Blooming in the Desert documentary portrays the women rewriting history in Raqqa

After having told the story of the women fighting against ISIS, director Benedetta Argentieri returns to Syria to document the revolutionary transformation happening in Raqqa.

They survived the desolation of war and fundamentalism. Now they are blooming, like flowers in the desert. These are the women of Raqqa, protagonists of the documentary Blooming in the Desert by journalist and director Benedetta Argentieri. Here, like in her previous work, I Am the Revolution, she offers the West an original and surprising insight into this part of the world, where women are rewriting the future of their people and upending a paradigm that has kept them imprisoned for centuries.

Filmed between late 2019 and early 2020, not long before the pandemic made the world grind to a halt, this short doc takes us into the lives of its three courageous protagonists who strive daily to transform a land devastated by years of oppression. The film gives us concrete examples of what the Women’s Movement is doing in northeastern Syria, where the experience of grassroots democracy (through the adoption of the Charter of the Social Contract in Rojava, Syria) has given women the chance to take on new roles in society, overcoming barriers that tradition had always put in their way.

The documentary, Blooming in the Desert, brings us right here, into this context of democratic confederalism that’s so capillary and well-structured that it’s even challenging more established democracies. Through the director’s sharp yet discreet gaze we meet Maryam, Hind, and Awatef. The film follows their lives without interfering, like a fly on the wall, and we are shown the rights and powers that these women had never dreamed could be theirs to enjoy. These freedoms would have been impossible under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and even more so during the Caliphate’s oppression when women were only allowed to leave their homes if they wore a burka, with their face, eyes, and hands covered.

Women in Raqqa were already suffering due to domestic servitude, obsolete traditions, and patriarchal culture, but when ISIS took the city they were even deprived of their fundamental human rights.

Maryam Ibrahim, co-president of the Women’s Movement in Raqqa 

Maryam Ibrahim, Blooming in the desert, documentary
Maryam Ibrahim (right), co-president and coordinator of the Women’s Movement in Raqqa © Benedetta Argentieri

The doc premiered in Milan, at the Cinema in Giardino event, where the director also took part in a discussion on the topic of independent cinema. Blooming in the Desert is now available on the Open DDB platform, with all donations supporting the work of women in Raqqa.

The story of Blooming in the Desert

Two years after ISIS was defeated in Raqqa (the city was liberated on 17th October 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces), the streets were still covered in rubble. It was a bleak sight, but the people were given new hope by the Women’s Movement.

By following three of these women – Maryam Ibrahim, Hind Abdulaziz, and Awatef Al Issa – we discover what daily life is like in a city that is trying to heal many deep, deep wounds. The violence of the extremists traumatised children and divided families, sowing death and destruction everywhere. But it’s right here that the flowers planted by other brave women are now blooming: the women soldiers of the YPJ (People’s Protection Units), after defeating ISIS in combat, laid the groundwork for the social and political transformation we see today. This transition is being led by women like Maryam, Hind, and Awatef, who are working on several fronts to rebuild a new society, founded on the principles of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria: self-government, ecology, self-defence, and women’s liberation.

Over 80 per cent of Raqqa was destroyed but this devastation contrasts with the energy and enthusiasm of the women and the people that remain and want to keep going.

Benedetta Argentieri, director

One year ago today, I started shooting in Raqqa. It was the first time women took to the streets for November 25. It was…

Posted by Benedetta Argentieri on Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Women’s Movement in Northeast Syria

The Women’s Movement in Northeast Syria has its roots in the female emancipation process started by Kurdish women at the time of the PKK, which then solidified in Rojava. Here, the YPG’s Women’s Protection Units contributed to liberating the area from ISIS and its oppressive power. A new way of organising society took hold, founded on the principles of feminism, social ecology, and libertarian municipalism, transcending the state and going by the name of Democratic Confederalism.

“Today, the Women’s Movement is one of the pillars of democratic confederalism in all institutions, starting from municipalities,” the director explains. “This means that every one of these structures must be headed by both a man and a woman. The women’s structure runs parallel to the men’s, who cannot interfere in the movement’s decisions. So there are spaces for working together, but without mutual dependence”. This system, where representatives are elected through assemblies, has essentially “expanded spaces for women, who previously were barred from direct participation, by opening up at all levels”.

I wanted to show how change is possible and how a society can resurrect. I wanted to show the many difficulties these women are facing.

Benedetta Argentieri, director

Blooming in the desert women Raqqa
The Women’s Movement in North and East Syria has given women access to the community’s public and political life © Benedetta Argentieri

Maryam, Hind e Awatef: who are the protagonists Blooming in the desert?

