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Volume 22, Number 2March/April 1971

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The Arab Women—at war

Written by Anne Turner Bruno
Photographed by Katrina Thomas

In some parts of the Middle East, Arab women are not only on the move, but on the march. This is particularly true in Jordan, where newly emancipated refugee girls in their teens and early twenties are joining commando groups in increasing numbers, despite opposition from hesitant parents, who see problems in the inescapably close association with men.

The idea of girl guerrillas, of course, is not especially attractive in the West, which often recoils from both commando tactics and the expressed Marxist sympathies of some groups. Yet they do exist and are a part of the Arab woman's story. As one reporter said, "It is not a question of approving or disapproving, of glorifying or criticizing. It is simply a fact. To leave the female commando out of the Arab woman's story would be like leaving Florence Nightingale out of the history of nursing."

Not much is known about the girl guerrillas except that in addition to two weeks small arms training in the hills of Jordan, they usually work in refugee camps building support for an active resistance movement. Their numbers are small, but—like their sisters who fought the French in Algeria a decade ago—their influence on girls everywhere in the Arab world is great. They are mostly young and determined. Those photographed and interviewed by colleague Katsy Thomas were as young as 17 and no older than 21 and had no intention of giving up the battle until it is over. As a girl named Khalida (no last names are given out) said, "Since I was a child. it was said we would go back to where my people lived for thousands of years. But as I grew older I realized that this was only a dream unless I was prepared to do something about it."

In Syria the girls march to a more formal cadence. For 14 years military training has been mandatory for girls and boys in the last three years of secondary school who are usually between 16 and 19 years of age and live in the city areas. Called "futuwa," (youth groups) the girls, wearing khaki-colored tapered pants and belted tunics, take an hour's training three days a week, during which they learn to march, shoot, dismantle repair rifles and machine guns—mostly Czech and Russian—treat wounds, crawl under barbed wire under fire, throw hand grenades and use bayonets—all under the tutelage of reputedly stern male drill sergeants. After graduation they also spend three weeks in camp, are on call for future service and may even join the militia.

Not all the girls and not many of their parents are enthusiastic about such training. The girls find the uniforms unfeminine and the families are uneasy at seeing their daughters marching in public in the tight head scarf that is Syria's transitional substitute for the disappearing veil.

Beyond insisting on all-female classes, however, the parents can't do much about it. Without the completed certificate of the military course, girls cannot graduate from secondary school and their level of performance helps determine future jobs, most of which are controlled by the government.

Military training for girls began in Syria in 1956 during the Suez crisis, partly because only 45 percent of Syria's six million people are men. (Egypt, with its population surplus, has not yet had to call on women.) Girls then familiarized themselves with weapons and took first aid training. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the training took on a political tone as government officials of Syria, particularly the People's Organization of the Women's Union, began to demand greater participation in social and political activities in line with the Baathist belief that a women's role should include helping build the nation. "It is considered impossible that society today builds only on men," officials insist.

This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the March/April 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1971 images.