The Ba’ath regime in Syria has never truly resolved the national debate over how to maintain the secular nature of the state. Constant assertions of its secularism in official and media discourses are at odds with the actions of the state and the manner in which the country is run. The Ba’ath Party itself, which has ruled the country for the past half century, pretends to be proud of its secular constitution; however, the party has never managed to persuade anyone that it is a genuinely secular organisation. In the 1980s, while militiamen loyal to the current president’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, were ripping the hijab from the heads of women in the capital, Syrian television continued to broadcast the Friday prayers every week. In the 1990s, even as thousands of Islamists crowded into the regime’s prisons, the number of mosques was on the rise. State security-run al-Assad Institutes for Qur’an Memorization were opening their doors to new students - a large proportion of which are now in 2016 fighting with Islamist groups against the regime in Damascus.
Women’s Rights? Not a Public Affair
An area in which it is particularly challenging to argue for the state’s secularism is in its governance of women’s lives. Various purely religious edicts, including the eight personal affairs laws based on various religions and sects, have been used to exercise control over women’s affairs. The face that the Syrian regime has always showed to the world has long been very different to how it has looked from within, and its attitude to gender is no different. Indeed, to support the secular image it claimed for itself, the regime did its best to ban veiled women from occupying any visible position in the media or politics. Until 2011, the country had never had a single veiled minister, ambassador, or even television presenter, though this was no accurate reflection of the true state of affairs: the country’s ministries have historically thronged with women in hijabs. In other words, the state’s secularism was no more than a mask.
Since its establishment in 1963 the Ba’athist regime has never changed a single article of any of the long-standing personal affairs laws - Islamic, Christian or otherwise - in order to emancipate women from religious edicts governing areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, guardianship and trusteeship. Nor have there been any changes to other laws connected with women’s rights, such as the penal code law and the nationality law. The only amendments the ‘secular state’ has made were the most minor alterations. These have been strategic moves, designed to give the impression that it wanted to grant women more rights but was constantly thwarted by the religiously reactionary attitudes of the various sects which were trying to keep women’s rights and affairs under their control. Given that the state has deliberately confined religious figures from all sects to a particular role in public life, it is telling of their attitude towards gender equality that perhaps the only area in which they continue to be permitted to raise objections and have influence is on the issue of women’s rights.
On August 8, 2009, the national leadership of the Ba’ath Party issued a general statement in which it clarified the party’s position on one of the worst and most regressive religious groups of all: the followers of Sheikh Abdel Hadi al-Bani. Some of the more notable beliefs of this sheikh’s group are that it does not believe in women’s liberation, it rejects mixing of the sexes, opposes women working outside the home, and forbids television. The group seeks to establish an Islamic (not Arab) state, meaning that its objectives are totally at odds with any secular, or even semi-secular, constitution. The statement says that the Ba’ath Party has nothing negative to say about the group, so long as it confines itself to the sphere of religious creed.
The Ba’ath Party then dispatched a functionary to make the rounds of state newspapers in order to explain the party’s position, but none of the journalists challenged him with a single question over the compatibility of this position with their secularist stance. Of course, if this statement had come from any genuinely secular organization it would have occasioned a major scandal, but it is commonly recognised that Syrian secularism is simply a cover - a propaganda tool for the regime.
The relationship of the regime with the Qubeisiyat is another instance of its apparent comfort in allying itself with the most repressive religious movements. Whilst the Qubeisiyat operates with the consent of the regime and the security services, it is perceived by secularists to be one of the most dangerous religious groups. It targets upper-class women and converts them into devoted followers of the group’s leader, Sheikha Munira al-Qubeisi. It also runs a number of kindergartens that provide an Islamic education for children. It also propagandizes constantly on behalf of President Assad, just as it did with his father before him. Indeed, the Qubeisiyat are perhaps the most pro-regime Islamic group in the country, continuing to pursue their religious activities just hundreds of meters away from the ‘secular’ Ba’ath Party headquarters.
50 Years of Paralysis
Given this state of affairs, it is perhaps unsurprising that in five decades of Ba’ath rule there has been a complete paralysis on the issue of women’s rights. A governmental organization called the General Women’s Union was set up and run by the Ba’ath Party, but this is the only organization allowed to work on women’s issues. It has undertaken work on illiteracy, early childhood education, and natal health, but women’s rights have never been among its priorities.
Over this period, public life in Syria was incapable of generating a genuine civil society or a serious human rights movement, due to the repressive presence of the state and its monopolization of all public activism. The state has imposed conditions on all areas of life. It has refused to license any human rights organizations, instead setting up front organizations that were totally controlled by the state itself, and leaving women’s rights at the mercy of religious authorities.
The state did begin to appoint female ministers, members of parliament, and diplomats, adhering to strict proportional quotas that were rarely, if ever, exceeded. Indeed, there have been two female ministers who would resurface in cabinet after cabinet holding different, but consistently non-vital, portfolios. No woman has ever assumed control of a strategically important ministry. Similarly, the proportion of women members of parliament held steady at 30 out of 250 MPs (or 12 per cent). With one exception, no woman was ever elected to parliament as an independent candidate. All MPs were elected on Ba’ath Party lists, with a few seats left for independent (male) candidates. The same applied to female diplomats. The quota in this field was not arrived at by considerations of competency, or out of a desire to promote women’s rights: the only factor taken into account for them as well as for their male counterparts was loyalty.
