This article was part of a speech I made during Women in Public Service Uganda on the 7th of March 2015.
“Great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.” ~Karl Marx
Before the 2011 uprising in Syria, some claim that women were enjoying certain liberties under the rule of the Syrian regime. I don’t know if we can say that there were any liberties for women or men in a country that was in a state of negative peace and was kept under an emergency law for more than 40 years. Before 2011, women were allowed to work and get education, but this was part of the phase that time when leftist parties came to power like Baath as there was no authentic approach in solving society’s issues. Women who worked in positions and participated in public life were only part of the system that used them. Women empowerment issue and organizations were hijacked by specially designed and guided institution called: Women Union, which did nothing but to indoctrinate women and participate in the production of a generation of loyal women, but not empowered. Although handful of women activists tried to start their own organizations, but the majority did not get any support from other parties, most of these women worked on political and cultural issues, not on the grassroots levels.
Women were not part of the decision making process, they weren’t part of making laws, foreign policy, internal policy or even policies related to civil and familial life, nor their own private life. The fact that women did not have their fair share of the economic life in Syria was also a part of women’s exclusion from leading an effective role in public life. There was also an illiteracy gap between boys and girls in Syria, were the number of uneducated women higher than men. Marriage and family was protected by the government and many familial issues were left to be dealt with inside the confines of the patriarchal control of the family, but the nature of the societal culture in Syria was not quite supportive of women. Equal rights of the two married partners were not protected, rather, the institution of marriage by-itself (not the humans that form it) was protected in Personal Status Law. In the constitution, there were some limited articles stating women rights, but as all points mentioning human rights in it, all rights were limited either by the ideological frame of Baath party, or to the family in women’s and children’s rights.
Only in 2002, Syrian Government signed the CEDAW but it showed reservations on: “Subject to reservations to article 2; article 9, paragraph 2, concerning the grant of a woman’s nationality to her children; article 15, paragraph 4, concerning freedom of movement and of residence and domicile; article 16, paragraph 1 (c), (d), (f) and (g), concerning equal rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution with regard to guardianship, the right to choose a family name, maintenance and adoption; article 16, paragraph 2, concerning the legal effect of the betrothal and the marriage of a child, inasmuch as this provision is incompatible with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah; and article 29, paragraph 1, concerning arbitration between States in the event of a dispute.”
In 2011, Syrians started protesting in the streets. Inspired by the wave of anger ignited in Tunisia, at first, protestors called for reforms. The situation escalated when a group of children in the city of Deraa south Syria, were detained after they repeated the phrase they saw on TV screens that states “People Wants to Topple the regime.” These children were tortured and there were some reports of sexual abuse. When regime’s security officers refused to free the children, massive demonstrations started demanding their return, and making radical reforms in the security and bureaucratic system, fighting corruption and improving the livelihood of the people. The regime faced the peaceful protests by sending military tanks. The army and police were told to open fire at will, even shooting at funerals and after Islamic Friday prayers in order to prevent any possible protests. Anger waves increased after gruesome images of a child called Hamza Al Khateeb and other children, were released showing them brutally tortured to death after they were arrested by regime forces. These children were part of a group of people tried to reached the besieged city of Deraa and deliver aid when they were captured by a barricade installed by Syrian regime.
Video: One of the children after his release, signs of torture on his body. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhfu1UCutaU
When other cities in Syria saw the massive oppression against this small city, they peacefully took their banners and shouts to the streets calling to stop the security breakdown on the innocents. Men and women from all ethnic and religious backgrounds were part of the peaceful protests, and women were the engine, women organized protests, designed banners, took pictures and videos, documented violations by Syrian regime, and confirmed their existence in every aspect of the new movement. The uprising opened the door for women from the grassroots levels to surge into the wider picture and be part of the movement for change. One of the earliest protests was a women protest. A group of women of all ages from a village located in the costal area cut the main highway demanding that the regime would turn back their husbands and fathers, 4 women were killed after Regime supporters opened fire on these women.
