The West Loves the Story of Iran’s Jailed ‘Happy’ Dancers For All the Wrong Reasons

An interesting take on the FreeHappyIranians story. This was written by senior editor for islawmix, Sana Saeed.

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When there’s slow movement on the hashtag battlefield, you can always count on a story about Muslim women and headscarves to pick up the pace.

On May 7, in her Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty column, Golnaz Esfandiari highlighted a Facebook page started by Iranian political journalist (in exile), Masih Alinejad, now called “My Stealthy Freedom.” The page features images of various Iranian women defying the national law that dictates women be covered with a headscarf at all times in public.

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The story, which has the necessary ingredients of a Western media fantasy, picked up in the English press immediately. Hell, even George Takei shared the story, expressing his awe at “[some] very brave women in Iran … doing something extraordinary on Facebook.” The story is still popping up online, and the Facebook group itself now boasts over 315,000 followers — an incredible increase from its initial few hundred, then few thousand, followers over the course of less than two weeks.

And just this week, attention was turned to Iran once more in the name of freedom of expression.

A group of young, trendy, Iranians (including three women without their headscarves) were arrested for “indecency” after creating a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s hit song, “Happy.” This story, too, garnered the attention of social media crusaders when news of the arrest broke. The group has now been released.

 

 

Iranian laws governing public morality and the possible punishments undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on the citizenry. For women, especially, to be publicly engaging in defiance of laws that limit their expressions of self — as really anywhere — is a risk and feat worth acknowledging.

But there’s a self-centered quality of our appetite for these stories. We are uncomfortably selective in our interest in which human rights stories from Iran get our attention.

There’s a reason why the “My Stealthy Freedom” page has been lauded as a “silent revolution,” and stories of life under the country’s crippling sanctions are underreported: These stories reinforce a warped narrative of Iran that is all too familiar in the West.

In response to the kind of coverage this story has received, editors of AJAM Media Collective, Shima Houshyar and Behzad Sarmadi pointed out the trouble with the seductive, oversimplified narrative evident through these stories:

These articles produce simplistic generalizations for the sake of provocative and yet easily digestible reading. They do so by: treating women’s bodily surfaces as a measure of societal progress and morality; romanticizing the notion of resistance; and eliding the significance of class and consumer culture in everyday urban life.

Houshyar and Sarmadi also point out that a western audience has a tendency to “romanticize resistance,” which only offers solidarity if its “own values and ideals seems apparent in the resistance.”

In short, these stories aren’t told with the intention of understanding — they’re told for the sake of consumption.

 

Images Credit: YouTube and facebook.

That means that the voices that really matter here — Iranian women that actually live with enforced dress codes — are lost in the coverage.

According to Houshyar and Sarmadi, “There is a significant internal conversation and a long history of engagement with the headscarf that is never part of any external conversation on the headscarf in Iran or on Iranian women.”

And that internal conversation, about mandatory veiling, is one that should not be dismissed or ignored. As Alinejad noted in an e-mail correspondence with PolicyMic, “[by] the time the international publicity came, [the Facebook page] had already become established in Iranian circles … with no publicity at all I was getting more than 50 photos a day.”

And in a similar vein, the story of the Iranians arrested for making a “Happy” video is a part of a wider conversation on censorship and dissent, or as Houshyar pointed out about the unfolding story on Wednesday:

But these nuances were lost in the online chorus of outrage. That’s because our envisioning of Iran and Iranians has been and remains limited to the sorts of issues that redeem our own beliefs and visions of ‘freedom’. The issues and stories that indict us of any complacency and wrongdoing are ignored or justified. When Iranians are the denied the apparent basic human right to make a Pharrell video, we are maddened and disappointed. When Iranians are unable to access basic medical supplies as a result of our sanctions, we don’t even know.

There is a space for solidarity and support that does not situate the external conversation and perspective as the dominant conversation and perspective; that does not create a hierarchy of rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, we still have not quite learned how to find it.

Sana Saeed is the Senior Editor for islawmix, a project incubated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society dedicated to bringing clarity to discussions and portrayals of Islamic law in US news. She is also a researcher at the Islamophobia …
Article credit: PolicyMic
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The Spanish Spring

So the Spanish revolution – or the 15M (el movimiento 15M)*  as the Spanish like to call it – is not led by the young only, It is about building an active civil society rather than changing regimes, and it isn’t about money but rather ethics! I talked to consultant in International Cooperation and Development, Alberto Hedo Delgado and screenwriter, Mario Cuesta Hernando, who are both actively participating in the 15M, to find out what “other” misconceptions I have about the revolution.

