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A grain of freedom, a pinch of justice



By Aysha Khoulani.



My father wasn’t one to follow feminists or women’s liberation movements. He was just naturally pure, with a love for humanity in his heart and a strong belief in equality between men and women.


When I was seventeen, I had to choose between the literary and scientific strands in high school, as is the case with all Syrian students once they finish the 10th grade. I wanted to choose the literary strand because I loved those subjects: philosophy, literature, poetry, theatre and languages. But in my town, Daraya,[1] Only the scientific strand was offered, so my father transferred me to Muhammad Bahjat al-Baytar School in al-Midan in Damascus. I would leave very early in the morning and return home very late when my schooling was complete.


In 1998 I received my high school diploma in the literary strand. Students wanting to continue to university needed to apply through the mubadala: in their application, they listed which subjects they’d be happy to study, and the final decision was made by the Ministry of Higher Education according to each student’s grades. I applied to study the English language—and to my surprise, I was accepted into the University of Aleppo. For those of you who don’t know Aleppo, it is northern Syria’s major city, around four hundred kilometres (a five-hour journey, perhaps a little more) away from Damascus. This meant that I had to move to Aleppo immediately, first to register and then to start my course. In short, I was starting a revolution in my community. And at that time, too!


Daraya was a conservative place and my family was known as the most religiously observant in the city. In Daraya, like every Syrian city, women didn’t have the same rights as men. Men could do what women couldn’t because “Nothing brings shame upon a man”, as they say. A man could study what he wanted, have the job he wanted, and no one stood in the way. But what she wanted didn’t have the same value. At the end of the day, she would be a wife and a mother with a duty to raise children. She should consider herself extremely lucky if she was allowed a free choice of university course, and must be grateful to have been born to such parents.


There were a limited number of socially acceptable university courses for women, including medicine and shari’a. More “serious” subjects such as foreign languages, law, engineering and technical sciences were reserved for men—women wouldn’t dare work alongside them as professional counterparts. On top of that, women could only leave their parents’ home for school or work. Moving cities to study would be the very definition of shameful and she might even lose her honour completely. This is exactly what happened when I registered with the English Language Department at the University of Aleppo.


I asked my father if I could accept the offer. He didn’t just say yes without batting an eyelid, he said that I must. He was a feminist before feminism in my society, despite his modest education, and was strides ahead of the others with his belief in women’s absolute equality to men. There’s no chance that he would have disagreed. While the rest of the city saw a woman’s education as valueless, he saw it as our duty to have a university degree as protection from what life might throw our way, especially in a society that was so unjust to women while giving men endless opportunities.


As well as supporting my decision to study in Aleppo, my father took care of my travel costs. To him, knowledge was sacred, and everything related to it was an investment worth making. He rented a house for me in a good location in Aleppo and helped me move in, doing everything he believed he must to make sure I’d be comfortable during my studies. The house neighboured the famous Citadel of Aleppo and I felt like a citadel in my father’s life: through the example of my sisters and I, he resolved to revolutionise our community’s values. He believed an education would make our lives more beautiful and meaningful, and under his care, they were.


My mother was different. While her love and generosity knew no bounds, she needed to deal with this situation in her own way. She didn’t oppose my father’s decisions—something inside her made her feel he was right—but she wasn’t capable of expressing those views herself. She was afraid of the people around her: her parents, her neighbours and the rest of the community. “Imagine what they’ll say—Don’t they care about their daughter? They’ve sent her to the end of the earth!” And so she tried to hide my life in Aleppo from my relatives: if I had to study so far away then it had to be a secret. I would travel back and forth without anybody noticing.


That was impossible, of course. Daraya is a small city, and news spreads like wildfire. Soon the whole family knew, and the whispers started. They didn’t dare question my father: they knew he was a determined man who always acted on conviction. All the same, they had enough curiosity to manage to find out in the first place. When they asked my mother about me, she answered, “She’s only registered in Aleppo, she won’t actually go to the lectures.”


When my grandmother found out, God rest her soul, she confronted my father: “What’s this about leaving Damascus for university? Thinks she’s a boy now, does she?!” My father only laughed in response. He’d been taking good care of her for many years and was too courteous to answer back.


I remember every last detail: my mother packing my things every time I would leave; my father, always eager to help, waiting to pick me up at the bus station, carrying my bags. His unwavering support made me realise that the changes occurring in my life and the ones of those around me weren’t our sole doing—my father had always been by our side. It’s thanks to God’s grace and mercy, of course, that I was born to a father unlike many of his time. He even raised my five brothers with the same beliefs of how women should be treated.


I spent a full year studying in Aleppo and passed my exams, meaning I could transfer to the University of Damascus until graduation. And just two years later, my father’s mindset began to spread through the city. Four of my close friends were able to travel to faraway universities: Amina studied medicine, Abeer studied computer engineering, Firdaus studied French literature and Imaan studied natural sciences. Plenty more women followed until the concept became normal. My father was the reason behind it all, the man who had believed in his daughter and changed people’s views on women’s education, albeit partially. He had the honour of forging the path for a great new tradition in Daraya.


May Allah bless my mother and father with a long life, health and well-being.


Dear brothers, fathers, and husbands, I urge you to take a fresh look at the beliefs you hold about your sisters, daughters, and wives.

[1] Daraya is a suburb of Damascus, its centre is 8 km (5 miles) south-west of the centre of the capital.


By Aysha Khoulani.



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