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Syria’s Women: Sidelined in Opposition Politics?

Many opposition leaders have praised women for their role in the uprising against the Assad regime. But women remain marginalized in opposition politics, portending an uncertain future for female participation in the post-conflict Syrian political sphere.

Written by Kinda Kanbar + Omar Hossino Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Only three women were selected to serve on the National Coalition, the opposition’s main umbrella group: Vice President Suhair Atassi, Rima Flihan and Mona Mustafa. The underrepresentation of women is also apparent in the Coalition’s predecessor and largest component, the Syrian National Council, which counts just 24 women out of 444 members. Many of those female members have resigned in protest of the imbalance.

“It’s shameful and very disappointing,” said Flihan. “One of the reasons that I decided to freeze my membership was the low representation of women.”

Women have featured prominently since the early days of the conflict, joining men in protests and intervening with security forces to prevent arrests. As the violence picked up, women were at the forefront of aid collection and distribution, managing field hospitals, disseminating information about the conflict through social media, and even taking up weapons and joining the battle. Like their male counterparts, they have felt the backlash – many have been the subject of brutal retaliation by Assad security forces, and have been raped and tortured in Syrian prisons.

It’s often overlooked that some of the first detainees of the revolution were women. Coalition Vice President Suhair Atassi and Daraa-based blogger Dana al-Jawabra were arrested on March 16, 2011, after the very first protest in Damascus. Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer and a human-rights activist, was forced into hiding. Samar Yazbek, an Alawite writer and Assad opponent, fled the country with her family after security forces threatened to arrest her daughter.

In some cases, female activism has opened doors for men. Hundreds of women blocked the main highway in the Bayda neighborhood of  Tartous in April 2011, in an effort to win the release of husbands and sons held by security forces. A protest the following month was dubbed the “Friday Protest of Free Women,” in honor of the thousands of women killed and imprisoned during the uprising.

But this grassroots recognition hasn’t translated to the political groupings that aim to organize the opposition movement against the Assad regime and form Syria’s future government.

Anas al-Abdah, chairman of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development party in Syria and a member in the SNC, said female representation in the SNC dropped after it was restructured. She believed that the organization has been hindered by the traditional (read: conservative) mentality of politicians who have ignored women’s role in the revolution.

George Sabra, the president of the SNC, said the solution was to enact a binding quota for Syrian women in the opposition, but that plan has turned out to be difficult to implement. “We raised the representation allotted for women from 5 percent to 15 percent, and this almost happened, but when it was time to have elections for women to the general secretariat and the executive office we could not elect one woman,” he said.

“The problem is that different components talk about the importance of the presence and representation of women, but they do not do what is necessary to bring it about,” Sabra added.

Even 15 percent representation doesn’t adequately address gender inequality in politics,” said Laila al-Odaat, a London-based Syrian human-rights lawyer. “The only way to guarantee women’s rights in political representation is the 30 percent quota.”

Alia Mansour, a Beirut-based journalist and member of the SNC, told Syria Deeply that there is an obvious discrimination against women in general, and against women representing secular political views in particular.

“I received calls from members advising me to change positions, using a patriarchal style, and I was once threatened that my reputation would be ruined,” she said.

Many women blame the Muslim Brotherhood for being an obstacle towards greater representation of women.

Moulham Droubi, a Brotherhood spokesperson, was quick to reject the idea. “This accusation is baseless and untrue,” he said, noting that the majority of the women in the SNC were included on the electoral lists of the Brotherhood and its allies.

“Women’s representation in politics all around the world is low, and in the Arab world it is even less,” Droubi said, adding that the Muslim Brotherhood supports increasing the representation of women in the National Coalition.

Syrian women have long been underrepresented in Syrian politics, despite gaining the right to vote in 1949, and the right to stand as parliamentary candidates four years later. In July 2011, Inter-Parliamentary Union stats put women’s parliamentary participation in Syria at just 12 percent, significantly lower than the global average of 20 percent and the Arab states’ 14.9 percent.

Women were also poorly represented in town and village councils. In the 2007 local council elections, 319 women were elected, representing 3.2 percent of the council members.

The Baath Party has made the occasional effort to elevate a woman to higher office, appointing Najah al-Attar as the minister of culture in 1976 and later, vice president. But as with most officials outside the inner circle of the Assad regime, Attar has held a largely ceremonial role.

Despite these entrenched obstacles, revolutionary fervor has given force to women’s issues, and many prominent leaders are trying to bolster female participation in politics.

Syrian women gathered in Doha to launch the Syrian Women’s Network in January, intending to create a separate structure that would play a role in the post-Assad transition period. The network’s framework is based on U.N. Resolution No. 1325, which requires parties in a conflict to respect women’s rights and to support their participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction.

“We are trying to form a strong network of women professionals and in a domestic capacity. We need to band together, we need to work together to have a strong presence, because what we are seeing in Syria is the transition from one dictator to another,” said Rafif Jouejati, spokeswoman of the Local Coordination Committees and a participant in the conference.

But this initiative still hasn’t gained traction at the National Coalition. Najib Ghadbian, its representative in New York, said the coalition doesn’t have a political or empowerment program for Syrian women. He said the weak female participation in the coalition is “embarrassing.”

Women may receive a larger role in the temporary government headed by Syrian-American Ghassan Hitto, but there are no quotas to ensure that women receive an adequate voice. “I spoke with Hitto about forming a committee for increasing women’s representation in his future government, [but] this was just a chat on personal level. There’s nothing official yet.”

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