Nibal Zeitoune moved to Damascus to attend university, obsessed with the wish to break free from what she calls “the shell,” of her rigidly conservative community in Suweida.
Nibal began teaching before graduating university, giving weekly courses at one of the local schools in Suweida. After receiving a degree in Arabic Literature from Damascus University, she was officially hired as a teacher in Abadi, a town in the Eastern Ghouta area of Rif Dimashq province.
The places where new teachers were assigned to were largely dependent upon nepotism and connections, says Nibal, which was why she was sent off to a rural area so remote from where she was living in Jaramana. She worked at the Abadi school for an entire year, the whole time trying in vain to get reassigned to another area. She was finally able to do so only with the help of an officer in the security forces.
“The social environment in Abadi was very different from where I had grown up,” she says, “in terms of their sectarian identities, the way they dressed, and other small details of how they lived their lives. Personally, I never encountered any problems there, but I noticed that some of the teachers who didn’t wear the hijab faced some difficulties and were less respected and more marginalized at the school.”
Nibal talks about the clear policy of systemic ignorance apparent in the remote villages of Rif Dimashq, where there was little concern for matters related to education or schools. “There were so many middle school children who didn’t even know how to write their own names,” says Nibal. “We tried to talk about this very important matter with the Rif Dimashq Directorate of Education, but none of the authorities there showed any willingness to help us change the situation.”
Through the course of her teaching in Suweida province and then later in Rif Dimashq, Nibal noticed that there was a deliberate political decision on the regime’s part to keep matters of money and education separate.
“In Suweida,” says Nibal, “which is considered a poor province, there was actually a lot of concern with the quality of the education and schools. Whereas in Eastern Ghouta, which is actually a rich area, there wasn’t concern for such things at all. It was clear that the policies being practiced were deliberately designed so that those with money would be crippled by a bad education.”
Nibal says that the teachers themselves, assigned to the area from many different provinces, played a part in consolidating the poor educational policy of the rural areas. “There was a teacher from Latakiya,” she says, “who barely cared about teaching her students. She would spend half the allotted class time standing around at the door of her classroom, waiting for the period to end, because those students were of a different sect than she was. The administration could say nothing to her because her husband was an officer in the army.”
In 2001, Nibal joined forces with a group of women to work on feminist issues and freedom of expression, calling themselves the “Feminist Literary Dialogue,” hoping that the name might allow them to escape the notice of the security apparatus. The women came from all sorts of different sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, and their meetings would take place at irregular intervals in the house of one of the members. But they could not escape notice for long—some time later they were hauled in for questioning so that the security forces could get a detailed list of the nature of their activities.
“When I explained the nature of our concern and what we were doing to the interrogator,” says Nibal, “which was namely trying to secure Syrian women their rights, he was surprised, and said: ‘who said women don’t have their rights? Under the Baath regime women have any right they could possibly wish, and anyone who wants to work on such an issue should go to the relevant organizations connected to the Socialist Arab Baath Party.’ After that, we dissolved the group and stopped our meetings, as none of us wanted to enter a confrontation with the security apparatus.”
Nibal continued to teach until the end of 2013, when she was arrested at the school where she worked in Jaramana in Rif Dimashq province.
“It was possible for them to accuse me of anything in order to arrest me,” says Nibal. “There was no need to charge me with pursuing a certain activity. There was a general vendetta to punish everyone from families that were known to be opposed to the ruling regime in Damascus.”