Into the open: the world of the Qubeisiat

After decades of working in secrecy, a group of Syrian female preachers is finally emerging.

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After three decades of working in secrecy, a controversial group of Syrian female preachers has begun to emerge from the shadows. Rhonda Roumani enters the world of the Qubeisiat.

Once a week, just before sunset, dozens of women flock to the basement of the al Rahman mosque in the hills overlooking Damascus, hoping to catch a glimpse of Amira Jibril, a top preacher in a secretive and little-understood Muslim women's movement called the Qubeisiat.

To attend a class with Jibril, young women once had to sneak into buildings, one-by-one, to avoid the attention of the state security services. They would use codes to set the date and time, often scheduling classes at the last minute; sometimes classes would come to a halt for months at a time. But two years ago, in an attempt to cull favour with its increasingly religious population, the Syrian government opened up mosques around the country to this controversial group of female preachers. Today, their presence at the minbar marks a shift in the staunchly secular identity of Bashar al Assad's Syria, a majority-Sunni country run by an Alawite minority.

And their success could redefine the role that Islamic groups, once at stark odds with the Syrian regime, will play in the country and in a region currently witnessing an Islamic revivalism that has captured the hearts and minds of a new generation.

The first time I headed to the mosque, on one scalding summer day, hoping to catch Jibril's lecture, I was halted at the door. "Who told you about this mosque?" a woman with a royal blue veil and navy manteau, or overcoat, asked, peeking out from behind the door.

"I heard that Quranic classes are being offered here," I responded.

"But who told you about them?" she demanded.

"Anisah Amira Jibril gives classes here," I stuttered.

Why was she being so suspicious? I was, after all, a Syrian woman hoping to attend a lesson in a mosque. And I was dressed properly for the occasion - a veil, a long skirt and a long-sleeved button-down top.

"Who told you to come here?" she asked again firmly. I had been told about the classes by Asma Kuftaro, the daughter of the country's former grand mufti and a prominent Muslim leader in her own right, who described the current climate for the Qubeisiat as a "golden era".

But suddenly I was afraid to reveal this. "Umm... Asma Kuftaro," I finally stammered. But I was sent away, and moments later, my phone rang. It was Asma Kuftaro. "You shouldn't go there again," she said. The woman from the mosque had called her up frantically, asking who I was and why I was bothering them. "They're not comfortable with strangers and they certainly don't want journalists there. They're not even used to being in mosques. I'm sorry."

Nawara fidgets with her hijab, a white veil made of a cotton-nylon blend, as she takes a final drag from her cigarette and flicks the butt out the window of the cab. She's tired from her afternoon siesta and utterly uncomfortable. We're heading back to the al Rahman mosque. Scratchy recitations of the Quran blare from the tape-deck. The driver has been eying us suspiciously in the rear-view mirror since Nawara lit up; smoking in public is not the kind of thing that young women with good reputations do in Syria.

Nawara, 23, has been working as a fixer in Syria for the last few years, helping foreign journalists navigate the country, find stories and report them. Tall and slim with cropped jet-black, unruly hair, she has traded in her cropped jeans and tank tops for the hijab, a long-sleeved button-down shirt and a tan floor-length skirt. She knows very little about the Qubeisiat, even though her aunt belongs to the group. But most Syrians know little about them, even though they are everywhere, easily recognisable by their distinctive dress.

They don a white, navy blue or black scarf, occasionally tied in a puff just underneath the chin or pinned just above the chin; a tan, navy blue or black manteau; and thick tan stockings with low black or navy loafers. Some women in the group say the colour of the scarf is a marker of status, with white indicating the lower ranks, navy, middle-ranked teachers, and black, the top leaders. They run the majority of the country's private elementary schools. And, with time, they have spread from Syria to neighbouring countries like Jordan and Kuwait and even to key cities in the US and Europe.

For decades, Syrian society has marvelled at the growth of the Qubeisiat - wondering who exactly they are, what kind of influence they have on young women, and what exactly they stand for. "We don't know enough about the Qubeisiat," says Hassan Abbas, a writer and political analyst. "They are surrounded by myth. We know that they are in the country and have been active for 25 years. But we don't know anything about them. They are the visible that are invisible."

