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 the crowds gathered at Middle East Institute last week. “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 front lines fighting for the continuation Syrian culture and the development of Syria civil society are female journalists.
In the midst of the Syrian civil war and migrant crisis throughout Europe, Syrians say the need for civil society has never been greater. But the lofty goal of ceasefire negotiation may be falling on death ears as civilian groups threatened to pull out of Geneva Peace Talks last week, according to The New York Times.
There are over 350,000 dead 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 offer “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, Syrian Female Journalists’ Network [SFJN]connects roughly 73 female and male journalists in and outside of Syria. The idea was borrowed from the the German female journalists working to improve gender equality in German media.
“Syria 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 creating a network of roughly 73 women in and outside of Syria. The group’s main objective is to report what is happening in Syria and achieve gender democracy in international reporting on Syrian women.
With optimistic thinking by journalists and negotiators at Geneva, academics like George Washington University International Affairs Professor Amitai Etzioni find the prospect of Syrian civil society unlikely.
“The fact that some people talk about it [civil society] is completely meaningless,” said Etzioni in an interview at his office. “When you have such extreme opposition with people killing each other.”
Caroline Ayoub, co-founder and project manager of SouriaLi [Syria is Mine] Radio, does see challenges in fighting for civil society.
“The biggest issue for civil society in Syria is fear and mistrust,” said Ayoub. “Syrians don’t know who they can turn to for information, so 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 in and out of Syria. Ayoub was arrested in 2012 in Damascus for her non-violent activism against the regime. Currently, the radio broadcast only has 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 the 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 no longer be inhabited.
“The first thing we would hope for Syria is let’s get some ceasefire, be able to feed them, and give them medical attention,” said Etzioni. “But all this is light-years away from civil society.”
While change lags for civil society in Syria, Ayoub, Asad, and Eidmouni see their efforts as investing in Syria 50 years from now.