 “From Tahrir to Madrid to the world, world revolution,” says one of the banners raised by Spanish protesters referring to sit-ins organized by Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square. Do you think the Arab Spring will turn into a “European or Spanish Summer”? Why do you think so?

Mario: There have been slogans linking the Spanish Revolution to the Arab Spring, to the Greek fury in Syntagma Square, and the Icelandic demonstrators who refused to pay their bank debts… The difference is that in Spain (and so Europe) we demand economic changes (like protection of public services, stopping the international stock-market speculation and cutting the links of governments with the economic powers), while the Arab Spring is about politics and demanding democracy. I think the main link is that in a global economy, citizen movements are global too. With different demands, we look around and we think “this is the time”.

What do the two revolutions have in common?

Alberto: Both movements avoid (at least in principle) concrete ideologies. What unites people in both movements is the desire for change and the need to find a better form of government. Both movements are using social media to expand and take both national and international hold. Another common element in all the movements that have emerged this year is occupying a physical space (squares) as a symbol of taking over the power by the people.

Mario: Both [revolutions] have the impulse of the youth but involve people of every age and are supported by the middle class. All of them were unexpected in their strength and persistence. For me, persistence is the singularity of all these demonstrations.

Analysts say the Spanish revolution is about the power of the globalised industrialized corporations and their partnership with banks rather than democracy and politics. What do you think? If yes, how are you hoping to change this power relationship between banks and corporations?

Mario: We demand new economic ethics, but this can only be done through politics. I don’t expect banks and corporations to change their mentality, but I do expect the parliament to release laws that will force them to act ethically.

However, every person you ask from the 15M will give you a different perspective on what economic and politic changes he/she expects. Some people just expect stronger regulations for banks and stock exchange, others want to protect public services (Health, Education…), but there are anarchist tendencies demanding a complete change of the rules. I think all of us would agree on two things: we didn’t provoke this crisis, so we shouldn’t pay and suffer the consequences (that we already do); and we must do whatever it takes to avoid a crisis like this in the future.

How to make that happen? First, by encouraging people to express their anger. It is necessary to spread an individual “revolutionary state of mind” and the sense of responsibility that as citizens we should be aware, meet with those who share our concerns, and find tools for citizen participation other than voting.

Second, – and I think this is the main goal of the 15M till now- to control media’s agenda. The last decade journalists were supporters of political parties. Their agenda was the same as the parties’ agenda. The political section of [local] papers were like “kids’ fight” between the government and the opposition. “You did this”, “but you did it before”, “but you do it more often”. The political debate was extremely shallow. Now, whether journalist and politicians agree or disagree with our movement, but they talk about us daily, and that means they talk about our concerns, our demands, and they can’t do it without using our vocabulary: poverty, abuse, speculation, unemployment, justice… we pushed politics debate to a more adult level.

And finally [we are achieving change] through specific actions, some of which were already taken before the 15M, but the revolution has provided them with better logistics and higher numbers. For example, since the start of the financial crisis, thousands of families were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgages (200 families daily since 2007; 15.491 only in the first three months of 2011). When the police and the court secretary go to the house to evict the family, they find hundreds of people at the front door. Only riot police can move those people, and usually banks (who own the mortgage) prefer not have that bad publicity. So families can stay. It is working so well that we have caught media’s attention, and the parliament had to approve a law to protect families. Still, the [new] law was not good enough and we keep meeting at front doors. Persistence is working.

Protestors called for boycotting elections. Yet municipal elections witnessed a relatively high figure this year (65 per cent of Spanish voters). Why do you think is that? And what do you think of the elections’ result?

Alberto: The 15M is not an organized movement, with a visible head or leader to follow. Each person or small group choose the best form of protest they like. Media promoted the view that protesters were mainly calling for abstention. I doubt that the majority did so, since the election results showed that abstention was not significantly higher than it was in previous elections. Major political parties, large corporations, banks and mass media fostered the view that we are young “anti-systems”, we ignore politics and elections, just a bunch of anarchists protesting without any proposal. This is clearly an attempt to discredit a movement that is taking shape and gaining growing acceptance by society. But we will not stop. To quote one of our slogans: “we do not fear” and since many people have no jobs, no homes, no peace of mind or rest… we have plenty of time!

