Syrian Women’s Path Towards Political Participation… A Supportive UN Resolution Based on Breakdown and Marginalization
On October 31, 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution No. 1325, which was a new culmination of the struggle of women in times of war and conflict, and universal recognition of the importance of women’s voices and roles in establishing peace and security in a world overwhelmed by the scourges of conflict.
Despite being issued by the UN Security Council and the commitment and obligation it imposes over the countries of the world, the resolution enforcement has encountered innumerable obstacles; depending on the conflicts and controversies of each region, and the Syrian context has not been less complicated to enforce the resolution.
With the complexity of the Syrian scene on more than one level; enforced displacement, displacement, loss, deteriorating economic situation, and death in its various forms in the everyday life of Syrians, if we address the points of the aforementioned UN resolution, we will realize that Syria needs it today more than ever, and that Syrian women today have a window overlooking the future and that they must open it despite all the winds that shut it tightly.
What is 1325?
Resolution No. 1325 focuses primarily on the inclusion of women in all peacekeeping and peacebuilding measures and stipulates upon “ensuring more women representation at all levels of decision-making in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for conflict prevention, management and resolution”, in addition to increasing women’s participation at all levels of decision-making in the processes of conflict resolution and peacemaking.
The resolution also dealt with provisions related to the protection of women and taking special measures to prevent the violations against them and to empower them.
In fact, in recent years, we have witnessed the Syrian political opposition’s endeavour to boost women’s representation within its ranks, whether in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in the Negotiations Committee, and finally in the Constitutional Committee. All of this seemed promising.
On the other hand, social media also reminded us, last July, of a detestable reality through a video on a killing of a girl in the Syrian city of Hasaka because she refusal to marry her cousin, a crime that unfortunately falls under the name of “honour crimes” or women’s murders in the Syrian law.
This crime was filmed and the world saw it, but many similar crimes with all the details of their brutality are witnessed by Syrians, with the same end “the killing of a woman or even a girl, and perhaps a child”, and instead of a law that isolates the perpetrator from society and casts him at the bottom of the shame heap, perpetrators of crimes against women receive reduced penalties that ensure them to continue their life as normal as it was before.
Women’s Reality in Numbers
Between these two scenes is a long-lived struggle and a lot of what Syrian women have provided. Last March 2021, the Syrian Network for Human Rights published a report on the situation of Syrian women. The report referred to the ongoing horrible violations against women, noting that those violations did not receive sufficient international attention considering the horrific scale of the intensity and diversity of the patterns of those violations, including grave violations, some of which hit the level of crimes against humanity.
The report records the killing of at least 16,104 women. As for detention and enforced disappearance, at least 9,264 women are still detained or forcibly disappeared at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria. According to the report, at least 92 women were killed due to torture, 74 of them at the hands of the Syrian regime forces. The report also records at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence, 8,013 of which were committed by the Syrian regime, 879 of which took place in detention centers, and 3,487 were committed by ISIS, while 11 incidents of sexual violence were committed by armed opposition factions, and 12 were at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, what is striking in this report is addressing the gender-based violence against women working in public affairs, whether in political, media or relief activities, as well as the restrictions that force them to abandon their work. In this context, the report documents at least 67 incidents of assault and intimidation against women activists, female workers, or women centers due to their activities from March 2020 to March 2021, in areas non-controlled by the Syrian regime in each of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Ez-zor governorates, which are under the control of one of the following forces: the National Army/ the armed opposition factions, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, but the Syrian regime areas and practices are not included in the report. The report says that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the National Army, and cells affiliated with ISIS targeted women in a discriminatory manner because of their work.
This mentioned information is in fact the tip of the iceberg only. As recently, for example, but not limited to, the Syrian society witnessed a clear and direct incitement by an influential public figure, who has many followers and disciples, targeting female workers in the field of women protection, support, and empowerment, as they were accused of working for the West with the aim of destabilizing the morals of the Syrian society, and that they are “recruited by major entities in the West.” This accusation and others are part of systematic campaigns targeting active women and literally putting their “life at risk of death”, which may push some women to retreat and give up, instead of harnessing their knowledge and experience to empower and protect Syrian women.
