The Construction of a Patriarchal Militant Identity in the Syrian Constitutions (1973-2012)

23 June 2016

Rahaf Aldoughli

Dr. Rahaf Aldoughli (Ph.D. Lancaster University) is a lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History at University of Manchester. Her research interests deal primarily with the masculinization of Syrian nationalism, with a special focus on the Germanic and French traditions. Aldoughli is the author of several works on Syria and has widely presented her academic work at international conferences. She is also a member of the Centre for Syrian Studies’ Global Network of Fellows.

1. Introduction:

The development of Syrian national identity is framed with the emergence of Syria as a nation-state. As the constitutional narrative defines the roles of men and women in the state, this in turn questions the validity of such narrative in implementing equality, freedom and democracy. Suffice to say that the Constitution plays a pivotal role in defining the political and legal principles of the state, it also acts as a powerful and authoritative voice, source of power and structure of the country.

The Constitution further reinforces particular sets of roles in the national community. It must be borne in mind, however, that the way this political framework is linguistically structured has a powerful role in either perpetuating hierarchy or establishing gender equality. Therefore, the analysis of the constitutional narrative conceptualises the foregrounded constructions of the distinct elements of the Syrian national identity.

This short essay aims to analyse the language and the concepts introduced in the constitutional preambles as a reinforcement of masculinist national identity. This contextual narrative assumes a close relationship between manhood and nationalism. Thus the consistent emphasis on the construction of heroic soldiers to defend the homeland is further mobilised to perpetuate hierarchy and masculinism in the Syrian Constitutions.

More importantly, the aim of this essay is to investigate the constructions of masculinism in the two preambles of the Syrian Constitutions (1973 and 2012). Whilst the basic principles and articles of the 2012 Constitution have not brought any changes to the status of women in state and society, the preamble has been profoundly changed and amended. Yet, despite this changed tone in the 2012 preamble, still one can discern hierarchy and hegemony in the way it defines women.

2. The 1973 Constitution:

Starting with the preamble of the 1973 Constitution is necessary to understand how the major principles of the Syrian national identity have been framed and structured for almost 40 years. The preamble highlights the major basic principles that defines members of state.

Taking into consideration the political settings of the 1970s, the permanent constitution of 1973 reinforced the notion of “struggle” in its preamble. The incorporation of the notion of “struggle” as a popular construct raises the question of how the use of seemingly neutral terms includes women in the constitutional community. The establishment of gender boundaries early in the Constitution is reflected in the overemphasis on reinforcing a militant narrative that privileges men over women.

Although the choice of themes and words in the preamble presents a definitive marker in the construction of a particular national identity of a given state, the use of assumed generic neutral terms such as “people” and “masses” in juxtaposition with the overemphasis of the concept of struggle, sacrifice and militarism in the preamble acts as a legal definition of what constitutes a citizen. This brings us to question whether women are people. An overview of the theoretical debate around what constitutes masculinist language reveals the role of language in defining the boundaries of constitutional community and sets out the framework of women’s national membership.

Indeed, Syria is not a special case; the constitutional law expert Helen Irving masterfully highlights the universal assumption of masculine language to demonstrate gender-inclusive connotations1. While the use of assumed neutral nouns- “people”, “masses” - is often common in preambles, it can be argued that this neutrality has little practical impact on women’s status in legal forms.

This is further evidenced by the feminist historian Catharine A. Mackinnon who argues that "gendered language pervades constitutions, including in seemingly habitual use of the masculine generic, such as usage of “his” or “he” in reference to rights-bearers, impliedly equating citizenship with maleness." Because language is a form of power and representation, one cannot be complacent about the power of words even if ambiguously used to assume gender-inclusion.

In the Syrian context, the repeated use of the generic terms “people” and “masses” does not only extend women’s exclusion from the constitutional community, but rather coincides with the interconnectedness of manhood and militarism. In fact, the origins of a distinctive national image in the Constitution depend on negation, and in the Syrian constitutional narrative this negation targets women. This generic and abstracted narrative of communal struggle and sacrifice is intimately linked with the construction of a distinct and sufficiently differentiated community of men.

Starting with the 1973 preamble traces the marginalisation of Syrian women in the early formation of Syrian state under the rule of Hafez al-Asad. The inference of popular will of “the people” at the beginning of the Syrian preamble expanded the sovereignty of the Syrian Constitution. However, this invocation of the populace identification is rather ambiguous in the Syrian context as “people” is conceptualised in association with measures of masculine prowess. This in turn questions the precise definitions of who are the “people”. In fact, this use of a generic term symbolically establishes women’s consent to the Constitution.

