Ghalia Rahhal: The Idlib-based women's rights defender fighting for female empowerment
"Economic empowerment strengthens women – psychologically, intellectually, socially. It's a weapon. The only weapon to be honest. Even if she has an education, without economic – and political – empowerment, women are nothing," said Ghalia Rahhal to The New Arab.
Forty-eight-year-old Ghalia Rahhal is the co-founder of Mazaya, an organisation based in Idlib aiming to empower women through training programmes, legal support, and community-based discussions aimed at building awareness.
Mazaya, against all odds, continues to operate to this day, fighting to equip women in oppressive circumstances to take control of their lives. Its female volunteers refuse to bow down to the warfare waged on them not only by a vicious regime but by their own deeply patriarchal society.
"Economic empowerment strengthens women – psychologically, intellectually, socially. It's a weapon. The only weapon to be honest. Even if she has education, without economic – and political – empowerment, women are nothing"
Who is Ghalia Rahhal?
Ghalia Rahhal was born in1974 in Tabqa, in the Raqqa province. Her family originally comes from Kafranbel in Idlib. She returned there when she married, at 15. It was an arranged marriage – the norm in Syria. Her mother, an orphan, had married at 13
When it comes to early marriages, the social justice warrior is unequivocal: "The marriage of minors is a curse in our society."
Marrying so young affected her deeply, she says – the pressures placed on her and her feelings of isolation plunged her into a depression for years. While the marriage of girls is hugely damaging physically, and mentally, and often ends with divorce, the practice has deep roots in the region, Ghalia isn't hopeful of widespread change soon.
However, in many ways, her experience of early marriage and the suffering it entailed began her journey to becoming a committed women's rights defender.
The bleak reality of life in Idlib was another factor. Idlib's marginalisation didn't begin with the Syrian revolution in 2011, Ghalia explained: the region was neglected for decades. This was a pattern in regions associated with the Islamist uprising (1976-82), specifically Hama, Idlib, Aleppo and Homs provinces.
The regime's brutal crackdown on the insurgency saw scores of massacres across these areas. Subsequently, these regions – associated with regime opposition – were intentionally underdeveloped, with little investment or development compared with other areas.
Ghalia suggested that there are similarities between that period and today’s conflict, in both, the regime has framed the war as against "Islamists" and "terrorism" when really it has always fought against any form of opposition.
In 1997, with four young children, dire economic conditions and a husband "who had little sense of responsibility" for his family, Ghalia started working in a local salon. She was determined to provide a better life for her family.
"It wasn't just a hairdressing job – it was a place where the women and girls of Kafranbel would gather, gossip, share their news and their problems"
The sparks of a movement
"It wasn't just a hairdressing job," Ghalia said. "It was a place where the women and girls of Kafranbel would gather, gossip, and share their news and their problems.
"I began to realise it wasn't just me who had suffered, through marrying young, through the huge burdens placed on me by my husband and his family, it turned out that all of us had similar stories," Ghalia said, sadly adding, "I met many girls who had been divorced twice by the age of 17."
Today, after 11 years of war, the situation is far worse. Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) say child marriage has surged in Idlib since the war started. While early marriages made up 12 percent of all marriages in Syria prior to 2011, today they make up 46 percent, according to Widad Babiker, UNPFA Program against Gender-Based Violence.
Another pivotal event that heralded Mazaya's formation was the Syrian revolution and the country's rapid descent into all-out war.
Kafranbel – where Ghalia is from – was one of the first towns whose residents rebelled against the regime in 2011. The town quickly gained worldwide renown as a bastion of protest. Local activists became famous for speaking out against Damascus as well as condemning the radicalisation of the uprising against Assad and the entry of extremist groups into the fray.
When protests began, Ghalia quickly got involved to support the demonstrations. She drove, a rarity for women in Kafranbel, and carted supplies like medicines back and forth from Tabqa to Kafranbel.
She had also inherited a large basement from her father which was in the town centre, and when the regime's bombs started falling, she would leave the door open, for women and children to gather there.
"Kafranbel – where Ghalia is from – was one of the first towns whose residents rebelled against the regime in 2011. The town quickly gained worldwide renown as a bastion of protest"
"It was war," says Ghalia; "people were exhausted and terrified […] some would be injured. There wasn’t enough food […] There were no organisations to tell us what to do."
Born in a basement
As people gathered in Ghalia's basement day after day, Syrians became increasingly concerned about the impact of the war on education.
"The children had been totally cut off from education […] we were thinking about what the young girls would be doing in five years' time," she said. As the war dragged on, we felt we needed to use this time, and the women started holding 'forums' to discuss what could be done.
"I had the idea of offering hairdressing lessons. I said 'Who wants to learn hairdressing?', and 50 women signed up! So I started teaching in the basement."
Two others, Hiba and Ithar, who co-founded Mazaya, started teaching the children to read. Many adults were also illiterate and joined those lessons. Someone taught knitting, and a nurse gave a basic first aid course.
