Doneer aan de Mr. Hans van Mierlo Stichting
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The escalating acts of war in Syria are not only detrimental to human rights in general, but also to women in particular. The unfolding paradigm change towards female activism has come to a full stop. Active western involvement is required.
By Rula Asad and Kawa Hassan
The visibility and participation of women in the Syrian revolution – from the very first moment and throughout the nineteen months that the revolution has been going on now to this day – has been impressive. Women have led campaigns for democracy, freedom, dignity, civil peace and against sectarianism. They have organised peaceful demonstrations in various Syrian cities across the country, and others have acted as spokespersons for various political bodies and on every side of the political spectrum. The political awareness has grown in Syria during the revolution, and women in particular, having gained significant experience through observation and participation, have been active in political discussions. Indeed, women have become partners in decision-making processes in their communities. Women have also defended young people in demonstrations, protecting them by acting as human barriers between security forces and protesters, and there have been reports of women protecting activists by escorting them across borders, making use of the fact that the presence of female passengers reduced the likelihood of cars being inspected. The question is: will these changes last? Is there a paradigm shift in the way women participate in politics?
Stepping back from Streets
The escalation of the Syrian regime’s military operations and the growth of the armed elements of the opposition have brought a substantial back-lash to the political participation of women. Most visibly, acts of war have led women to step back from their active presence in the streets, as it was no longer a safe place for anyone. Instead, women have found roles behind the front lines, for example in providing medical supplies, fund-raising, and providing care for stricken families. As a result, women’s energy and efforts have been diverted away from claiming their rights and making their voices heard. Reports of women being kidnapped and raped, since August 2011, represent another major setback to Syrian women and female activists. A ‘macho’ masculine mentality has resurfaced, for instance in the fact that women are being banned from participating in protests or direct action, for fear of attracting ‘shame’. One rape victim told us that after she was raped she came home to find that her husband – who had at first encouraged her to go out and protest, and painted the flag of independence on her face – had packed her things and told her not to think of returning to him, or even to see her children.
From the streets to social media
Such restrictions on their movement forced women to think of alternative ways to continue their activities. Women started to organise sit-ins in houses, and have taken advantage of the freedom provided by the internet. Indeed, they are actively using social networking sites, especially Facebook, and blogging as a platform to speak freely against oppression and injustice – to voice the ideas which would otherwise be silenced by the militarisation of the conflict. There is a clear need for a safe place to demand and discuss the establishment of a civil, democratic state that guarantees women’s rights and equality. Facebook has provided such a platform; several groups that support Syrian women and where people can discuss a Syrian revolution for women have been started on Facebook. Furthermore, some women who have suffered assault have also spoken of their experiences in videos published on YouTube.
These new ways open to women to voice their concerns and claim their rights have until now not really materialised into real political opposition groups. Looking at the most important political opposition groups, we find that women’s participation is low. Out of a total of 200 members of The Syrian National Council just 24 are female members despite an earlier statement that a 30% quota for women would be implemented. Women’s representation in the Kurdish National Council does not exceed 7%. The situation is similar in the National Coordination Committee, although no accurate figures are available. This situation has fuelled resentment among women working in these groups, as well as among activists in the field. Indeed, women agree that their low political representation does not reflect their new revolutionary roles and sacrifices.
The fact is that existing opposition groups have no clearly specified position or programs on wom-en’s issues. Indeed, no group has yet put forward any clear or serious statement about addressing issues of concern to women or preventing discrimination – instead, in their manifestos we find just one or two sentences about women’s rights. Most women and female activists – even female politicians active in those political groups – believe, however, that such a general, superficial mention of women’s rights is no more than window dressing intended to convey an image of the group as ‘civilized’.
The reality is that politically active women are also hesitant to put women’s issues on the agenda of the groups in which they are active. This is for two reasons. First, because the complex situation and the need for humanitarian relief impose themselves as the only priorities for discussion. Second, a ‘macho’ masculine mentality has prevailed in political opposition groups, preventing female members from being effective in their roles. Huda Zein, a former member of the Syrian National Coordination Committee says: ‘As women in the community, we had to include women’s issues in our meetings and our discussions, but we always got engaged in discussing the complicated and bloody situation in Syria instead. I admit that was a huge mistake.’ As a result, women are afraid that the issues that concern them will be marginalised in any post-Assad scenario, just as they are now. Specific concerns include the question of reforming current civil and criminal laws, which both limit women’s rights and freedom, and complete and immediate implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It is feared that issues of reconstruction, compensation for the families of martyrs, and other issues related to the current crisis will be used to justify the marginalisation of women’s rights issue.
The recent deterioration of the political environment for women and an increasing fear that issues of concern to women will be seen to be of secondary importance, has led some women to found their own political movements, albeit hesitantly. A member of the Syrian National Council, Mouna Mostafa, said: ‘We have to set up and establish our own political parties, to ensure we are represented during the transitional phase – otherwise we will have failed to create a space for women in society, the economy, and in politics.’
Precarious paradigm change: Now or never
These dual developments are also evident in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where women did pro-actively and passionately participate in revolutions, while their political position has rapidly deteriorated. In his first speech in Tripoli after the overthrow of Kadafi, National Transitional Council (NTC) Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil declared on 23 October 2011 that sharia law would be ‘the basic source of legislation, and that any law which contradicts Islamic principles is void’. Muslim brothers in Egypt declared that they are in favour of women’s rights ‘as long as they don not contradict with sharia’. In Tunisia, the cradle of these dignity revolutions, the political party Enahda has claimed to retain a secular constitution. However, its ambiguity towards women’s rights, the collusion of Enahda with liberal oriented men and women and the brutal attacks of Salafists against these people constitute real dangers for equal freedoms and rights of all sections in Tunisian society.
Therefore the new paradigm of active women’s participation is under pressure in all of these countries, and the momentum to really effectu-ate change seems to have disappeared. It is now or never. The changes that did happen in revolutionary times shows the strength of human agency, against all odds. Individuals can not do this on their own, however. An active role of Western actors is required to support Syrian voices that call for gender equality and to translate this new precarious paradigm into clear policies. Western actors can provide funding for projects that aim at embedding women’s rights in the constitution. This will ensure gender equality, and the protection and promotion of universal human rights. In addition, they can support projects that aim at strengthening the capacities of women and other new actors in civil society.
Rula Asad is an independent Syrian journalist and women’s rights activist. She graduated from Damascus university in 2006 (journalism), and studied International Affairs and Diplomacy at the Syrian International Academy.
Kawa Hassan works as Knowledge Officer at Hivos where he coordinates Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia. He holds a Master’s degree in international relations from the University of Amsterdam, and studied English and German at Almustansyria University, Baghdad, Iraq. He writes about transitions, democratisation and donor assistance in the Middle East.
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