Symbolism, not Substance
Back in the 1990s, before she was due to take over the Ministry of Higher Education, Dr. Salha Sonqur wore the hijab. As soon as she received the letter appointing her as a minister in the Ba’ath Party’s government, she received unmistakable hints from the security services that her hijab was not invited to accompany her to her new offices. So the hijab stayed behind: but what she did bring with her were her religious beliefs and conservative worldview. This then was Ba’athist secularism: a superficial phenomenon.
The long-standing Minister for Culture, Najah al-Attar, is another example of this phenomenon. She headed the Ministry of Culture for decades, but not because she was uniquely talented. Rather, she was sister of one of the regime’s mortal enemies: the former Supreme Guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Issam al-Attar. When the regime sent its Secret Service to assassinate Issam al-Attar in 1982 whilst he was in exile in Germany (where they didn’t find him, and killed his wife instead) the ministerial post was given to his sister as a reward for her loyalty.
The intention of this is to show that no place can be too remote for those who are against us, but those who are with us will be rewarded for their loyalty. Minister al-Attar is currently the Vice President for Cultural Affairs. With this being the first time a woman obtains this position, it could be argued that the regime has reached a stage where it needs to have a woman presidential deputy to point to as evidence for its secularist propaganda.
It would be possible to go on citing similar instances which demonstrate that appeals to secularism are nothing more than an empty slogan deployed by the regime only to appear different from its Islamist opponents. The guise of secularism and the championing of women’s rights is one of the Syrian regime’s cornerstones. Yet the reality faced by women is quite different. Away from the media, women are brutalised in their homes, raped and murdered on the pretext of preserving honour, prevented from inheriting, and denied the right to choose their spouse.
‘Honour Killings’ and Violence against Women
So-called ‘honour killings’ are one of the worst injustices facing women in Syria. The killers themselves enjoy the protection afforded them by the penal code. Women are eliminated for no better reason that suspicion over their behaviour or for marrying outside the sect. Sometimes they are killed for claiming their inheritance. Despite amendments to article 548 of the penal code, which stipulates that the penalty for honour killing should be a minimum of five to seven years imprisonment, the discretionary powers afforded judges mean that murderers can escape unpunished to this day.
Until very recently, coverage of this issue and others like it was kept out of the media. When the regime signed up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2002, it lifted its ban on covering women’s rights related issues in the media. Because the security services did not classify the women’s rights movement as a purely political phenomenon, as they do in Iran for instance, it was suddenly possible to discuss issues such as violence against women.
In 2005, for the first time in its history, the General Women’s Union produced a study on violence against women that was written with the assistance of independent experts. The study found that one in four Syrian women had been subjected to some form of violence. However its publication was not, regrettably, followed by any official recognition that violence against women was an issue in Syrian society, and no measures were taken or laws issued to prevent its occurrence. This is despite a draft law on the subject having been drawn up by Syrian women activists and legal experts, ready for approval by the regime; this document has been sitting in a drawer in the presidential office for years. Neither were any new centres for women victims of violence opened. There used to be only two shelters, run by the church in Damascus and Aleppo, but they proved unable to deal with the rising number of women seeking help. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour runs another centre, but it is more like a prison than a place of sanctuary.
Signing CEDAW – a Change for Women’s Rights?
Despite signing up to CEDAW in 2002, the Syrian regime has expressed official reservations about the most important articles of the convention, rendering it meaningless. In 2009 the contradiction between the state’s secular façade and its religious reality was at its starkest, when a secret committee of sheikhs (including a prominently conservative sheikh) was tasked with drawing up a new personal affairs law. The draft that resulted was based on an understanding of women as incompetent and subordinate to men. As a result, for the first time rights groups and civil society activists have succeeded in preventing a law from being passed.
At the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the regime used its propaganda machine to influence world opinion, highlighting in particular its role in fighting terrorism. Inside the country, however, it consolidated its anti-women policies, using women as a means of pressurising opposition families into submission. The detention of thousands of women and children has been documented, with many taken as hostages to pressure male family members to turn themselves over. Also documented are the cases of women being raped and tortured for the same purpose. Nor were ‘loyalist’ women exempt from these violations. Cases of regime loyalists sexually exploiting the wives of soldiers and civilians killed defending the regime, taking advantage of their economically vulnerable situation or under the pretext of protecting the women after they became widows, have also been documented.
When it comes to fighting the civil war in Syria, the allegedly secular regime heavily relies on the assistance of sectarian militias. What is also remarkable that in its struggle to earn secular credentials, at the same time it has established a female battalion, ‘The Lionesses of al-Assad’. Pictures of these women are widely circulated in the media but fail to ever show them in armed combat. On the political side, the regime is also performing a u-turn. Before 2011, the regime tried to prove its secularism by keeping veiled women out of sight. Now, it tries to conceal its sectarian nature by promoting a veiled woman to the cabinet in order to counter reporting that argues the war is being fought in a way, which changes Syrian demographics at the expense of the majority.
Rhetoric and Practice
There has always been a discrepancy between the regime's alleged secularism and its actual practices. This started with Hafez al-Assad. Despite his rhetoric, Hafez al-Assad decided to turn his back on pan-Arabism and ally himself with Iran after it had become the Islamic Republic of Iran and adopted a clear confessional agenda. However, the regime now needs its secular appearance more than ever, with the image of women's rights and freedoms at the beacon. This is because these are one of the few ways in which it can positively distinguish itself from the Islamists the West is most concerned about. Given the blatant violations of women's rights in the context of crushing the Syrian revolution however, it is increasingly hard for the regime, to maintain this illusion.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger
 Articles 2, 9, 15, 16 and 29, for more information see also : http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm#article1.