Some call them a cult because of the devotion that students often show to their teachers—they often kiss their teachers' hands, and, some even say, their feet. Seculars fear their rising influence and their focus on getting young women to wear the hijab. Others accuse them of hating men because of the close ties that form among the women and because their dedication to the movement means they take on responsibilities beyond their homes.

Devout Muslims defend the Qubeisiat as merely an organised, hard-working network of female preachers who are trying to create a more Islamic society, and note that the political environment left the group with no choice but to work in secret. Led entirely by women, they are grooming a new generation of female sheikhas, and empowering women to take leadership positions once assumed only by men. Top preachers are authoring their own books on Islam, teaching their own classes and training legions of devout followers. They have been credited with popularising the hijab and the manteau worn by many conservative Muslims in Syria and abroad. And by infusing conservative interpretations of Islamic law with elements of Sufism, a mystical brand of Islam, they have lured throngs of young, educated women from influential families to a conservative brand of Islam with a slightly feminist edge.

It's an environment that remains entirely unfamiliar - and uncomfortable - to secular young women like Nawara. The daughter of former political prisoners, she has lived an unconventional life in Syria, with little concern for societal rules or religious communities. Young women like Nawara have come to feel threatened by the prevalence of the hijab, afraid that their own form of dress may one day have to change. As we move among the Qubeisiat, Nawara can't help but feel that much of what is being preached is directed at her lifestyle. The Qubeisiat do not govern her life, nor have they ever tried to recruit her. But as we spend time with women in the group, she begins to develop an awareness of the sway they have acquired in Syrian society.

I would come to learn that I had known members of the secretive group for years - even some of its top leaders. I had attended celebrations in their homes and heard some of them speak. I had always assumed they were simply ultraconservative Muslims eager to encourage young women to wear the hijab. I had no idea they were so controversial, and never knew the group had a name, because, it turns out, for years they did not. Controversy, it turns out, would help to give them one.

We arrive at the mosque, already drenched in sweat - we're not used to this kind of attire in the summertime. Nawara and I walk down the stairs on the side of the mosque and knock lightly on the whitewashed iron door. Nobody answers. Timidly, I push the door. It opens and we walk right in, take off our shoes and place them on the racks closest to the door. The room is covered in plush carpets. Up front, a single lawn chair is placed on a raised platform in front of a microphone.

Within a minute, the woman with the royal blue scarf reappears. "Assalamu Alaikum," she says coldly, clearly recognising us from our last attempt. "There is only a tajweed class today," she says, referring to the rules surrounding the pronunciation of the Quran. "Oh, I thought the anisah is coming today," I respond. (Anisah, literally "Miss", is also used to refer to teachers.) "It's OK. We'll be happy to attend the tajweed class."

Nawara and I join a dozen women seated on folding chairs as a slightly chubby woman goes through the shape that the mouth should make while enunciating different letters. "Say the "Waw," she says. They repeat after her: "Waw." "The Ein," "Ein." She points to her tongue and the back of her mouth in an attempt to show the group the source of the sound, overemphasising the shape of her mouth in the process.

"People who speak Arabic have perfectly shaped mouths - so we can pronounce the vowels correctly," she explains. "Foreigners - they have deformed mouths. Their mouths do not form the perfect O. That is why they can't say our vowels." I look over at Nawara, who shoots me a slight smirk. After another woman takes the stage to go through a tafsir (or explanation) of a Quranic verse, the room begins to fill, and the discipline of the class starts to give way. Suddenly the room is packed with more than 100 white scarves, mostly younger women, from teenagers to twenty-somethings.

The door finally opens and a crowd of women shuffle in a huddle around Anisah Amira. She's barely visible except for her long black flowing robes. As they approach the stage, the young women disperse. Jibril plants herself on the lawn chair in the front of the room, in front of colourful cardboard cutouts of palm trees, a reminder that the room is used to teach children Quran during the summer months.

Anisah Amira has a commanding presence. She has a sharp nose and a thin, pale face, her cheeks flushed with colour; her figure is concealed completely in black. Young women surround her at all times. When she enters a room, they stand to salute her. Her brother Ahmed Jibril is the leader of the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. But Amira has chosen a different battleground - the fight for the soul.

