By Lola Scurlock
According to the UN, International Women’s Day is a global event to acknowledge progress made in women’s rights, to advocate for change and to proclaim the role of common women in altering the history of their nations and communities through acts of courage and determination. On the 8th of March, we will celebrate International Women’s Day and one of the top ongoing topics that will be discussed is the role of Syrian women in the Syrian Civil War.
The ongoing violence of this conflict has been immense and as reported by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research: the war, from its beginning in March 2011 until a year ago, had caused 11.5% of the Syrian population’s death or injury. The violence has been particularly brutal towards women civilians who have not only died in bombardments and shootings, but have suffered: unlawful detention; mental and physical torture, kidnappings; sexual assaults and rape. Much of the country is also under the occupation of extremist organisations, such as Isis and al-Nusra, where women are harshly oppressed; sometimes to the point where they are not permitted to leave their homes without the escort of a male relative. It is also known that in such areas many women and girls are forced into sex-slavery.
Before the political uprising, many women in Syria held a “traditional role” in a patriarchal society. They oversaw domestic tasks and usually men were the breadwinners. Before 2011 women were also largely excluded from participating in political affairs. Although there is no silver lining to the atrocity of this conflict, it has “opened new horizons” for Syrian women and upended many of the social norms and customs. The turmoil in the country has allowed gender-role stereotypes to be broken and women to express their political opinions and contribute in the disentangling of the conflict.
Indeed, partly because so many men are participating in the armed conflict, many have been imprisoned or have sought refuge in other countries which has caused women to be the main providers in families and have subverted gender-roles in Syria. Bonnie Morris, a gender studies scholar at George Washington University stated that “It is not unusual for traditional gender roles to be shaken to the core in a time of war, sometimes with lasting effects. (…) When men go to war, women often assume men’s roles and are permitted to break rules. They’re able to be strong, or they become warriors to kill or carry weapons, or they take over everyday roles that men have abandoned because men have been kidnapped or jailed”. For example, after the end of the Second World War in Germany some of the major cities in the country had been reduced to ruins, the “Trümmerfrauen” or “rubble women” were women who helped physically rebuild the country. At that time, many of the men had fallen or become prisoners of war, women took on the “male” task to clear out of the rubble and make their cities habitable again.
Although women in Syria are culturally less used to being as politically active as men, from the very beginning of the uprising many Syrian women took to the streets in protests and formed a large portion of the peaceful activists. Moreover, although women were told not to raise their voices or participate in such activities, they continued, pushing the barriers of their cultural limitations. “Perhaps the protests liberated me from a whole era of silence regarding my rights inside the home and outside,” said a Syrian female activist interviewed by Rasha Elass from the Middle East Institute. These women are change makers and have participated in both women’s liberation and the country’s slow progress towards the liberation from the war. “Women have not been spared any aspect of the brutality of the Syrian conflict, but they are not merely passive victims,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch. “Women are taking on increasing responsibilities – whether by choice or due to circumstance”.
Suad Nofal, the award-winner of the Czech Homo Homini Award for human rights, proceeded to do a one-woman protest in front of the head-quarters of Isis in Ragga in March 2013, when other activists thought it was too dangerous to do so. She then used her power as a school teacher to open dialogue with young Isis fighters who had attended her school, defying Isis’ control over them. She has become an inspiration all over the country for other women. Showing them the impact they can have and proving to them that women are as good as men when participating in the war efforts. Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman was kidnapped and captured as an Isis sex slave in 2014. Nadia was one of the rare women who managed to escape these horrors and found refuge in Germany. Since, she has proceeded to hold speeches across Europe to raise awareness of the brutality of the non-state actors on her community. Indeed, sexual slavery and organised killing of the Yazidi population by the so-called Islamic-State constitutes genocide. Along with her lawyer, Amal Clooney, Nadia is advocating to the United Nations (UN) the urgency for the main actors from Isis to be taken to the international court of justice in The Hague. Nadia is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and as of 2016 is the first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking of the UN. But this is just the example, of two renowned cases of Syrian women who have contributed in peace-building and taken active political measures for change, most Syrian women’s immense efforts in the peacekeeping process have stayed in the shadows of the media. Syrian women have documented the Syrian government’s violations during the War and collected evidence to build future cases and prosecute regime officials. Other women have organised and provided courses and training sessions for women to attain skills in advocacy and lobbying to make their voices and demands heard and actively take part in the decision-making process of their communities and country.
With all that is happening in their country, Syrian women have decided that they cannot stay as passive observers on the sidelines. They fight for their Syria, and strive for the freedom of their country. They have taken on very new roles, identities and lives in the aim for justice and peace keeping. Another example of this, is the many girls and women; university students, workers or housewives, that have left their usual lives to take up humanitarian roles in the conflict, out of sheer necessity, due to the lack of NGOs physically present in the country. A group of university students dropped out of school to run a secret underground clinic, having had no prior medical experience except a crash course in first aid. Another group of women have formed an organisation to track down the families of dead or detained people, discuss with them and offer them mental support, as well as offer them food and blankets. Many Syrian women have saved countless lives in delivering food and life-saving medical supplies, smuggling goods past the Government checkpoints despite the extreme risk of being caught, facing detention and putting their lives as well as those of their families in peril.
On International Women’s Day, it will be more important than ever to support Syrian women and recognize how far they have come. The international community must acknowledge the political participation and the major humanitarian roles Syrian women have played within the conflict, despite the acute violence of the war they have also suffered. It is essential to include these women in the participation of peace talks and negotiations, and in all future policy-making and peace building processes. The United Nations Security Council must also pressure the Syrian government to put an end to any form of arbitrary arrest and detention and all forms of violence against women, as well as commit to women’s protection and the guarantee of their rights. Furthermore, it is imperative that the government and international community investigates the abuse that has been held against women and hold those responsible to account. The UN Security Council resolutions 2106 (2013) address sexual violence in conflict and resolution 2122 (2013) targets women’s participation, empowerment and human rights. All countries represented at the UN are legally bound to respect these resolutions, including Syria.
The sustainability of women’s new role and empowerment in society, that they have earned during the civil war, is also in question. Generations of women will have grown-up with the conflict, women’s political activism and the gender role shift, therefore, women will not want to let their newly earned freedoms be taken away from them when the war ends. Indeed, the battle that Syrian women are part of is not just for their population’s freedom against tyranny and oppressive regimes, but are also for their individual freedoms and rights as women. A Syrian woman, also interviewed by Rasha Elass, when asked about the future of women’s roles after the war, said “I do think the Syrian revolution is also a revolution for women, and there is no going back,”.