Syrian women have played a prominent role in Syria since the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011. In particular, Syrian women’s roles were most influential in the peaceful stage of the revolution.
The Assad regime pushed vigorously for revolting Syrians to take up arms. It also facilitated the entrance of Jihadist groups specifically al-Nusra Front and Islamic State (ISIS) into the Syrian scene. As a result, the influential role which Syrian women performed in the first months of the revolution came under threat.
Syrian women’s causes and issues were present in the coverage of alternative media. Syrian women occupied significant positions and management positions in the newly-established newspapers and radio stations after the outbreak of the revolution. Due to Syrian women huge involvement in media and peaceful activism, several Syrian women were awarded prizes in journalism and other fields.
International struggle to protect women’s rights
Syrian social life experienced a major decline over the five decades of Baath Party rule in Syria.
The Syrian regime promotes itself internationally to be a pro-women secular regime. But in reality, women were exposed to an exceptional cultural decline during the rule of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad not to mention the regime’s ruthless massacres of Syrian women.
Emergence of women rights movements
Women’s rights movements started during the European Renaissance between 1550 and 1700. The movement began with rectifying some concepts oppressed states held relating to women. Feminists called for humanizing women, and anchoring new concepts to improve cooperation and integration between the two sexes.
In the 18th century, feminists took a step forward and demanded equality between women and men.
British writer Mary Wollstonecraft was the first to use ‘women rights’ as a statement in her famous declaration, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792.
Later on, several philosophers provided theoretical contexts to address equality between women and men from a legal perspective. The most prominent of these philosophers is Stuart Mill who wroteThe Subjection of Women which is considered the foundation of feminist movements.
First Wave of Feminism
Individual women’s voices called for women rights until the mid-19th century. At first, women calling for women’s rights were not organized. The emergence of European revolution and democratic movements facilitated the emergence of organizations dedicated to women’s causes.
The first conference for women rights was held in Seneca Falls in New York and led by activist the Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The second women congress was convened in 1850 by Lucy Stone. The two conferences merged in 1869 to form the National American Woman Suffrage with Susan B. Anthony as the leading force. Anthony proposed in 1878 amendments to the voting law (Suffrage movement) in the constitution in order to include women which is also called Anthony Amendment.
Wyoming state was the first American state to offer suffrage right to women. The movement accelerated because of the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage in 1890, and electing Carrie Chapman Catt as the leader in 1900.
The campaign attracted many women, intellectuals, and bourgeois to the cause. Political professionalism, increase of funding and protests in big cities assisted in acquiring more support. The campaign ended with the approval of ‘the 19th amendment’ and became an applicable law in 1920 which is considered a historical achievement for American women.
Between 1920 and 1960, revolt among women organizations became prevalent like ‘League of Women Voters,’ in 1920 and ‘the National Council of African American women’ in 1935. These organizations called for different types of liberal reformations related to rights of both sexes.
Women in the United Kingdom started their political struggle in 1903. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union(WSPU), a suffrage advocacy organization. Women from widely different age groups and social classes protested. Protesters were detained and the state banned them from gathering. They were thrown off of the stairs of the Houses of Parliament. The national divide ended with a truce concurring with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The Women Union decided to support the war.
In order to overcome the opposing stand of the British government to its goals, the Women Union encouraged thousands of women to protest and participate voluntarily in war industries and other services.
The suffrage right for women in England was granted in 1918, but only for women over 30. In 1928, women aged 21 were granted the right to vote.
New Zealand is the first country in the world which granted women the right to vote in 1893.
The Bolshevik Revolution played a significant role in promoting and consolidating women equality in 1917. The church’s hegemony over marriage was cancelled and full equality of rights between women and men was acquired. Alexandra Kollontai was the first woman to be appointed as a minister in 1920.
Europe, Latin America, and Asia
Several European countries granted women the right to vote after the Second World War including France, Greece, Italy and Switzerland.
In Latin America, Ecuador was the first country to recognize women’s political rights in 1929 and it was followed by Mexico in 1953.
In Asia, Mongolia was first country to grant women the right to vote in 1923.
In Japan and Korea, women were granted the right to vote in 1945.
Second Wave of Feminism
The rebel women’s movement emerged in the 60s provoked by women studies like The Second Sex 1949 by Simone de Beauvoir and The Feminine Mysitque 1963 by Betty Friedan. The movement was influenced by post-modernism discourse and the general legislative atmosphere which was supportive of minority issues and stands against discrimination.