Next to her, a young teenager with unplucked brows, a tan coat and a white veil begins to sing, a microphone in hand. Her angelic voice has mesmerised the crowd with words of poetry dedicated to the Prophet Mohammad. Jibril sways to the beat of the daf, a single frame drum used in Sufi or spiritual remembrances, her eyes closed shut and her raspy voice echoing over the loud speakers as she leads the room through a chorus:

"We drank love in glasses," the whole room repeats. "A love that is tangible and present. We were touched and taught lessons in the love of the prophet... I can almost talk to the angels in the gardens of the prophet." As the remembrances come to an end, Jibril takes command of the stage. Her sermon is poetic, her voice rising and softening with each turn, through topics ranging from the threat of secularism to US imperialism to marriage and matters of the spirit. She throws out rhetorical questions intended to turn cultural assumptions upside down.

"Marriage is sunnah," she says, referring to the acts instituted and promoted by the Prophet Muhammad as good practice for any Muslim. "But acquiring knowledge is fard," or one's duty. "What good is marriage without knowledge?" Jibril, who peppers her lectures with references to poets and cultural icons, moves fluidly between subjects, and she does not linger long on marriage. "Killing the soul is forbidden," she continues, "but killing the essence and the goals of the soul is like killing the soul. And that is what America is doing. I spoke to a woman who came from America. I asked her, 'what do people live for in America?' She said 'pleasure and money.' I asked, 'what is the purpose of the state?' She said, 'money and power.' They are imposing secularism and secularism means imposing globalism by force."

"Our message is a universal one," Jibril says. "But America's message is not. Is there anyone here who is secular?" "Thank God, we are all believers," a girl shouts from the crowd. "Seculars believe with their five senses," says Jibril, her raspy voice echoing over the loud speaker. "Believers believe with their five senses and what is beyond those five senses. God help us defeat them for we are not able to defeat them alone. "

It's a message that goes against the grain of this once staunchly secular state, which has long promoted secularism as a way to handle its diverse population, composed mostly of Sunni Muslims, but with sizeable minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and other religious and ethnic groups. But over the past five years, as the nation faced international isolation after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al Hariri, for which it was widely blamed, the state has opened the gates to Islamic groups in order to sustain the support of its citizens. That, in turn, has given groups like the Qubeisiat more space to manoeuvre.

But many outside the group hope that this new freedom will bring the Qubeisiat out into the open - that questions about the group will be answered as they begin to shed their secretive ways. As the lecture comes to an end, Nawara and I gather our shoes and make our way through the crowd towards the exit. Once we're outside, a young woman calls after us. "Assalamu Alaikum," she says. "Can I get your name?"

I give her my name. "I'd love to meet with Anisah Amira if possible," I say. But she simply smiles and walks away. Nawara, meanwhile, is deep in thought. As we walk further away from the mosque towards the main street, she gets increasingly excited. "She was amazing. Amazing, just amazing." Nawara is aglow. "The way she made references! She quoted famous poets - the way she talks... if I was only a bit younger, she would have been my leader."

Munira al Qubeisi is their leader, but few of her followers have ever seen her or even heard her speak. "We belong to her, but we don't know her," says Maysoun, 31, who has piercing brown eyes, her slim figure tightly framed by a long black manteau. A teacher in one of the many elementary schools founded and run by the Qubeisiat, she joined the group almost a decade ago. "Thousands and thousands of people belong to her but don't know her. And the same applies to her. She doesn't know us. She's a name like the well-known imams."

But the allure of the Qubeisiat has little to do with a cult of personality around its leader - the group's identity is defined by the legion of preachers she has assembled over the course of 30 years. Miss Qubeisi, 75, who is unmarried, remains confined to her home and meets with only a handful of her top preachers. People who know her describe her as a serious woman, with a strict vision. Others call her a mother figure.

She began her rise to prominence at the same time as violent clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government erupted in the early 1980s. In the preceding decade, Qubeisi had formed strong alliances within the Abu Nour mosque, a powerhouse among Syria's Muslim institutions, and forged close ties with prominent Muslim leaders, including the former Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro. But the Brotherhood's armed insurgency - and the brutal government crackdown that followed - changed the face of Islamic expression in Syria.

