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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