Syrian women push for political say in liberated areas

Patriarchal traditions and insecurity have been stumbling blocks for women seeking to participate in political life in Syria's liberated areas. But Ghalia Al-Rahhal is helping Syrian women make their voices heard.

20 December 2018

Ghalia Al-Rahhal (© SyriaUntold)
Huda Yahya

Huda Yahya is a journalist and activist from Idlib countryside. She holds an Islamic degree (ijazah) in History.

Translated by: Naziha Baassiri

(Idlib) "Politics is like magic but must be learned," says Ghalia al-Rahhal. Despite its potential for both good and bad, a basic mastery of politics is a must for all women, she believes. "Otherwise women's rights risk getting lost in the corridors of political concessions."

Rahhal (44) is a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement and the head of the Mazaya organization, based in the Idlib countryside. She wants to see Syrian women play a bigger part in local politics and make their voices heard at the international level.

“The Syrian woman should have her voice heard,” Rahhal told SyriaUntold during an interview in the small town of Kafranbel in northwest Syria. “That way she can interact with the international community. There she can express her worries and suffering as well as the reality about the hard living conditions she endures. She can demand to be heard and to create a space to achieve what she aspires: a more free and democratic life for herself and her country.”

Syrian women have fought side by side Syrian men to get the freedom and dignity they so desired. They have paid a hefty price: they had to endure killings, arrests, shelling, and displacement. So they are not lacking in courage or confidence to work in politics and to sit in positions that allow them political participation.

Multiple obstacles

But to do so they must overcome many obstacles. Syrian women are deliberately marginalized by their male peers and their political roles are limited. They lack experience working in politics, they suffer from a patriarchal system where men control the political arena, as well as other societal problems that cast women as followers with little say or rights. Additionally, there is no strong political entity in which women can participate, and the lack of security with multiple military factions vying for dominance presents yet another challenge to success in the political arena.

Since the 2011 Syrian revolution kicked off, Syrian women have stepped outside of their usual roles of being exclusively housewives (mainly concerned with raising their children and taking care of their husbands). Early on, they participated in protests, and later, they played a role in coordination committees. They also contributed significantly to medical and relief efforts. Unfortunately, this was not reflected in the political arena, in which female participation is still low due to the character of society and the effects of a tyrannical regime that ruled for decades.

In pre-revolution Syria, the women’s union, like other civil society organisations, had no option other than to cheer on the regime. Women’s presence in the Baath Party or the people’s council was merely a formality, a cosmetic gesture on the part of the regime to present the image it wanted to the world. In fact, these women were only carrying out the regime’s agendas, and they were unconcerned with any of women’s issues or problems or how to improve their participation or conditions.

Even the Syrian opposition parties weren’t much better. Women’s representation was barely marginal in terms of number, attendance, and actual participation, even though some of these parties list women and their rights in their political agendas. Yet in reality, the issue was never tackled, and very few women were able to defy their circumstances and join the political arena.

Rahhal is among these few. She sat down with SyriaUntold to talk about the reality of political life of women in the liberated areas. Rahhal says that most women groups in liberated areas are civil society affiliated centers that hold sessions, cultural events, and academic classes in the fields of political administration and leadership. These work to enhance women’s roles in decision making and to empower women while shedding light on the issue of women’s rights. The Women Now center in Maarat al-Numan area and Basamat for Development in Idlib are two such centers.

However, the role of women in society and the political arena remains a point of contention for men in Idlib and its countryside. Some are for women participation in politics, others against. Member of the local council Seif Al-Ahmad (40) said that a woman’s role is sacred and known: she is meant to raise her children and enable them to manoeuvre life’s challenges. In his opinion, this role is more important than anything else a woman can do.D

Supportive and sceptical men

“What would a woman gain if she was successful in her civil initiatives and activities but failed to raise her children properly after leaving them for long hours by themselves, which could lead to them going down a path of perversion and loss?” He asks.

Civil activist Hayyan al-Sawwaf (45) has a different view. He says he stands behind women who take initiatives and who are part of political and civil groups. “Without a doubt, women have an active role and they make up half of society. Their role should not be limited to household chores for they are no less determined, or strong-willed, or cultured than men. The biggest proof is that women endured the revolution. They were able to juggle many roles: the mother, the father, the caretaker, and the breadwinner. And they were successful.”

Rahhal tells SyriaUntold that her membership in the Syrian Women’s Political Movement is important to her as it enables her to know which way politics is going and what the results of international negotiations are. She added that the movement, which was launched in Paris on October 4, 2017 by a group of Syrian women activists, calls for complete equality and democratic change that guarantees women’s rights.It also demands the representation of women in all fields, adding that the movement welcomes both sexes as long as they believe in feminism and the legitimate rights of women according to the movement’s manifesto.

The founding statement of the conference says that women members of the movement call for freedom, justice, and dignity for every Syrian citizen. They also defend women’s rights in Syria on the intellectual and political levels, saying that the movement aims to build a democratic state based on equal citizenship without discrimination against any of its citizens based on sex, race, religion, sect, place of birth, or any other criteria. The movement’s priorities are to raise women representation to at least 30% in all decision making centers, to protect civilians from acts of violence, to release all detainees, to reveal the fate of those forcibly disappeared, and to guarantee the voluntary return of the displaced and refugees in a dignified manner.

The Syrian Women’s Political Movement is made up of 30 members, and any Syrian can become a member if they believe in its principles.

The movement wasn’t the only group concerned with women’s right to participate in politics. Many other women coalitions within the Syrian liberated areas were launched (even if they didn’t last), including the Justice Network for Syrian women that was launched at the end of 2016 by a number of female Syrian activists. The network has representation abroad and many branches within Syria, and it aims to eradicate political illiteracy among women as well as to empower them to participate in the many facets that affect the Syrian cause. The network had a positive effect on Syrian women living in the liberated areas where they were given support and were educated on the matter.

