Whose Voice Counts? Women Activists' Participation in the Syrian Peace Process

I still remember the joy of a woman in my neighbourhood when she learned of another woman’s group passionately discussing news of the revolution in morning sessions. The morning session was the only occasion on which the women would come together. A sixty year-old woman was enumerating the female opposition figures in Syria, a place which had kept women silent for nearly four decades. Despite all she had seen during her long years, the political activist in her heart had not died.

From the very outset of the Syrian revolution, and even before that moment during the preparations which preceded it, women were deeply involved in planning and coordinating revolutionary activities in the country. As the revolution gathered pace, the whole world heard women’s voices sing out alongside those of the men, equally present in number at demonstrations in city centres and rural villages to denounce the regime.[1] Women’s participation (a phrase that here does not seem to do their activities justice) was the true embodiment of the axiom that ‘women are half of society’. From coordination, logistics and technical support, all the way through to leading demonstrations as we saw in Homs and other regions of Syria, women’s role was crucial to the revolution.

The regime’s mechanism of repression also did not spare women; evidence of how seriously it took the role they played in mobilising communities. The early videos which emerged of what appeared to be a member of the intelligence services specifically targeting a female demonstrator in Damascus shocked the world in 2011.[2] The regime targeted female activists for arrest and detention for many reasons; sometimes this was to do with their activities, but at other times it was a way of pressurising their families into ‘voluntarily’ handing over their men to agencies of the state.

It is easy to criticise the regime for repressing women and denying them their most basic rights, mainly because of the obviousness and crudity of its methods. However, what is much harder for activists to face is the reality that their own demands for freedom, rights and dignity have not been applied to all members of society evenly, even within the Syrian revolutionary movement itself. This is especially the case when it comes to the inclusion of women.

In 2011, local councils were established following the liberation of the uprising areas. These were supposed to have been the start of a new participatory electoral model on the regional level, aimed at improving democratic processes in Syria. However, these soon turned into 'statelets' run by groups that in most of the cases either elected themselves into office or were hailed by locals as saviours according to the size of the ‘sacrifice’ they had made for the revolution, without regard to their proficiency or professionalism as democratic representatives. Women activists who had been key figures in the revolution did not succeed in making it into the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). For example, Razan Zeitouneh, who was one of the founders of the LCCs, was excluded from the change process because she was abducted by those who should have been building on her and her group’s distinguished work in the liberated areas.

With few exceptions these local councils were only new in terms of their social make-up and not the services they provided, which simply privileged a different group of power brokers. However this time, there were not any women among them. Rather, female activists began to fall victim to what we might term ‘revolutionary persecution’ following the formation of regional commands that were totalitarian and exclusionary, and whose first victims were women. Syrian activists see that the takeover of these local administrations by those traditional power seekers – whom, incidentally, we do not deny contributed to the revolution – has had a negative impact on women’s representation. This further compounds the historically dominant role played by men in the institutions of the state.

The revolution’s transition into armed struggle gave militants a prerogative over civil political groups. With the exception of a few special cases involving female fighters for the Free Syrian Army in East Aleppo, and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in areas controlled by the Kurds, women were absent from the armed struggle. Logistical support in all its forms was the most important aspect of this new phase. As fighting amongst groups proliferated, checkpoints stopping people (with or without cause) in search of ‘the enemy’ multiplied. The regime also started to use siege and starvation as weapons of attrition. Female doctors, paramedics and reporters were on the front lines against the regime, to which non-violent activists constituted a more valuable target than the fighters who faced them. The regime, eager to promote its narrative of the revolution as led by militant Islamists, tried to sideline and eliminate charismatic civic leaders of the opposition.

Aid workers running projects providing assistance to besieged areas tell stories of Syrian women bringing food into blockaded zones in the countryside around Damascus, risking their lives each time they passed regime checkpoints. The soldiers there would only allow women to bring in enough provisions to last their families a day or two, but these women were prepared to go back and forth repeatedly, risking arousing suspicion just so they could feed those under siege. No close observer can ignore the role played by Syrian mothers in neighbouring countries who shoulder the burden of helping their families find work, in addition to their involvement in volunteer work and the social and humanitarian activities that are run for the benefit of refugees.

