As the latest round of Syria peace talks kicked off in Geneva on Tuesday, Sawsan Zakzak is working behind the scenes to amplify the often overlooked perspectives of Syrian women and solidify their role in the United Nations-led negotiations aimed at finding a political solution to the war in Syria.
For over three decades Zakzak has advocated women’s rights in Syria, first as a member of the Syrian Women’s League, the longest-running women’s organization in the country, then as a founding member of Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy (SWIPD), which brought together Syrian women from all backgrounds to work toward the common goal of peace. Today Zakzak sits on the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, which advises U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. The board is the first delegation established specifically to give women an active role in negotiations and in the future of Syria.
In 2012, the Syrian constitution was amended to include an article that “guarantees women all opportunities enabling them to fully and effectively participate in the political, social, cultural and economic life.” Zakzak and her peers at the Syrian Women’s League “looked for the best ways to integrate gender awareness in the constitution,” she said.
Together with Syrian Women for Democracy, the league wrote a statement titled “We Look Forward to a Democratic Constitution” and launched a campaign lobbying for an active role for women in Syria. After Zakzak established SWIPD, the organization became the foundation for the Women’s Advisory Board, which was established as recently as February 2016 despite the Geneva I statement, the Vienna 2015 statement and Security Council Resolution 2254, all of which highlight the importance of the role of women in the process of the democratic transition of power.
The board consults regularly with de Mistura for a number of reasons, such as raising important issues missing from the negotiating agenda, delivering the position of Syrian women on key topics, and participating in peace talks.
Syria Deeply spoke with Zakzak about the objectives of the advisory board, the challenge it faces to be recognized by the negotiating parties and the role women should play in the future of Syria.
Syria Deeply: The peace talks in Geneva aim to establish a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” according to Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015). What is the Women’s Advisory Board bringing to the table at the talks, and what are its priorities?
Sawsan Zakzak: This goal is in line with the aspirations of Syrian women, who strive to bring an end to the armed conflict, achieve a democratic, political transition and build civil peace. The Syrian feminist movement understands that armed conflict cannot lead to a real democratic transition. Any armed civil conflict will only bring great losses to Syrians in general, and Syrian women in particular. Internal conflicts cannot be won.
In addition to the extensive human loss and the destruction of large parts of Syria, Syrian women have paid a particularly high price. They have lost loved ones and suffered from forced displacement. Repression, imprisonment and kidnapping were practiced by all parties [involved in the conflict, to punish] women activists and even women who were only indirectly involved through a male relative. Women also suffer from hunger, poverty and sieges, and, beyond that, face unfair working conditions. Most Syrian girls and women have lost access to education in schools and universities. They have increasingly become the victims of trafficking and have been forced into underage marriages. On top of all of that, jihadist terrorist groups have practiced all kinds of violence against women, including selling women as slaves.
For all of the above reasons, at these talks, like always, we want to focus on working with all Syrians, regional and international parties to end the armed conflict and to begin direct negotiations in order to achieve a democratic transition.
Syria Deeply: How have the negotiating parties and other delegations reacted to the inclusion of the Women’s Advisory Board?
Zakzak: For many people, the idea of the advisory board was not clear. Some worried that it might replace other delegations. Others questioned it simply because it consists of women, or because it brought together women from various backgrounds and ideologies, even though Syrian society is deeply divided.
I think that the advisory board is now respected by the majority of parties involved in the Syria talks. The board provided the U.N. special envoy [de Mistura] with unique suggestions, proving the board’s close relations with and understanding of Syrian women. Additionally, the board is the only body that brings together Syrian women of various backgrounds who share one goal, which is ending the armed conflict and building a better future.
Syria Deeply: How do you encourage the involvement of the constituents you represent in Geneva – Syrian women around the world?
Zakzak: One of the main goals of the board’s members is to establish interactive communication among Syrian women. This is why we, at the Syrian Women’s League, work on enforcing our relationship with Syrian women inside and outside Syria, and especially with activists, the displaced and refugees in Syria and Lebanon, where we operate.
We organized a conference in Beirut in April 2016 and invited some of the board’s members as well as a number of women activists from Syria, Turkey and Lebanon, and a large number of Syrian women refugees, to Lebanon. The conference discussed communication mechanisms between the board and Syrian women.
We’re also keen on holding dialogue sessions with women where we could present our work, benefit from their feedback and communicate their suggestions and ideas to the U.N. special envoy through the advisory board. Our goal is to expand our dialogue sessions to include women in other regions.
Syria Deeply: Reflecting on the last round of talks, which ended without any notable outcome, where do you find these new ones picking up?
Zakzak: In the last round of talks, we hoped that the negotiating parties would start discussing the previously agreed-upon main negotiating topics – governance, the constitution, elections and counterterrorism – and come up with appropriate mechanisms to reach the initial agreements on these issues. However, due to a lack of coordination between the negotiating parties from the opposition side, what was achieved was much less than we had hoped for.
We should all remember that the armed conflict in Syria kills more Syrians and causes more destruction every day. I don’t think that the will to make peace is a priority for those involved in the armed conflict. Some of them still believe that a military way can bear fruit, especially those who still have the support from foreign actors.
Syria Deeply: Going forward, what role should Syrian women have, especially in eventually rebuilding the country?
Zakzak: Syrian women should play the most prominent role in the future of the country, from reconstruction to peacebuilding and community reconciliation. However, that will depend on the breadth of rights that women will obtain during and after the transitional process.
Syrian law doesn’t provided equal rights to men and women; personal status laws, in particular, which preserve the patriarchal hegemony of male family members. These laws assume that women shouldn’t work and that it is the duty of a woman’s father or her husband to provide for her. These laws reinforce the stereotype that women are not capable of supporting themselves, and that they depend on men. There are many other laws that divest women of their rights, such as the honor killing law. These laws allow men to control women’s access to education, work and public life.
Additionally, social conventions discriminate against women. In some families, for example, women don’t receive their inheritance, which, according to religion, already is only half of what men would get. Such practices limit women’s opportunities to start their own businesses and become independent.
I believe that we can only rebuild Syria if we empower women, provide them with full human rights, adopt gender-sensitive policies and encourage women’s involvement in public life. I don’t think any society could be developed if more than half of its people are neglected.
This interview was conducted by email and translated from Arabic. It has been edited for length and clarity.