The Derʿaa Sisters

Haliç, Istanbul

Haliç, Istanbul

In the QUWA Collective, there are three sisters from Der’aa. Der’aa is the city that ignited the Syrian uprising in March 2011 when a group of kids painted anti-government graffiti on their school walls.

I don’t know where to begin when it comes to Sarah*, Ithar* and Tuqa*. I cannot overestimate or begin to describe all that they offer to the Collective . The Der’aa sisters are some of the most womanist, decolonizing, self-loving individuals I know–yet they never use these words. They are intelligent, visionary, agentic, reflective, fierce and warm.

On the first day I met them, while every one else greeted me with the customary two kisses, one on each cheek–they greeted me with four. One on one cheek, and three repeated kisses on the other cheek. It was just a glimpse into the energy, uniqueness and magnanimous love I would later discover about them.

The Der’aa sisters came to Turkey five months ago or so. The three of them live together here on their own. They lived a long chunk of their lives outside of Syria, in other Arab countries, and returned to in the 2000s for college. They were there for about five or six years when the uprising began in 2011. At the time, Sarah, the youngest of them, had just started medical school. She had always wanted to study public health or health care management, but the field wasn’t available where she lived. Ithar, the middle sister, was halfway through dentistry school. She used to want to be a nurse but was wary of how the profession was looked down upon socially. She wanted to pursue something that would give her more credibility, help her be more heard. Pressured by Syria’s academic hierarchy and respectability politics, she pursued dentistry instead. And Tuqa, the one who truly was invested in the medical field, was one licensing exam away from becoming a doctor when her university shut down and she had to flee.

The Der’aa sisters’ have a vast worldview. Largely because they’ve spent much of their lives traveling, jumping from one place to the next out of necessity. But they also possess this raised consciousness because they are intense readers. They read everything and anything–Arabic books, translated books, books on self-help, health, religion, emotions, politics, gender.

The Der’aa sisters are wildly brave. Their bravery shines through in the healing circle, both in what they share of themselves and how they do so. Tuqa was the first to cry in a session; to show us that in this space emotions do not need to be explained or apologized for, that only we can give permission for these tears to fall, to be cried out and mourned so that maybe one day we can heal.

Ithar was the first to say, in a quick go-around check-in at the end of a session (where most people said “good” or “I liked it”) that she, in fact, was bothered, uncomfortable and annoyed. Her abrupt honesty threw some off, but paved the way for more genuine conversations where we could work through our discomfort.

And in the QUWA transition, as Nour and I moved back and invited participants to take turns facilitating the healing circle, it was Sarah who volunteered to facilitate first. She chose “womanhood” and “gender oppression” as the topic for discussion, something I had shied away from bringing up directly because of my outsider and white-distorted lens.

With the bravery of the Der’aa sisters comes risk. They know this, but it does not stop them. Instead, they look after one another, fiercely. Affirming and supporting one another–on the mat and in the circle–in and outside of QUWA.

There are subtle yet recurring aggressions against the Der’aa sisters for a number of reasons, the most obvious because they are from Der’aa, a rural city in the southwestern part of Syria. Most of the other women are from Shaam, Aleppo and bigger cities. This divergence manifests in prejudices around dialect, class and skin color.


In the circle that Sarah faciliated, the Der’aa sisters spoke honestly about the differing forms of gender oppression they faced, both interpersonal and structural. They drew from personal experience and from many readings on these issues. They spoke honestly about misogyny, victim blaming, and unjust power relations in their communities, in their new home and around the world.

As expected, they faced strong resistance. It soon became clear, though, that it wasn’t just resistance to their ideas, but to them.

“I think these things you are talking about are anomalous. It may have more to do with the area you are from than it actually being a widespread problem.” Other women nodded and agreed, “It is something إستثنائي” — What you speak of is rare, exceptional…let’s not focus on those negative things.

Sarah retreated. She was in a difficult spot because of her role as a facilitator.  She said that what she was bringing up was mostly from books she had read and from her conversations with other women, including me. I cringed at what was happening. That she felt pressured to use me as legitimacy for her ideas and words when her brilliance stands wisely on its own. In our go-around check out, she cried, saying she felt so aged, so old, to have experienced so much at 22 that other women around her of the same age or older had dismissed as “rare” or something they did not even know.

