In a revolution that has become associated with masculine bravado and gunfights in the streets, Zubaida al-Meeki stands out.
A former Syrian army general, she became the first female officer to publicly announce her defection from President Bashar al-Assad’s army after seeing what she describes as “crimes and atrocities committed by the regime”.
An Alawite originally from the Occupied Golan Heights, bordering Israel, al-Meeki used to work in the army’s recruitment division in Bibila, a town south of Damascus that was mostly seized by rebels in August after heavy fighting with regime forces.
Al-Meeki says she had planned to defect and join the Free Syrian Army (FSA) since October last year but was unable to do so because of constant surveillance imposed on army officers by the regime.
“When they suspected that I may defect, they stormed our house [and] broke the front door,” she told Al Jazeera. “Then early in 2012, they fired my brother from his government job in the health administration in the city of Quneitra.”
But after the FSA took control of major parts of Bibila, al-Meeki approached a checkpoint manned by opposition forces and told them she wanted to join the fight against Assad’s regime.
“When she first approached us, we were surprised and suspicious. Here you have an Alawite woman telling you ‘I would like to fight on your side’,” Khaled, a co-ordinator with the FSA’s Jond Allah battalion – which operates in Bibila and nearby towns – told Al Jazeera. “We made enquiries about her to make sure she is trustworthy. We found out she was.”
While being suspicious because she belongs to the same religious sect as Assad, Khaled learnt from his research on al-Meeki that most Alawites who were displaced from the Golan Heights were considered second-class Alawites in Syria.
“For the regime, not all Alawites are the same. Those from Qurdaha [the Assad family hometown] are treated differently from those from Latakia, Tartus or the suburbs of cities. Those from the Golan Heights are treated the worst,” he says.
Source of inspiration
Al-Meeki believed in the uprising from its first day in March last year, she says, contending that sectarianism is used to distract people from the reality of a popular uprising.
“The revolution gave dignity to the Syrian people and gave minorities a sense of belonging to one country. All of the sects in Syria have suffered so much under this regime,” she says.
“When the regime shells towns, the shells do not discriminate between a sect and the other.”
After she defected from the military, al-Meeki stayed behind for two months to help out members of the Jond Allah – or Soldiers of Allah – battalion before fleeing to Turkey. She trained 40 to 50 volunteers who had just joined the battalion to fight Assad’s regime.
“I spent most of the time in a military camp training people who possessed no military background. I trained them on how to load guns and use weapons, among other military techniques,” she said.
Ahmad, a fighter in the battalion, said the presence of al-Meeki in the group was helpful amid the lack of high-level military expertise. She was a source of inspiration for the fighters, he said.
“While al-Meeki did not participate in the fighting itself, she was very close to the frontline. Her courageousness and dedication to the group were very positive for the morale of the soldiers. Most high-level generals who defect usually flee right away. She didn’t.”
Al-Meeki, who studied at a military college, acknowledged that it is unusual for females to train males in Syria. She says that there were hundreds of females in the country’s military but they mostly had administrative positions with little pay or benefits.
Fighting for ‘freedom’
Among the opposition, videos have emerged of women holding guns, claiming to be fighting with the FSA, but activists say these videos are merely a show of a support.
“Videos of women battalions or women fighters are sometimes meant to embarrass men who are sitting on their bums and not participating in the struggle,” Omar, an activist in Homs, says.
But al-Meeki’s case is different.
“She slept in the military camp and wore her military uniform everyday. The fighters respected her and obeyed her orders,” Abo Adnan, a Syrian filmmaker who travelled to the south of Damascus to film clashes between government forces and the FSA, says.
“This was very unusual to see,” he laughs. “I came to the town thinking the Jond Allah battalion is some al-Qaeda inspired group of fighters.
“But they were not. They treated al-Meeki like an older sister. They are normal people. They laugh and joke. Some pray, some don’t. Some smoke, some don’t. Some even drink.”
Abo Adnan’s upcoming film “The Southern Heartlines” will feature footage of al-Meeki training the fighters.
Raghda, a 25- year-old activist in the southern city of Deraa, says she cannot wait for her family and for the rest of Syria to see the film.
“We need to shake people, to show them that women can participate in the armed struggle that emerged in Syria. While I’m only a civilian activist, I’m still stigmatised as a loose woman because I travel a lot from one place to the other to deliver food and medicine.”
“Yes, Bashar al-Assad is giving me a hard time, but so are my parents and the whole neighbourhood,” she says, laughing.
Al-Meeki, however, says her family is proud of her and of what she has done.
“They watched my defection video on TV channels and they were very happy about it,” al-Meeki says.
“I told them to say they disown me after I announced my defection. I was very scared that they would be subjected to threats and harassment. But they categorically refused to do that.
” ‘You are free and Syria, God willing, is also free,’ my parents told me.”
Follow Basma Atassi on twitter: @Basma_