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'They can't succeed without us': Women take front-line role in Syria conflict

Muzaffar Salman / Reuters, file

Nora Husari, a female fighter in the Free Syrian Army, rests with other women undergoing military training in Aleppo on February 17, 2013.

KILLIS, Turkey – Nora Husari worked at a beauty salon before the war in Syria broke out. Today, she carries an AK-47 and plays a deadly game of cat and mouse in the bombed out remains of her former home.

"I've seen children and women crying in front of my eyes because Bashar al-Assad killed their fathers, brothers or husbands," said the sniper – one of only a handful of women on the front line for the Free Syrian Army. "It burns my heart and makes me hate this regime more and more, so I decided to fight."

Husari, who claims to have killed at least eight government soldiers, added: "There are a lot of women that can help in the hospitals. But my mission was on the battlefield and on the front lines."

It's a far cry from her life before the war, when the 23-year-old coiffed, manicured and pampered women in a beauty salon in Aleppo – now one of the front lines in Syria's two-year-old civil war. But she says other women have followed in her footsteps.

Female fighters are a rarity in Syria because most of the militias are largely "conservative Muslim," according to Joshua Landis, a director at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Muzaffar Salman / Reuters, file

Nora Husari sits with her husband Abu Jaafar, a Sawt al-Haq (Voice of Rights) battalion commander, and her daughter Faten at their home in Aleppo on February 12, 2013.

"There are a few women fighters among the rebels," he said. "But they are still few in number for such an insurgency."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent organization that monitors abuses on all sides of the conflict, has also reported that women are fighting – though not many. Much depends on where the women are in Syria and for whom they are fighting, the group says.

"If they are in places controlled by Jihadist groups they are not allowed to do anything at all, even cook," said Rami Abdelrahman, a spokesman for the organization.

"But in other places they are working in hospitals and cooking food. We also have women in media centers, but even now, not in large numbers."

For Husari, the mortal risks that come along with fighting are worth it.

"There are a lot of women that have been killed in their homes because of a bomb or a missile or they've been killed in the street by a sniper shot," she said. "They were trying to hide themselves to survive and they ended up getting killed. I don't want to die like them."

'They can't succeed without us'
Female fighters are not unheard of in the region, even if labor is often deeply divided along gender lines.

In neighboring Turkey, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) insurgency, which is trying to carve out an autonomous Kurdish region in the southeast of the country, welcomes women into its ranks. The movement has long supported gender equality and has all-female units.

NBC News

People resisting the army of President Bashar Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

On the other side of the Syrian conflict, forces loyal to President Assad are increasingly using women to guard checkpoints and provide logistical support to the front line, according to a recent report by Reuters.

"This reflects the regime's claim of being a secular state," Rakan, a 30-year-old National Defense Force fighter in Homs, told the wire service. "It's helped us a lot with them at the checkpoints; it lightens our burden."

Nadim Shehadi, an Associate Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the London-based think tank Chatham House, is unsurprised that traditional gender roles have relaxed during the war, which the UN estimates to have claimed at least 93,000 lives.

"When there is a revolution on, you don't talk about traditional or rational or anything like that," Shehadi said.

"The idea that women are in the kitchen doesn't apply. These are different times. So I don't think you can take normal life as an indication to measure what happens in a revolutionary or in a civil war situation."

And Husari insists that success for the Free Syrian Army would be impossible without women.

"They are helping to smuggle arms, transferring them from one region to another," she said. "I know a lot of women are employed in hospitals, help the wounded and I know a lot of my friends are working in media offices. Some provide food to the fighters.

"This role of women is too big in this revolution and they can't succeed without us," she said.

Personally though, she remains pragmatic about what the future holds.

"My life is not more expensive or important than the rest of the Syrians who were killed in this revolution," she said. "Yes, you may die. But you know that you died for your country."

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