(The identity of the journalist has been withheld for security reasons)
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Walaa’s parents used to force her to stay indoors, fearing for her safety in the war-torn city of Homs. Now she proudly walks the streets each day with a kalashnikov and camouflage uniform.
For many women like Walaa, living in hard-hit areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, it is the first time in months they have been able to rejoin the outside world since Syria plummeted into civil war.
In a conservative region where laws and custom typically restrict the rights and opportunities of women, they are playing a part in Assad’s paramilitary forces, evidence of just how much the conflict, after more than two years and 80,000 dead, has reshaped and militarized Syria.
“I was an office secretary before 2011. Then the kidnappings started in Homs, and the war here began. From then on I stayed home. All I did was watch the news and argue with my parents,” the 32-year-old told Reuters.
“In mid-2012 people started to talk about the creation of the National Defence Forces (NDF). I thought this could be my opportunity to get out of the house and get some work.”
The NDF were formed to regularize militias that backed Assad. Groups that once were accused by the opposition of brutal massacres now have uniforms and salaries paid by the army. They call themselves a new kind of military reserve force.
Walaa got three weeks’ training in firearms, first aid and military drills. Like the men, she gets 15,000 Syrian pounds ($150) a week - no small sum in a country whose economy is collapsing.
Women like her who have joined the NDF do not go into combat and are never near the front line, but they are an increasingly common sight for drivers going through checkpoints.
More than the risks or economic rewards, most women interviewed talked about joining the NDF as a social and perhaps even a romantic opportunity.
“A lot of my girlfriends are in the NDF. I went home a few weeks ago to check it out, and it seemed really cool ... All the girls seemed happy, and the environment is friendly,” said Nisreen, a Homs native currently living in Damascus.
She is considering going back to Homs to join up.
“A lot of girls in my family joined. And hey, you never know, I may even find myself a husband,” she joked.
The trend is still small - NDF fighters say female recruits number in the hundreds - but the number is rising, and is higher if you include women who have signed up for training as a self-defense skill, but not to work.
Vendors in Assad strongholds say militarization has become a marketable fashion statement.
“I’ve bought lots of camouflage shirts and sweaters, and lots of girls buy them now,” said Yasser, a Tartous shopkeeper.
“It’s a really good business for us small shop owners.”
Syria’s laws are less restrictive for women than in many parts of the Middle East, but gender roles were still largely determined by conservative societal norms, and wartime severely curtailed their opportunities.
The NDF has given them back a small public role.
“From the beginning it was completely accepted, and I was surprised. I didn’t expect that. So we started to organize things better,” said an army officer in Homs, who asked to remain anonymous.
“This is an investment in our national pride. It doesn’t have to be materially effective; it’s about raising spirits.”
Women are in NDF units in central Homs and Hama province as well as coastal Latakia and Tartous. There are also plans to expand training for women to Damascus, the officer said.
The symbolism of the NDF women feeds into the sectarian divide that has deepened during the civil war. For Assad’s supporters, largely drawn from minorities like his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, putting women in uniform and at checkpoints demonstrates the more liberal and tolerant image they want to project.
“This reflects the regime’s claim of being a secular state,” said Rakan, a 30-year-old NDF fighter in Homs.
He says there are concrete benefits, too: “It’s helped us a lot with them at the checkpoints; it lightens our burden.”
It is also a way to provoke opponents they call Islamist “terrorists”, most of whom are from Syria’s more conservative Sunni Muslim majority.
“We see them as whores for Assad. This is just to taunt us for our morals,” said Ahmed, a rebel in Aleppo. “Guys make rude jokes about what they would do if they caught them.”
Rebels have occasionally filmed female “fighters”, their faces wrapped in headscarves, saying they had no choice but to take up arms. Most opposition activists admit this is a media ploy to stir up their followers.
Syria analyst Joshua Landis says the embrace of women in Syria’s traditionally male army environment is a sign of how much fighting now defines this country of 23 million.
“Every aspect of society is becoming militarized. This is particularly pressing for the state side. Alawites have around 3 million people. If you are trying to use that for most of your fighting force, it’s very limited,” he said.
Rebels, he said, have less need to turn to women. They have a much larger pool of young Sunni male combatants.
Wary of rising sectarian tensions, other women say they are preparing for an all-out war.
Fadwa, from the mostly Alawite town of Masyaf, has lost a brother, cousin and brother-in-law to the fighting.
She fears for her four young children and husband and believes that given her town’s proximity to pro-opposition Sunni areas, the fighting could one day hit her army-fortified town.
“Alawites are under threat. We are targets. This is the least we can do; learn to defend ourselves,” she said.
Fadwa kept her job as a teacher instead of joining patrols. But she is encouraging women in her family to join the NDF, or at least get training.
For Walaa, joining the NDF was about regaining the dignity she felt she lost when armed men took charge of her streets.
“The way people look at me has changed,” she said. “I feel like I regained old parts of my life. I feel confident again. I feel respected.”
($1 = 97.4000 Syrian pounds)
Writing and additional reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Will Waterman