Spain has tended, except in very specific historical periods, towards conformism. This is finally starting to change. But still, there are many people with pessimistic attitudes, who will not vote. Many people who failed to vote cried the next day because the right party won almost everything. It was devastating. Now it is time to convince those who chose not to vote that in the next election they should play an active role and vote.

Mario: participating in a democracy is not only about voting every 4 years. You must get involved and participate. For example, I am against the weapon industry but my savings were in a bank that finances that industry. I was basically demonstrating in the evening against what I was financing in the morning, so I searched for another bank and I moved my savings.

Things don’t happen every 4 years. Suddenly a huge financial crisis happened and we were not prepared to react as sovereign citizens. Politicians didn’t think for a second that they had to ask before giving our taxes to banks, because in their mentality if we don’t like what they do we will vote differently in 4 years time… A decision so important should not have been taken without asking people in a referendum. Look at Iceland, they refused to pay. That can’t happen again, and the only way to avoid it is by having regular citizen participation.

Would a change of regime in Spain, anyway, help solve the economical crisis the country is facing today?

Alberto: The crisis is global, so a change of government and attitude will not change anything related to the international crisis. However, there are concrete proposals that assemblies of 15M made to mitigate the effects of the crisis like limiting bailouts to banks and financial institutions, promoting social spending and supporting families to encourage household spending and revive the economy, identifying the implications of the alleged Spanish debt and rebuilding the Spanish National Bank as a public entity with the capacity to control inflation and financial transactions.

It is clear that the implementation of such initiatives, will not be to the international markets and international financial institutions’ likening. Nor will it be to the likening of many countries that promote initiatives of public spending cuts. This would have consequences for Spain and the debt ratings by rating agencies, but the more important thing for Spanish society is to feel that the Spanish government is more concerned about the people it represents rather than external institutions who are only concerned about their own interests and about maintaining an economic and political system that is clearly unfair.

The Spanish revolution was described by journalist Matthew Campbell in The Australian as “Part new-age festival, part student sit-in” that “has no leadership, no party affiliation and no specific aims”. As participants in the protests, how do you see the Spanish revolution? What is it about?

Mario: Mr Campbell is right when he says “has no leadership, no party affiliation and no specific aims”. But I don’t consider it an obstacle, even more, I think it’s a big achievement, and part of the nature of the movement. We demand new politics, starting by a new way of doing politics. However it is not true that we don’t have specific aims, we do. But we have many. I like very much the distinction that Antonio Negri makes in his last book Multitude. He says revolution of the masses was a XX century movement, meanwhile now people behave as a multitude: a sum of individualities, a net.

Alberto: As I see it, the Spanish revolution is the struggle to overcome a political, social economic, immoral, unfair and violent system that is less democratic than they want us to believe. It is a struggle for the governments to begin to rule by and for the people and not by and for banks and international markets.

The movement is not made up of a few young students, there are all kinds of people: young and old, children, women, men … What unites us is a desire to recover our dignity, control of politics and ultimately to regain control over decisions that affect our daily lives.

Dubbed the “lost generation”, the Spanish youth was described as apolitical and passive. Yet, since the 15th of May, thousands of Spaniards took to the street to demand change. How is the current revolution changing the attitude and mentality of the Spanish youth?

Alberto:  After 40 years of repressive dictatorship, the arrival of democracy without promoting the mobilization of citizens led to conformity. It was as though we’ve gone as far as we could. This is not entirely true! now we can see that people are thinking. A revolution is not something that emerges one day, but it is an amalgam of emotions and feelings and need for change that has been brewing for a long time in the heads of people. They just had to overcome their fear to express themselves publicly.

When everything looks fine, as promoted by all political and economic institutions, you can only think that you’re lucky. During good times, if you say something is wrong, society rejects you and considers you extremist or maybe too pessimistic. This is why people have been quiet although they enjoy a supposedly guaranteed freedom of expression.

Mario:  Not only youth is supporting the movement. Mass media say it does, maybe because they love the label of “youth-revolutions” but that’s a terrible simplification and has been very painful for the 15M. I’m sure many old people who agree with our aims didn’t join because of that awful label. My neighbourhood-assembly had to make specific actions to break that image and involve everybody on the hood, regardless of their age. I can’t understand why some people think that “young” is more romantic.

