LONDON, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a girl growing up in Syria, Om Khaled had little say in her own destiny, married at 14 to a man chosen by her father and unable to leave her home alone.
But her life has changed dramatically since her country plunged into civil war four years ago, with Om Khaled emerging as an inspirational leader, running five centres in northern Syria providing education and hope to thousands of women.
The 41-year-old former hairdresser said she had not set out to become a leader or challenge the role of women in Syria but felt compelled to protect her community.
While women initially took a stand alongside men in peaceful street protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, as militant groups got involved in Syria's conflict women were forced back into their homes, isolated again.
That is when Om Khaled decided to use a property she had inherited to set up a centre in her home town of Kafranbel in northwest Syria where women could continue to meet, to discuss ways to cope with life in war and attend talks and workshops.
At first men in Kafranbel were suspicious of the centre and unwilling to let their wives or daughters go there but gradually they relented, realising the benefits of women learning new skills that could be applied both in the home and outside.
The first centre opened in Kafranbel in July 2013 and was followed by the opening of similar centres in Maarat Hurma in 2014 and Maarat al-Numan, Jbala and Jabal al-Zawiya this year.
Om Khaled, who prefers to be called simply 'Khaled's mother' rather than use her full name, said she had been surprised by her ability to mobilise people and the trust in her leadership. But she remains modest about her initiative to open the first safe space for women.
A VOICE FOR WOMEN
"I am not a hero. I have changed because I needed to change," said Om Khaled via an interpreter, before receiving the annual Hero Award on Tuesday at Trust Women, a women's rights conference run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I am now so much more confident. I have been surprised by the energy I have found in me. I just didn't expect to be able to change the community as I have but people believe in me."
Her new role is a sharp contrast to her life before the uprising in Syria when she worked at a women's hairdressing salon but spent most of her time looking after her husband and her four children, who are aged between 16 and 25.
Om Khaled said she had been one of the few women working in Kafranbel, a town of about 20,000 people that once boasted of being the largest fig producer in the country. Her family needed the money to educate their children.
Kafranbel's media savvy residents have gained notoriety during the four-year-old civil war for their non-violent resistance by drawing banners in English targeted at a global audience that skewer the rule of Assad's family.
Since Assad's government responded to protests with violent crackdowns and the conflict escalated into an armed rebellion and splintered rival groups, the death toll in Syria has risen to more than 250,000. Around four million of the country's 23 million population have fled the country.
Om Khaled said a major change in Syrian society arising from the war was that women have found a voice and have come together in organised groups.
"We have always been a very closed community and there was little change from the traditional roles," said Om Khaled with an infectious smile and easy laugh.
"But at the centres women aged from 13 to 90 can learn how to stitch, first aid, or English, and come for advice. Women in the whole community have got something from these centres and the men also recognise this as it helps them."
Upheld as a example of female leadership across Syria, Om Khaled is in demand from women from other regions of Syria who seek her advice about replicating her women's centres, which are now flourishing.
Om Khaled said she is always willing to help - and sees her future in helping Syrian society, maybe as a politician.
"I think I will get a political role in the future," she said. "But one thing I do know is that I do want to stay among the women."
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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