While the first wave of feminism address the legal aspect manifested in suffrage rights, the second wave focused on fighting discrimination against women in reality more than in legislations. Expressions like ‘gender equality’ and ‘women empowerment’ were widespread.
Feminist writer Betty Friedman founded the first feminist organizations, the National Organization for Women. The organization attracted most left feminist women groups. The organization expanded and turned into the ‘Women Liberation Movement’ and later on was called the feminist movement. The feminist activities in the United Nations brought forth feminist movements to Europe.
Radica, social, and liberal feminist movements were harshly confronted by the Christian conservative trend. Feminists had to unite under the radical feminist trend and they worked to achieve their goals by forming coalitions with human rights organizations. Simultaneously, the first international conference for women was held in Mexico in 1975.
The women rights movement led by the National Organization for Women lobbied for amendments to equal rights law in the American institution.
Feminist activity in the 80s addressed different issues like reproductive rights, the right to abortion, sexual harassment and what is called ‘glass ceiling’ (the invisible barrier which prevents minority and women from being promoted in workplace).
The United Nations Charter was adopted in 1945. It is considered the first international accord which addressed equal rights between sexes. The International Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 asserted the principle of equality between humans. The first international conference for women was held in Mexico in 1975, and the associations between United Nations institutions with feminist organizations, international interest in the issue of violence against women became pervasive. At first, they addressed domestic violence to solve the issue of violence against women. Mexico’s conference work plan showed the necessity of creating educational programs and finding new ways to resolve disputes in households.
An international treaty was adopted in 1979 called CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Following CEDAW, the United Nations organized many conferences, law, and legislations to address women rights and to fight discrimination. The last one was in March 2013. United Nation declaration confirmed on fighting all types of discrimination between the two sexes without invoking religion or traditions. United Nations described the declaration as a historical declaration to stop violence against women.
Feminist movement in Lebanon and Syria
Feminists from urban and bourgeois background along with literary figures and intellectuals used to organize in literary salons at the beginning of the 20th century.
For instance, journalists like the Lebanese May Ziade who published her first novel in 1909. She used to organize a literary meeting every Wednesday in her house. Cultured, literary figures and intellectuals would attend the meeting with the Damascene journalist Mary al-Ajami. Ajami founded ‘The Bride’, the first women magazine in 1910 and the Pioneer Literary Association in 1922.
Syrian women were influential in the protests against the French colonisation. They organized big demonstrations in which thousands participated against the French shelling of Damascus in 1925. However, feminist movement activities were reduced after the national movement was exiled outside Syria. Activists isolated themselves and devoted themselves to education and their literary meetings which were elitist to a great extent.
Syrian women were granted suffrage rights after independence in 1948. At first, the right to vote was conditioned on women having completed their elementary education. In 1953, the condition of having an elementary degree was eliminated. In the same year, Syrian women were granted right to run for elections.
Feminist activism stopped during the political turmoil in Syria before the Baath Party coup d’état. The Baath party through a series of campaigns to dominate political and social aspects of Syrians’ lives, had hegemony over any feminist activity happening in order to control it.
Syria is one of the countries with the highest numbers of honour crimes following Yemen and Palestine according to a statement issued by the Syrian Interior Ministry in 2011.
Watan, the Syrian semi-official newspaper, provided statistics at the end of 2013 on incidence of honour killings in Syria for the years 2012-2013. According to the statistics, Aleppo is ranked first in honour crimes among Syrian governorates with 11 recognized crimes followed by Damascus governorate with 9 cases.
In Syria, every year in October a day of solidarity with honour crimes victims is celebrated.
Syrian Women in Alternative Media
The Syrian revolution retrieved freedom of expression again after it was banned for decades under Baath rule. Syrian women embraced the opportunity for free expression and enriched the revolution. Syrian women were highly prominent actors in the alternative media which developed in and as a result of the revolution. The establishment of alternative media in Syria is considered one of the most significant achievements of the Syrian revolution.
Alternative media newspapers were founded following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2012.
New Syrian newspapers covered Syrian women causes and addressed women rights in a considerable number of articles and reports. We tracked the most prominent newspapers which address women issues. They are: Yasemin, al-Ghurbal, and Tl’ina al-Hurriye. They are general newspapers with regular circulations.
