The Girls of Al-Tall: Weaving Ribbons and Freedom
The town of Al-Tall, in the countryside of Damascus, is famous for its highly educated inhabitants and its active women groups, despite the traditional nature of the community. In that context we highlight the story of the eight ladies of Al-Tall and their contributions to the Syrian uprising.
The town joined its Syrian counterparts in demonstrations early on in the uprising. The first such protests broke out after Friday prayers on March 25, 2011, with a significant participation of women, more than 150 according to activists.
After the protest, where a man was critically injured, the city was placed under severe pressure from the security forces including many arrests and with snipers stationed on high buildings. The threat of a massacre did not deter the population and a second protest broke out the very next week, and consequently more arrests. This atmosphere prevailed until the Syrian Army entered the town, and demonstrations turned into “flying protests” of under two minutes that Syrians have resourced to in order to avoid crackdown by the authorities.
With the advent of organized activism in the town, a group of eight young women decided to start a group called “Women revolutionaries of the Tall of Freedom.” The group’s first act was to start a silent march in August 2011 where they walked with tied hands and muzzled mouths, and with green ribbons flying from their arms. The group marched through the main boulevard in the city until they reached Al-Zahraa hospital where they dropped their banners.
The young women’s activities included silent sit-ins and leaflet distribution in the main streets of the town. Their signature was the green ribbons around their wrists, and around the leaflets which represents their rejection of sectarianism. Their pamphlets also reflected this conviction with slogans about freedom, national unity and anti-militarization and violence. The ladies, whose real identities were kept secret, soon became famous around the town as the “girls with the green ribbons.”
The group also devised ways to connect the local population to the protest movement by means of assimilating it into the life of the town. So in the season of olives, the group used “wedding invitations, much similar to the ones used by local families, as invitations to protests, coupled with an olive branch,” as recounted by a group member.
The women organized their work from the beginning along three weekly activities: one day for protests, one day for pamphlets and one day for graffiti. The group also took part in national campaigns like Days of Freedom, Freedom Money, We are the Moral Alternative and We were Born to Live, to name but a few. Their activities also included painting all the major squares in the city with red, and distributing pamphlets in solidarity with other towns and detainees. The group also received help from individual activists with varied political and religious backgrounds.
By mid-2012 the group had grown to include male activists, and so the founders decided to change the name into “Our Streets”. Their activities continued even after armed opposition groups took over the city and announced its liberation from regime forces. In response to that the young women, accompanied by two young men, hung banners with the names of detainees on the central post office building, to emphasize the importance of continuing the peaceful resistance.
A week after al-Tall was announced as liberated, the regime began a large bombardment campaign. The severity of the shelling forced many of the residents, including members from the group, to seek shelter elsewhere. But their forced exile didn’t last long, and the women went back to the city two months later, after it was once again taken over by regime forces. Nevertheless, the general atmosphere in the town was much more tense and charged with fear, so the activists decided to go underground with another different name. And thus was the birth of “Grain of Wheat”. According to one of the activists, “the name came as tribute to the town which is famous for its wheat produce, and as tribute to the feminine influence in the group as the word ‘grain’ in Arabic is a feminine noun.” The group’s first activity after coming back was to distribute sweets with the slogans: “In deference to our martyrs, we have no Eid”.
Al-Tall, unlike many other Syrian towns did not witness an outright takeover of radical Islamist currents, and Islamic flags were raised side by side with the revolution flag. But even the early signs of radicalization spurned the women of the group into protest. They organized a silent march to the city center. The marchers carried banners of orange and blue that denounced sectarianism and promoted peace: “Power to the people, not religion”, “No to guns and no to abayas, we want our beautiful citizenry”, “This is a popular revolution, not an Islamic one”. As the protest was approaching the main mosque, banners were hung on the mosque’s entrance, the word “Freedom” was lit on the floor, and the marchers sang Sayyed Darwish’s classic song, “Build your palaces over our factories.”
The story of these ladies is part and parcel of the greater Syrian tragedy. A nonviolent group with very little funding and external support that defied both the regime, and its radical counterparts through civil and nonviolent means.