Doctor Aisha Tohme (35) lives in the city of Idlib and is a program coordinator at the Justice Network. Tohme said that the network aims to empower Syrian women in all spheres so as they would be aware, cultured, and capable of demanding their rights as well as of carrying out their duties in defending their cause in local and international arenas. Additionally, they can share the truth about the women’s reality living in the liberated areas.

“Women’s priorities differ according to their social status and intellectual prowess,” she told SyriaUntold. “Some women are focused on providing sustenance in the absence of the main breadwinner, while others represent women in decision making centers to improve their conditions and get their rights.”

Ghada Bakeer (45) from Saraqeb runs the Baraa’ Center for psychological support and is a member at the Justice Group for Syrian Women. She says that her membership aims to “increase the level of political awareness among women so as to facilitate their participation in political life. They really need centers and political groups that work on rehabilitating and reinforcing their experiences and connections so as they can reach decision-making positions.”

Ghada Bakeer (© SyriaUntold)

Bakeer notes that one of the obstacles facing women in politics is the instant threats they receive once they are in the political arena. She refrained from naming who threatened these women, but adds that it is enough reason for women to stop participating in politics. It is also important to note that women prefer other work avenues that they feel they are more capable of doing and that are not as hard, such as teaching and vocational empowerment, whereas very few women choose to delve into politics.

Bakeer also says she regrets that the network is no longer active, but refrained from mentioning the direct reasons behind it.

Mariam Abathli (40), from Jisr al-Shogour, is the head of the “Maan Nahwa al-Qimma” (together towards the top) group which aims to educate and rehabilitate women. Abathli underscores the importance of education, which women were prevented from having given the security situation and social realities. “For a woman to delve into any field, she has to be educated, aware, and with a cultured background so she can be a real participant in that field. This is why [we are] educating women so they can achieve their goals, and this is the first goal of this group.”

Abathli also believes that there are other reasons that limit women’s roles in politics, mainly the parents’ ignorance about their daughters, who are neglected and their rights squandered. She says that women today are going through difficult circumstances that rendered them incapable of practicing or even demanding them rights. Additionally, the culture of war and the rule of the jungle, both which are rampant, and the catastrophic results of the war are all factors that made parents behave the way they do today.

Negative self-awareness

On the other side of the spectrum, Souhair al-Helo, 28, is a housewife who believes a woman’s role should be limited to house chores and taking care of her family. She sarcastically says, “What do we have to do with politics? It’s the last thing we need,” adding that politics “is just a big lie. They say one thing, and do another. Politics never serves Syrian women or the Syrian cause in general. It only serves the interests of world powers. So why even bother in challenging our parents and our society, which only sees the stereotype [of a woman] and which we as women have even gotten accustomed to – to the point that we believe it is what’s best for us.”

Such views are common among women in the liberated areas. Their biggest concern is to take on the responsibility of providing for their families after the loss of the main breadwinner. This is not to mention forced displacement, child marriages, and missing out on an education, all which have affected women’s political participation greatly.

The challenge remains

Despite all of the above, there are many attempts to give leadership trainings that were adopted by civil society organizations, such as the DTC center for science and technology, which included trainings on good governance, conflict resolution, communication skills, and report writing for human rights organizations.

Ghalia Abdel Rahman Al-Saeed, 38, is the head of the human resources office at the union of Free Syrian Engineers in Idlib. She says that she has given many trainings within several women centers that revolved around political leadership theories and styles. Al-Saeed notes that she was impressed with the attendees interactions and hopes that there will be a generation of women who are leaders and capable of bringing positive change in their communities to attain their rights and make their participation effective.

Huda Sirjawi (40) is a lawyer and the head of the women’s office in the local council of Maaret al-Numaan. She is also a former member of the political committee in Idlib and the current head of the Syrian Women Gathering. She says, “The trainings in political empowerment in negotiations, the constitution, the elections and other cultural and awareness-raising session have led to an increased awareness among women. It has encouraged them to participate in local politics such as in local councils and some political committees.”

As for participation in the Geneva talks and others, Serjawi is not overly optimistic about what they can achieve. “Women’s roles are still [weak] and do no rise up to our hopes, even though she is present in the Syrian coalition (vice president of the coalition or the vice president of the negotiating delegation), ” she said, adding that “the women’s consultation team, despite it being quite active, its role remains within the realm of consultations and is non-binding. Even the quota of 30% was not implemented in the constitutional committee that was recently created.”

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura with a delegation of Syrian women in Geneva on February 23, 2017 before the start of another round of UN-facilitated intra-Syria talks. (©UN Photo/Violaine Martin)

Serjawi says that the lack of women’s participation in politics is due to “traditions and customs that see women in the political arena to be unfamiliar, especially that we as Syrians – men and women - are removed from real political work due to the tyrannical regime. Naturally, these customs have relative effects depending on one’s environment. There is also the economic situation and level of education. Women are not scientifically educated to be able to take on political work. Additionally, many women still believe political work is just for men.”

In spite of the traditions of society and the culture of war that have limited Syrian women’s real roles in different spheres, especially in politics, the recent women movements – even if limited – are working hard to improve the conditions of Syrian women and their political participation in order to exercise all their rights and live their aspirations.

Afif Ammour (55), a member in the preparatory committee to establish a local council in Kafranbel, believes women’s participation in the political and administrative spheres is crucial. He voices regret that women participation is still low, saying “it is more than necessary, especially in these circumstances that need everyone to cooperate and stand together in all fields. I’m more than certain that should the status of women change, it could change the state of the world.”

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