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Fadwa Sulayman: Syrian Heroine Beyond Glamour and Gender
By Alexandra Stanisic
In the midst of the Syrian uprising, Fadwa Sulayman has captured popular attention in both Arab and world media. Her pictures together with her actions and remarks are all over facebook, sattellite TV, youtube and other new media outlets. This attention has shown her to be a remarkable individual within the Syrian revolt. However, what the media highlights as newsworthy in Sulayman are in fact the same attributes and actions found in novelist and journalist Samar Yazbeck, as well as the courageous poet and author, Hala Muhammad: they are all Alawites and women who have spoken against the Assad regime, and whose writings represent the conscience of an otherwise male dominated and despotically ruled nation.
Sulayman, who was already a well-known actress, has appeared in theatrical productions, films and television series. But since her participation in the uprising, she surprised all with her civic activism. Some have written that Sulayman has been responsible for uniting the intellectual with the ordinary people as well as uniting people from different backgrounds. She captured attention when she participated in a rally in the city of Homs, the capital of the Syrian revolution, sharing the podium with soccer star Abdul-Basset Sarout. Also she captured the cameras of Al Jazeera when she announced that she would go on a hunger strike until the Syrian government releases political prisoners, withdraws the security and military forces from the streets of Homs, and stops the bombardment of Baba Amr, a Homs neighborhood.
While Arab and world media, including U.S. media, highlighted the activism of Fadwa Sulayman, they fell short of properly contextualizing her role. Some of the coverage focused on the glamorous aspects of her career at the expense of substance and context. This was evident in the superficial discussions of religion. Also, the media has significantly overlooked the significance of a woman taking a prominent position in an otherwise male-dominated political activity. Unquestionably, sectarianism is a factor in Sulayman's case and so is her gender, but attention should also be given to family and kinship as well as the relationship between the artist and the state in Syria.
On one hand, it is important to notice that Sulayman, an Alawite, has broken one barrier by working closely with the Sunni community putting aside the conflicts between these two sects. On the other hand, it is important to notice that it is the Assad regime that has been attempting to create a rift between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority. Even more, the main mouthpiece of the regime, Buthayna Shabaan, who has occupied many official positions under the Assads, father and son, surprised many people by decrying the sectarian dimensions of the uprising from its beginnings.
In Syria, modern history shows that the hostility between the different sects is very profitable for the regimes. In today’s uprising, Assad’s regime is using it as a weapon to rally Syrian minorities -- Alawites, Christians, Druzes and Ismailis -- around the Assad family rule and convince these groups that the end of this family's grip on power would spell the end of all minorities in Syria. Unfortunately, many have bought into this propaganda, namely Lebanese and Syrian Christians.
In debunking what became known as the "alliance of the minorities" Sulayman went to great length in dissecting the Assad thesis in a recorded message posted on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcccULWeVf8) and explained how the regime uses the threat of sectarian bloodshed to keep the Alawites in line. Also she stressed how in such a repressed society the influence of the regime goes deep in the individual’s life. Sulayman said that those in the Alawite community who have done well have not done so because of their own hard work, but because of their connection with the Assads. She mentioned Rami Makhlouf, an Assad cousin, who made billions of dollars, the equivalent of some countries' budgets. But the wealth of the Makhloufs has had no spillover among the rest of the Alawites, who remain impoverished. Sulayman said that the impoverished Alawites join the army and become killers due to their terrible economic and social conditions.
In dismissing the sectarian argument of the Assad’s regime, she says that Sunnis benefited as well, naming Mustafa Tlass, a former Defense Minister, and Abd al-Halim Khaddam, a former Vice president who had a fallout with Bashar al-Assad following the assassination of Lebanese former prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Sulayman places the "Salafi argument" in the context of the sectarian thesis. Salafis are associated with "Islamic extremists," the group or groups that the Syrian regime accuses of "terrorizing" the country and who harbor ill will toward minorities, particularly Alawites. Sulayman claims this to be an outright lie. In an interview with Al Jazeera, She invoked the 1982 massacre of Hama in order to convince her community that Hafez al-Assad’s regime used minorities to consolidate his grip on power. According to her, Assad's forces attacked minority groups and blamed the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood, thus justifying his destruction of the city and the Brotherhood while portraying himself as indispensable and protector of minorities.
