Among the dozens of Facebook groups spawned by the Syrian uprising, a page supporting women’s rights has suddenly received a wave of attention, because of an image posted there by one of its followers. The picture was of 21-year-old Dana Bakdounis, without the veil she had grown up wearing – and it polarised opinion.
Born in Damascus, Dana Bakdounis was brought up in conservative Saudi Arabia, but it was as a reaction against conformity that she first removed her veil in August 2011.
“The veil did not suit me, but I had to wear it because of my family, and the society,” she says.
“I did not understand why my hair was covered. I wanted to feel the beauty of the world… I wanted to feel the sun and air.”
By then, she was already following The Uprising of Women in the Arab World page on Facebook.
With nearly 70,000 members, it has become a forum for debate on women’s rights and gender roles in the Arab world. Women, and men, from non-Arab backgrounds also comment on its photos.
On 21 October, Dana decided to do something for the page, and for oppressed women and girls around the Arab world by posting a photo of herself.
Looking right into the lens, her short-shorn hair in full view, she held an ID picture of her previously veiled self, along with a note that read: “The first thing I felt when I took off my veil” and “I’m with the uprising of women in the Arab world because, for 20 years, I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair and [on] my body”.
The image proved hugely controversial, attracting over 1,600 likes, nearly 600 shares, and more than 250 comments.
Dana has received much support, and while many of her friends have un-friended her, many more have sent friend requests.
Some previously veiled women have even posted copycat pictures in support, and the Twitter hashtag #WindtoDana has been created as a channel through which to express solidarity.
She has also received hundreds of messages of derision, along with threats.
Her mother, with whom relations have cooled because of her disapproval of her daughter’s actions, received a death threat against Dana’s life.
Dana has protested in both the real and virtual worlds
“Everything has changed for me since I took my veil off,” says Dana.
The debate is growing more nuanced. One woman comments that opposition to the veil is misplaced, saying instead “our fight should be for equality in society… that’s what we should be fighting for; when a veiled woman is refused a job because she covers! Take pride in your veil women, it’s a blessing!”
For Dana’s part, she is pleased to have provided a source of optimism for many of her religious, veil-wearing friends, and strangers alike.
“I was so happy when I received lots of messages from girls wearing the veil. They showed their support for me, saying ‘we respect what you did, you’re a brave girl, we want to do the same but we do not have the audacity’. I even received messages from old women.”
Causing almost a bigger stir as the image itself has been what many perceived as a heavy-handed and censorial reaction by Facebook to the picture.
The administrators of the Facebook page have vocally claimed, both through the page and in local and international press, that Facebook administrators removed Dana’s photograph on 25 October, four days after its original posting, blocking Dana, along with the accounts of the administrators of The Uprising of Women in the Arab World page.
They also alleged that copies of the photo reposted by supporters of Dana were also removed, and that the group’s entire account was blocked between 29 October and 5 November.
Facebook, when asked to comment, were at pains to make the point that the issue was never the cause that the page itself is supporting, but merely a couple of mistaken enforcements of their rules.
A member of their PR team explains: “The images of the woman were not in violation of our terms. Instead, a mistake was made in the process of responding to a report on controversial content”, going on to say that “what made this situation worse is that we made multiple mistakes over a number of days, and it took time to rectify each of these missteps.”
Mistakes aside, the allegations alone have raised interesting questions about the non-formalised and seemingly omnipotent role that one of the best-known social media channels plays in this process of intense regional change and upheaval.
But it will take more than threats and barriers to stop 21-year-old Bakdounis.
“I want to take another picture, but from inside Syria, just to show that I could be a fighter against injustice and power. With my camera, I can help the people and support the Free Syrian Army.”
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I want justice because I already have my freedom, and I’m not afraid of anything now, now I can do whatever I believe it is right to do”
Increasingly, reports from inside Syria highlight the presence of fundamentalist Islamist factions within the anti-regime movement, hijacking the struggle.
With the influx of these non-Syrian jihadi fighters, there are growing fears for the future of women’s rights in the nation and the region.
Dana and those like her want to see a new Syria.
“[A Syria] full of rights, with justice between men and women. I want justice because I already have my freedom, and I’m not afraid of anything now, now I can do whatever I believe it is right to do.”
Dana is just one of the women who are making their voices heard despite the uproar.
She and others like her are expressing a feeling of newfound liberation, some are de-veiling, and many are engaging in a global debate about women’s rights, forming a brave and vocal online nexus to a region that is often, at least in the West, synonymous with extremism and female submission.