The two activists stressed that they are not representatives of the 15M and that their views do not represent the views of all protestors.

* el movimiento 15M: the 15 M movement – refers to the first protest that marked the start of the Spanish revolution on May 15.

Bill of Rights

What does the Syrian constitution say about citizenship and how might this change?

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

With the escalation of the unrest in Syria and the accompanying surge in political dialogue, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the concept of citizenship.

In his book Guide to Citizenship, Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher, wrote that it is not enough to define citizenship as acquiring a nationality and enjoying the civil and political rights it offers. The definition includes active participation in public life.

“Freedom is the legal status quo of the citizen meaning that a citizen is free to choose between becoming an active citizen who participates in public life or…being a passive one,” Abbas wrote.

“Citizenship means the right of citizens to participate in all aspects of life,” Adel, a young theater critic who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Today. He explained that the concept combines rights and duties, but that in Syria, duties trump rights.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties.”

Until recently, broader duties and rights as citizens went ignored, he argued, because people were more concerned with their everyday struggles.

“Through chatting with friends or with the grocer, I have a perception that the majority of people here have a similar direction in life: to secure a living for their families,” he said. “What has been happening [since the unrest started] put this view to the test. Things are bigger than that.”

The outline
Lawyers interviewed by Syria Today argued that deficiencies in ensuring citizens’ rights in Syria come from flaws in the constitution, where the state defines its idea of citizenship and organises the relationship between the government and citizens. Others said that the constitution guarantees adequate rights to citizens; however, the problem lies in many laws which are, in fact, unconstitutional.

In his speech last month, President Bashar al-Assad said that the new media, parties and electoral laws will allow “citizens to participate in making decisions, monitor and denounce” activities of the state. Making this change, Assad said, might require revising the constitution or issuing a new one.

President Assad said that no changes will take place before September and if any do occur they will be based on what the national dialogue meetings, held in July, recommended. It called for the establishment of a committee to “offer suggestions” that would create a “contemporary and new” constitution that “ensures political collectivity, social justice, the sovereignty of the law and basic human rights”.

Contradictory rulings
To implement citizens’ rights, as outlined in the Syrian constitution, articles from the very same constitution must be changed and effectively applied.

People’s political and civil rights can be found in the first chapter of the constitution titled “Basic Principles”. It grants all citizens personal freedom, equality before the law, participation in the political, economic, social and cultural life of society, the freedom of faith, the right (and duty) to work, free obligatory education, the right of free and open expression, freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

However, articles like number 8 – which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country – contradict and effectively negate the right of citizens to participate in political life.

Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge and the manager of Syria Court, a legal website that covers human rights and other legal issues in Syria, said the constitution includes many contradictory articles. For example, it states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but another article says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

“Syrian women cannot pass down citizenship to their children, and they do not have the right of equal inheritance, or even [the right] to take independent decisions in many cases; like marriage, or travel,” Diala, a 27-year-old working in a private bank who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Syrian constitution states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but at the same time says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

Anwar al-Bouni, a lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies, said that problems like these come from laws that contradict the constitution.

“In the Syrian constitution, there is no discrimination between men and women, but discrimination exists in some laws like the nationality one [which prevents Syrian mothers from passing their nationality to their offspring],” Bouni said.

Recently, a committee was set up to study the draft bill about amending Article 3 of the Nationality Law, which includes granting nationality to the children of Syrian women married to non-Syrians.

Another measure that contradicts the notion of universal equality came in with the constitution of 1961, which was drafted following a military coup that ended three years of union between Egypt and Syria, when the Syrian republic was first defined as Arab. This remained unchanged.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties. Equality and people’s general liberties must be established by the constitution regardless of their religion or ethnicity.”

A new constitution, if amended or overhauled, should more clearly delineate citizens’ rights in order to prevent such contradictions in the future, he said.

“Individual liberties must be addressed by the constitution and should not be governed by laws because laws are subject to change, according to who is in power and are easy to play around with,” Maalouf explained. “The constitution is obligatory and is not easily changed.”

Challenges to change
“Changing the constitution alone is not enough. There should be a new constitution,” the veteran lawyer Bouni said.