Revolutionary commitment to women issues
Newspapers displayed initial commitment to support women’s rights and causes. We see this in the opening of the first issue of ‘Saydet Suriya’ (lady of Syria) magazine. ‘Lady of Syria’ magazine sought to build a media platform aiming to mobilize women and form a collective perspective for women. The magazine aimed to achieve a higher presence for women in the political and social scene.
The commitment to women’s rights and issues is also evident in the slogan of Mazaya magazine issued from Kafranbel (city in Idlib). The slogan reads, ‘I am not a burden; I am a support’. This slogan echoes in another article in the 16th issue of Tl’ina Al Hurriye newspaper; ‘In Syria women are not separate from men ribs, they fall from the womb of the sky. All women of the earth smell like rain, but Syrian women smell like endless suffering and smell like belonging.’
Furthermore, we see this commitment in assigning the 26th issue of TL’ina Al Hurriye newspaper to celebrate women’s day on the 8th of March.
Yasemin Syria, a magazine started as a project by female university students who participated in the revolutionary movement and mobilized in Aleppo University for many months. They were the pioneers as through the magazine they attempted to assert the presence of women in the political scene. Yasemin’s editor in-chief, Hussein Biru, and Enab Baladi’s managing editor Ammar Ziade said that half of the founders of the new newspapers were women and most of the editorial staff are women, and this made us very committed to women’s causes.
Associating women cause to Islam
Mazaya magazine focused on women’s place in Islam. In the opening of 3rd issue of Mazaya, ‘Islam has given women all legal rights, right to ownership and enjoy what she owns. These are the most important things that Islam gave to women and in this, Islam has preceded other legislations. Sharia made men and women equal in ownership and contracts. Some jurisprudents legalized women access to the judiciary.’
Mazaya’s editor in chief, Ghalia al-Rahal said, ‘our objective is to shed light on women’s roles and rights in our society which is predominated by religion. That’s why, it is necessary to address women cause from an Islamic perspective in articles and issues of the magazine. These articles represent moderate religion and the objective is to support women cause.’
Supporting women cause in alternative media is risky
Although there is more freedom in areas under opposition control still these newspapers were banned and their staff were harassed several times.
Tl’ina Al Hurriye 49th issue was banned from being publishing in Douma because according to the barring party, ‘of presence of adorned women.’ Another issue of Enab Baladi was prohibited in Idlib on similar grounds.
Al-Ghurbal magazine discussed women issues and this focus was reason for ISIS to storm their office in Kafranbel and kidnap the managing editor Ahmad al-Saloom.
Rami Suyyed, the managing editor, explained that of all the armed factions only ISIS prohibited them from addressing women’s issues. Ghalia al-Rahal, Mazaya newspaper’s editor in chief, and Hussein Biru, Yasemin newspaper’s editor in-chief, concur with Suyyed’s comment about ISIS and other armed factions’ approach to the media publishing about women’s issues.
Where is the defect?
Why has the alternative media not succeeded in pushing essential actors in the field to commit to women’s cause and issues although alternative media have focused on this issue? Why they have they been denied relative freedom in publishing and distributing on the ground?
Huseein Biru explains, ‘it is because we face a social structure in which women are considered to be subjects no more and no less. Even Syrian political forces treat women as a decoration to make the Syrian landscape look nicer or to make donors satisfied. Thus, the road is long and it requires more coordination among media outlets and among feminist organizations to establish an approach which is more effective and more feasible.’
Ammar Ziadeh of Enab Baladi offers another interpretation of the situation. He says, ‘the failure for more commitment to women cause is a common failure in the revolution generally because women’s cause was part of it. The complex military and political reality, and the fragmentation of the opposition had effect on the media approach towards women cause. It limited media’s capacity to act.’
Rami Suyyed considers the problem lies in lack of dispersion and the incapability of media to reach all areas in Syria. He adds, ‘extremists controlling areas commit violations against women’s freedom in speeches delivered in mosques and in educational institutions. They use force to impose living styles on women and on society. We have to continue working in order to create a ground which will receive new ideas. We cannot reach Syria without dealing with women cause as a general social cause.’ Ammar Ziadeh seconds Rami regarding this.