Sulayman and many other Syrian women have broken the gender barrier. Arab and foreign media focused on Sulayman as a new phenomenon in Syrian history; however, this is not the case according to Syrian novelist Samar Yazbeck's article in Al Hayat newspaper. Herself an Alawite, and writing without reference to Sulayman, Yazbek claims that Syrian women have been playing a much larger role than they have been given credit for, even at the heights of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and prior to the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. Syrian women, especially the youth, were active against the Assad regime, and started participating in the early opposition meetings that were preparing for popular demonstrations. Yazbeck also notes that the presence of women was diverse in terms of class and sectarian makeup. She listed different types of activities they performed, including writing revolutionary statements, shooting films and making them available to media, providing relief to protesters, forming support committees, collecting financial contributions and working on strengthening relations between the different communities through education. She also notes that many women were publicly leading the demonstrations, with some arrested and tortured. Some of these activists have become icons of the revolutions. To this already considerable list, we can add the name of Muntaha Sultan al-Atrash, a Druze human rights activist and grand-daughter of the Syrian hero Sultan Basha al-Atrash, a commander of the Syrian revolt against the French between 1925 and 1927.
Yazbeck acknowledges an important discrepancy between the proportion of minority women among the activists and ordinary minority members who are either silent out fear or supportive of the regime. In Yazbeck's opinion, this fact demolishes the sectarian thesis of the regime which aims to show that minorities are totally dependent on the regime. Yazbeck concludes that since the emergence of many minority women with such a high level of consciousness, liberation from religious affiliation, family and communal dependence shows that they were able to make it on their own without the assistance of the regime.
The Baathist regime has been confronting the Syrian people with a protean, skillful repressive apparatus for half a decade, so it is no surprise that the state have been exploiting the family network in order to punish Alawite dissenters. The regime uses the families of the dissenters as weapons against their sons and daughters, threatening harm to family members if they continue protesting the regime's tyranny (a policy much-used by the Iraqi Baath as well). So far, many Alawites have disavowed Sulayman. Following her public statements in the city of Homs, her brother Mahmoud appeared on state TV and said he and his family had disowned Fadwa. He said that her actions were probably motivated by money and expressed shock at watching her on Al Jazeera shouting anti-regime slogans in a protest. Mahmoud's actions show how “families from minority groups exert a lot of pressure on the individuals who dissent," as Sulayman explained in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Many splits within families are happening because of this.” Perhaps it is understatement to say that Sulayman has broken the family barrier. This pressure is not confined to women, but includes men as well, even if they are well-accomplished culturally. In a recent interview with Al Safir newspaper Cultural Supplement, Munzir Badr Halloum, a novelist and academic, said that "when I called for removing the plague from my country, I had my family issuing a statement disavowing me."
While families of dissenters are abused and prosecuted under most dictatorships, in the Middle East there are differences of degree. Once again, leaving aside Syria’s political culture, the level of authoritarianism remains the primary explanatory factor. When family members lack civil and individual rights that set them apart from their relatives, and when the whole is considered one, we face nothing short of fascist dictatorship. Clearly this is what the Syrian regime is about.
"Everywhere you go, even a theater or a film company, you feel you have entered a security branch,” Sulayman told Reuters in a Skype interview from Homs. “Authors write the worst scripts but they are chosen because they have links to security.” Nothing sums up the relationship between the artist and the state better than this statement by Fadwa Sulayman.
A final barrier Fadwa Sulayman has broken is the dependence on the state. It can hardly be said that Syria has a vibrant civil society that can provide artists independence from the state, enabling them to assert their freedom of political and artistic expression. Yet, Fadwa Sulayman chose to join the uprising and leaving behind government jobs and grants, "monetary funds that allows the government to censor any type of creative work" whether in theater or film.
Al Jadid staff contributed research and translation from Arabic for this article.