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The Women of Raqqa Are Rebuilding Their Future

Four years since Raqqa was liberated from ISIS, women are playing a leading role in rebuilding the Syrian city. Their activism shows that socialist feminism isn’t just about gender parity in top jobs — it’s about women taking control of their own lives.

A young woman in Raqqa, northeastern Syria. (Shot from Benedetta Argentieri's Blooming in the Desert, permission granted)

No one in northeastern Syria thought Raqqa would start to repopulate itself so quickly. Back in October 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) marched into the city and declared it free from jihadists. Yet Raqqa’s liberation had come at a terrible cost. More than 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed. The US-led coalition against ISIS dropped bombs relentlessly for four months, while ISIS left thousands of booby traps behind — making every building left standing a hazard for anyone who dared enter.

There are signs of the war almost everywhere in the city, and many residents prefer not to talk about what they had to endure during ISIS occupation. Yet amid the destruction and pain, a new hope started blooming in Raqqa.

The second-largest city in this corner of the country is now self-governing, as part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. And the major change — apart from the restoration of basic democratic freedoms — is the role that women now play in politics.

Blooming in the Desert is a short documentary telling the stories of Arab women taking new roles in society, pushing the traditional and conventional limit of what women were allowed in society, and building a new future for their city.

“I never imagined participating in an administration for women, or working in an administrative or political position, or in any other field, other than being a housewife. To be honest, this is like a dream that I could not even imagine having,” says fifty-six-year-old Maryam Ibrahim, one of three women director Benedetta Argentieri followed through January 2020 for the film.

Being a Woman in Raqqa

Maryam speaks calmly, looking straight at the camera. There is an intimate feeling to her whole interview — as if it were a private conversation, interrupted by someone entering through the door. Her voice immediately immerses us in events, without our having to see them; such is the power of her evocative words.

Maryam lived, or rather survived, under ISIS rule in Raqqa — a time she remembers as the darkest years of her life. “Women in Raqqa were already suffering from domestic slavery, outdated traditions, and patriarchal culture, but when [ISIS] took the city, they were even deprived of their basic human rights,” she recalls. In fact, even prior to ISIS, the Ba’ath regime excluded women from public life. With Caliphate rule, the oppressive situation worsened so much that women could only leave their houses if wearing the burka, covering their faces, eyes, and hands.

The event that most traumatized her came after the ISIS invasion of Sinjar (northern Iraq) and the genocide of the Yazidi population in 2014. Maryam decided to break the rules and leave her house to go to the banks of the river Euphrates for a picnic with her children. In so doing, she risked being whipped. When she saw an ISIS car stopping at the bridge checkpoint high above the river, a woman suddenly jumped out and ran to the railing before throwing herself into the water. Maryam, shocked, had to hush her screaming children so they wouldn’t be caught, while a second woman in the car was caught by ISIS members just before she could commit suicide, too. Maryam later found out that the women were two of the thousands of Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS members and sold into Raqqa’s sexual slavery market.

Under the murderous regime of the so-called Islamic State, Maryam had no choice but to leave Raqqa in summer 2017. She fled to the nearby city of Ain Issa, where she met and joined the movement of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. This bottom-up democratic system currently governs nearly one-third of Syria, after first being set up in the Rojava region in 2012 as a result of the Kurdish movement’s struggles. Its system of democratic confederalism is based not on the nation-state but on the autonomy and cooperation of communities, the defense of religious diversity, social ecology, and women’s freedom.

Maryam made activism in the movement her own — and when the SDF liberated her city, she came back to Raqqa to continue the struggle. She proceeded to organize women, starting locally and then, with the birth of the women’s movement in Raqqa, extending these efforts to neighboring areas.

By the time we meet her, Maryam has been working for three years in Raqqa’s Women’s Administration — but her struggle for women’s rights goes beyond the institutional level. In the documentary, we follow her life closely, from her office to her home. There, we see her as a mother, sharing values of equality and justice with her children. “They may be children, but they are following the political and social situation,” Maryam tells us as she makes dinner. Then we see her helping them with homework — “and they help me out with housework,” she tells us.