Women have never been absent from revolutionary work either in Syria or abroad, but MD, an activist who coordinates social aid work in the Damascus countryside, says that another setback for women has been the growing presence of Islamist forces:

‘The men in our team inside the besieged areas make alarming concessions around the core values of the revolution and turn their back on a lot of basic principles just so the work can go on or, in other cases, so they can have any presence at all. If that’s the case with the men, imagine what it’s like with the women.’

It can be seen from these examples that revolutionary activities have split those involved in two groups. There are popular forces active on the ground, who are occasionally in contact with elites located outside the region (mostly for funding reasons), and then there is an activist elite which is largely denied space to operate within Syria. There is no clear way of elevating the Syrian revolution and revolutionary activities, with women’s participation at the centre, to the levels desired by the opposition movement. This split has had a profound effect on the progress and structure of revolutionary work. Initiatives that have attempted to bring together women’s efforts and representation into a single body have not met with much of a welcome among the activists, let alone the ordinary people inside and outside Syria. This might be attributed to the fact that in many cases no one hears about them.

Furthermore, mechanisms of female representation, and even their connection with the popular base, are almost totally lacking within the activist movement. Political and social activist ‘SH’ believes that the sexism is one of the most important reasons for the decline in the role played by women:

’Even when regime figures come under attack they are criticised in the most sexist way. For instance, [deputy Prime Minister] Walid Muallem is accused of being a traitor but [presidential and media adviser] Buthaina Shaaban gets called a whore. Isn’t the real problem our sexism?’

The marginalisation of women on the national level is also perpetuated on the international stage. There is a modest reference to the importance of female representation in the transitional period in the final report of the Syrian Working Groups at the first Geneva conference in 2012. This seems to have drawn attention to the need for such representation in the peace process and post-conflict phase. Following the release of this report, a series of women’s associations were formed which might have together constituted a pressure bloc highlighting the effective role played by women since the start of the revolution.[3]

One of the major weaknesses of the entire Syrian opposition is that it is divided – not only by different political visions or by different opposition groups being sponsored by, aligned with, influenced by or cooperating with different foreign countries, but also geographically. The Syrian regime has relentlessly bombarded territories not under its control any longer which has made it virtually impossible for Syrians to be part of the internal opposition and at the same time participate in international efforts to find a solution to the crisis.  The opposition inside Syria is mainly busy with coping with the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Due to this fact, the voices from inside became weaker and are focussing on fund appeal. The National Coalition of Syria, based in Istanbul, has never been able to establish a presence in Syria. Its members have hardly ever travelled there and it has had little to offer for those inside Syria.

This problem, affecting the entire work of the opposition, is even more pronounced when it comes to women. Behind the scenes women are continuing with revolutionary work, but because they are not that visible, they do not come to mind when talking about representatives. Therefore, as less prominent activists, women's chances to obtain visas have been a problem from the beginning for both maintaining their safety and promoting their capacity to affect change in Syria. While some networks and organizations maintain contact and make contributions to the opposition groups on the international stage, other organisations have contact with activists that claim to credibly represent women within Syria. With most of these representatives being male, however, there is often little connection between Syrian women who are paying the price on the ground in the country, or in its prisons, or in exile, with what is being discussed by these elites in their conference rooms.

The first serious discussion on women’s participation which took place in the second Geneva conference remains a praiseworthy step towards full female representation, for all that they have increasingly failed to account for the true conditions of women in Syria. However, no sooner was a date for the second phase of the negotiation process declared than Syrian women rushed to meet with UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Brahimi was quite clear that there should not be a third bloc at the negotiation table, which appears to have been a demand of some of the 47 women who met with Brahimi on January 12 and 13, 2014. It was here, according to observers, that they fell into the trap of demanding representation for the sake of representation rather than action itself. After all, what is the benefit of female representation completely decoupled from actual revolutionary work?

