Page last updated at 01:25 GMT, Saturday, 28 November 2009

Syrian Islamic revival has woman's touch

Syrian woman praying in the Omayyad mosque in Damascus
Women's groups kept more conservative Islam alive during a long clampdown

By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

Syria appears to be undergoing a religious revival, most visible in the growing numbers of women wearing the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, and in part led by conservative women preachers.

The most influential conservative female religious figure in Syria, 70-year-old Munira Qubaisia, is said to have at least 75,000 followers, and they are growing in number.

Her preachers, known as Anseh, tend to come from the educated upper classes. They arrive at their meetings in expensive black cars, well dressed and well spoken, with an air of authority that leaves audiences spellbound.

Veiled women at demonstration in Dascus
Some religious women see the hijab, or headscarf, as a symbol of power

"They helped me; they made me feel more confident. I managed to walk in the streets without fear of men surrounding me and I can even tell people that they are doing wrong," says Umm Muhammad, a former Qubaisia devotee.

Her husband, however, was not happy with the situation.

"I don't mind her going out and doing something useful, but she started to change and wanted me to change as well," says Abu Muhammad, who works as a taxi driver.

A religious conservative in his mid-40s, he says that when his wife joined the Qubaisiat she became more rigid and focused on what he considered to be superstitious details rather than established tradition.

"I agree," says Um Muhammad, who has since left the group. "I admired the way they work and help people in the community but I couldn't stand the way they want to control our minds and decide for us what is good and what is bad. If you violate the rules and don't obey the order of the Anseh, it is considered blasphemy."

Out in the open

In the early 1980s, under former President Hafiz al-Assad, clashes erupted between the ruling socialist Baath Party and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, who were attempting a coup against the regime.

A fierce battle in Hama, north of Damascus, resulted in a reported 30,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and a crackdown on radical Islam started soon afterwards, with mosques being put under tight control.

The Qubaisiat have realised they cannot keep going with a rigid ideology. They have to be flexible to have more followers and that's what they are doing
Asmaa Kiftaro
Syrian commentator

President Assad fostered a kind of moderate "government-sanctioned" Islam, allowing the building of more mosques and more religious schools - and more preaching from these official pulpits.

Unexpectedly, this created an opportunity for women preachers - who were excluded from the public space - to give religious teaching behind closed doors, and many of them kept alive more radical and conservative strands of Islam.

Under Mr Assad's son, President Bashar al-Assad, women, including more conservative voices, have come out into the open to teach in mosques and religious schools.

'They really care'

Asmaa Kiftaro, a religious activist and commentator, believes that the Qubaisiat now advocate more flexibility than in the past.

"They have realised they cannot keep going with a rigid ideology. They have to be flexible to have more followers and that's what they are doing," she says.

Ms Kiftaro's 16-year-old daughter Hanan attends Qubaisiat lectures and insists it is her choice whether to follow their prescriptive ways.

"I like them, they really care about every girl and make her feel important," Hanan says.

"But for me I take what I believe is right to do. I think God created us to enjoy life and not to be hard. I won't be bad if I wear jeans so I don't care if they shout at me when I do things they don't like."

Hanan herself is teaching younger children.

"They use girl teachers who are my age, 14 and above. I used to teach them the Koran and other things. You feel that you can do something for your society, for the girls that you can help in Islam, and that made me really happy."

Syrians pride themselves on the diversity and tolerant nature of their society. Yet some see that this is changing.

Kinana Rukbi, a graphic designer with strongly secular views, sees this religious revival as the unwelcome result of social and economic frustrations.

"It is dangerous to Syrian society, especially as there is no balancing trend. Only one side is active, the religious one, but secular people are not active at all."

Ms Rukbi wants secular Syrians to engage with the masses just like the Qubaisiat have done, "not to stay distanced from them".

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