international analysis and commentary

Active yet absent: the women of Syria’s opposition

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“We once had to beg President Assad for reforms,” tweeted Syrian activist Rafif Jouejati on November 8th. “Now we’re begging the Syrian National Council (SNC) for reforms,” she concludes emphatically. The reforms more recently in question center on the inclusion of women in Syrian opposition politics. Jouejati is the English-language spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the influential activist network, which was until recently the most internationally recognized opposition body.

Examining this case reveals some of the important challenges women face in gaining representation within Syria’s revolutionary politics. The Syrian National Council, under international pressure that it was inadequately representative of the Syrian population, undertook an internal reshuffle. The result, based on a meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha, was a new General Secretariat of 41 members. The new body does not have a single female representative. According to one attendee, the meeting comprised approximately 350 members, of which only eight were female (a proportion of 0.02%). This is despite the 30% quota with which the SNC officially operates.

The mechanism of selection may have further disadvantaged those few females present. Instead of individual candidates running in an open competition, the constituent blocs of the Council (National, Assyrian, Kurdish, independents etc.) were each permitted to put forward an allotted number of candidates (following the “closed list” system). Competition between different forces for representation may have discouraged the inclusion of women in the ballot. For some, given an expected socially conservative electorate, selecting a woman as one of the limited number of names may have seemed strategically unsound. In the event, the Kurdish bloc was the only group to enter a female into the electoral list.

As such, this result may be partially explained by the dominance of the Muslim Brothers in the National Council, as well as the influence of support by more conservative Arab states. However, a certain responsibility must also lie with the self-acclaimed liberals for their failure to challenge the electoral system and advocate an alternative that would promote greater female participation. When questioned, many male figures from supposedly liberal backgrounds regretted the situation but more or less shrugged it off as out of their control. One responded, “this is certainly not ideal, but it is what happened.” Further, he emphasized that it is necessary at present to focus on the “central aims of the revolution” and bringing about the fall of the regime.

For Jouejati, women’s rights are indeed central to the revolution and Syria cannot progress without addressing them. Further, the implication that female representation is a matter that can be rectified at some later stage is worrying for a number of female Syrian activists. Hivin Kako, for example, argues that “any organization that automatically excludes half of society cannot be representative of Syria or its revolution.” Moreover, bodies in which women are under-represented are likely to “ignore the needs and rights of women,” adds Syrian human rights lawyer, Laila Alodaat. She explains that women are particularly affected by the spread of violence, poverty and displacement. A Human Rights Watch report from June 2012 includes testimony of abuse against women during home raids by the Syrian regime. Rape remains an under-reported reality of the present insecurity in Syria and has scarcely gained the attention of the political opposition.

Exclusion of women during the transition stage risks formalizing a self-perpetuating patriarchal image for the new Syria. The failure of adequate representation for women is reflective of a distortion of the original inclusivity of Syria’s revolution. “Women have been pushed backwards. Before they were more frequently invited to comment about the situation in the media,” observes Kako. An opposition body that truly represents, and addresses the concerns, of Syria’s demography would have strengthened the revolutionary movement calling for change. Its inability to reassure the country’s minorities that their concerns are effectively part of the national agenda has undermined the SNC’s legitimacy as diplomatic representation of the Syrian population.

Strikingly, females in Syria now have even lesser participatory status than national minority groups (the largest accounting for approximately 10% of the Syrian population). For Alodaat, this is principally because practices of “ignoring vulnerable groups have become a culture rather than a decision following 50 years of repression.” Discrimination and marginalization have been normalized and institutionalized in law, such that they “cannot be overcome by evolutionary means alone, but require revolutionary methods,” she adds. Indeed, in contrast to the miserable situation of female representation in opposition bodies, women have played a significant and active role in the revolution.

From the Banias women who took to the streets in order to demand the regime return their sons and husbands from custody in April 2011, to their counterparts in Derbasiye, who often lead the Friday marches, female demonstrators have occupied key positions on the ground. Women active before the revolution (including Suhair Atassi, Rima Fleihan and Razan Zeitouna) quickly became public figures for the movement. Similarly, Samar Yazbek and Fadwa Sulaiman have been important examples of Alawite oppositionists, challenging the frequently assumed identification between regime and Alawite community.

Women have also played important roles in both provision of relief and maintaining the revolution by non-violent means. In May 2011, having just been released from previous detention Dana al-Jawabra was arrested  for her involvement in attempts to coordinate a relief convoy to her hometown of Deraa. A year later, a resurgence in the civil resistance was sparked by the arrest of Rima Dali, who had bravely demonstrated alone in front of the Syrian parliament holding a red banner reading “Stop the killing. We want to build a country for all Syrians.” More recently, Rima has been joined by Ruwa Jafar and sisters Kinda and Lubna Zaour, who together form the “Brides of Peace”. The quartet, dressed in white wedding robes, had demonstrated in the Damascus souq for a peaceful solution. Following their arrest, Amnesty International considers the women to be “prisoners of conscience” and is campaigning for their release.

While active in the revolution, women are under-represented, sometimes unrepresented, in national opposition bodies. In seeming recognition of the outrageous result of its elections – or at least of the potential for negative publicity this could bring – the Syrian National Council has decided to include an additional two (female) members. This remedy – abandoning the regular voting protocol – demonstrates the extent to which the Council collectively treats women as an insignificant after-thought. Midya Mahmoud, who has been a regular participant in public demonstrations against the regime, observes that unfortunately women active in politics in her city of Qamishli are often valued for their relations rather than their actions, adding that “many females are respected as the sister or wife of a recognized male figure.”

Following the restructuring of the SNC, a similarly unhopeful story unfolded with the establishment of a new opposition structure. While the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was intended to be more inclusive of the internal movements, only two out of 63 seats have been allocated to women. Moreover, the recent meeting in Istanbul on the subject of the distribution and administration of the Coalition’s funds was convened with a hundred members, and not a single female. “Once may be oversight,” says Kako. “The third time is inexcusable.” In the face of such exclusion, many women have taken matters into their own hands, and groups like the Syrian Women’s Organization and Equality have provided an opportunity for female coordination across all sectors of Syrian society. Meanwhile, Jouejati urged the US to recognize Syria’s National Coalition (which it now has), but simultaneously stresses that it must include more women. For all that women have contributed to the revolution, it is high time that the opposition (or at least its liberals) support female participation.