Syrian Women awarded International Prizes
Majd Sharbaji: a courageous woman
Activist Majd Sharbaji was awarded an International Women of Courage Award from the American Government on the 7th of March 2015. She was awarded alongside 9 other women for their efforts in advocating for women rights and advocating causes related to their countries. Majd was handed the award by the Deputy Secretary of the Department of State, Higin Butom, on behalf of Michel Obama, the American President’s wife.
Majd was born in Daraya in 1981. She is a founder of Enab Baladi Newspapers, and a member in its General Board. She participated in civil activism in the Syrian Revolution since its outbreak in March 2011. She was detained in late January 2013 and was released after 7 months.
Majd continued to work in the field of women empowerment after her release and she started the ‘Women Now’ centre in Lebanon in January 2014. Afterwards, she became a representative of the organization ‘Women for Development’ which opened 5 centres in Syria and neighbouring countries. She is the director of public relations in the organization.
Kholoud Waleed: Searcher for Truth
Syrian journalist Kholoud Waleed was awarded ‘Anna Politkovskaya’ yearly award from ‘RAW in WAR’ organization on 7th of October 2015. She was awarded as a tribute for her hard work in conveying the truth of what is happening in Syria. She is also one of the founders of Enab Baladi Newspaper.
The prize is so named as a tribute to the Russian journalist ‘Anna Politkovskaya’ who is known for her opposition of President Vladimir Butin and the Chechen war. She was assassinated on the 7thof October 2007. Her assassinator is still free at this time as is Bashar al-Assad who has been assassinating the Syrian people for the past 5 years using all types of brutalities in a bid to oppress the Syrian people who have always had the ambitious of change and freedom. Kholoud said she will be handed the award in March 2016 from the organization’s headquarters in London.
Kholoud, who is 31 years old, was born in Daraya (south of Damascus). She is one of the founders of Enab Baladi and a member of its editorial board. She still works as an editor in Enab Baladi. She has a master degree in simultaneous translation from Damascus University in 2010.
Suhair Atasi and Oula Ramadan: No Peace without Justice
The international organization ‘No Peace without Justice’ which is based in Rome granted its awards to activists Suhair Atasi and Oula Ramadan as a recognition for their efforts in advocating for human rights, and civil and political freedoms.
The two activists were handed the award in an official ceremony in the Italian capital Rome on the 5th of March 2014. In attendance was the Vice President for the Italian Senate, and the former Ministers for Justice and for Foreign Affairs.
Suhair along with other activists founded the General Board of the Syrian Revolution when protests started against Assad regime. She was detained by the regime security apparatus. Oula Ramadan works as an activist in human rights and is a member in the Committee of Syrian Women Initiative for peace and democracy.
Suhair Atasi was director of the coordination unit related to the Syrian National Coalition before she resigned in 2015.
Razan Zaitouneh: a tribute while absent
Razan Zaitouneh, lawyer and civil society activist, was kidnapped from her work headquarters in Eastern Ghouta on 9th of December 2013 along with her colleagues in the violation documentation centre.
Razan could not receive any of the awards she was awarded because of danger of moving out from her work place while in Syria. She received the 5th prize while she is held by an anonymous group in Syria. Her abduction still looms on peaceful work in Syria.
On 8th of October 2011, Razan was awarded the Anna Politkovkaya Award for opposing a regime which accused her of being a spy for the West. The regime accused her on basis of articles she wrote and published on the internet about regime enacted violence against protesters demanding democracy. The awarding committee issued a statement saying that Razan’s determination and decisiveness led the Syrian regime to arrest and torture her and her family.
On 27 October 2011, Razan was awarded the 2011 Sakharov Prize, a prize awarded by the European Parliament to honour individuals who dedicate their lives to the defense of human rights and the freedom of thought. She was awarded alongside the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, the Egyptian Usama Mahfuz, the Tunisian Muhammed Bu Azizi, and Libyan Ahmad al-Sanusi. They were awarded to honour their dedication to the defence of human rights in their countries and their influence on civil society emergence in the region.
In 2012, Razan was awarded by the Ibn Rushd Fund in Berlin. The prize was given that year to activists of ‘Arab Spring’.
In June 2014, Vital Voices Organization recognised Razan with another award although she remains kidnapped since late 2013.
