Four brides in flowing white gowns, astonished shopkeepers and passers-by in the Syrian capital on November 21 as they marched through the heart of the Medhat Pasha bazar. They held a stoplight-red banner reading: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the civil society declares a halt to all military operations in Syria.”
The young women walking resolutely down the cobblestone streets of the ancient covered bazar — as warplanes dropped bombs over the outskirts of Damascus — were Rima Dali, Rua Jaafar, and sisters Kinda and Lubna Al-Zaour.
After months of fighting between Syrian troops and rebels, many outside observers have forgotten the peaceful roots of the uprising, or are unaware of that weekly protests and civil activism continue to this day.
With the violence overshadowing their voices, peaceful activists have been working to foster new strategies for dissent, creating new campaigns to reach out to all segments of society.
But in the tightly controlled heart of the capital, such protest is often limited to social media campaigns, graffiti and revolutionary press by activists acting anonymously, knowing they can easily be imprisoned for their activities.
Because of the risks of revealing ones identity, it came as a shock to onlookers and activists alike that four women would make such a public display.
In videos (here and here) released by the movement’s coordinators, the women can be seen walking silently through the long bazar. The observers break into applause at the sight, a breath of fresh air in a time of darkness.
The women went away calmly when the security forces — momentarily thrown off guard — arrested them 20 minutes later. The organisers had decided in advance not to intervene, for everyone’s safety.
The arrest of the young women and the media campaign that followed the protest, led to an outpouring of support from fellow Syrian activists.
On the Facebook group of the campaign, Syria belongs to all of us, several women posted photos of themselves dressed as brides in solidarity with the protesters, and the message against violence.
“Go, civil resistance, go! One Syria, for all,” read one statement beneath a picture of the author dressed in a wedding dress and a keffiyeh scarf.
“Solidarity for the civil resistance in Syria. Women of the Brides of Peace march — you do not stand alone,” read another.
A message for whom?
Syrian activists were united in calling for the release of the protesters, but some also questioned the objectives and the target audience.
“I do thank these girls for their courage and their great intentions of unifying Syrians but we also need to think about our priorities and effectiveness,” said Rua, a social activist.
“But I don’t understand exactly what they are calling for. If it is a call to stop military operations, we have to ask if that is now realistic,” she said. “At this point, activists need to reach out to marginalised groups in order to fight rising sectarianism.”
The responses to the protests were “divided, like everything it is divided,” said Sham, one of the protest supporters, adding: “There are activists from rebel areas that accepted the idea and there are people who think it is foolish.”
But Damascus activist Mohammad, another supporter of the march, insisted that Syrians and others must know “that the civil movement is not dead.”
“It is an important message to reach the two (warring) parties that not all the people are with a military solution. Remember, people are afraid that Damascus will be destroyed, like what happened in Aleppo,” said the university student.
The protest, he added, was directed at those who are pro-revolution, but who have disassociated themselves because of the violence.
“Our primary goal is clear from the name of the group: Syria belongs to all of us,” said Sham.
“The most important thing is to reach the ordinary people — for them to like it or be surprised by it or feel shocked because it is something different,” she said.
“The key is that it has provoked disagreement, and this is where you find dialogue.”