It is fair to state that the final demand presented to Lakhdar Brahimi that women make up no less than thirty per cent of the negotiating parties was more realistic and met a positive response from the envoy himself, who agreed to take on the women’s demands which overlapped with those of the Syrian opposition albeit subject to negotiation in some of their particulars.[4]

Civil society in Syria had been mocked as ‘cocktail civil society’ before 2011 because of being allegedly a presence for the most part at different embassies’ occasions and celebrations. The National Coalition and its predecessors were termed the ‘Five Star Opposition’ in reference to them spending their time in luxury hotels detached from realities on the ground in Syria. It therefore didn’t take long for the phrase soreyat jeneef to be coined, meaning 'the Syrian women of Geneva’. This gained currency as a way to talk about the women activists taking part in the conference, and contains an implicit disparagement of the role played by these women in talks by other female activists.

Have female activists truly transitioned away from laying foundations and building networks on the ground, mounting campaigns of support and broadcasting the suffering of Syrian women in squares throughout the country? Is their purpose now simply to solicit UN support and make repeated references to Security Council Resolution 1325[5] and the report of the first Geneva conference on Syria?

Even as prominent women opposition figures were facing setbacks on the ground and becoming divided amongst themselves, the situation was no better within the general mass of Syrian women’s networks and associations. While some activists were having their loyalty to the revolution questioned, others were accused of opportunism, taking advantage of the sacrifices of other Syrian women who had no way of making their voices heard.

Following the resignations of UN special envoy Kofi Annan in August 2012 and his successor Lakhdar Brahimi, in May 2014 Staffan de Mistura was appointed to manage the negotiation process. De Mistura began to institute a new approach: to work out truces on the local level. Women were completely absent from these local level negotiations, which were conducted by influential figures from the regime close to the opposition but which the regime had no interest in getting rid of for reasons that in many cases were likely to have been economic. No one was privy to what took place behind closed doors as these deals were made: the concept of fully inclusive participation didn’t have a chance. The majority of these local agreements unsurprisingly worked in favour of the regime, and activists took to terming them ‘surrender treaties’. These haggling sessions were marketed as success stories ahead of the expected announcement that negotiations in Geneva were to resume.

Despite what one might glean from a superficial reading of the process to end hostilities – that it constituted excellent groundwork and lent political support to grateful regional players – it was this third (and what many hoped would be final) phase that presented the Syrian opposition with intractable problems. When it came to the inclusion of women, opposition blocs bandied about the idea of a female presence, an idea that even female participants themselves claimed as unique at the second Geneva conference. The 33 members of the High Negotiation Committee (HNC) included two women, and the participants of the later Riyadh conference called for an additional Women’s Advisory Board to be attached to the envoy’s office. This was a measure taken to satisfy the demands of those who had previously pledged their commitment to female representation. The HNC took on the ‘burden’ of ensuring a female presence by pushing for the formation of an independent Women’s Advisory Board.

The pledges made by de Mistura's predecessors about ensuring women’s participation conceivably boxed de Mistura in. He ended up releasing a statement of his intention to send invitations to feminist and civil society organisations to contribute to the talks. The independent Women's Advisory Board was formed and appended to de Mistura’s office. The cosmetic nature of this representation was however obvious to the naked eye despite the optimism in de Mistura’s tone about this participation: ‘Both women and civil society organisations can provide vital ideas and insight to the talks by presenting the views and recommendations of important segments of Syrian society.’

But can we truly assert that to be from the same sex is to have the same political demands? The independent Women’s Advisory Board is made up of twelve women who hold differing political views, with the majority closer to the regime and therefore in fundamental disagreement with the opposition itself. Some were even seen coordinating with the regime delegation before and during the talks.[6] It is unclear upon which criteria the Board was formed, and they represent nobody involved in political work in Syria, however tangentially. This group therefore could not be said to serve the goal of women’s inclusive participation.

