A woman during a March 2012 protest in New York City against the conflict in Syria.
A woman during a March 2012 protest in New York City against the conflict in Syria.

Credit: asterix611on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)–“The seemingly inexperienced Qubeysi girl stood helpless as Miss Munira ranted at her with accusations and insults for accessing the Internet and surfing through some websites. The girl’s mother, who curled up in shame in one corner of the room, could not defend her daughter either or justify ‘her crime’.”

The passage comes from a message on Facebook posted by a former member of the Qubeysiat, a closed, all-female Islamic movement in Syria that is credited with reviving Islamic education for girls and — in a piece of careful political footwork — staying on the good side of President Bashar Al-Assad.

The Miss Munira in the excerpt is Munira al-Qubeysi, the group’s 80-year-old leading light and founder.

Al-Qubeysi ranks No. 21 on the Muslim 500, an index compiled by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, headquartered in Amman, Jordan, which credits her as “the head of the largest women-only Islamic movement in the world.”

Members of her group study the Quran and memorize six major collections of the hadith (sayings of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed).

The center’s website says al-Qubeysi runs roughly 80 schools in Damascus, with more than 75,000 students, or trainees.

Since the outbreak of the revolution two years ago, however, al-Qubeysi’s personal power and stature has been strained by a risky public pledge of allegiance she made to the Assad regime.

One member who left the group said dozens of members inside Syria have defected.

Offshoot groups of her followers outside the country–who owe nothing to Assad–are liable to break off to join the revolutionary cause. The group is also said to have lost favor among Sunni Islamist groups within the anti-regime movement.

Killing Freedom, Reason

Sabah Hallak, who recently moved from Syria to Lebanon, is a secular women’s rights activist with personal connections to members of the Qubeysi movement. She is highly critical of the organization.

“The Qubeysi movement kills the freedom of the mind and the sense of reason, pushing its members to come under its full control,” Hallak said during an interview in Syria with Women’s eNews. “It interferes with the choices, personal life and public activities of each and every woman within the movement; pulls them away from any form of technology; and fosters the female stereotype as merely a forbidden body.”

Hallak added, “I have listened to their speeches at weddings and funerals and I can say that the movement has been able to expand locally, regionally and globally under the patronage of the regime and the approval of leading religious figures.”

One such leading figure was Sheikh Al-Bouti, a Sunni cleric allied with the Assad regime who was killed last month in a suicide bombing that shook Syria’s capital, Damascus.

Al-Qubeysi’s organization operated for a long time in secret, but since 2006 it was legally permitted to host classes and meetings in mosques at a time when other Islamist groups and opposition parties were jailed and tortured.

The United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed during the conflict in Syria, which has fanned sectarian tensions across the Middle East and left the international community at a loss.

Different Backers

Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect–an offshoot of Shia Islam, which is practiced in Iran–has the support of Russia and Iran. The rebels, who are in large part Sunni, are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The Qubeysiat follow traditional Sunni practice and the Shafi’i school of thought, according to the website of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. Damascus is the center of the secretive revivalist movement although member groups have sprouted in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. Hallak said the movement has also reached as far as Geneva and the United States.

In a recent interview, one former member who defected six months ago and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the group is undergoing major loyalist-revolutionary divisions.

“The Qubeysi movement abroad is giving out clear signals to the leaders of the revolutions that women within the Syrian group feel embarrassed and obliged to humor the regime at this stage to avoid revenge,” the former member said.

She added that as the revolution gained ground, some members rebelled against the Qubeysi movement’s restrictions on any participation in public life or protests against the regime.

“Miss Munira took very strict measures against that,” she said. “Women suspected of joining anti-regime protests were punished in a variety of ways. Some were banned from prayer circles, slandered, called sluts, threatened with expulsion and even reported to the security forces . . . But still this did not prevent many sisters from announcing their defection.”