Muslim groups and institutions came under tight control. The surviving Brotherhood leaders were either jailed or exiled, and other religious leaders fell in line as Syria reasserted itself as a staunchly secular nation. It was at this point that Qubeisi and her followers were forced underground. Some observers have suggested that her ties to various Brotherhood leaders required as much. They grew by teaching Quran and Islamic jurisprudence to young women in secret classes held in living rooms throughout the country.

Over time the group evolved into a highly organised and influential network of preachers. They lured the wives and daughters of prominent businessmen and leaders, holding classes in the most affluent parts of town and recruiting women from important families. And, in doing so, they gained financial backing and protection. They opened elementary schools around the country, where they focused on enforcing moral conduct rather than religious instruction, since they were restricted to teaching the state-designed curriculum. And they attracted large numbers of young women by offering them a complete network of jobs, suitors and even tutors for their children.

"If you have a crisis, they help you," says one member, who asked not to be named. "If you're sick, they won't leave you alone. If you're depressed, they extend their hand. If you need work, they make sure you find work - they send you to the right person. If you need money, they gather money from among them and help. They share in your happiness and in your celebrations and in your bad times." But their most powerful tool was Qubeisi's skill in recruiting a cadre of dedicated preachers, each with her own personality and style. These anisahs each attracted their own followers. After taking a series of courses, some of those students rose in the ranks to become anisahs in their own right. Each new anisah remains loyal to her own anisah, with top leaders receiving orders from Qubeisi herself.

"Twenty people sit under [Qubeisi] and she gives them instructions," says a prominent businessman who has helped finance Qubeisiat projects and has met Qubeisi. "Each of these 20 people has students and they in turn have students. It works like any company that has 30,000 to 40,000 employees. Like any other organisation in the world, they have six to seven top managers who will recommend the top employees. And their growth internationally was natural for them. A woman naturally sent money to her teacher once she moved or left the country."

Students who moved to other countries remained loyal to their anisah in Damascus. And as young women were married off to new cities, they found pre-existing networks of other followers. Hadia, 29, used to attend classes in Kuwait, but recently moved back to Damascus. A newer recruit, she does not yet wear the veil. Tanned with highlighted hair, she dons a sleeveless dress and sandals and attends weekly classes with Maysoun. Hadia thinks there is little that separates the Qubeisiat in other countries: "In Kuwait, Qubeisis have the same name. There is nothing that distinguishes us from the rest of the groups. It's like this family grew and the family became a governorate and the governorate became a country."

Every Tuesday evening, in a baroque-styled living room in an affluent district of Damascus, Maysoun, Hadia, and a dozen other young women between the ages of 18 and 35 sit in a semicircle around their anisah, sipping Turkish coffee and asking detailed questions about the application of Islamic law to their daily lives. Although the Syrian government has allowed the Qubeisiat leeway over the past few years, classes in the homes are still taking place, and the Qubeisiat, according to some observers, are still most comfortable working in such private settings.

While Maysoun and others in the class are dressed in typical Qubeisi garb—the white scarf and black manteau—others, like Hadia, wear no veil at all. Maysoun's anisah, who is dressed in black from head to toe, is a towering woman with a good sense of humour, a hearty chuckle and gold-rimmed glasses. Using The Jurisprudence of Worship, a book found in stores around Syria, the anisah methodically takes the class through the rules surrounding the wadu, the cleansing rituals required to purify the body and soul before the prayer. She peppers her lectures with anecdotes—about her trip to the United Nations years ago, a childhood friend who is an atheist, a little bit about the short skirts she's seeing in Syria today.

Maysoun has become more of an assistant to the anisah than a student; she has come a long way since her teenage years, when she kept short skirts, fashion magazines and make-up hidden in the back of her wardrobe. She had dropped out of high school and was expected to stay home until she married. She was even forbidden from driving. When Maysoun's anisah found out that Maysoun had dropped out of high school, she pushed Maysoun to retake her baccalaureate exam. Then she pushed Maysoun to cite Islamic traditions to convince her brother that she should be allowed to drive. Maysoun did, and bought a car. Then, finally, her anisah convinced her to attend college.