It would be unfathomable for anybody in any other issue area to have come up with the idea of randomly selecting regime loyalists and dissidents to speak for a joint cause.

It might be suggested that de Mistura was thinking that it would be easier to build a bridge between the two opposing delegations by creating a new body which is ‘less’ polarised due to biological difference and that women would not fundamentally disagree about political topics because of their shared gender. The reaction from the Syrian Feminist Lobby, the Syrian Women’s Network and others was decisive: they rushed to absolve themselves of involvement in the conformist wording of the recommendations, which were read out at the board’s press conference, which were totally divorced from the reality they had witnessed in Syria as activists.

Many activists suspected de Mistura established the Board not to amplify the voices of women, but to confirm his own agenda. It is untenable to suggest that Syrian women and Syrian activists would find such 'representation' acceptable given that their own demands are so different from those proposed by the Women's Advisory Board. For example, the Women's Advisory Board in the same press conference asked for an immediate lifting of the sanctions imposed on Syria as 'they hinder the delivery of aid to Syrian people', as though it were the sanctions which were preventing food from entering Eastern Ghouta and other besieged areas and not the regime’s own actions. They also boldly asked for an immediate release of detainees held by all parties.

An activist known as AS was one of the official observers participating in the talks. He recalls that, 'de Mistura was insisting on their advisory role and they were insisting on their representational role.’ AS shrugged and continued sarcastically; 'in any case, the Russians and Americans were the true negotiating parties, not the regime or opposition, and so there’s no need to get alarmed about all these roles!’

Despite the importance of women's roles in the revolution, it is clear that the opposition had no real vision for the role of Syrian women in the subsequent negotiation process or in a post-conflict Syria. Any attempts to look at the Syrian constitution and repressive 'personal status' laws, or at potential figures for female representation, were all half-hearted and fell far short of offering a clear transitional strategy. The process of forcing roles on women from outside the activist core led to the very problems they had managed to avoid during the peaceful phase of the uprising.

The institutional structures of the peace process also had a negative impact on women’s participation, robbing their roles of any true content through frameworks that in a best-case scenario might approximate the set-up of the General Women’s Union. Yet Syrian women have not been waiting for someone to draw up roles for them in this phase of revolutionary activism: they have been the main planners and motivators from the outset. They will not be able to impose their presence if they accept crumbs from the political high table.

Challenging all kinds of domination and custodianship should be the goal for the upcoming period. This does not mean working separately from men or advancing women’s interest at the expense of men to create completely different paths that might lead to nothing. On the contrary. The world witnessed the active role that Syrian women played and are still playing in the Syrian uprising. Despite these setbacks, building on these achievements means staying connected to the people who took to the streets demanding their freedom and dignity, and remaining attuned to the changing needs of Syrian women. The momentum of the popular drive for change, which saw men finally giving up their leverage over women, should be used to challenge more gendered taboos in the Syrian community.

How might this work in practice given the nature of the peace process thus far? Perhaps, instead of waiting for de Mistura to ask them to gather and create a separate body, tailored to fit what the UN and de Mistura wish to hear, Syrian women could actively work through the opposition’s institutions and present their vision to mediators and other players. This would enhance the opposition’s position in being united and representing the demands of the Syrian people, not just the male half of the population. There is also a need for the male-dominated opposition to ask itself whether accepting such a desperate initiative from de Mistura and the UN was indeed a good strategy. Enhancing women’s role from inside the opposition will only strengthen their capacity to deliver real change for Syria.

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger


[1] See for example: Women from Darayia demonstrating on 25.04.2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EW1AqgDo1b0

Women demonstrating in Douma 18.06.2011 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSxIwjiPxl0

Women demonstrating in Homs – Baba Amr https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYcHIAnscBw

One of the largest women’s demonstrations in Nawa-Daraa    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXl42lEDtWo

Women demonstrating in Daraa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rt6UWvg47ZM

Women demonstrating in Hama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnloGBGA4B0

[3] Among them the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace and the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy and others.

[5] UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps/

[6] Ahmad Kamel talking to Orient TV.