But Ithar pushed the circle back, saying that labeling their ideas as something “rare” and distinct to their hometown was unfair and missing the point. She pointed out that in Der’aa women actually had a more active role and gender justice was more a reality since women frequently worked and cultivated their land alongside men. This is in sharp contrast, she explained, to the women of the city, who would only leave their home to shop or eat or live out their socialite lifestyles that actually kept them distracted and trapped, complying with their own oppression.


Her words moved many. Some apologized, saying that they did not mean to look down at people from Der’aa, and that they were grateful that the war had allowed them to meet people from Der’aa and from other rural areas whom they otherwise would never have come into contact with.

Similar sentiments toward the Der’aa women have come up in other sessions too, like the one about chosen family. Tuqa loved the idea of a chosen family, of intentionally choosing people whom you want to play a significant role in your life. One khala resisted the idea, saying that your “real” family always had to come first, that despite flaws or shortcomings you had to accept them after all they have provided for you.

This khala is particularly difficult to challenge, but Tuqa did, saying that the idea of chosen family wasn’t something new, and that it didn’t contradict loving your blood relatives if you do in fact love them. Instead, “chosen family” gives name to something most of us already know and practice every day since we come from collectivist communities that extend beyond our immediate kin.

The khala insisted, interrogating why she was not speaking to her family members (an already tough thing to disclose), and suggested that what she had experienced must have been particularly bad, and again, a rare case that does not speak to most of us. إستثنائي

Tuqa pushed right back. Sometimes your immediate family gets caught up in only providing material support–that’s why we need chosen family, she said. With chosen family, there’s greater respect for your boundaries; and there’s greater willingness for you to articulate when those boundaries are crossed. “We tolerate abuses and problems from family that we would never tolerate from a friend–why?”

With all of this, the Der’aa sisters are committed to us. They are always present, on time, wearing their QUWA t-shirts–even when there isn’t self-defense training. There are moments like the ones mentioned above where they could have easily walked out or given up on us, but they don’t. They realize that in many ways their healing is connected to that of the woman sitting next to them, so they keep going, stretching the circle a bit more each time while sharpening our vision of sisterhood.

all the QUWA to the Der’aa sisters, and to Der’aa, for their fearlessness.


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QUWA Featured in GOOD Magazine

Syrian Refugee Women Learn Self-Defense with Predictably Badass Results

by Tasbeeh Herwees

“Today was tough,” wrote Zeinab Khalil. “Maybe the hardest session we’ve had yet.”

Khalil published this on the blog she runs with her friend and colleague, Nour Soubani, which documents the two Arab-American women’s experiences running a self-defense program for female Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey. The project, called QUWA (the Arabic word for “strength”), is divided into two main parts: a physical self-defense class and a healing circle, designed to encourage emotional well-being through discussion. But the tough session Khalil referenced in this particular post wasn’t referencing a grueling workout, rather it was about a circle gathering that addressed relationships, and how the war and the participants’ displacement had changed how they now relate to other people.

“It was about naming and recognizing the violence we face in its multiple forms,” wrote Khalil. “People were eager to share the ways that the events of the past few years have changed their lives.” 

Since the uprising and subsequent civil war began in 2011, more than nine million Syrians have fled their homes, and over half a million have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey. These days, it’s difficult to walk the streets of Istanbul without hearing a Syrian accent among the crowds or running into displaced Syrian children. Although Syrians face better treatment in this part of the region than in Lebanon or Jordan, where they are often subject to violent racism, their refugee status leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, including sexual abuse.

Three times a week, two hours per session, Khalil and Soubani meet with their class at the Sham’una school in Istanbul to oversee both the self-defense portion and the healing circle. In the first session, the women are instructed on how to protect and defend themselves against physical transgressions they may face on a daily basis, from employers, acquaintances, or strangers on the streets. 

“Our class gives [students] practical ways to really mark their own space,” says Khalil. “We talk a lot about boundary setting and saying no and what is their comfort level with different people.”

A self-defense instructor engages the women in hand-to-hand combat and they play out different scenarios in which they may feel threatened.  The self-defense component, however, is only supplementary to the healing circle. 

“Although the project started with self-defense as the main goal or purpose, we realized we needed to address the types of violence that are not physical and the ones that happen in other ways,” says Soubani. “In the healing circle, we try to do that.”

During the tough session that Khalil recounted on the blog, she heard poignant stories of how the conflict and its attendant stressors shredded relationships with mothers and best friends. But the most difficult experience came as they moved on to discussing why people stay in unhealthy relationships. One of the older participants forcefully advocated for all Syrian refugees to stick together and forgive each other, no matter what. Khalil had the impression that this elder considered dysfunctional personal relationships to be petty concerns when compared to the collective experience of surviving Syria’s unrest. But younger participants were not so sure. Some tried to counter that their individual feelings were still valid, even in the face of widespread violence and displacement. Khalil was torn as to how to support these women with conflicting opinions, and allow space for the less strident to have their voices heard while giving due respect to the elder woman and her worldview. 

