Islamic Revival Led by Women Tests Syria’s Secularism
By KATHERINE ZOEPF
DAMASCUS, Syria — Enas al-Kaldi stops in the hallway of her Islamic school for girls and coaxes her 6-year-old schoolmate through a short recitation from the Koran.
“It’s true that they don’t understand what they are memorizing at this age, but we believe that the understanding comes when the Koran becomes part of you,” Ms. Kaldi, 16, said proudly.
In other corners of Damascus, women who identify one another by the distinctive way they tie their head scarves gather for meetings of an exclusive and secret Islamic women’s society known as the Qubaisiate.
At those meetings, participants say, they are tutored further in the faith and are even taught how to influence some of their well-connected fathers and husbands to accept a greater presence of Islam in public life.
These are the two faces of an Islamic revival for women in Syria, one that could add up to a potent challenge to this determinedly secular state. Though government officials vociferously deny it, Syria is becoming increasingly religious and its national identity is weakening. If Islam replaces that identity, it may undermine the unity of a society that is ruled by a Muslim religious minority, the Alawites, and includes many religious groups.
Syrian officials, who had front-row seats as Hezbollah dragged Lebanon into war, are painfully aware of the myriad ways that state authority can be undermined by increasingly powerful, and appealing, religious groups. Though Syria’s government supports Hezbollah, it has been taking steps to ensure that the phenomenon it helped to build in Lebanon does not come to haunt it at home.
In the past, said Muhammad al-Habash, a Syrian lawmaker who is also a Muslim cleric, “we were told that we had to leave Islam behind to find our futures.”
“But these days,” he said, “if you ask most people in Syria about their history, they will tell you, ‘My history is Islamic history.’ The younger generation are all reading the Koran.”
Women are in the vanguard. Though men across the Islamic world usually interpret Scripture and lead prayers, Syria, virtually alone in the Arab world, is seeing the resurrection of a centuries-old tradition of sheikhas, or women who are religious scholars. The growth of girls’ madrasas has outpaced those for boys, religious teachers here say.
There are no official statistics about precisely how many of the country’s 700 madrasas are for girls. But according to a survey of Islamic education in Syria published by the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, there are about 80 such madrasas in Damascus alone, serving more than 75,000 women and girls, and about half are affiliated with the Qubaisiate (pronounced koo-BAY-see-AHT).
For many years any kind of religious piety was viewed here with skepticism. But while men suspected of Islamist activity are frequently interrogated and jailed, subjecting women to such treatment would cause a public outcry that the government cannot risk. Women have taken advantage of their relatively greater freedom to form Islamic groups, becoming a deeply rooted and potentially subversive force to spread stricter and more conservative Islamic practices in their families and communities.
Since intelligence agents still monitor private gatherings that involve discussion of Islam, groups like the Qubaisiate often meet clandestinely, sometimes with women guarding the door to deter interlopers.
The group is named for its founder, a charismatic Syrian sheikha, Munira al-Qubaisi.
A wealthy woman in her 50’s living in Damascus, who has attended Qubaisiate meetings and who asked that her name not be used because she feared punishment, provided a rough description of the activities.
A girl thought to be serious about her faith may be invited by a relative or a school friend to go to a meeting, the woman said. There, a sheikha sits on a raised platform, addresses the assembled women on religious subjects and takes questions.
Qubaisiate members, the woman said, tie their head scarves so there is a puff of fabric under the chin, like a wattle. As girls and women progress in their study of Islam and gain stature within the group, the color of their scarves changes. New members wear white ones, usually with long khaki colored coats, she said. Later they graduate to wearing navy blue scarves with a navy coat. At the final stage the sheikha may grant them permission to cover themselves completely in black.