In the midst of all this, it is necessary to view those who were able to overcome all the restrictions that hamper women’s path, and through them we can identify the status of this UN resolution which, despite its importance, is still present absent in this world.
Women’s Presence in the Coalition
Ruba Habboush, Vice President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and Member of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ Negotiating Committee, believes that changing women’s situation and reinforcing their presence in political life begins with the society first. As society needs to believe in women’s capabilities and competences. One of the reasons that Ruba sees as having an impact on the presence of women in political action is that political life almost did not exist in Syria before the revolution, except for clandestine work, which was limited to some elites, most of whom were men.
The coalition witnessed what is known as the women’s expansion, and Ruba attributes the reason for the increase in the number of female members in the coalition to the increase in women’s demand for political work and the belief of a number of political parties and components in the role of women, in addition to the questions raised by the international community on the lack of women’s representation in decision-making positions. All these reasons combined contributed to the presence of more women in political positions. Ruba adds, “I can say that over the past years, women have proven their great ability to work in politics. The conditions and pressure that women suffer from are greater and much more compared to men, in addition to the stereotype and the fact that women are always subject to evaluation even in their personal life.”
In fact, social media usually witnesses bullying campaigns against women, who are able to reach positions in the opposition entities much more than men. Until today, there are only 8 women out of 84 members in the National Coalition, and despite their small number, they are active, as 3 women are in the Presidential and Political Body, one woman is in the Constitutional Committee, one woman is in the Negotiation Commission, and finally one woman is in the Organizations’ Office.
Dima Moussa, Member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Participant of the Constitutional Committee, says: “Women’s representation in the Syrian public affairs surely still does not match the level of their role in the community and even their work in various sectors. However, there is an improvement that cannot be underestimated, in this regard, and a greater focus on women’s empowerment, albeit slowly and not yet in the required level. We still have loads of work to do to make the acceptance of women’s participation and gender awareness at the required level. Dima stresses that the efforts of Syrian feminists played a major role in promoting the political participation of Syrian women, and feminists work on this and other levels to empower Syrian women, because this is the right of women who make up half of the society.
The percentage of women in the Constitutional Committee did not exceed 30%, and Dima adds that the reason behind this percentage is that the UN envoy and his team compensated for the lack of women in the political parties by designating a larger number of women in the civil society group. In fact, in a simple calculation, women constitute a small percentage of the candidates for the negotiating body in the Constitutional Committee. In the maximized committee, there are 7 women out of 50 members, or only 14%, and in the minimized committee 2 out of 15, or only 13%.
Dima stresses that the reason for the increase in women’s presence cannot be only attributed to the will of the international community, but rather is a Syrian feminist endeavour, and she gives an example of this; the role of feminists in establishing the quota for women’s participation in the political process in the statement of the Riyadh II Conference. She adds, “So far, the presence of women in decision-making positions is still less than the quota (30%), bearing in mind that the quota is not only a demand of the international community, but rather a demand of women, especially Syrian feminists who are interested in public affairs, and despite setting the quota and the commitment of most bodies and institutions to achieve it, most of them did not adhere to it, not in the decision-making positions, nor in membership.”
Syrian Women’s Political Movement
In 2017, the Syrian Women’s Political Movement was established, and it was the first female political body, as Dima Mousa points out, and she believes that the movement has a real imprint in enhancing the presence of women in political action, and the movement has been able to attract Syrian women from all regions of Syria in addition to women who live abroad. Since its establishment, the women’s political movement has been working on communicating with various Syrian parties and holding meetings with international bodies on various points related to the Syrian file, and through this, it works to enhance the presence of Syrian women in the political scene.
Dima, Member of the Movement, believes that one of the movement’s most important activities is the national consultative sessions that are held with women’s groups inside Syria and Syria’s neighbouring countries, which result in political papers that shed light on these women’s opinions and recommendations on various topics, especially those related to the political process.