“I feel that I could have been more proactive with facilitating; less neutral,” she mused on the blog.

Apart from inter-community strife, many of the women have to deal with the uncertainty and isolation that comes with being a refugee. Hariri, a 23-year-old Syrian woman from the city of Dar’aa, originally fled to Saudi Arabia with her family when the conflict first began. When they realized it wasn’t going to end any time soon, they moved to Istanbul, where she could finish her degree in biology. 

“For a time, I just stayed at home, cut off from society,” says Hariri. “There was a period of one to two years where I did not mix with other people, and when I did, it was with people who were harmful to me.”

Hariri says attending the healing circles, meeting other women, and learning how to defend herself have allowed her to rebuild her life in Istanbul. It has also transformed the way carries herself. 

“Now when I walk alone, I can do it with some confidence,” says Hariri. “I used to be afraid, afraid for my safety. But now I even take my time walking outside.”

Umm Janat Speaks in Poetry

Umm Janat is by far the fiercest khalto I know. At 55, she carries herself with a dignity that commands respect and attentiveness from everyone and anyone near her. 

Umm Janat speaks in poetry. If I used to like Arabic before, now I utterly adore it. She embodies the beauty of spoken عربي.  She gives every letter, every syllable its due. Every word sounds a million times more certain when she speaks. Her words are marked and lasting, they are engraved in the air around her as she speaks, listening to her, taking notes carefully, the way I am doing in my mind.

Umm Janat is a storyteller, a scholar, a saint. When speaking, she shares both from personal experience, and draws on proverbs, ahadeeth, Qur’anic ayahs, writers, philosophers–all right on the spot. She can capture the topic I need 10 minutes to explain in just a phrase. For example, when I rambled on and on explaining self-love, making all sorts of disclaimers that this is a love rooted in self-acceptance, self-worth and not a pathological or selfish narcissism (using definition from bell hooks), she nodded and said to the room “Rida with the way God has shaped us is how we come to love ourselves.” Contentment. Acceptance. Gratification. No single word really gets at Rida. 

 I don’t know how this beautiful word escaped me. It is a reminder of how limiting  and verbose english can be. Moments like these from Umm Janat remind me that I can’t translate every word that signals compassion and self-love and dignity because so much of that is already rooted in the beautiful Arabic words Umm Jannat and the women of QUWA speak. Their sentences are strung together by these attributes. Sometimes I stress over the technical terms, of translating and finding the right word in Arabic as close as possible, but then I hear and see and feel traces of self-love and spirituality and collectivism embedded in their speech, and that’s when I realize how silly or redundant it can be at times to try to name or explain these things.

To be honest, I used to be kind of terrified of Umm Janat. Besides being utterly self-conscious of my Arabic around her–infusing fus-ha and Syrian in my speech to try to compensate for my clumsy Egyptian dialect–I was super concerned with what she thought of the content of the QUWA program, what she made of the things we spent hours planning every night. Whenever I would introduce a topic or an activity for the session–for healing circle or self-defense–I anxiously evaluated her facial expressions. Gaining her affirmation meant the world to me. A slight smile or nod sent me flying. But a straight face–or even worse–raised eyebrows or a question of clarification made me want to hide behind the curtains and run away from my foolishness. In our early sessions, sometimes I felt she was skeptical, like she wanted to see what all this collective healing talk from these non-Syrian refugees was about. I had to work for Umm Janat’s approval, and rightfully so.

But now, I know Umm Janat is soft. Now, I can hold her gaze comfortably, her eyes are empathetic and warm. One day, after class, she came to me, reached into her purse, and handed me a wrapped candy. “I wish I could give you more, I wish I could invite you over and host you. One day, God willing, we will. For now, this is for you. It is from Halab.” These were her last two candies from a box of sweets from Aleppo. She gave one to Nour and one to me. She gave me a piece of Halab, of her home. How much left of Halab does Umm Janat carry with her? I felt both honored and guilty to take a part of it.

7abeetik. She told me. I’ve come to love you. My heart dances. I am not accustomed to these straightforward, genuine proclamations of love (because of my reserved and basic “western” perceptions and practices of love). There’s no guilt anymore, just an overwhelming desire to embrace Umm Janat fervently since no words I say will ever suffice. No words can capture the gravity of her generosity. 