According to Bouni, the power of the country’s constitutional court is restricted. It is supposed to be able to strike down unconstitutional laws. But the president, according to the constitution, assigns the members of the constitutional court to four-year posts, limiting the court’s independence. Another article in the constitution states that only the Syrian president or a quarter of the parliament can challenge unconstitutional laws.

As a result, the system is crippled, Bouni added.

“Obviously, they [members of parliament] are not going to issue unconstitutional laws and then refer them to court. Consequently, there are hundreds of unconstitutional laws in Syria and no one can challenge them,” he explained. “Since the establishment of the constitutional court not a single Syrian law has been challenged as unconstitutional.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today

We used only first names for interviewees who wished to remain anonymous.

Syrian Constitution Stuck in the Past

The Syrian constitution is out of date with how Syria has changed in the last four decades since it was issued.

The current constitution has many articles in common with the series of constitutions drafted since the French left Syria in 1946. In a report published on the Damascus Center of Theoretical Studies and Human Rights, Syrian researcher Jan Habbash wrote that it was the previous 1958 and 1964 Syrian constitutions, for example, that introduced the one party political system in Syria. The constitution of 1950, on the other hand, first restricted presidency to Muslim Syrians after the French mandate.

Written in 1973, the current Syrian constitution is out of date with how Syria has changed in the last four decades, according to Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge. Syria’s 10th Five-Year Plan called for an open, social-market economy while the constitution clearly states that the country’s economic policy should be socialist. References to “socialism” and the “socialist Ba’ath party” occur 25 times in the first few pages of the constitution.

“The Baath party’s ideology defines all the articles of the constitution. Therefore, there is no use in amending the constitution by the Baath party. Other expertise in the country must be involved too.”

Maalouf said in reality the concept of citizenship rests on the political system of the state. The general concept of citizenship, he said, is stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but in reality this concept relies on the political systems of socialism or capitalism.

Ahmed Haj Suleiman, from the parliamentary Constitutional and Legislative Committee said in an interview with state television that the constitution should be read and discussed as a whole, because all articles are related to each other.

Legal experts like veteran lawyer Anwar al-Bouni and Maalouf say that country’s political and legal authorities should be involved in writing a new constitution.

“Controversy is not limited to article number 8 [the article which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country] which was written under exceptional circumstances. The Baath party’s ideology defines all the articles of the constitution,” Maalouf said. “Therefore, there is no use in amending the constitution by the Baath party. Other expertise in the country must be involved too.”

They also call for the separation of power between the legislature, executive and judicial authorities, to protect the rights of Syrians citizens.

“I haven’t read the constitution, thus I do not know what should be changed. However, everyone is talking about it now, and specifically Article 8,” Majd al-Hamwi, a 22-year-old fine arts student in Damascus said. “What I know is that when people call for political pluralism and setting a certain presidential term, it is not because of a certain person or a certain party but because they want to participate,” he said.

This is a longer version of the text I published together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun as a box to accompany our story “Bill of Rights” in Syria Today magazine.

Let’s Take This Online

Is Syria’s new online political debate turning nasty?

Syrian online political debate - Caricature by Ala Rustom

Syrian online political debate – Caricature by Ala Rustom

In Syria, Facebook is getting political. Just a few months ago, logging on to the then-blocked social-networking site to write about your day at work, a film you saw or a romantic break-up meant using proxies to bypass the government’s internet security.

Changing netscape

Now that Facebook is freely accessible, Syrians are regularly using it to express their political views. Discussing politics used to be a major taboo in Syria. But since the revolution began in mid-March, many young Syrians are openly discussing politics online as well as in the street for the first time. But that has not been a wholly positive change. Syrian Facebook users living both in Syria and abroad said that what began as a forum for political discussion quickly turned into a shouting match. Users started blocking and in some cases even reporting their ‘friends’ accounts to Facebook because of their political views. Some are going as far as calling those who disagree with their views traitors and calling for their execution. “The discussions I’m seeing on Facebook are depressing and dangerous,” Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher in cultural issues, said. “People are no longer discussing their opponents’ argument but their morals.” He believes that abandoning logical argument and attacking the moral veracity of people is the most dangerous element of what is happening on Facebook today. “It is important that discourse remains interactive,” Abbas added. “It’s depressing as this moment requires a high level of awareness and selflessness and to focus our efforts on the future of Syria.” Syrians often post links or comments about sensitive topics online, which can cause heated exchanges and even lead to the break-up of otherwise solid friendships. This is what happened to Mohammed Ghazi, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering trainee. “Sometimes my friends post things on Facebook or Twitter that are very different from what I know they think,” Ghazi said. “I posted a video of a pro-government demonstration and several of my friends deleted me after we argued about it.” Syrian Facebook users first started changing their profile pictures to reflect their political stance during the revolution against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Since March 15 many now reflect their views on domestic politics. Plain black images are used to signify mourning for those who were killed, while pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and illustrations of inter-religious and ethnic solidarity are also popular. Syrian users have also established hundreds of ‘groups’ to promote their political views. “I was constantly being added by friends — without my permission — to groups in support or against the demonstrations taking place now in Syria,” a young Syrian Facebook user, who requested anonymity, said.

