because the sacred fire – the fight for equal rights – never dies out, activist Nawal joined the Syrian Women’s League, which also has to operate clandestinely. She still lives in Damascus and tries to look beyond the misery of war in Syria. In New York she met with UN envoy Brahimi and she has gradually become one of the leading figures in the Syrian peace movement. Alongside a coalition of women’s and human rights groups, she fights for women’s political participation and drafted a document with ‘leading principles’ for a future Constitution. All for the purpose of crushing the habit of paternalists dictating the law to her, to women.