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It turns out I am not the only one who feels this way about Umm Janat. I am not the only one who fishes for her affirmation and opinions. In our last session, we did an affirmation circle. Basically, we sat in a big circle and each person had a chance to sit in the center of it, hearing affirming words from all the people in the circle one at a time, rotating from person to person and listening without any comments or interruptions during the activity. In the end, after the person heard all the affirmations and offered a thank you or her own feedback, she had to end with, “Thank you–I know that about myself.” It was a practice in accepting compliments and not rushing to return or back away from praise (as often is the case with women). During this activity everyone couldn’t wait to get to Umm Janat. Her words meant so much to us. It was like waiting in line to hear our fortune, waiting for someone to figure us out. Her comments for each of us were calculated, accurate, meaningful, concise and oh so affirming. When it was her turn to sit in the center, people spoke of her wisdom. Of how easy it was to speak in front of her despite the wide age gap. Of inter-generational honesty and understanding.  Of her powerful voice. Of her killer heel-palm in self-defense. In the end, she smiled. She offered some feedback on the things she heard. “If only you could see you through my eyes,” she starts. We think she’s about to endow us with more wisdom or switch gears and dilute the praise we’ve just given her, but instead, she cracks a smile and says, “Thank you for your words, but I already know all this about myself!” 

One day, we discussed stalking, verbal abuse and street harassment. Everyone had something to say, but as soon as Umm Janat spoke we all turned to her–young and old–to eagerly listen to her story. She shared a traumatic experience a few years back during Eid festivities in Aleppo when she and her elderly mother and daughter were followed by a creep all the way home. She hadn’t revisited or told the story since then and it clearly was affecting her to even share it. She stopped a couple of times to drink water and told us she was getting goosebumps retelling it. But she continued and held the same magnificent, storytelling  voice. 

She shared how she escaped this stalker, how in the last desperate moment when she thought he was about to attack, she told her 20-something year old daughter (who is also with us in the healing circle) to run and escape while she continued to walk as fast she she could with her elderly mother. She finally stopped at the house of a neighbor,  of people she had only met once before since they had just moved in. She said she felt embarrassed to do this but her livelihood was at stake, and there’s no time for embarrassment or explanations when you need to survive. Umm Janat’s chilling story of how she escaped the perpetrator carried crucial lessons for survival for all of us. “You have to expect anything. You always have to evaluate the situation around you. You must walk with certainty.” I close my notebook–all the notes I planned to share on assessing and evaluating our surroundings have already been explained by Umm Janat.

Umm Janat’s voice is remarkably authoritative. It captures your attention and flows smoothly, but when she wants to, her voice can paralyze you. She shared the story of a time years ago when someone tried to mess with her and her daughter on the bus.  “I looked at the perpetrator,” she said very calmly. “I turned to him. And you know what I said?” All eyes and ears fixed on her. “YA HAQEER!” she yelled in a tone we did not recognize. “YOU SCUM!” Before we burst into laughter, we froze in horror at the roaring sound none of us expected. Did that really come from this sweet khalto? I put away my notes of our voices as weapons, of not forgetting to use our voice forcefully during vulnerable moments out of shock or embarrassment. Again, Umm Janat had explained it all. 

The other story she shared was of someone who once harassed her and her daughter over the phone with persistently desperate and flirtatious phone calls. “I started nicely,” she said. “I told him, my son, didn’t your parents teach you how to speak courteously on the phone?” The “my son” was supposed to shut him down, embarrass him, humble him, make him realize that he is a young fool bothering an older woman.

Apparently the fool did not get it, and responded with a sardonic, “No.”

“So you know what I said to him?” And in the same roaring voice we heard moments ago, her face transformed entirely and her voice amplified as though she yelled into a microphone, “Then I will teach you and teach the ones who couldn’t teach you!” Harabeek. I will raise you! Bam. Silence. With her wrath or mercy, Umm Janat is on a roll. And she has no intention of stopping.

These are snippets of Umm Janat. It is impossible to capture all her stories or to try to describe her wisdom and force and influence. I’ll end with this quote that expresses much of what I’m feeling right now (shout out to Annie Q for sharing with me):

“The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else” – Gustavo Pérez Firmat
graffiti in aksaray that reads 'mafeesh' (Arabic for 'nothing')

graffiti in esenler that reads ‘mafeesh’ (Arabic for ‘nothing’)

with quwa,