A Revolutionary from Barada
Rouweida Kanaan likes to remember wandering through the streets of Damascus. She recalls every detail of Al Marj Square, the shape of its tiles shape, the facades of the Damascene sweet shops and the various neighbourhood hotels. She remembers the smiling faces of the shop owners in the Al Hamidia souq and the sound of their voices encouraging customers to enter their shops.
“I know every corner of Damascus and I hope to go back and wander in its streets,” she said.
Kanaan, a mathematics graduate, also remembers how she used the skills she learnt in the faculty of sciences to calculate the diametre and radius of Umayyad Square so as to work out how many people could fit in it during protests demanding freedom.
The young woman from Barada valley was not against the regime per se before the revolution. In 1999, when she was at still at university, the Students Union Bureau interrogated her due to her friendships with people affiliated to the Communist Labour Party as well as Arab students from Sudan and Yemen.
“Back then it felt weird; even though I was just an ordinary and simple person, the secret services were tracking every move I made. So how far did they go with other people?” she recalled.
Her political awakening really began when she began to realise the extent of government corruption and how public servants dealt with citizens. She began asking herself why Syrians had to be so afraid of the secret services and why they had to stay so quiet about these problems. These questions and many others began to haunt her, but she could only share them with very close friends.
In early 2011, when revolution erupted in Tunisia, then moved to Egypt, Kanaan saw on television how the Egyptian army protected protesters. She knew that the Syrian army would act differently, because of Damascus’s interference in Lebanese affairs in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I was certain that this army would not side with the people, especially the secret services who would without a doubt act against the anti-regime movement,” she continued.
When the Syrian revolution began in spring 2011, she knew instinctively that she would join it.
“In May 2011, during the first protest I participated in, I shouted as loud as I could: God! Syria! Freedom!” Kanaan recalled.
Ever since then, she felt that had something changed within her.
“I was a shy person before, but after this experience I became able to speak publicly and demand my rights,” she said.
Roweida went on to be arrested three times. The first time was during a protest in summer 2011when she was detained for “agitation”. The second time was in early February 2012 when she was arrested with her sisters at their house and accused of supporting terrorism. This was because she was in possession of medicine and food aid, in addition to having organised political protests and co-founded a movement called Together for a Free and Democratic Syria. Other prominent members of this movement included activists Azza Al Bahra and Khawla Dunia.
The final time Kanaan was arrested was on June 9, 2013 as she headed to the Al Ghouta area. This time she was accused of incitement and “weakening national sentiment” and was referred to the Terrorism court. When she was released in April 2014, she traveled to Turkey.
When Kanaan first became an activist, she did not limit the revolution’s aims to just bringing down the regime. She considered that revolution also meant change towards a better society where the rights of women and the marginalised were protected.
Kanaan was especially dedicated to two issues that she felt deserved equal weight; defending detainees and advocating for women’s rights.
After her release from prison, she joined the Syrian Women Network, and is now a member of the coordination and follow-up committee working on economic and political empowerment.
“The economic empowerment of women is not limited to teaching them cooking and sowing, but also includes teaching them project management, IT skills, and foreign languages,” she noted.
Despite the frustration and despair felt by all Syrian opposition members, she said that it was important to continue to challenge the patriarchal hegemony among the movement.
“I support for women’s active participation in all platforms and conferences, and not leaving their seats empty,” she continued.
In October 2017, with other women, Roweida co-founded The Syrian Feminist Political Movement. This marked a new form of engagement for both Syria and the wider middle east.
A delegation of five women from the movement participated in the High Negotiations Committee and two women joined the smaller delegation.
“This is a positive step forward,” Kanaan said. “We consider that women are as able as men and it’s their right to participate in decision-making.”
Kanaan also worked as a reporter for Radio Rozna from Damascus in 201. She was later arrested at a checkpoint for working for a radio station broadcasting from outside Syria.
“Working for Radio Rozna changed my career path; I changed from being a maths teacher to a reporter deeply interested in media and giving voice to the voiceless,” she said.
Kanaan also hosted a number of radio shows, including Darkness of Cells which covered the plight of both male and female detainees. Her other programmes included the women’s affairs show Half of the Universe, as well as the Freedom Bus segment and others.
Although she now lives in France, she remains politically active. She participated in X-Adra, a theatre project about detainees that was directed by Syrian Ramzi Shoukeir. The play told the story of six women who had been detained but refused to give up on life.
“After the show’s premier, we saw the reactions of French citizens attending the play. They left in shock and silence. Their stereotype of Syrian women had changed,” Kanaan said.
Roweida still dreams of seeing the pastry seller in the Sarouja neighborhood and walking again by the Barada River. She believes that one day, this will become a reality.