In Syria, when a woman says she is going to a government rally, it could be code for going shopping with friends.

Emily Robbins, 23, learned such proper protocol for government-sponsored protests in Syria's socialist dictatorship and other cultural quirks during her two stays in Damascus, Syria's capital. Robbins, who grew up in Ashland and recently graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, will return to Syria this September with a Fulbright award to study the role of women in sacred spaces.

Robbins attended protests against the U.S. and the European Union as part of her earlier research. The government announced the rallies with text messages on state-controlled cell phones. All government employees got the day off and were expected to attend.

"After a little bit, people get bored," Robbins said, recalling conversations she overheard. "What are you doing?" one woman might ask.

"Going to the rally," the standard reply.

"Oh, so am I," the response would come.

"But you both know you're going shopping," Robbins said.

Robbins decided to study Arabic while she was studying in Argentina during the gap year she took between high school and college. Her cousin, Rachel Corrie, was killed that year in the Gaza Strip when an Israeli bulldozer ran her over while she was protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes.

"After that it seemed very important for me to learn Arabic," she said.

Since that time, a play written about Corrie's death has caused national and local controversy. The play was slated for performance this season at Oregon Stage Works, but was cancelled amid disputes surrounding the play's political content.

Studying Syria

Robbins studied in Damascus for a semester during her junior year and returned the next summer for research on her senior thesis about young women and their interaction with the Syrian government. She spent most of her time with other women, memorizing prayers with young girls in the mosque and studying and socializing with her host sisters.

"I found that actually really positive in my own development as a woman," Robbins said. "After having spent a lot of time in mainly women's groups, I came back to the U.S. to find I was much more confident in mixed groups."

Robbins said she also stopped buying from retailers that support Israel, such as the Gap and Starbucks, after seeing thousands of Lebanese refugees pour into Damascus during Israel's bombing campaigns.

"Seeing the damage that has been done by Israel, which is backed by the U.S., was a really eye-opening experience to me," she said.

Robbins came back with more appreciation for America in other areas, though, such as the clean air of Ashland and all the activities available to young people. Growing up in Ashland, Robbins was active in speech and debate, Little League, volleyball and water polo, programs not available to most Syrian youth.

When Robbins returns to Syria, she will continue researching women's growing role in public and sacred spaces, although she avoided political topics on her Fulbright proposal because the Syrian government had to approve the research.

Although the Middle East has a reputation for danger, Robbins' mother Bonnie Brodersen said she is not worried about her daughter's safety.

"We visited her in Syria last year," Brodersen said. "We would be out at two o'clock in the morning, and we felt very safe."

Robbins' academic career at Swathmore earned her high praise.

"She was just an outstanding student, very engaged, very accomplished, and very creative," said Prof. Steven Piker, Robbins' senior thesis advisor.

But Robbins said she doesn't feel any different from most 23-year-olds.

"I think growing up in Ashland and going to a liberal arts college, I've always been surrounded by people who are passionate about what they're doing," she said.

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