Virtual ‘warlords’

As the unrest escalates, conflict between pro-government Facebook users and the opposition is growing more aggressive, forcing other users to take sides or be criticised by both. “If you criticise the demonstrators then you are called a coward and if you criticise the regime you become a traitor – this is depressing,” the young Syrian said. “In the past, I had to bypass internet security to access my Facebook account to speak my mind because the website was blocked. Now that it is no longer banned and easy to access, I’ve deactivated my account because I couldn’t take all the fighting and accusations anymore.” Bassam al-Kadi, founder of Syrian Women’s Observatory, who has been attacked online by both pro-and anti-government figures, believes that instead of discussing the current revolution in Syria, Facebook is being used to promote political propaganda and to mobilise people. “Facebook today resembles a warfront rather than a political platform. Political participation means discussing solutions, the balance of forces, etcetera, and not throwing accusations at each other,” Kadi said. “Facebook users are acting now like ‘warlords’ who, instead of addressing people’s minds, speak to their emotions and polarise them.” “[Facebook users] don’t represent the whole of Syrian society but they do reflect part of the Syrian reality today,” Hassan Abbas said. According to Marwan Kabalan, a politics professor at the University of Damascus’s faculty of political science, the conflict is the result of decades-old policies of exclusion and marginalisation. Since the seventies, young Syrians could not actively participate in their country’s internal politics. The one-party system in Syria and the lack of independent political institutions and liberties deprived them of the means to do so. Young Syrians interviewed by Syria Today said that expressing their views on politics used to equal “trouble”. They believed that leading an active political life was “dangerous” and “pointless” since they “couldn’t change anything anyway”. “Our generation was raised to believe that politics, religion and sex are three major taboos that should never be broken,” Zeina Qahwaji, a 25-year-old Syrian living in Damascus, said. Abbas added that, though politically inactive, young Syrians have deep political awareness. “When you can’t express your political awareness, you try to express it through art or religion or simply pack up and leave the country,” he said. Following the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, however, some young Syrians’ attitudes towards politics changed. “What I saw in Egypt gave me hope that young people can have a say. I saw it happening. It is possible!” a young engineer in his thirties, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “It is no longer possible to be a viewer. Whether you are pro or against [the government], you have to take a stance,” Mohammad Ghannam, a 32-year-old engineer living in Damascus, said. According to Kabalan, the lack of the traditional means of political participation in Syria, such as political parties, cultural clubs and other organisations, has led young Syrians to find other ways to voice their political views, mainly through social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter as well as by marching in the street.

Reform needed

Establishing new parties that truly reflect the aspirations of the young generation along with an independent judicial system and a new media law that allows freedom of expression and transparency are also crucial to help the youth effectively participate in the country’s politics and push economic reform, Kabalan said. “You cannot have a more competitive economic life if you do not have a more competitive political life,” he added. The new Prime Minister Adel Safar on May 1 promised political reform. He said it is part of a comprehensive package of reforms that the government is preparing in the coming weeks. A committee responsible for issuing new laws regulating parties and elections is also going to be formed “to ensure a more effective role for parties in society”, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud later said. Young Syrians want political change. “I never had the chance to choose before. I didn’t choose my religion, my name and it’s the same with politics. I had to repeat the Ba’ath slogans as a student at school. I would like to have other choices as well,” Qahwaji said. Since March 15, Syria has undergone political and social changes that cannot be easily reversed. “When you know that you have more political rights and you are able to express them, it is difficult to reverse gear and go back,” Kabalan said. “Let us not fear the side effects that might come with granting political rights to the young generation.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today magazine.

You can download here a pdf version of Lets take this online