Politics and Civil Society
Hind Kabawat, Head of Tastakel Organization and Director of the Conflict Resolution Program at George Mason University, thinks that we, as Syrians, are far from enforcing the Resolution No. 1325, as she says, “the contribution of women is still modest and limited,” and according to her point of view, “thanks to the international community and the former UN envoy to Syria, Stephen De Mistura, we may have never seen women sitting at the negotiating table.” She emphasizes that any progress we witness at the political level is undoubtedly linked to civil society, as civil society is the conscience of politicians. Hence the importance of Tastakel for Ms. Hind, being an organization for women’s education that started its activity in 2014, and it focuses on women’s political empowerment, in addition to conflict resolution and preparing women leaders, in addition to workshops on transitional justice and psychological support.
The organization supports women and girls from various Syrian governorates and works through several centers inside Syria and Turkey. The organization has contributed to getting girls to universities through its partnerships with several universities inside Syria and Turkey. Hind considers that one of the most important achievements of the organization is conveying the messages of women inside Syria through international platforms and opening the way for them to participate in the political process. She gave an example of the important role played by civil society and women in guiding the political compass, that is what happened with Bab al-Hawa humanitarian crossing, where women carried white roses and stood in a sit-in in Azaz, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, for the closure of Bab al-Hawa crossing, the only remaining crossing for humanitarian aid. In fact, this sit-in was a real pressure card in the negotiations related to the crossing.
Syrian Women’s Assembly
The formation of the Syrian Women’s Assembly affiliated with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was recently announced. Sundus Felfela, an activist inside Syria, says, “the Syrian Women’s Assembly is distinguished from other Syrian women’s groups that its core began inside Syria, and that its goal is to empower women and urge them to boost their participation and convey the voice of Syrian women and their political vision from the heart of the reality inside Syria.” Sundus believes that women’s political visibility started to be seen, but we cannot say that they have reached the decision-making positions, adding, “this is what we aspire to achieve through the Syrian Women’s Assembly.”
Ruba Habbush talks about the birth of the Syrian Women’s Assembly as the outcome of the work plan of the Women’s Office that was created in the coalition at the start of the former presidential commission. She continues, “we have held dozens of meetings, communications, workshops and seminars, and we have networked with women in the liberated areas because they are the most important in this project… We started from inside Syria and built bridges to the outside, not the other way around.” Ruba explains that the Assembly is a strategic project within the framework of building national institutions. The Assembly also conveys the reality of Syrian women, their true desires, and their vision for their participation in the future of Syria, away from foreign agendas or the desires of donors. It also draws the strategies, builds the capacities, and puts the foundations for women to be prime ministers, parliament chairwomen, ministers, or any position they deserve, while working to ensure women’s legal and constitutional rights.
Ruba believes that the concept of feminism was limited to certain elites and to a specific class. For her, the most important thing now is for women to hear their voice, for women to overcome their ideological and intellectual differences, and to agree on due rights that cannot be waived.
Syrian Feminist Lobby
The Syrian Feminist Lobby derives its vision from the aspirations of Syrian women towards freedom and equality and the aspirations of the Syrian people towards a state of citizenship and democracy, in addition to the International Bill of Human Rights and related conventions, and it was established in 2014.
Writer Rima Fleihan, Founder and Executive Director of the Syrian Feminist Lobby, explains, “the lobby carries out several activities, including political pressure and analysis of the events, as well as an evaluation to draw up long-term strategies relevant to the Syrian context.” The lobby also organizes advocacy campaigns aimed at combating sexual and gender-based violence, which is one of the most important obstacles that stand in the way of activating the role of women and accessing their rights, as well as introducing international resolutions such as Resolution No.1325 and terms such as feminism, etc.
Rima, who had political experience through her participation in the Syrian National Council, thinks that there is no radical change around the participation of women, but rather attempts to improve the image only. She adds, “I’m afraid, and it is a suspicion and I wish I’m wrong, that the opposition may create structures appended to its entities, similar to what the regime did in previous stages, where specific gatherings are dedicated and allowed to operate, and consider them the only representation of Syrian women, as if they are creating a twin for the Women’s Union, which ended on the opposite side, and this is wrong.”