Video: Massacre against the women in Al Marqab village.
In the first several months of peaceful protests, Syrian activists created a network of groups called the “Local Coordinators.” The Coordinators worked to teach people the culture of peaceful struggle, prepared signs and songs for the protests, delivered the aspirations of the people inside and outside the country via social media, worked closely with Syrian civil society groups established abroad to support those who are inside, and demanded the repeal of a decades-long emergency law banning demonstrations. The Coordinators included people from different ideological orientations and carried the hopeful promise of a new, inclusive, and progressive Syria. While this vision of Syria is supported by many, it is not aligned with the regime. One prominent figure participated in the establishment of Local Coordinators was a female lawyer. Kurdish areas were among the first in Syria to protest against the regime, though Kurds always faced oppression by Assad regime, but in the uprising they did not face the amount of brutal crimes because of the regime’s desire to alienate them from the revolution. Women’s active participation in the revolutionary act is not easy in a country that was still suffering from one of the highest rates of honor crimes in the region. Regime forces always used sexual violence against women activists to inflict shame on those women work in public life, this made many men oppose women engagement in the protests and activism. There are incidents saying a number of divorces happened because the wives refused to stay at home and not be part in the movement for change. Women faced oppression not just from the regime, but also negativity from society.
As people reacted to defend their lives and love ones from the unimaginable horrors committed by security forces, the peaceful revolution started to turn into an armed one. Bit by bit, the sound of bullets replaced the voices of demonstrators. But the work of civil society continued during the mayhem of war not just in relief and rescue fields, but in every way possible, inside and outside Syria. When more men joined the armed conflict, more women found themselves responsible to take care of their families and communities. There is an inverse relation between increase in arms and the presence of women in the uprising, under the reign of weapons women were pushed to the back lines. The transformation of the peaceful action into armed struggle placed weighing burden of life itself on the shoulders of women after their men were killed, disappeared or left to battlefields, women in regime areas also suffered from the absence of their men.
The militarization of the revolution did not have the same effect on Kurdish women because Kurdish women have a history in fighting in wars beside men, and after the Syrian revolution, many Kurdish women led the rebels in Aleppo city (second largest city in Syria) against Assad regime forces. Also, there is no environment for extremist thought among the Kurds. In the Charter of Social Contract issued in the Democratic Autonomous Regions (Kurdish self governed areas) on the 29th of January 2014, stated that: Women have the inviolable right to participate in political, social, economic and cultural life. Men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The Charter guarantees the effective realization of equality of women and mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.
After two years of revolution, the Syrian regime used all kinds of weapons, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, ballistic missiles, and there are some reports of using Napalm. One work by civil society was an early alarm system for ballistic missiles. which is a network of activists and rebels work to monitor the timings of the scud missiles fire by the regime and send an SMS to the people in the areas where the missile is expected to fall. On 21st of August 2013, The Syrian regime attacked on east countryside of the capital Damascus, only 3 days after UN investigators arrived to Damascus. Hundreds of civilians died, most report say that the number reached 1000; no one was held accountable for the attack. During and after the massacre, Syrian activists shot and documented the attack, the injured were rushed to field hospitals, and an immediate campaign was launched to spread awareness on how to make house made masks and where to seek shelter in case of a second CW attack.
Video: Devastated father finds his two daughters among the victims of CW massacre.
Syrian activists living outside Syria, men and women, also worked as mediums for delivering the voices of those who are facing the aggression by Syrian regime, and extremist groups later on, being part of the conversation and vision about the future of their country, and working in raising funds for refugees mainly the micro-organizations that are work on local levels mainly in the countries that welcomed large numbers of Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, a group called Basmeh and Zaitouneh, an organization helps women tailors to train and manufactor their work in workshops established for them, in addition to deliver classes in English and other subjects, and help women and men plant and mend their small vegetable farms. In Turkey, a workshop established by a group of Syrian doctors to build prosthesis lower body parts in affordable prices. Another group in Jordan refugee camp started a campaign called “Refugees not Spoils of War” to raise awareness regarding marrying women and girls off to men sometimes much older than these women.