The make-shift school was grassroots and reactive; born out of necessity and ingenuity. Over time, for many, it became an essential lifeline.
Mazaya was born in that basement, explained Ghalia. Initially, their supporters were few but strong. The Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB), a media network founded in Kafranbel by the late activist Raed Fares, and Ghalia's son Khaled (photo-journalist Khaled al-Issa) – who was killed in an explosion in 2016 – helped where possible.
They donated basic materials and some funding to the women. Ghalia said her son Khaled's vocal support and prominence in the town protected them from locals who disapproved of women working.
"The make-shift school was grassroots and reactive; born out of necessity and ingenuity. Over time, for many, it became an essential lifeline"
As lessons continued, word spread, and soon two well-known Syrian female journalists came to visit them; Samar Yazbek and Razan Ghazzawi.
"They encouraged us a lot, volunteering with us and teaching English. Samar Yazbek thought what we were doing with the women was a miracle."
Samar donated novels, poetry books and laptops to the women. In mid-2013, the group decided to call themselves Mazaya (meaning 'merits'). They set up a library, opened an office, and started offering IT and embroidery lessons as well as counselling. They also began holding talks on culture and politics, spaces that women in Syria were typically excluded from.
However, just one year later, in 2014, Mazaya came under attack.
The situation in Syria had spiralled drastically. Rebels in Idlib had managed to wrest control of the region from the regime. However, armed groups were also proliferating in the area, many of them Islamist, some extremist, and these vied for control. Women's empowerment most definitely did not chime with their agenda, says Ghalia.
"When you want to destroy a society, you start with the women, and when you want to build a society, you start with the women. These groups knew that very well, and they knew what they were doing.
"We were attacked repeatedly. Threats were scrawled outside the basement, they sent online threats, our office was burned down, and someone tried to assassinate me with a car bomb."
"When you want to destroy a society, you start with the women, and when you want to build a society, you start with the women. These groups knew that very well, and they knew what they were doing"
While terrified at the barrage of anonymous attacks, Ghalia stressed that at this point Mazaya's work had become a cause she was determined to defend.
"We knew, as women we weren't facing just one battle – against the regime – we were also fighting to liberate ourselves from oppressive social traditions which piled restrictions on us. We needed to fight hard for those rights within grasp."
With four children at home, bombs dropping and being targeted by violent extremists, it would have been understandable to drop the project. However, Ghalia’s soft voice, which at times brims with compassion and at times with wistfulness, belies an act of indefatigable courage and a steely determination. Giving way was not an option.
Mazaya had a bold solution against the deliberate acts of terror: If one centre was attacked, others would carry on. They opened seven women's centres in south Idlib. They started a magazine. Radio Fresh, a local station which her son Khaled worked for, began offering courses for women in journalism and photography.
A few years on, in late 2018, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were the de facto rulers in most of Idlib. Despite the group's hardline Islamist stance, the relative stability that prevailed as one group consolidated power, as opposed to multiple factions vying for power, meant Mazaya's situation also stabilised, even if they were still viewed with distrust.
But any stability was inherently fragile and short-lived for the dynamic female group.
In late 2019 and through 2020, regime bombing in south Idlib displaced the population of Kafranbel and the surrounding area, with most ending up in IDP camps on the Turkey border, especially the Barisha camp.
It was very hard starting again with nothing: "We had lost our homes, our children. I learnt very well what living in the camps means for women and girls, to lose all privacy, in tents, and to lack the barest essentials. Those who live in the camps no longer feel part of the human race."
"I learnt very well what living in the camps means for women and girls, to lose all privacy, in tents, and to lack the barest essentials. Those who live in the camps no longer feel part of the human race"
Nevertheless, Ghalia gathered women in the camp to talk about the biggest needs there, and not long afterwards, Mazaya opened a centre in Barisha.
As well as training courses and talks, Mazaya set up a legal office to help resolve conflicts within the camp, which she says has had some success. The cramped conditions and poverty have led to high rates of domestic violence, and this has been one of Mazaya's main focuses within Barisha.
Ghalia's enthusiasm shines through when speaking about Mazaya's achievements.
There are women whose training at Mazaya opened up job opportunities which they could find elsewhere, she said, like those who became journalists and photographers.
But she stressed that what makes her proudest is when she sees a woman with resilience: "Women who face tough circumstances and stay strong, who won't let themselves be exploited. I saw this change in many women. And I love seeing women take leadership positions anywhere, decision-making roles – in hospitals, the civil defence […] anything. Women who are strong and successful in their lives, who have come from us, this makes me proud."
Ghalia said she would not wish for any woman to suffer what the women of Syria have suffered.
She wants to see Syrian women in politics and leading the path towards peace, to be free from violence, humiliation, rape, killing and harassment. And she hopes for more funding for organisations like Mazaya – if not from organisations, then from people. She believes solidarity between people is stronger than political alliances.
Rose Chacko is an Arabic-English translator with a focus on history and politics, particularly in the Middle East. She holds a Master's in Advanced Arabic from Edinburgh University and is currently based in London.