Conservative and free
Nermin Faris Khalifa is a teacher and social activist who works tirelessly to support women’s rights and emancipation.
But because she is veiled and wears the niqab, she says that some other self-described feminists consider her to be an extremist.
“I am seen as [a free spirit] changing the minds of women in my conservative communities in Idlib, and I am considered a traditional conservative by some women’s organisations working abroad,” she said, laughing.
Nermin said that she sees her veil as a religious commitment and her support for women’s rights and their emancipation as a moral obligation. Her overarching aim, she continued, was to do everything she could to support the revolution.
Born in Jabal al-Zawiyah in 1988, Nermin graduated from Idlib university’s faculty of education as a teacher in 2009 as one of the best students in her class. A year later, Nermin married Hassan Khalifa, an engineer. When the revolution first began, Hassan was doing his compulsory service in the Syrian army.
Like many soldiers, Hassan found himself facing a difficult choice. Nermin recounts that he decided, “I will not remain in an army that kills its people. How can I be without honour, brotherhood or religion?”
He left his compulsory service and fled, joining the Free Army in December 2011.
Nermin chose to support her husband and his decision. She also offered him all the practical help she could.
“I was able to send a portion of my monthly salary to cover his and his comrades’ daily needs,” she said, adding that she also returned him the gold he’d given her as a wedding present to enable him to buy a weapon.
“I was happy to give up my dowry for freedom,” she said. “Freedom is more valuable.”
In July 2012, during a battle to defend a regime army offensive Jabal al-Zawiyah, Hassan was killed.
Nermin refused to give in to her grief and resign herself to living under oppression.
She said, “When he was martyred, the revolution became my obsession, my responsibility and a motive that drives me. My heart aches with sadness, but I will not surrender to it.”
Nermin continued working in education until March 2015, when the city of Idlib was liberated from regime control. She said that her message during this period was simple.
“I always tried to instill the principles and morals of the revolution in my young students, to quicken our progress and teach them about our mistakes, she said.
After the regime forces left Idlib, heavy shelling and fear of the unknown limited the activity of civil society organisations. Women in Idlib were left totally marginalised. Nermin and several other women felt it necessary to act and so they formed a small, local group called the Association of Educated Women.
The Association aimed to support and empower women across artistic, professional and cultural fields.
With Nermin serving as the Association’s manager, it started with some simple outreach to women and children and gradually expanded its activities to include entertainment and several handicrafts exhibitions in the Atme camps in northern Idlib.
Nermin and her colleagues faced many difficulties, including finding financial support for the largely volunteer-based association. The complex security situation also complicated their work.
“After the mass waves of displacement in our regions, the number of women in need of support of all kinds has increased,” Nermin said. “The wives of martyrs and detainees aren’t the only ones who need help. Most of the women in these circumstances need support. Sometimes just a [friendly] word is enough for women to feel that they aren’t alone and there are people who support them.”
Nermin hopes that the Association’s work will expand to include other areas, especially those completely lacking facilities for women and children’s activities.
Inas, the head of the Association’s psychological support team, said that Nermin “doesn’t know despair, she doesn’t get tired and she fights until she achieves her goal, no matter the difficulties”.
Nermin has also been working at the faculty of education at the Free Idlib University since it reopened in October 2015. At the start of the academic year, she joined its graduate programme and is currently preparing for a Master’s degree in education in the hope that she will have the opportunity to complete her doctorate.
Nermin is also a team leader in the Horizons academy, which deals with post-war trauma.
Her colleague Fatima said about her, “It is her hobby to juggle everything and fight on all fronts at the same time.”
That also includes challenging the stereotypical way society views women, and being both mother and father to her children.
Every night, Nermin said, she ends her day by telling her son Joseph a story about his father, “Hassan the hero”. She tells her son to fall asleep, promising he will meet his father in heaven.