Razan was born in Damascus in 1977. She graduated from law school in 1999. She started training in the office of the Syrian lawyer and opposition figure, Haitham al-Malih. She is a member of the team of lawyers for defence of political prisoners. She is a founder and member of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS). She worked in the association until 2004. In 2005, she founded the Syrian Human Rights Information Link in Syria to function as a database to record human rights violations in Syria. In addition to that, Razan is an active member of the Committee to Support Families of Political Prisoners in Syria.
Early in 2011, she participated in founding Local Coordination Committees and Violation Documentation Centre which transferred to the city of Douma (city in Eastern Ghouta) following the pressure from the Assad regime on her family.
Suad Nufal: Revolutionary against Both States
Acitivist Suad Nufal was awarded the Prize Homo Homini by the Czech human rights organization People in Need in 2014. She was awarded to honour her struggle against the Assad regime and ISIS. She protested against the regime since the outbreak of the revolution. She was not silent when ISIS began to commit violations in Raqqa against its population after they gained control over the city.
The People In Need award is given annually to persons who fought tyranny in peaceful ways to enhance human rights. Every year, a group of activists are nominated and organization’s council conducts elections to choose the winner of the prize.
Suad Nufal is a teacher from the city of Raqqa. She is originally from Idlib governorate. She risked her life in protesting against the violations of Assad regime and ISIS.
Zeina Erhaim: A Journalist without Borders
Journalist Zeina Erhaim was awarded two international prizes in 2015 to honour her for her journalistic work and her courage in training staff in regime-free areas.
She was awarded the Peter Makler prize in Washington DC for courageous and ethical journalism. The award was given by Reporters without Borders and the France Press agency for her news coverage in Syria.
The prize organizers of the prize explained that they chose the Syrian journalist based on her behaviour, determination and her ability to focus on the human side of things in war especially in Syria which is one of the most difficult countries for journalists.
Zeina Erhaim, 30 years old, was born in Idlib. She has trained around 100 citizen journalist inside of Syria. One third of them are women. She trained them on the basics of written and visual journalism. She helped found independent newspapers and magazines in the Syrian north. She is a consultant and trainer in the Peace and War Report Institute. She trains media activists living in conflict torn countries and countries under transition to develop and refine their skills.
Samar Yazbek: Unshakable Insight
Syrian journalist and writer Samar Yazbek was awarded the Swedish Tucholsky Prize in 2012. The awarding organization issued a statement explaining that Samar belongs to a group who placed the truth before their personal safety. She was awarded the prize for her reports on the Syrian Revolution. As well as her courageous texts which demonstrate the suffering of citizens in the middle of crisis in their defence of dignity.
In 2012, she was awarded the prestigious PEN/Pinter Prize ‘International Writer of Courage’.
Samar Yazbek was born in Jableh (a city on Syrian coast) in 1970. She is a writer, novelist, journalist and activist who fights for women rights and freedom. She presented cultural and intellectual programs on Syrian TV Channel and Orient TV. Literature House (publishing house) published several novels for Samar like Cinnamon, Salsal and She Has Mirrors. She opposed the Assad regime even though she is from the Alwaite sect to which al-Assad also belongs. She had to flee Syria a year after the start of the revolution.
Hanadi Zahlout: a revolutionary before the revolution
The United States Department of State awarded Hanadi Zahlout the Human Rights Defenders Award in 2012. The award ceremony was held in the Department of State building in Washington DC. The Department of State Deputy Secretary, William Burns said ‘Zahlout represents a strong symbol for the possible and necessary in Syria’s future. So, while the regime and extremists work to tear Syria apart, Zahlout and her peers work to reform the social fabric and build a new democratic and tolerant Syria.’
Zahlout comes from Lattakia governorate. She became involved in the political opposition of the Assad regime in 2004 when she started writing stories with political content in opposition websites. Later on, she joined ‘Syrian Women’ Observatory along with Samar Yazbek and Rima Falihan. She was called for an investigation by the security apparatus in 2010 for publishing articles in al-Nidaa website which is subordinate to the Damascus Declaration.
Zahlout was arrested for the first time in August 2011 with 5 of her friends from a coffeehouse in Jaramana (south of Damascus) in the outskirts of Damascus. She was subsequently released after two months.
She was arrested for the second time in February 2012 by Air Force Intelligence during her presence in the Media and Free Expression Centre along other activists. She was released after three days. She subsequently fled Syria.