What can be deduced from the introduction to the preamble of the Syrian Constitution2 is that the repetitive use of the generic terms “people” and “masses” continue to situate women outside the national realm. This is further consolidated in the association between the notion of “struggle” and “sacrifice” of the “people” and “masses”. The identification of heroic sacrifice and struggle continues to maintain the idealist construction of masculinist and militarist values in the Syrian nationalist narrative.

Such masculinist measures are further perpetuated in the emphasis on the “glorious past” as a marker of the future national identity. What facilitates such provisions is the emphasis made in the preamble as significantly reflected in the reference to the "party’s militant struggle". The effect of the words used in the preamble mirrors the paramount emphasis on militaristic values of men only.

This is also clear in the third paragraph of the preamble3. The third paragraph highlights some of the fundamental values and chief principles on which the Constitution of Syria is based. On the one hand, the preamble expresses a transcendent authority by invoking that “the masses of our people” in Syria have authorised the leadership of the Socialist Arab Baʿth Party. The irony of such declaration is that the so-called March 8 Revolution (1963) was a military coup which questions the genuine inclusiveness of women.

[Photo: Baath Party strongmen Michel Aflaq (left) and Salah Jadid (right) in 1963. This photo was taken shortly after the Baath came to power on March 8, 1963 (Public Domain)].
[Photo: Baath Party strongmen Michel Aflaq (left) and Salah Jadid (right) in 1963. This photo was taken shortly after the Baath came to power on March 8, 1963 (Public Domain)].
Nonetheless, this wording binds the concept of “revolutionary” struggle with the renunciation of glorious past. It is worth noticing that such contextualisation of glorious past is rather a continuation of the virile narrative traced in the writings of the Baʿth founding-fathers. The reference to glorious past in the preamble is not distinct from the implicit symbolisation of masculinist virility, it further involves selective appropriation of a certain masculinist courage.

Another important expression used in the preamble is “socialism”. The term “socialist” was repeated for 21 times throughout the Constitution which reflects the salient character of the Syrian national identity. However, it is important to understand what the word “socialist” implies in this context. Does social equality encompass the abolition of gender-discrimination against women? In fact, nowhere the Constitution declares that socialism means the overcome of gender inequality in Syria; rather it is made explicitly clear in Article 13 that the reference to Syria as a “socialist republic” in the First Article is about economic equality.

Nevertheless, the labour law fails to give women equal opportunities in terms of their rights to social insurance law. Moreover, this socialist conception acts as a hegemonic ideological tool that prevent women from seeking other ideologies for empowerment.

The preamble further justifies the end means of militant struggle and claim that the party’s militant struggle is a reflection of popular demands and aspirations4. The fifth paragraph highlights the shift from conceptualizing the struggle as derived from the “people” to be represented by the party’s achievement. In this context, one needs to question again the party’s achievements in promoting gender equality and enhancing women’s empowerment in both the Syrian state and society.

Moreover, according to Article 85, the Socialist Baʿth Party is the sole leading authority of the state and society. This gives the party the exclusive right to exercise supreme judicial, legislative and executive power over Syria. It denotes the absence of any plural and democratic system that can enhance women’s political mobilisation towards promoting equal rights and representation.

More importantly, this declaration of the militant struggle made very early in the Constitution invariably excludes women’s experience against the colonial and imperial domination. As American feminist Cynthia Enloe declares that "when a nationalist movement becomes militarised (…) male privilege in the community usually becomes more entrenched," she even states that "militarisation puts a premium on communal unity in the name of national survival, a priority which can silence women critical of patriarchal practices and attitudes; in so doing, nationalist militarisation can privilege men."

Nonetheless, the ambiguity of how women are conceived in the Constitution can be traced in the major principles outlined in the preamble. Whilst the fourth article6 of the preamble virtually supports freedom and democracy equally, the use of the apparently gender neutral nouns such as ‘’citizen’’, or ‘’people’’ questions women’s inclusion7. This linguistically obscure use of the masculine reference is juxtaposed with the concept of sacredness which is measured by the socialist ideological stance of the state. Furthermore, the association between sacrifice and belonging further incorporates the militarisation of society and often intensifies the existing notions of privileging masculinity and manhood.

