Syrian feminists fight for say in postwar peace talks

Women make up half of Syria's population, but so far have had little say in the conversations about what comes next for their country, Nil Köksal writes.

Women's group seeking 'freedoms that people take for granted in other parts of the world'

Dima Moussa, who left Syria with her parents when she was a teenager, wants Syrian women of all political backgrounds 'to have the freedoms that people take for granted in other parts of the world.' (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

In Syria, a place where so much is destroyed, the glass ceiling can still seem shatter-proof. But Syrian feminists are fighting to break it down.

They say they're not oblivious to the obstacles the patriarchal system in their country — and abroad — will likely throw at them, but they're demanding a seat at the talks that could finally bring peace to Syria after seven years of war.

"We are here to make sure our voices are heard," said Dima Moussa, a feminist and supporter of Syria's opposition. "We know what we want. We want to be part of the rebuilding of Syria."

Moussa, who lives in Istanbul now, is one of 40 women (and two men) who are part of the Syrian Women's Political Movement. They say it's the first of its kind in the country, and they are adamant that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go.

Maya Alrahbi, a doctor and writer, is among the members who founded the group in October. Three decades of feminist activism made her a constant target in Syria. She said she was prevented from leaving the country for eight years, but escaped in 2014, and now lives in France.

Members of the Syrian Women's Political Movement want women of all political backgrounds to be present at peace talks. (The Syrian Women's Political Movement)

"The work that civil society feminist groups did inside the country wasn't enough," Alrahbi said. "We tried a lot, but no one heard our voice. We had to do something. So we created this movement to go inside the political process and be at the table of negotiations."

Key players are crowding around that negotiating table for the eighth time this week in Geneva. The talks are led by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura and bring together representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition. 

'We couldn't empower them'

Women in Syria are like women around the world: They make up about 50 per cent of the population. And like anywhere else, they are diverse.

"There are women who wear hijabs, some who don't," said Moussa. "A lot of women have professional careers and some are stay-at-home mothers and wives. But for a lot of us, our mothers and grandmothers had careers, had college degrees, they worked outside the house."

Alrahbi, who wrote a book about women in Syria, has a darker view. While she acknowledged that some in cities enjoyed liberties "like women in Europe or Canada," in rural areas they "have no control [of] their bodies, they have to have many, many children and work in the land of their husbands without any penny for themselves. What is more miserable than this?"

She said "we couldn't empower them," because the regime prevented it.

But amid the ruins of Syria, the women see a powerful opportunity. The group's manifesto, written at their first conference last month, is focused on enshrining equality in a new constitution.

Founding members of the group met in October in Paris to lay out their goals for Syria's future. (The Syrian Women's Political Movement)

"My dream for Syria is peace and a country where every citizen is protected by the law, equal to all the other citizens, no discrimination based on anything, whether religion, political affiliation and gender," Moussa said. "To have the freedoms that people take for granted in other parts of the world."

Moussa is familiar with losing and gaining those freedoms. Her family left Syria in the '90s, when she was 14, and settled in the U.S. Her parents refused to support the government led then by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father.

'Historic moment' or not?

Women are part of the UN-led peace talks, but not in a meaningful way, the feminists insist.

De Mistura created the Syrian Women's Advisory Board in February 2016, and it consists of 12 women representing independent civil society organizations. At the time, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women, called it "a historic moment" and said "women are essential partners in the peace process."

But the overwhelming majority of the representatives at the table in Geneva are men. The feminists say that at last count, of the 26 people at the negotiating table, only four are women. 

The UN said it was unable to provide an interview to CBC News.

The eighth round of Syrian peace talks are going on now in Geneva and are expected to run until mid-December. (Xu JinQuan/AFP/Getty Images)

Mariam Jalabi is another founding member of the Syrian Women's Political Movement, and the fact that the women's board is working at the sidelines while nearly all-male negotiating teams are making key decisions brings anger and sarcasm to her voice. The board was a "brilliant idea," she scoffed.

"Women have been systematically on the sidelines, supposedly to give advice. None of their advice is taken, unless a man decides to," Jalabi said of the board.

Moussa said the rationale for the board "is legitimate," but added, "the mechanism perhaps wasn't the best." Women "are presented as the peacemakers, bringing all sides together. They're [seen as] not politically affiliated. We are political. We're not neutral. We're on the opposition side. It's important."

The members of the movement believe Syrian women of all political affiliations should make up 30 per cent of the people at the negotiating table. They know those seats will not come easily.

"There's always an attempt to push back, to marginalize what you say and what you do," Moussa said. "Unless you stand there and make sure [to say], 'No, this is what I believe and this is what I think is true.' You also have to support other women. Women need to support each other."

Moussa said, above all, the movement is committed to equality "between men and women and among all components of the Syrian population. It is very important to have that codified."

And the women don't want to wait.

"Now is always the right time to do everything," she said. "If we wait until the negotiations are over, then we're starting everything from zero."


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.