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In Montreux, Syrian Women Look to Find Their Voice

Last week, Syrian women’s rights activists concluded a two-day conference in Geneva by demanding equal involvement in the war-torn country’s male-dominated peace-building process.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

They asked the United Nations, whose second round of Geneva peace talks is set to begin on Wednesday, to allow female representatives and called for a “gender adviser” to represent them during negotiations. 

We asked Rafif Jouajeti, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria, and well-known women’s rights activist Reem al-Assil to weigh in on what women want to see happen in Switzerland, and how their role in Syrian society, and the conflict, is changing.

Syria Deeply: What do Syrian women want from this week’s peace talks?

Rafif Jouajeti: Geneva II is like a ribbon on a present – a lot of it is show. It’s a very long process, but it’s a first and necessary step. What we were able to achieve ahead of Geneva was like you mentioned, rise above any ethnic, political and sectarian differences, and focus on the fact that we are Syrian women who want an end to the violence. We want the release of political prisoners. We want our refugees to come back home. We want freedom for people to live in our country.  We want our love for Syria to go beyond any intellectual debate.

Women from all political backgrounds, cultures and cities were represented at our talks in Geneva, and we were still able to focus on our primary goal. Its not just the opposition, it’s also about women and their role in the political process.

SDHow have women participated in Syria’s revolution over the past three years? How has their role changed?

RJSince the beginning of the revolution, women were leading sit-ins and demonstrations. As the conflict grew militarized, some women took up arms. Others focused on the humanitarian situation and began delivering relief, medical supplies and training, and treating the wounded.

But the scope of civil resistance has changed: At one point being in a demonstration was an act of resistance. Now, delivering humanitarian assistance is seen as act of civil disobedience.

Women have opened media centers in Aleppo that have been shut down or bombed by the regime. A lot of women have done cross-border deliveries of cash and medical aid. There are women in Turkey and Syria who are forming organizations and running projects and training on transitional justice, negotiation, crisis counseling, psycho-social work, education, peace building and policy negotiation.

It really is the whole spectrum of things. Women have not allowed the fact that they have been marginalized to stop them. They have been an effective force on the ground, forming organizations that emphasize empowering other women and men.

Women are and have been looking at the infrastructure that has been destroyed, and have focused on rebuilding society.

The Outcome Statement delivered by the 50 women urged all parties to transcend their differences to reach an agreement for a free, pluralistic and democratic Syria that respects human rights, including the rights and equality between men and women.

Reem al-Assil: They participated widely from the beginning of the revolution. I remember participating in the first protests in April 2011 in Damascus, it was a women’s walk. And then they continued, of course. At the beginning it was kind of support to civil action, and after the situation got worse, they started to be the breadwinners for their families, especially those who were forced to flee the country, who lost their husbands and fathers.

I think women’s participation in the revolution could be divided into two broad sections. The first one is concerned with everything related to the society in general, like raising awareness, all the civil work, promoting these concepts. And the second role is concerned specifically with women and children. We started to see women gathering and developing education centers, or workshops to make crafts to make their living. A friend of mine established a center in Kilis to knit clothes for little children and sell it.

SDWhat do you think about the lack of female politicians on both sides of the conflict?

RAIt’s hurtful! I was just checking conversations in a Syrian National Coalition group and I was thinking, whoa, there are no women. We don’t see women really participating in the political process in Syria, and I don’t know why. I know a lot of female politicians who are brilliant. But they are discouraged, they participated in the beginning and now they can’t see any results so they quit. It’s a good question. We have to encourage women to participate in one way or another in the political work in Syria. It’s hard for men, so you can imagine … to be involved in these violent conversations. But we have to find a solution for this.

SDRafif, you spoke with women from other post-conflict countries about reconciliation. How does the reconciliation process begin?

RJThe principle is, if you kill my son, and I kill your son … we are both widows. Because this conflict has been going on for so long, every Syrian at this point has lost someone, and been impacted in some way, regardless of political background, so how do we achieve short-  and long-term transitional justice? How do we rebuild a country that has been largely destroyed? We cannot let hatred- sectarian or otherwise- dictate how we rebuild the country. We have to focus on the country, and bring our children back to grow up and become active and productive members of society.

SD: How has ISIS changed daily life for women in Syria? How are women responding?

RJ: In some cases, women are rising to the challenge. Women are re-affirming their vows to fight for peace, for the country, to not give up. We have always wanted a free, just democratic state for all Syrians. The women who are part of the revolution have always wanted an effective and credible state.

ISIS and the regime are pretty much one and the same; they are both brutal dictatorships. There are whole areas in northern Syria where ISIS’ positions remain untouched, while FSA positions are bombed to pieces.

What people need to realize is that the majority of Syrians are peaceful. We don’t want to fall into two camps. We don’t believe in Assad vs. the jihadists. There is a third camp – one that wants a free, democratic Syria.

Women bear the brunt of violence (sexual, physical) in the war, but have also become breadwinners, because they have lost the men in their family.

RA: I’ve seen girls in Raqqa protesting, holding banners in front of ISIS centers, with really strong Arabic phrases saying things like ‘you’re not going to change our life. We are here and going to continue to live.’ I know an activist who is really brave, she protested there in front of their center for days, holding this banner. So yes, they are speaking out loudly now, what they think and what they want to see and to do.

SD: How is this change in social fabric playing out on the ground?

RJ: We need to empower women with the tools and training they need so they can thrive in their perspective fields. Syrian women are going to have to rebuild the country on an emotional level, cultural, physical level.

We can’t rely on traditional gender roles. We need to look at women as citizens, people. Women have lost their brothers, fathers, sons…but are also trained doctors, lawyers, professor, engineers, and yet they have to take on additional responsibilities.

I think what women are doing right now is a form of resistance. Ultimately, if we don’t address women’s rights in the context of human rights, what is this fight about?

We have to remember that women have been raped, sexualized torture has been used to crush decent. We have to remember that women have stepped up from the beginning and taken action to deliver what is necessary.

Women in refugee camps aren’t receiving sanitary pads in their health baskets, that is wasn’t even a part of the thought process in delivering aid, and some women have resorted to selling food coupons in exchange for sanitary pads…

The fundamental lack of knowledge -or maybe its sexism and misogyny – buts its extremely detrimental that basic women’s needs aren’t even considered in the peace process. Men think about things in terms of arms. They aren’t thinking that women of certain ages need certain medical supplies. They aren’t thinking the fact that bombs erupted in someone’s home, and that children and women have injuries. They aren’t thinking about the weather and what it takes to survive, basic food and medical supplies. They aren’t thinking that women of a certain age need certain medical supplies.

RA: Support their activities, especially of those who are establishing things to earn a living. It’s partly providing those who are working in the field of awareness with materials, with guidelines.

SD: What’s the best way to include women not on the ground — like refugees and Syrian-Americans — in the peace process?

RJ: Women represent more than half of Syrian society. Whatever we are doing and regardless of where we are living, we can join the case in fighting for civilians in Syria and civil society. Of course women abroad have the luxury of not being bombarded, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are all Syrians rooting for the same thing that Syrians inside Syria want.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to lose another 500,000 people.You have to ask yourself, at one point are we actually violating the human rights of people who have yet to be born?

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