Political role of Syrian women: Intentional marginalization or political considerations?

EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and UN Envoy Gier Pederson, meeting with the Women's Advisory Council - March 14, 2019 (EU delegation to Syria) 

EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and UN Envoy Geir Pederson, meeting with the Women's Advisory Council - March 14, 2019 (EU delegation to Syria) 


Mays Hamad – Enab Baladi

It was no secret that the UN special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, was optimistic about the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee during his speech at a press conference in the United Nations on 2 October.

In conjunction with Pederson’s optimism, his speech focused on the participation of women in the Syrian Constitutional Committee. Pederson mainly talked about granting Syrian women the right to political representation in decision-making circles, with 30 percent of the 150 members present in the committee.

The final list of the Constitutional Committee included 150 names, divided equally among the three lists, i.e. six seats for women in the list of the negotiating body, 19 seats in the list of civil society, and 12 seats in the list of the Syrian regime.

In contrast to strong representation in the Constitutional Committee, women’s representation on the ground is declining in local councils and coordination offices.

In this report, Enab Baladi highlights the decline in women’s representation in Syrian politics, the Syrian opposition’s list related to the Constitutional Committee, and its alternatives.

Female representation in decline

In a survey conducted by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies of local councils operating in areas controlled by opposition factions, female representation in local councils was found to be only 2 percent. The study covered 105 out of 427 local councils in Damascus and its countryside, Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa, Quneitra, Homs, Hama and Latakia.

Basma Qadamani, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative and a member of the opposition list in the Constitutional Committee said: “I do not think that the decline in women’s representation in local councils is caused by civilians. However, it is related to the extreme militarization of the situation and the presence of extremist and hostile groups which oppose the presence of women in public affairs. We have noticed this in all areas, including Rif Dimashq and Idlib.”

She added: “The representation of women in non-politicized local councils was an encouraging phenomenon, a popular and legitimate form, which I consider to be a form of unplanned positive development, which is perhaps the best scenario for the development of women’s presence.”

Back in 2012, the local council of the city of Idlib included then five women, which then fell to three in 2013, out of its 23 members. In a previous interview with Enab Baladi, the director of the legal office of the local council in Kafr Nabl, Fatima al-Khalaf, confirmed that only two out of the 13 members of the council were women.

Al-Khalaf explained that many obstacles face the work of women in local councils, most notably the traditional and anti-democratic thinking, i.e. the representation of families and nepotism which dominates some of the councils in Idlib.

As a member of the High Negotiations Committee and a member of the Civil Society Committee participating in the Constitutional Committee, Samira al-Moubayed talked about the decline of women representation with Enab Baladi. Al-Moubayed attributed the lack of representation of women in the political arena to a “societal culture that is patriarchal in nature, which assumes that positions of power are restricted to males and that the role of women can be only effective in the narrow familial scope and not politics.”

She also talked about the impact of “the gradual transformation of the revolutionary movement from its civil nature welcoming the participation of women, to a military and religious one, which marginalized the role of women and led to total female absence political scene.”

Political actors are worse

Al-Moubayed argued that limiting the work of women during the revolution to relief and humanitarian work is the reason for the delay in reaching a political solution in Syria due to the lack of methodological thinking among Syrian women and their transformation into a kind of “decor” in political meetings.

She attributed the reluctance of Syrian women to enter the field of political work to social factors, including “the absence of a real incubator, supporting the role of women and not attacking them. Such a reality contributed to reducing women’s political role.”

According to al-Moubayed, male members of the opposition also contributed to the marginalization of the role of women in the political field, saying that “there has been no true conviction among the Syrian political actors of the importance of the role of women yet, which is the reason behind the marginalization of women’s presentation.”

She continued: “There is a dominance of ideological currents on the work of the opposition, both Islamist and communist, which have restrictive ready-made jobs for women. Therefore, the independent and free thought of Syrian women away from these restrictions has remained absent.”

Basma Qadamani, expert in political studies, agreed with al- Moubayed, as she sees that the low percentage of female representation in the political field is due to their reluctance to take part in the process, in addition to the “dominance of patriarchal thought”, which makes women feel lonely due to the small number of women present in politics. Thus, men’s treatment of women lacks the recognition of her role, “which requires moral strength, patience and stamina” as she put it.

The role of women from an academic perspective 

A recent study documented the early participation of women during the Syrian revolution, starting from the demonstrations and female leaderships, such as actress Fadwa Suleiman, in addition to the participation of some women in the coordination councils, and the break of some others from the Syrian regime, as well as documenting the testimonies of Syrian women detainees.

The study, prepared by Syrian researcher Lama Qanout, documented the rates of women’s participation in the coordination councils, which reached 50 percent in some cases, such as the coordination committee of Daraya and others in Rif Dimashq and Idlib, before the representation of women began to decline.

The study highlighted what happened on the sidelines of the meetings of the Friends of Syria Group conference held on 24 February, 2012, and quoted a former member of the Syrian National Council saying that 30 male members of the Syrian delegation entered the room, while, women remained outside. Then the female members got the permission to participate in the meeting when US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, asked about the reason for women’s absence.

“Hillary Clinton was disturbed by the lack of female representation, and I was the only woman among the 11 members of the executive office responsible for meeting with senior officials,” recalls Qadamani, who witnessed the incident.

On September 13, a group of judges and jurists presented a study of what was said to be a “constitutional document” for the establishment of a Federal Republic of Syria, which included a structural paper and an economic paper, which set the percentage of women’s representation in the political offices of the state at 30 percent.

That document also granted women a place in the police force and the military, in a way that some accused it of mimicking the experience of Kurdish councils much praised by Western public opinion.

If the committee fails?

In response to Enab Baladi’s question about the possibility of finding an alternative solution if women are not adequately represented in the Constitutional Committee, or if their rights were not guaranteed by the constitution, then “that will certainly put women in a marginal position”, Qadamani answered.

Qadamani stressed the need to demand the commitment of the opposition, and that the representation of women reaches at least 30 percent, noting that this has not been respected so far, even in the formation of the opposition group in the Constitutional Committee.

Qadamani wondered: “Will we find in Syrian society those who stand with us to reach 75 percent of the votes to secure our rights in the constitutional committee? I doubt it. We need to fight a battle that may be an internal battle in the Commission and an international diplomatic battle to include our rights as women in the constitution.”

She pointed out that the interference of states and the United Nations is “illegitimate or unacceptable in any field unless it is related to women’s rights, then we will welcome and take advantage of it.”

Qadamani called for compensating the lack of women representation in the Constitutional Committee through media presence and communication with women on the ground inside Syria and in the refugee camps to further raise the voice of women.

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