This “sacred” right of freedom is intimately linked with “defending the homeland”, hitherto, one might ask whether this call for defending the homeland is at all gender-inclusive. This leads us to Article 118 of the Constitution which confirms that the military - a conscripted force where males serve 30 months upon reaching the age of 189- is responsible for the defense of the homeland. It should be noted that women are now allowed to join the army and several other paramilitary forces, however, this emphasis on militarising women further perpetuates the idealisation of the ethos of soldiered masculinity.

Consequently, the role of the army further sustains an ambiguous status of women in regard of their right of freedom and democracy and whether they will ever realise their humanity and full citizenship.

[Painting: "Fighting for Truth in Syria" - 25-4-2014. (Sheykh1/CC BY-ND 3.0)].
[Painting: "Fighting for Truth in Syria" - 25-4-2014. (Sheykh1/CC BY-ND 3.0)].
In the same vein, the conceptualisation of freedom and humanity is discursively constructed by stressing sacrifice and socialising militarism. The interrelationship between freedom and the ability to defend the nation intrigues the question of whether the term “citizen” at all entitled women for a full national membership.

It is highly important to illuminate that article 4 of the preamble establishes a nexus between freedom and humanity. As it states that the exercise of freedom "makes him (the citizen) a dignified human being and capable of (…) defending the homeland (…) making sacrifices for the sake of nation to which he belongs." This consisted construction of a unified perception of citizenship consolidates the overlapping between freedom, humanity, and manhood.

Within this context, the contextualisation of men’s privilege to defend the homeland with sacredness consecrates a symbolic hierarchy and domination of one gender at the expense of the other. The feminist political scientist Jan Jindy Pettman further points out that exclusion of women in the state may be related to the "close associations of citizenship with bearing arms and being prepared to kill or die for the state."

The American ethicist and political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain significantly refers to the “militarisation of citizenship”, where women become dichotomised with being conceived as "weeper over the tragedies" of war and, on the other hand, men are prototyped as protectors and guardians of the dependent and submissive women. This in turn perpetuates conceptions of women’s lack of suitability to become full citizens of the state.

The problem is not in the military conscription per se, but in the ambiguous use of “citizens” to refer to men in military and to the conceptualisation of defending the homeland as sacred and being associated with human dignity. This link between military service and citizenship constructs a hierarchical subordination in the Constitution that further perpetuates gender boundaries in both the public and private spheres.

3. The Preamble of 2012 Constitution: Assumptions of Political Pluralism

While the circumstances surrounding the drafting of the new Constitution in February 2012 mark a violent breakdown of the popular uprising in Syria, no promise of a better future can be deduced from such democratic experience.

[Photo: Syrian women participate to a "revolutionary" funeral march in Mezzeh - Damascus - 19-2-2012. (Freedom House/CC BY-2.0)].
[Photo: Syrian women participate to a "revolutionary" funeral march in Mezzeh - Damascus - 19-2-2012. (Freedom House/CC BY 2.0)].
In terms of the gender question, no profound articles have been added to enhance gender equality. However, one can detect a change of tone in the preamble. There is a shift in the inference of popular will that suggests a new Syrian rule premised on political pluralism, where there is no mention of the Baʿth Party as the sole leader of the state nor of socialism as its official ideology.

Nonetheless, despite that such reference might help strengthening women’s representation in state and society, still the repressive nature of the regime along with the re-emphasis on the autonomous conceptualising of masculine struggle that acts as a tool to perpetuate women’s subordination. The initial words of the preamble establish a continuous battle against colonialism and Western powers, in a reference to a glorious heritage and challenges, which are used to convey images of manhood and heroism. It also ascribes glorious and heroic past to men through the decades10.

Furthermore, the 2012 preamble continues to abstract the concept of Syrian national identity, rather it starts with referring to the Syrian people as having an an Arab identity which problematizes not only the notion of belonging to those Syrian women who come from different ethnic groups (such as the Kurds), but further obscures the definition of national identity in the Syrian context11.

However, the third paragraph adds a new element to the Syrian Constitution that distinctively demonstrates the need to achieve international peace and security as a key objective and strategic international choice. Whilst the previous preamble did not consider the need to situate Syria in the programme of achieving international peace and security, this novel reference is in response to the regime’s narrative that considered the peaceful demonstrations in early 2011 a terrorist mobilisation that threatened the maintenance of international security.

