We meet the women of the White Helmets, the Syrian rescue group on the frontline fighting to protect their people
In war, women are routinely positioned as victims of violence, used by the media to create horror, sympathy and spectacle – continually denied agency over their own experiences. Less in the mainstream, are the many ways in which they participate in conflict every day. Their experiences may be distinct but are no less vital.
Over 100 women in Syria now work for the White Helmets (officially the Syrian Civil Defence), an unarmed and impartial rescue service in rebel-held areas made up of former teachers, accountants, tailors and bricklayers, who risk their lives everyday to save their neighbours from the bombs still flying through Syrian skies after six years.
Since October 2014, more and more women have joined the White Helmets. Born a year earlier as a coalition of male rescue activists, it did not take long for a small number of women to shake off resistance from conservatives in Syrian society who believed that their place was in the home. Eventually, they gained respect for being capable and subsequently, indispensable. Their primary responsibilities involve urban search and rescue, emergency medical care and community engagement. We met with two of these heroes to discuss how their experiences of the war – in the civil defence and as civilians – are different from men.
We see images of women and children suffering in Syria, but little is revealed of the complex and violent challenges they face every day. While men are largely engaged in fighting and are prevented from leaving conflict zones, the majority of those displaced are women, forced to travel across armed checkpoints where rape and sexual assault are commonplace. In a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, huge numbers of women have been left as heads of households taking on full responsibility for their families with their homes destroyed.
“Women are suffering. They lost their houses, they lost their husbands, they lost their children, they lost their work, they lost their security and safety,” Manal stresses painfully. “Women are so scared even to give birth to a child nowadays. There’s no doctors, no medical facilities, no health centres for them. It’s really difficult to feel the fear of having babies in our lives.”
Childbirth is one of the riskiest situations facing women in Syria. With health centres and hospitals destroyed and many medical staff having been forced to flee for fear of capture, pregnant women are caught in the the crossfire of this tragically gendered violence. Putting their lives – and those of their unborn babies – in jeopardy, they are forced to travel in search of gynaecologists, midwives and hospitals. In camps, women face equal difficulty accessing basic services, especially in reproductive healthcare.
“When I think of Syria, I see spring, I see the grass and the flowers in April” – Gardinia
The women who volunteer for the White Helmets, many being mothers themselves, bear this weight heavy on their shoulders. They are trained in emergency medical response and obstetrics and find ways to nurture their shared understanding of the challenges women face through community engagement work, educating the public in trauma counselling and childbirth as well as safeguard training for attacks.
“Women and children like the women to address them, because they get the idea more quickly, maybe because they look like each other,” says Manal. “Woman to woman she can explain that she’s a mother at the same time. And the child because you can have this kind of language.
“I dream of having a family and children and to teach them everything I’ve learned,” says Manal. “To go back to our lives and the people who left their houses, who fled and who were displaced and the civil defence will not stop working even after the war. We will go back and rebuild our countries”.
“When I think of Syria, I see spring, I see the grass and the flowers in April,” glows Gardinia, who has worked with Manal for two years. “Of having simply things – coffee and tea. When I think of Syria I hear the sound of the children, I hear the sound of the birds in the morning, I hear the music. If Syria was a person I would just hug her”.
It’s heartbreaking that these dreams and memories seem so distant for these women. But in this suffering, they must not be understood just as victims, but as the extraordinary and everyday heroes, they are.
Manal, a former accountant, explains how a number of female volunteers have been lost in double tab attacks (a second quickly following the first). They now act in frontline response alongside their male colleagues, excepting in the case of heavy bombardments. “When we start working, the people start to accept us more” explains Manal. “There’s a kind of trust because we were talking to their families, we were talking to their wives, sisters, daughters”.
The presence of women has since proved decisive in situations of life and death. At times, when confronted with women trapped in the rubble, their clothes ripped from their bodies, male rescuers have been prevented from intervening by a father, husband or brother. Manal emphasises that local communities now request women to save them.
“I dream of having a family and children and to teach them everything I’ve learned.” – Manal
Women have been at the forefront of the fight in the Syrian civil war from the beginning. When the revolution broke, they came out in their hundreds to protest. Aleppo’s Radio Naseem was the first women-owned independent radio station. Women have bravely resisted Daesh in occupied areas, notably, in 2013, Souad Nofal from Raqqa carried out a one-woman demonstration holding banners calling for the release of detainees outside Daesh headquarters every day for two months.
Sadly, it has often taken war for women to gain social ground. In Syria, women have taken a leading role in supporting their communities as doctors, nurses and teachers, providing logistical support for armed groups and taking up arms themselves on top of their domestic roles.