"She paid attention to the individual," says Maysoun. "She has a persistence that allows her to achieve something out of nothing. That is what makes you fond of her. If anything is good in my life, the credit is all hers." Both Hadia and Maysoun are still wary of talking about the Qubeisiat. Years of holding classes in secret are difficult to shake off. But they believe the work the Qubeisiat are doing is an imperative in their changing society. "As much as we are seeing women who wear hijab, we are also seeing the opposite thing happening," says Maysoun, seated at her home in Midan, a conservative Sunni area of Damascus. "We are living this struggle. Are we going to be able to raise this generation or is this generation going to be corrupt?"

Nearly three years ago, tucked in the winding streets of the old city, just behind the country's ancient Umayyad mosque, the Qubeisiat opened the first school in Syria dedicated solely to the religious training of women by women. The Nouriyeh school, which carries the endorsement of the Ministry of Endowment, is meant to produce Syria's next generation of Muslim sheikhas. And its establishment marks a new era for the Qubeisiat, as they open up and gain the support of their government.

At the Nouriyeh, young women memorise thousands of pages of the hadith and learn how to interpret Islamic texts so that they can one day become daiyat, or preachers of Islam, in their own right. They take classes like The Principles of Jurisprudence, the Characteristics of the Prophet, and the Science of the Hadith, in which students learn how to judge the veracity of the recorded sayings of the prophet. To gain admittance to the school, which offers a two-year program and an intensive, accelerated one-year course, students must have memorised the Quran, and must pass a difficult admissions exam. During the course of their studies, they are expected to start memorising the traditionally accepted volumes of hadith, which can take more than five years.

I visited the school with Nawara late on a summer day, as the final classes of the afternoon were coming to a close. We were guided up a stairwell, past a flutter of activity, to the office of the principal, Samar al Ascha. A stout woman with a soft smile and shy demeanour, she is dressed in black, with her veil pinned just above her chin. The sister of a friend of my father's, I saw her many times as a child when she visited the US, but had no idea she belonged to the Qubeisiat.

After tea, we take a tour of the state-of-the-art facility, which is housed in one of the country's oldest buildings - it was once part of the larger Umayyad mosque. In the library, which is lined with new computers equipped with an archive of more than 15,000 hadith, we meet a flood of young students. Carved in the centre of the wall is the mosque's original mihrab, indicating the direction of prayer. Textbooks on hadith and Arabic grammar are stacked on shelves that surround a shiny wooden conference table.

The girls are eager to get home - but a few of them are willing to speak to us. Reem Kamel, 19, has enrolled in the school's two year program at the same time as she is completing her last year of high school - in which most students do little but prepare for their critical baccalaureate exam. "It's an opportunity to know the Prophet and to know his traditions - to become closer to him," she tells me.

Hind Sahloul, the school's star student, is excited to have a more regimented curriculum. She has already memorized the Quran and the hadith, which took her seven years. "In the mosque, we were able to memorise the Quran and the hadith. I'm very happy because in the school there is more structure. There is no particular curriculum in the mosque. Here, every day, there is a specific book or assignment that we're working on."

It's an opportunity to change the way the Qubeisiat have done business for decades by bringing everything out in the open. But after decades of secrecy, the women still remain wary of outsiders and the government. Nawara and I watch as the students and teachers shuffle out to do their evening prayers. Nawara eyes them warily and begins to whisper in my ear, but I can feel the gaze of one of the teachers on us. They are uncomfortable with our presence, and particularly with Nawara; her Alawite surname may have deepened their unease.

The school has emptied out and we are guided towards the entrance. A group of the teachers surround Anisah Samar, almost as though they are protecting her. "Anisah Samar, we'd love to come back and spend time here," I say, as I repeat thank you after thank you for taking the time to give us a tour. "I'd love to attend a class, if possible." There's a cold silence from the women around us. Nawara whispers in my ear, "We should go. You can ask later."

Somehow I know there's no later. The door opens behind us. Anisah Samar flashes us a quick smile, and we are gently ushered out the door.

Rhonda Roumani, a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation, is at work on a series of articles about youth in the Middle East.