“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if states were honest about as to why women aren’t able to participate in the Syrian peace process?” 

With this question, WILPF’s Secretary-General Madeleine Rees opened a vibrant discussion at the event, “Socio-Political Feminist Activism: Reshaping the Peace Processes in Syria” during the Women, Peace and Security Week in New York. 

Given their public statements in support of women’s participation, protection, and rights, this should be a simple question for member states and UN officials to answer. Instead, they frequently dodge it, make empty promises, or to resort to tokenism. 

In this article, we will hear the views of three Syrian women on the question of women’s exclusion from the Syrian peace processes.

Fadwa Mahmoud

Fadwa Mahmoud speaking during the Socio-political Feminist activism event in NYC.  Photo credits: Manaf Azzam

“I was invited to be a part of the consultative committee in the negotiation process in 2016, and I was supposed to be representing women in that process. We were 12 women in the consultative committee, which fell under the umbrella of the higher negotiating committee. The question is, what role did these women actually play in the consultative committee? The answer is: none.”

Fadwa’s husband and son were taken by the Syrian regime upon their return from a peace conference in China in 2012. She received a phone call from them saying that they were on their way home from the Damascus airport, but they never arrived. Eight years on and she is still waiting for news of their whereabouts.

Fadwa, a seasoned political activist herself who was imprisoned by Bashar al-Assad’s father for her activism, has never given up looking for her loved ones and searching for answers on the question of forcibly disappeared people in Syria.

She and other Syrian women founded Families For Freedom, a collective of Syrian families demanding freedom for all political prisoners and forcibly disappeared in Syria.

Forcible disappearance is endemic in Syria. It is a tool that the regime and other fighting factions use to drain people’s will to resist, to make them lose hope and weaken their resolve.

But Fadwa is tireless. She seems to have a surplus of energy and has dedicated her life to the cause of detainees.

“When I was called to participate in the high negotiation committee, it was just a sticking plaster solution; at meetings behind closed doors, they discussed conditions but no one would allow me to make the case for detainees. Our presence as women was nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.”

She holds the UN responsible for the exclusion of women, citing a failure to insist on women’s participation. “I expect the patriarchal system [in Syria] not to favour female inclusion. The appalling thing for me is that even the UN did not insist on our right to participate.”

“All my work so far has been to no avail. European parliaments are sympathetic to my cause when I’m there, but nothing happens; there are no visible results after the meetings I have with them. They pay lip service to human rights and the protection of human rights, when it comes to Syria, but the matter becomes a moot point,” Fadwa said.

Sana Mustafa

Sana Mustafa speaking during the Socio-political Feminist activism event in NYC. Photo: Manaf Azzam

“We [women] have been shaping events on the ground and yet we are not part of any discussions on the present or the future of Syria,” Sana Mustafa, founding member of the Syrian Women Political Movement, said.

Women always bear the brunt of wars created by men but they are rarely involved in negotiating the solutions to their own problems.

The Syrian Women Political Movement  was created out of this frustration at the exclusion of Syrian women from the negotiation tables.

Sana and her family rose up against the Syrian regime during the revolution, and subsequently her father was detained by the Assad regime’s brutal security apparatus. The rest of the family had to flee and become refugees, and were forced to split up. Now they live in different countries. To this day, her father remains disappeared without a trace.

Syrian women have played a crucial part in the uprising against the Assad regime and in efforts to counterbalance the extremist mentality that followed the brutal attack on peaceful protesters. The Syrian Women Political Movement believes that they must play an integral part in any peace negotiations.

“All attempts that were made were purely token and symbolic. We are expected to be grateful for any representation, but that’s not representative enough.”

Sana went on to talk about how often exceptions have been made for men, when it comes to qualifications to sit at the table, whilst women have to work harder to prove themselves and all too often find strict qualifications arise as barriers to participation.

Salma Kahale

Salma Kahale speaking speaking during the Socio-political Feminist activism event in NYC.   Photo: Manaf Azzam

“There was no shortage of women working in Syria on the ground and in the revolution. From the beginning, women were in leadership roles. The two bodies coordinating local groups [during the uprising]  were both headed by women. Even before the conflict, the little space that there was for organising was dominated by women’s organisations. There was a lot more that happened after the revolution.”

Salma, the Executive Director of Dawlaty, a nonprofit foundation working towards achieving a democratic and peaceful transition in Syria, continued to say that women are still organising on the ground, serving victims of violence and producing much of our information about what’s happening in Syria.

“But efforts to include women [in negotiations] have always been seen as an add-on to the process rather than shaping the process”

“The importance of women’s participation is first for themselves. They have to be there, they deserve to be there. But they’re [also]  the ones who carry these most important issues, and talk about the ones most marginalized.” Salma continued.

The peace processes 

To this date, there have been more than 15 attempts at starting a peace process in Syria. Many ordinary Syrians are long tired of this conflict, and of being used as pawns in the chessboard of Russian, Iranian, Chinese and American geopolitical interests. All they see is an attempt to revive the standing of Assad, a president who has killed hundreds of thousands of people, devastated much of the country, gassed his own people and destroyed the economy.

Syrian women want to be heard, and they know too well that without them, there will be no meaningful peace. Syrian women have now realised that waiting for the UN and major negotiators to include them is like waiting for Godot. They are taking actions into their own hands, they are organising and creating a real movement.

Read more about WILPF and our partners’ work to create a peaceful and democratic Syria.