My Red Dress..A Diary of a Syrian Woman

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Writer: Alaa’ Mohamad

Translated and Adapted by: Reem Bacha.

A few days ago I was walking through the shops when I spotted a gorgeous red dress. I stood in front of the shop window, staring at its beauty- it was long, with sheer sleeves and delicate details that made it a work of art.

I haven’t worn a dress since the beginning of the war. Looking at it, I thought it might bring some joy to my life. I didn’t hesitate – something within me compelled me to run inside. I bought the ruby red dress and hurried home.

I dusted the debris of the war off me, and put it on, transforming within an instant into a supermodel in my own home. I looked in the mirror and thought: “gosh, I’m beautiful!”
I smiled to myself and wondered how something so small could stop all the carnage around me if only just for one moment.

Guilt bubbled up within me – but I protested. Is it not a woman’s right to love herself despite the war and the killing that surrounds her? It is not just frivolous vanity. This war is relentless and merciless and has robbed us of everything, down to the most basic of our human rights – such as the right every woman has to feel beautiful.

A strange silence came over me. I sat there, staring at myself in the mirror for hours, but the thought of all the other Syrian women out there would not leave me: mothers, girls, prisoners of war, martyrs, lovers…

I remembered my friend young friend Marwa; my adorable friend Marwa whom I would always get ready with for weddings and fancy occasions. We’d meticulously choose our dresses and the high heeled shoes and accessories that matched them. She was taken away 4 years ago and was imprisoned by the regime for 2 and a half of them. When I ran into her in Istanbul after what felt like a lifetime apart, she said to me:

When I got out, I looked up at the sky and felt like it was the first time I’d ever seen it. Looking at the colourful clothes people wore, it felt like I was staring at a field of flowers with shades so vibrant, my eyes were in awe. Even the taste of water was of an indescribable beauty to me. I know how ridiculous that sounds, because water is tasteless but when you get your freedom back after having it all taken away from you, you realize that everything in life has its own taste – you appreciate all that a life far away from the chains of captivity has to offer.  

Her words rang through my head. How many other Syrian women are out there right now, aching to taste freedom? How many Syrian women are out there dreaming of a day when they are freed of the injustice of imprisonment; free to look up at the sky and be reunited with the life that was once their own?

According to the Syrian Human Rights organization, there have been over 6,580 cases of imprisonment of Syrian women recorded over the last 6 years of war.

And yet, I stared at the red dress. And it still looked beautiful in the mirror. And I didn’t want to take it off. Because I deserved to be amazed by its beauty for just that little bit longer.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. It was my neighbor, Umm Mohamed. She comes here at the same time every day to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette with me and to mourn the loss of our country for a little while. She cracked a few jokes, and we laughed. Together, we share both our sadness and our joy.

She complimented me on my dress, but her sadness immediately followed:

“Did you hear?” She said. “Our neighbor Umm Jamil from Homs, her third son just died today… The poor woman – keeps getting struck by tragedy after tragedy”.

Umm Jamil is one of the many women who has lost all of their sons to the war, as though the gods of war demanded that the sadness of these women be their sacrifice. The pain of profound loss has killed these Syrian Women several times over within the short space of a few years: they lost their fathers, their husbands, their brothers and their sons.

The news immediately took me back to when I first found out that my little brother Mohamed was killed. I had been looking through my Facebook feed when a picture of him wrapped in a white sheet suddenly appeared in front of me. I was paralysed for what felt like an eternity. Then I screamed:

“Mohamed is dead, Mama.”

Years of black clothing and sorrow followed those wretched words. Yet here I was, four years later, staring at my red dress. I had cried until my tears ran dry, but as I stared at the ruby red dress today, my eyes began to sparkle again.

Suddenly, the coffee spilled all over me and I screamed. It burned a little. I smirked – because it’s nothing compared to the roaring fire of the war that will leave me with scars to last a lifetime.

As I wiped away the coffee, I remembered a lady I had met whose face looked like it had been badly beaten, her palms were wounded. “What happened?” I had asked her.

“My husband hit me”, she said unsurprisingly. She told me her story and I didn’t interrupt her once – it was clear that she needed someone onto whom she could unload all of her sorrows.

She said her husband had changed since the start of the war. He had become angry and violent towards her, and began beating her with sharp objects, eventually injuring her several times with a knife. And she would forgive him. She claimed she had nowhere else to go, especially under the circumstances of the war. It was clear to me that she had lost herself, and had forgotten how it felt to be a woman long ago despite the fact that she was still in her early 30s. Her skin was tired and her face told the story of her suffering.

Comparing statistics from before and after the war of violence against women screams a sad truth about the peril we are facing. Before the war, following up on reports and bringing justice to aggressors was much easier. But now, violence against women has increased so significantly that following up on these cases individually is hopeless. Rape and sexual harassment are so widespread, they’re virtually impossible to control.

This heinous war has caused us all to bury our recollection of beauty deep within ourselves. I am terrified that the ugliness of this war will ingrain itself so profoundly in my soul, that I will lose my love of living.

Fear came over me as this thought crossed my mind. I looked at my face, my pale complexion staring back at me. I reached for some make up, in an attempt to make my face worthy of the magic of the red dress that was consoling my sadness.

“This dress needs to be worn on an occasion”, I thought. I cannot let it go to waste. Could I maybe wear it on International Women’s Day? Of course! That’s what I’m going to do! I’m going to invite all the women of the neighborhood and bake a big cake and write on it: “to the women of Syria, to loving ourselves, to the end of this war.”

If only for a moment, I just wanted to remember what it means to be a woman. An ordinary woman who knows not of war, of bloodshed and of carnage. An ordinary woman who shares and hears stories with her friends, about their successful careers, about their kids who are healthy, happy and safe; about their loving, supportive spouses – and about contributing to a better society.

International Women’s Day is the day the world celebrates the social, political and economic achievements made by women around the world. The occasion began with a group of women who protested the inhumane conditions they were forced to work under. The emblem of their movement was bread and roses – an emblem of peace. Yet after all these years, the sad reality for Syrian women is far from peaceful.

The war has cast a dark shadow on our hearts that hurts more than anyone could ever know, a shadow that has stripped the Syrian woman of everything she has, including her femininity. Gone are the days of high heels and weddings – and years down the line, when the war has come and gone too, that stifling dark shadow will remain, weighing heavily on our hearts as we fight to live the life we know we deserve.

A deep sadness came over me and I felt myself crumbling.

But my red dress rescued me once more.

I reached for my thin black shawl and watched it fall over my shoulders. Instantly, I felt elegant; glamorous, yet tired. It’s exhausting to keep trying to escape my reality.

I furiously took it off and placed it on the hanger.

It cascaded to the floor like a crimson waterfall of blood, taunting me, reminding me of where I was and what was around me.

But I decided to use the ruby red dress the way I pleased. It will be my saviour, my return to normalcy when I need it, my security blanket. But it will also be my fire, my passion, my hope and my weapon against the dark shadow of war.

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