Zaina Erhaim on Syria’s Rebellious Women

April 13, 2016

Living and working in Aleppo, Erhaim captured the everyday difficulties – the maddening and the mundane – of surviving in a warzone. Shooting the films over the course of 18 months, Syria’s Rebellious Women documents the extraordinary lives of the citizen journalists who bear witness to the horrors taking place in their homeland.

On Tuesday 12 April, the Frontline Club played host to an intimate screening of Syria’s Rebellious Women, followed by a lively discussion between director Zaina Erhaim and Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley.

“From my own experience, I tried to research Syrian women from history and I could not find anything,” said Erhaim, who is originally from Idlib in northern Syria. “So when the revolution started I felt we had to capture the work that these women were doing. Because in the future the men will be writing the history and those heroines will be forgotten.”

Adding: “I’m Syrian myself and so I felt it was my duty to do.”

Jolley began the discussion by asking about the obstacles facing women operating as journalists in Syria.

“It’s very difficult,” said Erhaim, who was one of two or three women from her town to study journalism. “It’s connected to open-mindedness, mixing with men and lots of travel which is not accepted in our communities… Now you can imagine that these communities are armed. The masculine powers are now holding arms, so what they do to suppress women is horrible.”

When pushed about feeling any sense of threat or danger, Erhaim conceded her fears about returning to her homeland.

“It is dangerous, anyone who is living inside Syria is expecting to be killed at any moment. I don’t know any who hasn’t at least told their friends about their will. Whenever we gather, the first thing we speak about is did you change your will – are you going to give me your laptop?”

Erhaim also discussed the plight of young children, for whom the ongoing violence has become normalised. “What freaks me out is how they become peaceful with what’s going on. I was in a park that has now become a cemetery, but it still had a slide and a swing. So kids were still going to play among the tombs and graves.”

“Kids were still going to play among the tombs and graves.”

“I believe we’ll have a crazy generation who will need lots of psychological support,” Erhaim added.

Going on to express her disillusionment at the treatment of Syrian refugees in Europe, Erhaim said: “Outside Syria we’re being treated like potential terrorists. We’re becoming frightening creatures… The foreign jihadis who are mainly from the EU are coming to our lands to occupy them – and we’re the ones treated as potential terrorists.”

The depths of the conflict were noted when Erhaim admitted that she had been unable to maintain contact with loyalist family members. “I have two persons from my family that I haven’t spoken to in six years, even when I went back to the regime area in 2011 I hid myself, fearing that they would inform about me and have me arrested.”

While Syria’s Rebellious Women painted a sombre picture, there was some cause for optimism. Erhaim revealed how her efforts teaching Syrians to become citizen journalists had helped women in providing for their families.

“The beautiful thing about it is now they’re gaining money out of it and supporting their families. For the five women who are constantly publishing on our Damascus Bureau website, all of them are supporting their own families. It’s beautiful.”

Watch the trailer for the film here.