Among the Syrian organizations that fight for women’s rights is the “Women Now”, a non-profit Syrian feminist organization that works to empower women and girls in various sectors and levels, and it has 4 programs, the knowledge and economic empowerment, the social and political empowerment, the protection program, and the research and advocacy program.
Lubna Al-Kanawati, Former Country Director for Syria and Turkey programs at Women Now, says that Resolution No.1325 in Syria faces major obstacles, starting with the challenges of women’s presence in the public sphere, especially in the political process and decision-making processes, or even in building security and safety plans. She points out that there was a permanent, systematic, and structural exclusion of women’s rights even before the revolution, that is, it exists in the structure of society and the structure of its institutions. The complexities of the war and its impact on society and on women in particular are added to the above.
Efforts to implement Resolution 1325 in Syria are still shy and limited, according to Lubna. She believes that efforts to enforce it are limited to women’s organizations concerned with defending women’s rights, the rights of female survivors, and the approach to justice and equal representation of all components of the society, and these organizations are generally few in the Syrian arena. They are the only ones that push towards enforcing Resolution No.1325, and sometimes there is support from international bodies, whether at the level of organizations or governments.
Lubna also spoke about the obstacles to enforcing the UN resolution, as she considers the various de-facto authorities in Syria to be the first and most important obstacle, describing them as dictatorial and violent. She also says, “this does not mean that there are no successful experiences that have tried to push for the presence of women in public spaces, especially in the governance and political sectors, but unfortunately the pressure practiced by the de-facto authorities is always the biggest challenge as they try to remove women from the scene.” She adds that the pressure of the de facto authorities is accompanied by the authority of the patriarchal masculine society that practices exclusion and structural violence on women, and thus also has a role in deactivating the role of women and the double pressure placed on them.
Civil society appears to be an important gateway to the enforcement of Resolution No.1325 in Syria, but here, too, we encounter another problem, as the international community’s funding in recent years has witnessed many financial complications, which led to the withdrawal of a number of donors, and the suspension of many projects, which prompted organizations to pay attention to the projects that target women, and the problem here is that these organizations are not specialized in dealing with women and their expertise in this field is limited. Lubna explains, “this reflected negatively on women themselves, to the extent that some organizations do not have female staff members, and the result is the exclusion of women who are the core of these projects.”
In addition to all of the above, some projects are imposed by donors with an imported template, and often these projects are not effective or at least unsustainable. Another obstacle that Lubna refers to is related to the impact of civil society projects on women’s reality and access to the enforcement of Resolution No.1325 in the Syrian arena and the reality of violence, war, economic and cultural conditions, and many others that have become very complex. She gives an example of the displacement that took place in Ghouta in Rif Dimashq This displacement came after years of building and establishing women leaderships and projects that effectively targeted women, but their diaspora and the new reality that was imposed on them led to the destruction and loss of everything that was done.
We Have to Keep Working
In recent years, Syrian women have managed to progress into the ranks of decision-making positions, but this is still limited and insufficient. The obstacles are numerous, starting with the society and not ending with the elites, nor with the public and private circumstances, but it is certain that breaking the restrictions imposed on women requires a strong and organized civil movement, and here the international community bears a responsibility in this aspect…
A political, moral, organizational, economic responsibility…etc, the responsibility for the continued grinding of Syrians by guns and war without being able to put an end to it, which allowed the de-facto authorities to have the upper hand, the responsibility for the continuation of war crimes, arrests, violence and the repetition of massacres without stopping, so that non-stability and insecurity becomes the title under which Syrians live, so women become victims over and over again, to a society that knows nothing but violence and the language of weapons, and the work to achieve the least of their “protection” rights requires huge and strenuous efforts that carry the risk of death, the responsibility for weak and ill-considered funding that leads to the absurdity of what is being achieved, the responsibility of being deaf to hear the many honest clear voices that need no interpretation, and the result is what we suffer today on the path of pain to achieve the axioms of women’s rights.
Syrian women do not have the luxury of getting tired, nor surrendering to this reality, for it is the easy and impossible option, because it means that our girls will not enjoy the least of their rights, it means that we cancel a struggle and groans that came out appealing to what remains of this world’s conscience.