The Syrian regime has always delivered cosmetic services to the status of women. At the moment within the Syrian opposition movement, women get few important positions. Women civil activists witness that the same is happening in the political context. But women do not want this situation to continue, and are readyto stand up for their rights more openly.
Women are the front-runners of the revolution
According to Hiba Alhaji (Om Ezzideen), who established the first center for women in the province of Idlib, 40 years of exclusion of women has been enough for women to undertake the revolution: ‘Women had their place in the regime, but they were always members of the Al-Assad families sect, the Alawies. There were women in the parliament, but they had always a bad reputation. Women who had connections with the Muslim Brotherhood were band from governmental jobs and the labour market.’
We cannott forget that on 12 March 2011, when the opposition was still shouting for reforms, it was the daughter of the Druze Sultan Alatrash, who for the first time openly called for the regime to step down. But it became soon clear that the dream of ending the patriarchal regime would be difficult, as this was in contradiction with the sometimes traditional and conservative values of one part of the movement. The opinions were actually divided when women activists debated the need to wear traditional clothes or not; some said it is part of the patriarchal regime, others said it is a free choice. Although many women civil activists believed that their rights would go hand in hand with the claims for democracy and freedom, this has not been the case until now.
According to female civil activist Yara Nuseir the political opposition wants to project an image of plurality, they want a woman in their ranks, and more precisely a woman from a religious minority: ‘They never had the aim to end the struggle for inequality and guarantee true equal rights for women. Feminism is not a value that is propagated by the political opposition in Syria. Zaina Erhaim, a journalist who brings stories out about women activists, tells her story: ’It was two days before Geneva 2, I was called by the official delegation of the political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition. They needed a woman and someone who speaks English to attend the delegation to Geneva. I decided not to do join, as this political movement clearly wants my presence only for the picture, to fill the quota for women without giving women a voice or real place at the negation table. ‘
When certain segments of the revolutionary movements took up there weapons, women got an important role in the field of humanitarian aid, conflict resolution and psychological aid and support for children. There were even women rebels like Jivara from Aleppo, one of the best snipers of the Free Syrian Army. This said, there is actually a very big difference in the way the different rebel groups treat women.
For most of the Islamists it is Haraam, which literally means ‘forbidden’ in Arabic, for women to work except for jobs like nursing and teaching. Based on this approach/interpretation, Alhaji, a women in Raqqah, the progressive town that is now under control of ISIS, was beaten merely on the fact of chatting on facebook: The rebels of ISIS also threatened to kill women if they do not wear a headscarf. This began in November 2013 when ISIS took control of the city of Raqqah. Erhaim told me that the months before the taking control of Raqqah, she walked freely through the city. She saw girls full of makeup and without a headscarf walking before the headquarters of ISIS in Raqqah. According to Alhaji women are better treated in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army: ‘because they see us as sisters.’ Erhaim is one of the journalists and activists who came to the liberated areas in the North of Syria to escape the terror of the regime. She tells me that in the Northern cities it is more difficult to walk without a headscarf, because these are poor and conservative regions. She even told me that she is afraid to buy food and vegetables without the company of a man.
Razan Ghazzawi asks herself how many women there are in the Syrian National Coalition and the local councils. ‘We get symbolic recognition, but we don’t get an active role in the political opposition.’ Until now the most important role model for women in the Syrian National Coalition is Suheir Atassi, who is a civil activist of the first hour, she is vice president. Khawla Dunia says the Syrian National Coalition is just a mirror of the regime; the decision-making is in the hands of men too.
According to Erhaim the life of Syrian women is 3 times harder than of men: ‘This is because of the traditions in the conservative areas, the military repression, the shadowing and the social pressure. Women have to stand up against this and then convince people to be taken seriously.’ The Syrian activist who got most acknowledged is Razan Zaitouneh. Before the revolution she was a lawyer who defended the rights of political prisoners. During the revolution she mapped human rights violations and supported local councils. She is a symbol for female resistance. In Europe she is know because in 2011 she won the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thinking as one of the activists of the Arab Spring. She was not able come to Brussels as she is hiding from the regime. In December 2013 she kidnapped by an unknown rebel group and still considered captured.
Women are the game changer
According to Dunia, the situation of Syrian women is also worse than men’s situation: ‘There is an imbalance between our sacrifices and what we achieved’. Yara Nusair thinks that women are crucial to give energy and support to their communities en that women have to convince men of feminist values’ According to Hiba Alhaji one can not deny the fact that women are leaders and front-runners of the revolution. Erhaim adds that the revolution has made women conscience about their oppression by the current regime.
Khawla Dunia compares women with spices for men in the political movement: ‘ They use us like spices to give taste, but spices do not have an influence to change the main ingredients. I do not’t want to participate in any form of cooking as long as I am not an active participant.’