Civil society groups were targeted by the regime and extremists because of their work in bringing people together and spreading the spirit of reconciliation and dialogue among the society. The notion of civil society itself is new to our patriarchal communities. As extremism crawled to the cracks of the extreme violence of the regime, women were further pushed backward, as the extremists seek to control personal lives, and treat women as subjects. Extremists issued laws in the areas they controlled like women cannot go to bakeries to buy bread. Extremists also created extreme women groups to monitor women and even children, one woman recruited by an extremist group threatened a woman activist to slaughter her because the revolution’s flag, rather than the black one. Many Syrian woman used to protest against ISIS carrying banners before the terrorist group’s headquarter in the city of Raqqah north east Syria, they also used to protest against one of the most cruelest regimes in the world. Extreme Islamic groups always consider women as something “private” and leave their affairs to be dealt with by the men in their families. The intentions of ISIS are to force its authority on people by using barbaric gruesome killing methods, and enslaving women and children.
Syria today is a stage for different layers of wars, a war against the people, proxy war as different parties are sponsoring their own war lords, terrorism and anti-terrorism war, a war between survival and the inevitability of death. UN estimates the number of death reaches 230 thousand, and millions of refugees, rarely mentioning the hundreds of thousands of detainees who are tortured in gruesome ways in Assad prisons.
In the war against ISIS, Kurdish women represented the exact opposite of what ISIS represented. Passion for dignity against blind hatred, beauty against ugliness, courage against cowardice. As I mentioned earlier, Kurdish women were always part of the armed conflicts, and they showed an exceptional bravery by refusing to sit behind. Kurdish women created their own groups.
In the face of the this madness, the role of women was greatly undermined, but many Syrian women refused to be neglected, Syrian women created their own organization breaking the patriarchal frames, and demanded more political participation in the future of Syria. In 2014, Syrian women held a conference in Geneva from 11-14 January and issued “Syrian Women for Peace and Democracy Initiative” urging Mr. Kofi Anan to work on releasing the detainees, open borders for Syrian refugees and allow peaceful protests. Women continue to emphasize their crucial participation in the work for a new Syria. One is Syrian actress Yara Sabri who turned her public FB page into a platform to search for those who are missing and announce the names of those who are inside Assad and extremist groups prisons. On February 2015, mothers and relatives of those detainees by the Army of Islam militia protested in Damascus countryside calling to free their love ones and condemn their acts that resembles the acts of the regime.
Women representation in opposition groups, women are not real partners in negotiations to end war, transitional justice, peacebuilding and for the future of Syria. Women are the parameter of the success of a state and society, though there should be substantial freedoms and rights in a community so women would be able to fulfill their visions. When I was writing this speech I realized that one of our biggest problems is the inability of debate and dialogue among us. We need to nurture this dialogue, one way is supporting different civil societies including the ones established, managed and work in empowering women. Connecting civil society and benefit from experiences of other nations. Sometime you think and hear that things were better for us before, and if we did not uprise then non of all this death and mayhem would happen. But the answer to this is that Arab tyrants construct their regimes on a thin crust over a deep abyss, their condition is either I or nothing. We heard this in Syria “Assad or we destroy the country;” so would you remain pawned or conditioned by such unjust combination? A slave for a mafia that threatens to turn your space and time into a living hell, unleash the demons of extremism and thugs brought in by different parties? One should know that terrorists are enabled by Assad regime after many were released from its prisons while activists are still tortured to death inside detention centers. There is no other way for peace but to stop the crimes of Assad regime, and his extremists counterparts, start a process of transitional justice and reconciliation. This is why I still call what happened a revolution, it is was an impossible act to change the system and structure.
The international community should stop its attempts to legitimize and impose a criminal of war and criminal against humanity as a partner in peace negotiations, this is others peace not ours.
Currently the most urgent two issues we must address are: Refugees and detainees. In a last note, there is hope given to us by those who live in surreal ugly situations, and they refuse to give up, especially women.