In line with such argument, the fourth paragraph, however, retained the obscure contextualisation of "people", "struggle" and "militarism". Its wording significantly stands in contrast with the claim of building a plural political system due to the overlapping of the people’s struggle and the consolidation of the army. It is once again promoting the role of army in the state by establishing it as the sole protector of people’s rights and dignity.

Whilst such indication to the role of army is paramount in this example, later on the preamble emphasizes the sovereignty of law in forming the basis of the Constitution. A question, therefore, arises on how this legitimate sovereignty premises on law whilst militarized power is given main guarantor and protector of the homeland’s sovereignty and stability.

Within this context, the gender question in the 2012 preamble cannot be much guaranteed given the soldiered authority given to militarisation. This is further enhanced with the ambiguous use of "people" to be referred only when contextualized with struggle and heritage.

4. Conclusion:

In light of the aforementioned, one can easily recognise the continuation of incorporating manhood, struggle and heroism as the defining factors of constitutional membership. Such primacy of idealising manhood and struggle in the opening statement of the Syrian Constitution brings us to question how Syrian women were conceived within the two preambles.

The antinomy between recognising socialism as the definitive ideological characteristic to define the Syrian state in 1973 preamble and introducing political pluralism in 2012 still situates women outside the national realm. These two preambles represented the legitimate authority of Constitutions in Syria for more than 40 years, while still employing manhood, military and struggle to define Syrian national identity. Moreover, there has been no mention of women in these two preambles, but rather their presence is ambiguous in the contextualisation of the glorious past as a site for privileging heroic men.

Such analysis makes us more aware of any future drafting of the Syrian Constitution, where women should be clearly mentioned in the preamble. In addition, there should be a redefinition of heroic deeds that includes women’s struggle and sacrifices. This reconsideration of the notion of struggle, heroism and history will lead to the reconceptualisation of the role of women in the national memory and further acknowledges their sacrifices as part of the national community.

Ultimately, the recognition of women’s struggle in both the private and public domains should be clearly manifested in any future preambles in order to emphasise that “masses” is no longer an ambiguous masculinist reference, but rather one that encompasses women’s struggle and determination.

Such emphasis will challenge the monolithic definition of history and struggle as a masculinist construct that is not only dominant in the Syrian context but rather eminent in many world constitutions. These  definitions will act to diminish the role of militarisation as the sole symbol of the nation’s dignity, heroism and struggle which is highly significant not only for establishing the basis of gender equality in Syria, but to strengthen the rule of law and citizenship in future Syria.

Therefore, one must conclude that fostering a national identity premised on political equality and pluralism does not only lie in altering the linguistic usages of some terms that obscures women’s national role, but lies in the need to redefine the contextualisation of popular will in national concepts that have tremendous influence on perpetuating women’s subordination.


1- Aldoughli, Rahaf, ‘Revisiting Ideological Borrowings in Syrian Nationalist Narratives: Satiʿ al-Husri, Michel ʿAflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi’, Syria Studies, vol. 8, no. 1 (2016).

2- Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).

3- Berns, Sandra, To Speak as a Judge: Difference, Voice and Power (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999).

4- Carole Pateman, Democracy, Feminism, Welfare, ed. by Terrell Carver and Samuel A. Chambers (London, New York: Routledge, 2011).

5- Elshtain, Jean Bethke, ‘Reflections on War and Political Discourse’, Political Theory, vol 1. 13, no. 1 (1985): 39-57.

6- Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

7- Irving, Helen, Gender and the Constitution: Equity and Agency in Comparative in Comparative Constitutional Design (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

8- Okin, Susan Moller, Women in Western Political Thought (London: Virago, 1980).

9- Mackinnon, Catherine A., ‘Gender in Constitutions, in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law, ed. by Michel Rosenfield and Andras Sajo (online publication: Nov 2012), pp. 398-413.

10- Pettman, Jan Jindy, Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics (London: Routledge, 1996).

11- Peterson, Sandra, ‘Locating Inequality-The Evolving Discourse on Sexist Language’, University of British Columbia Law Review, vol. 32, no. 55 (1998).

12- Rowbotham, Sheila, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973a).

13- Rowbotham, Sheila, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It (London: Pluto Press, 1973b).

[Image: A banner from Deyr az-Zawr which reads: "In the new Syria we want a Constitution that protects human beings" - 20-12-2012].

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