In major western media headlines, we see the stereotypical refugee woman crying, donning a hijab, and holding an infant—the victims of the Syrian civil war.
“Syria woman is one that is refugee,” Rula Asad, co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Female Journalists’ Network, told a crowd gathered at the Middle East Institute. “Stereotyping and victimizing women is annoying, especially when other women are the political leaders.”
In a time of so much negativity in the media, Asad said the war is an opportunity to improve Syrian civil society. Those at the frontlines fighting for the continuation of Syrian culture and the development of Syrian civil society are female journalists.
In the midst of the Syrian civil war and migrant crisis throughout Europe, the need for civil society has never been greater. But the lofty goal of negotiation has been falling on deaf ears.
There are over 400,000 dead so far in the six-year-long war. After three peace talks, 12 civilian groups wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon grieving that the talks have offered “neither peace nor protection” to the Syrian people.
Female journalists from various organizations hope to fill in the gaps between media and civil society. Founded in 2012, the Syrian Female Journalists’ Network (SFJN) connects roughly 73 female and male journalists in and outside of Syria. The idea was borrowed from German female journalists working to improve gender equality in German media.
“Syrian journalists that we train face many challenges in reporting the war,” Milia Eidmouni, Asad’s partner and co-founder of SFJN, said. “They have no helmets or vests, and much of their equipment was confiscated by militants trying to censor news.”
Asad and Eidmouni took civilian journalists and trained them into professionals. The group’s main objective is to report what is happening in Syria and achieve gender democracy in international reporting on Syrian women.
“The biggest issue for civil society in Syria is fear and mistrust,” said Caroline Ayoub, co-founder and project manager of SouriaLi (Syria is Mine) Radio. “Syrians don’t know who they can turn to for information, so we wanted to fill in the gap. That is the responsibility of the media.”
Ayoub’s three-year-old radio program provides a variety of cultural and political shows from both within and outside of Syria. Ayoub was arrested in 2012 in Damascus for her nonviolent activism against the regime. Currently, the radio broadcast has only three journalists in Syria working under aliases, while the rest of the journalists work from afar via Skype, Google Hangout, and e-mail.
One of SouriaLi‘s most popular programs was a cooking show covering 30 stories of Syrian cooks from Kurdish, Armenian, and Arab backgrounds and preserving the cultural heritage of areas that can no longer be inhabited.
While change lags for civil society in Syria, Ayoub, Asad, and Eidmouni see their efforts as investing in Syria’s future 50 years from now.