Eight months ago, long before ISIS was a popular hashtag and point of obsession for pundits and politicians, The Woman in Pants already knew the group was up to no good–and she wasn’t afraid to let them know.
In a video produced by the Abounaddara Collective, an independent Syrian filmmaking group whose aim is to highlight the “stories of everyday life” over “grand narratives,” a middle-aged woman sits alone on a chair, facing the camera directly, and says:
“They wonder where I get the guts to do it. A woman all by herself facing the State [ISIS]. But they are not a state. They’re a gang—a small gang taking advantage of peoples’ fears.”
When passersby ask The Woman in Pants why she is demonstrating, her response to them is straightforward and unwavering, “the dawla[ISIS] is kidnapping our peaceful activists.”
The risks of boldly demonstrating in this way against a vicious militia are real—so much so that those who agree and support her have to suppress it.
“No one dares to support me verbally. They think that if someone claims their opposition, they’d be signing their death warrant.”
Instead, “they just do this with their finger.” She gives a thumbs up.
The name of The Woman in Pants is not mentioned in the video. We do not know when and where she first started protesting against ISIS, what the signs she holds say, or where she is today. But her resolve to resist oppressive forces in her own way speaks to a wider—often untold—story in Syria of ongoing civil resistance.
The Woman in Pants is not alone. Even amidst a full-fledged war—where the regime has maximized its reliance on resources and external support, and where many people are growing increasingly fatigued of the rebellion—civilian resistance and subversive activism, though undoubtedly muted, continues to sprout across Syria, even under the most unaccomodating conditions.
Photo source: ThinkStock
General Strikes in Manbij
The rural town of Manbij, near the metropolis of Aleppo, has struggled drastically with changing power-holders since the start of the rebellion. In July 2012, rebels pushed regime forces out of the city, making Manbij one of the first larger cities in Syria to be liberated.
Rebel forces and the civilian population then quickly got to work, forming a revolutionary council, putting together a functioning court system, and creating a small police force run by the city’s inhabitants. Manbij even boasted the first trading union in rebel-held Syria. The town set up a “cultural club” to give people a space to debate the country’s politics and future.
ISIS began to establish a presence in Manbij in late 2013, initially sharing some governing responsibilities and working with the revolutionary council. Civilians soon grew frustrated with the group because of bread shortages and growing infringements by ISIS into their daily lives.
The city rebelled and managed to drive out ISIS forces—but only temporarily. ISIS returned to power by the end of January 2014, but civilian aversion has continued.
Even amidst a full-fledged war, civilian resistance and subversive activism continues to sprout across Syria.
Concerned at the moment mainly with consolidating its own power, ISIS has pursued a path of agitation and kidnappings rather than fighting the regime. In response, civil society in Manbij has mobilized in notable ways.
Just last month, reports surfaced of widespread calls for general strikes in Manbij, in which owners shut down their shops and businesses, and employees did not go to work.
The president of the local revolutionary council in Manbij, Monzer Alsalal, explained that civilian actors “called on their Facebook pages for a general strike to send a message to ISIS that the town and its residents support their brothers from the FSA.”
And it was ISIS who helped spread the word, he said:
“A day before the strike and the distribution of leaflets at night, ISIS fighters went mad, ironically promoting the strike for residents who did not hear about it through leaflets or social media.”
He explains that ISIS militias took to the streets, “driving around with loudspeakers” to warn people against joining the strike lest they face serious consequences.
There are no verified reports of how successful the strikes were, and as a result, it’s hard to discern their impact. Activists from the town along with Alsalal said the strike had an 80-90 percent success rate; others said participation was scarce.
But for a group like ISIS, it’s important to maintain an appearance of local acceptance, so having the strike called against it in any place was damaging to its image and claimed legitimacy.
Photo source: ThinkStock
Satirical Commentary in Kafranbel
In the liberated town of Kafranbel—dubbed “The Little Syrian Town That Could“—activists are producing a series of colorful and witty posters written in English that make jabs at local and international leaders alike, often through references to pop culture or current world events (the World Cup, July 4th, the Al Jazeera verdicts, etc.). The protesters frequently stand around the posters to pose for a photo while providing their own complementary hand gestures (some more colorful than others).
As of late, they have turned their attention to ISIS, often portraying them as colluding with the regime or being two sides of the same coin.
One poster, titled “International Media,” depicts a video camera recording lines of people wearing the revolutionary Syrian flag (some as soldiers and others as civilians). All of them are blurred and marginalized except for the camera-focused ISIS fighter.
Photo source: www.occupiedkafranbel.com
Another shows Assad seated on his throne and smoking while watching an ISIS leader bulldoze Syrian revolutionaries.
Protesters in Kafranbel are aware that their impact in challenging regime or ISIS forces is limited. But their contributions in preserving the collective memory of the rebellion—reminding the world that it was civil society to first rise up and demand the ouster of the regime—is an invaluable contribution.
This message is summed up best in their June 13, 2014 poster:
“Whatever cards you mix among Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, we’re still after topping Assad and making our dream of new Syria comes true.”
Giving Voice to the Public
Acts of civil resistance and activist organizing in Syria cannot be romanticized. They will not spell the end of the Assad regime, defeat ISIS, or bring about justice to Syrians. Civil resistance organizers often are not key determinants of political outcomes but are instead marginalized in shaping their country’s events. They do, however, play a vital and exclusive role in highlighting questions of legitimacy.
Civil resistance organizers give us glimpses into public opinion in Syria across different points in time.
Even if they aren’t the most powerful stakeholders, civil resistance organizers maintain civilian agency by publicly responding to provocative situations and unfolding events. They give us glimpses into public opinion in Syria across different points in time, an especially important window, considering how little we do know of the inclinations and aspirations of civilian populations.
Gaining access and listening to what civilians in rebel-controlled areas are saying is ever necessary as armed groups and foreign actors fight for their slice of the pie, while all but neglecting Syrian experiences.
In this way, activists pursuing civil resistance and publicly questioning the direction of internal politics open up room for debate on competing ideological struggles in Syria, something especially crucial as extremist groups like ISIS shut down that conversation and absolve others of articulating their own ideologies.