As well as the Women’s Administration, there are other new structures within the Raqqa municipality that ensure an equal presence of women and men, at the same time bringing about broader social change. The city’s municipality carries out multiple social projects, such as a community support program based on supporting poor families. Awateff al-Issa, responsible for women’s work in Raqqa’s municipality, tells us that the aim is “to eliminate the social ills that appear because of poverty.” Like Maryam, Awateff had to run away from her city, leaving all she had behind, when the Caliphate took over Raqqa. Now that she’s back, not only has she taken up a key role in the municipality, she has also become the head of her family.

Seeing women holding important roles has itself had a revolutionary impact on society’s mentality — with the echoes of feminism from the city reaching the countryside. However, women’s freedom is not only about taking up the top jobs: it is about using that power to organize other people. “Since the liberation, first we have organized ourselves, but today, we are organizing other women in the city and the countryside of Raqqa,” says Maryam. This is the lesson we should learn from the women of Raqqa. They show us how women’s equality and women’s rights are achievable even under the most oppressive conditions — but the only way to do this is by organizing alongside other women.

Raqqa was liberated from ISIS in October 2017. (Shot from Blooming in the Desert)

Behind Blooming in the Desert

Throughout the documentary, we follow the women in their daily tasks. We see them getting in touch with institutional figures, going from door to door, spreading awareness of their work, while offering help and connecting with different people across all strata of society.

Such closeness to the film’s female protagonists was achieved with an all-women crew. Although women’s opportunities in the film industry are slowly improving, most of the technical and organizational roles, as well as the directorial lens, are male-dominated, especially in war zones. This all-women crew allowed access to certain spaces that do not admit men — letting viewers experience the intimacy among the women who are being filmed. One film crew member commented, “This gave a lot of confidence to our protagonists, and we created a bond with them that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.” Blooming in the Desert is a documentary about women, made by women.

Making the documentary in Raqqa was a huge challenge for the film crew, mainly for security reasons. ISIS is still active in the area, with many sleeper cells and suicide attacks, and foreigners are usually a target. This meant that, when filming outdoors, the team could never spend more than thirty minutes in the same place. Security was provided by the women’s movement, while the Autonomous Administration assisted them with logistical issues.

The Autonomous Administration and Rojava are often — rightly — praised as a unique example of self-governed society and women’s revolution. Yet it is important not to romanticize them, as much of Western media does. The people involved are more aware than anyone how hard it is — even after liberation from ISIS — to overcome hierarchies of power structuring both the political system and society.

Blooming in the Desert reveals another side of Rojava’s revolution. It shows the daily, silent struggles of Raqqa’s women, who never thought they could be involved in the public arena but are now taking a place for themselves — and shaping their city’s future. The institutions that took part in the film are always open about the problems they experienced internally and the social issues within the city and region. They know it takes time, effort, hard work, and experience to change the system and people’s mentality — and they don’t seem willing to give up.

The political achievements in Raqqa would have been impossible without the endeavors of the Kurdish women’s freedom movement rooted in Rojava. With their development of Jineology — a “science of women” going well beyond liberal feminism — they are making true the ambition of women’s liberation, inherent to the democratic confederalism proposed by imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Beyond a cochair system — which provides equal representation in politics, defense military units, and economic cooperative system — this revolution has shown that it is possible to develop new forms of socializing and organizing people. The echoes of these organizational forms are reverberating across neighboring parts of the Middle East, bringing real social change.

In this sense, Blooming in the Desert builds on a message already well expressed in Benedetta Argentieri’s previous documentary, 2018’s I Am the Revolution. It reminds us that Rojava’s women’s revolution can succeed only if it is embraced by all Arab women — continuing the virtuous circle across the region.