AL-MAADAMIYA, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)– When the uprising erupted 10 months ago, Nour and three of her friends decided that women should be part of the resistance in this flashpoint town not far from the capital of Damascus.

"At the beginning of the uprising, we were only a few women," says Nour, a 22-year-old university student. "Now we are hundreds."

Nour’s real name and that of the author are being withheld to protect them from the crackdown by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The military is intensifying a campaign against deserters in the outskirts of Damascus and violence across the country has killed more than 100 Syrians in the past two days alone, according to a tally by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog. The United Nations last week admitted it is struggling to keep up with fatalities. But it calculates that since the start of the uprising in March, the crackdown has claimed more than 5,400 Syrian lives, the vast majority of them civilians.

Nour continues to recruit, going door-to-door and meeting women of different ages and occupations. Her focus is on other university students for their comparatively greater physical strength and awareness, and their potential to persuade others to join.

It’s not an easy assignment in a place as socially conservative as Al-Maadamiya.

Damascus may be less than five miles away, but for women here it’s far from the relative autonomy of the capital city where women, with or without headscarves, freely move around the streets, souks and cafes. Here, by contrast, women risk harassment for going out alone or without a headscarf.

‘We Come Out Stronger’

Many men, Nour says, have forbidden her and her allies from visiting their homes and trying to talk to women within. "They even called us names and tried hurting us so we would give up. But every time we face these slanders, we come out stronger and more determined to pursue our goals."

She says that more women are joining and finding ways to help each day. "Some prepare demonstration signs. Others take charge of the communication among group members. We are also strongly involved in our movement’s exposure and communication tools, like Facebook. And we also provide special medical care to demonstrators who get injured during the protests."

When a demonstrator is seized by security forces, some women tend to the detainee’s families by providing them with everything from food, rent and baby formula to contacts with lawyers.

Local activists estimate that hundreds in the area have been detained. Tight security measures mean the circumstances of arrest and activities at the detention centers are shrouded in secrecy.

For one 40-year-old lawyer, the high death toll of people in her community has only fueled her resolve. "I wanted to join protests after paying condolence visits to the areas that have a lost a high number of martyrs in the demonstrations," says the woman, who doesn’t want to be identified for safety reasons.

Nour believes that the resistance marks a new era for Syrians in general and women in particular. Across all the regions, women have raised the same flag. Alongside male counterparts they have shouted the same demands: freedom, democracy and peace.

Facing Negative Scenarios

The government has consistently blamed the unrest on foreign-backed conspiracies, armed groups and terrorists. In the aftermath of December suicide bombings in Damascus that raises the specter of Al-Qaeda and a particularly negative scenario for women in Syria, where a moderate form of Islam treats women liberally compared to the fundamentalism of a society such as Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive.

According to regime loyalists, if Islamists take power–following the example of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia –religious movements could push the country in a fundamentalist direction. Staged confessions of detainees on state television–where alleged perpetrators of violence have an Islamic appearance and express religious ideas–bolster that argument.

Nour brushes off the idea that the opposition in Syria represents a religiously inspired movement that could shift the society toward greater harassment and repression of women. "Generally speaking, we are not thinking about the coming phase," she says. "The priority today is to change this regime."

The possibility that women could be excluded or banished in the future by the leaders of the revolt, as has been the experience of women in other countries of the region, strikes her as remote.

"So far, there are no signs indicating it. On the contrary, men are giving us protection during the demonstrations and there have been no religious fatwas or instructions telling us to go home. My colleagues and I are confident that we have the power to take part in shaping the future for women in Syria."

Some women say they are still too afraid to join the protesters.

"First, there is the risk of arrest, which frightens me and would bring shame to my family," says a 39-year-old social worker. "And second there is risk of enduring violence at the hand of the regime’s security forces."

"I am sometimes disappointed with the crippling fear in women’s hearts," says Nour. "I try to push them to take action. Some of them try to discourage me by telling me that what I’m doing is dangerous, and that a woman should be at home and not on the street with men. But I am getting used to this type of thinking and I always try to excuse them. They’ve suffered so much oppression and cruelty from the regime and the society alike; and that’s why this fear is so entrenched in everyone’s heart, not only women’s."

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The writer is a Syrian who is adopting a pseudonym for personal-safety reasons.

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