Some people see injustice in the world and fight it; they refuse to back down until they have turned the world upside down. Born in Damascus, Syria in 1887, Nazik al-Abid was one of those people. Nazik spent her whole life campaigning for civil liberties, women’s rights and just about anything else that she thought needed to change. She caused so much upheaval in Damascus that she was exiled at least three different times! But she never let that stop her.
Nazik al-Abid was born into a wealthy merchant family. Because they were well off Nazik got an excellent education – she even went to college, which was a huge thing for a Syrian woman (or any woman in the early 1900s). As soon as she was done with school, she decided to start on her first crusade: women’s rights. Nazik started the first women’s rights club in Syria; it advocated for women’s suffrage as well as better education and independence from the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, the empire didn’t like that and kicked Nazik and her family out of the country.
Syria did become independent about two years later (1920) and the new ruler, King Faisal allowed Nazik to return. During his (very short) reign, he grew to respect Nazik and she became a sort of unofficial adviser to the king. Thanks to her efforts suffrage was presented in parliament and women were waiting for them to vote. Unfortunately they didn’t get the chance because France looked at the kingdom of Syria and said “Mine!”
King Faisal surrendered to the French, not wanting any of his people to die. But many people, including Nazik refused to go down without a fight. Nazik fought against the French in the doomed Battle of Maysalun and was awarded an honorary military rank for her trouble (first Syrian woman to hold a military rank).
The French kicked Nazik out of Syria for two years for her part in the battle (exile two) and only allowed her back in if she gave up politics. Which she did, sort of.
Instead of campaigning for suffrage, Nazik turned her efforts to ensuring civil liberties for all. She supported women unveiling, if they wanted to, and even went without a veil in a meeting with American diplomats!
She opened an organization, newspaper, and orphanage all called “The Light of Damascus” to educate Syrians and care for young people. Nazik hoped that these efforts would empower others to take up the political works she was banned from. During this time she also founded the Red Crescent, the Syrian equivalent of the Red Cross, because she didn’t have enough to do with her time.
Eventually the French said “enough is enough” and issued a warrant for Nazik al-Abid’s arrest. So she ran away to Lebanon (exile number three) and met her future husband, a political activist who also supported and advocated for women’s rights. Nazik eventually returned to Syria when it was finally liberated from the French. There she found a nation where women could unveil, join the workforce, and make their own decisions. It wasn’t perfect, but so much progress had been made. Much of that progress can be directly attributed to Nazik al-Abid: The Light of Damascus.
Author: Margaret Bourlon