The Raqqa woman who faced the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
School teacher Suad Nofal was among the first demonstrators to take to the streets in Raqqa, at the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011. She also took part in the first demonstrations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group that has taken over the areas free of regime control and imposed its own agendas on the population. When activists in Raqqa decided that gathering in front of the ISIS headquarters was too dangerous, Nofal decided to protest alone, becoming a one-woman demonstration and a symbol of the Syrian uprising.
The one-woman demonstration
Nofal, who majored in Education in 2006, has gone through her own personal revolutionary process since the beginning of the uprising. She has gone from facing the regime to dealing with extremist groups trying to profit from the power vacuum, as well as having to face her own family, who did not agree with her activism.
When asked by Syria Untold about how her activism has affected her family, Nofal said: “My family has told me to stop and they say they will not forgive me if something happens to them. Of course I am worried about this, but Syria needs us all now. How can we abandon our country when it needs us the most?”
She seems determined not to abandon it, and continues to raise her home-made banners both in front of the ISIS headquarters and through the streets and markets of Raqqa. Her very critical and straightforward messages include “Our revolution was triggered by honorable people, and it is being stolen by thieves”, “Release all detainees”, and “Where were you when the crimes of Ghouta happened? Sleeping in your palaces?” (Ghouta is an area in the outskirts of Damascus whose population suffered chemical weapons attacks in August 2013, which caused the death of hundreds of civilians, many of them children).
Other banners send a clear message to those using religion to oppress people:
“Muslims spilling the blood of Muslims are sinners”, “Our enemy is the criminal regime, not the people”, and “Don’t talk so much about religion. Show us your religion through your decency, your compassion and your good deeds.”
When asked about ISIS, she insists that these groups are no different from the Assad regime that they had to endure for so long. “They burn churches, shoot at people, and impose their decisions on the population, how is that different from the regime?”
“I don’t want to leave my city”
As previously reported on Syria Untold, ISIS has engaged in raising the group’s black flag to replace the popular revolution flag in demonstrations, imposing sectarian slogans, desecrating Christian saints’ graves and destroying churches and cultural symbols such as the statue of poet and philosopher Abul Alaa al-Maarri, known for denouncing religious superstition and dogmatism. This has created outrage among activists, who saw their revolution being hijacked by groups that are far from representing the diversity of their country and the population´s demands.
Standing up to ISIS has caused Nofal to be the subject of constant attack and threats. She was even shot at in front of the ISIS headquarters, an episode that she managed to survive with the help of her sister.
“No matter what happens, I want to stay. I want to stay in my city, I don’t want others to take over it. Online activism is good, but there is work that has to be done on the ground, and some of us have to stay to do it.”
Nofal’s courage has inspired others and ignited solidarity with the “one-woman demonstration” from all over the country, especially from other women. Activist Mayan Atassi wrote: “Today I really needed this feminine source of strength and courage. I wish you the best, Suad Nofal!”
Nofal holds on to her banners, full of messages, colors and cartoons, as a reminder of the Syrian struggle, and her own. “These banners have kept me company, they have given me strength. They remind me why it is important to keep doing what we are doing. Until we are free.”