Amid War and Loss, Idlib’s Women Persevere

As headlines rage over Syria’s embattled northeast, around 3 million civilians in Syria’s northwest continue to face death and displacement. The Assad regime, backed by Russia, has waged a ruthless battle for the final stretch of opposition-held territory in Idlib province and its surroundings in northwest Syria. The assault killed more than 1,000 civilians between April, when fighting intensified, and August when a tenuous ceasefire was struck. Thousands more were injured, more than 50 of the region’s health facilities were damaged or destroyed in the near-daily bombings, and half a million people were forced from their homes, many for the fourth or fifth time. Despite the August ceasefire, shelling of residential areas in northwest Syria has continued, claiming the lives of many civilians. Now the area’s fate lies in the margins of geopolitical bargaining and international neglect.

But despite the daily nightmare, Idlib’s women are working hard to carry on. Caught in the crosshairs, Idlib’s civilian population has survived more than eight years of brutal war and heartbreaking loss. With many of Idlib’s men on the frontlines, dead, in detention, or disappeared, the region’s mostly female population has demonstrated remarkable resolve. They are heads of households, business leaders, activists, artists, doctors, nurses, teachers—and in a particularly conservative province, many of them are stepping into these roles for the first time in their lives.

Nadia al Zidan, an activist living in Idlib, lost three brothers to the war. Before the death of her brother Walid, he gave her advice that would change the course of her life.

“He told me that we women should create community groups and work. He showed me examples from history. He told me that after the war in Germany, women were the ones who built [the country] again.”

“‘You have big responsibility,’ he told me.”

With the opening of activism inside Syria during the war, women like Nadia have thrived in a space that didn’t exist before 2011. She has spent the past few years participating in workshops and training others on political engagement in Idlib.

Fatima Mahmoud is a single mother of three. She has been raising her family in Idlib alone since the death of her husband in 2014. She is a teacher, and trains other teachers on how to provide psycho-social support and works to raise awareness about the psycho-social effects of the war on the region’s students.

Since the regime bombings have nearly cleared out the population of southern Idlib where she lives, she has to travel by bus to the north of the province to conduct the trainings. Her dedication to her work comes at a great cost.

“Every day I say goodbye to my children because I am afraid that I will not see them again,” she said.

She doesn’t intend to stop her work, despite the risk.

“I have big ambitions…. I hope for my children to live in peace. I hope that all the sacrifices that their father and I made will pave their way for a better future. I wish for them to live free and not in fear.”   

Amany al Alali, a lifelong resident of Idlib, hasn’t been able to escape the war at home because she is the sole caregiver for her disabled mother. She works in Idlib as a political cartoonist, despite social pressures and warnings from family and friends that her work poses enormous risk to her safety.

“I couldn’t stop myself, I had to draw,” she said. “People told me it was risky and that I shouldn’t do it, but I continued. The next day I would forget about it and keep going.”

She has a strong message for the world about Idlib.

“Personally, my message for the world is that the people in Idlib are against terrorism, they are against anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom,” she said.

Nadia also wants the world to know that global headlines about the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militant group that controls her home province don’t tell the full story: like her, many people in Idlib are peaceful—and they’re resisting.

“On the news when they say the opposition, I kind of accept it. But when they say terrorist sometimes I cry because I ask myself—did we become terrorists?”

Women like her are working to prove that wrong.

Together with many other women like Nadia, Fatima, and Amany, civilians from all over Syria, displaced by conflict or forcibly relocated by the regime, now call Idlib home. The northwest’s pre-war population of 1.5 million has doubled over the course of the war. For many, the opposition-controlled territory was their last hope for safety and relative normalcy. Now facing a closed border with Turkey to the north and regime advancements from the south and east, people of Idlib have nowhere else to go.

In the absence of a political solution, daily life will continue to be a struggle. But Idlib’s women will continue to persevere.

Cover Photo: Nadia al Zidan, an activist living in Idlib. Photo by Refugees International.