The director recalls having carried out careful research to choose her protagonists. “We contacted the Women’s Movement and explained the project to them. With their help, we carried out a series of interviews to find the right people. We wanted to show different aspects of how democratic confederalism is built and what roles women can have”. The research also had to take another crucial aspect into account, in a place still often targeted by extremist hate. “Not all women feel ready for this level of exposure. They receive countless death threats, and it was very important to us to protect them from further dangers. Unfortunately, there have been many attacks and executions of women by ISIS sleeper cells”.

Thus, the director decided to give voice to Maryam Ibrahim, co-president and coordinator of the Women’s Movement in Raqqa. Having lived here under ISIS, Maryam escaped to help the Syrian Democratic Forces before the city was freed. “We organised after liberation, but today we are also reaching out to other women in the city and the surrounding rural areas,” Maryam says, recalling the darkest time in her life. “I never imagined that one day I would be involved in politics or any field other than being trapped inside my home”.

We developed a beautiful relationship with the protagonists. Being welcomed like this into people’s lives creates a relationship of admiration and gratitude.

Benedetta Argentieri, director

Culture is another key aspect in rebuilding the social fabric. This is why the documentary features the work of Hind Abdulaziz, who is a member of Raqqa’s cultural and artistic committee. Hind also escaped the city under ISIS and returned after liberation. She now works to bring life back to traditional music, also performing as a singer and musician in the Raqqa Folklore Band. “During the ISIS period, no singing or folklore was permitted. Religion considered them to be a sin and so they were forbidden,” hind recounts in the documentary.

The third protagonist of Blooming in the Desert is Awatef Al Issa, who manages the women’s area in the Raqqa municipality. Awatef, now the head of her family, started working in a bakery in Qamishlo after having had to flee Raqqa, leaving her entire life behind. In the documentary, we see her providing concrete help and human support to the neediest and most vulnerable people. “Currently, our main project is a community support programme to help poor families in the community and eliminate the social ills that come from poverty,” Awatef explains.

The revolution will not stop

Benedetta Argentieri worked for years as a correspondent from the Middle East and she had already started to tell the revolutionary story of the Women’s Movement in I Am the Revolution, a documentary released in 2018 that premiered in Italy at the Riviera International Film Festival. In a journey spanning Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the film’s protagonists were three different women who were fighting for freedom and gender equality in a context of war and fundamentalism. Blooming in the Desert now comes as the natural follow-up to this documentary, as the director explains. “In the summer of 2017, I was shooting I Am the Revolution in the outskirts of Raqqa, where Rodja Felat, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, was leading the liberation of the city from ISIS. Here we saw that, alongside the territorial conquest, a revolution was underway. Theirs was, first of all, a political fight whose primary goal was women’s equality”.

Two years later, Benedetta Argentieri decided to return to Raqqa and experience firsthand the transformation that Felat had told her about. “She was right,” the director admits. “Despite the violence they suffered, women in Raqqa kept fighting for their rights, and they’re rebuilding their city”.

The first march against violence against women, which took place in Raqqa on 25th November 2019, was a symbolic moment that Argentieri witnessed for herself and was deeply affected by. “Hundreds of women took to the streets, chanting and carrying banners. I was shocked. I never expected to see so many people”.

It was a beautiful experience for me to see how this Arab population embraced democratic confederalism  and witness all of these women enthustiastically taking part in building a new society.

Benedetta Argentieri, director

During shooting, the director and her small, all-women crew were helped by the Women’s Movement. “We had to be careful. For example, it was best never to shoot in one place for more than twenty minutes. Furthermore, none of the hotels were open when we went, and the Turkish invasion was at a peak of intensity, creating many moments of uncertainty”.

marcia violenza donne raqqa

An extraordinary example of strength

It’s clear that working in this part of the world requires not just great courage and determination, but also lots of passion. The passion that drives Benedetta Argentieri is linked mostly to the fascination and admiration inspired in her by the strength of the women that she met and worked with.

“I chose to be a correspondent from this region many years ago. When I arrived in Northeast Syria and witnessed the creation of a grassroots alternative that is so advanced, even compared to our society, I was completely captivated. I have travelled a lot in these years, and these women have become an example for me, of strength and of what it means to strive. It’s fascinating and so inspiring for me to see that in these places, where political and social spaces have always been male-dominated, a true alternative is being built today that seems almost unthinkable even to Western women”.

Being a feminist here is the hardest challenge, because it means clashing with a patriarchy and a mentality that have been dominant for so long.

Benedetta Argentieri, director

Telling these women’s stories from up close has become Argentieri’s mission, an attempt to offer a truer and more complete vision compared to what we normally see in the press. “The mainstream media have a very restricted, colonialist vision compared with what this fight actually is. Many times we saw the women of the YPJ portrayed with their guns but deprived of the political meaning of their actions. With my work I try to give back this political sense to the women’s movement, to make people go beyond what they see on the surface”.

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