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Three Syrian Women Talk Women’s Inclusion in New York

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

Image credit: WILPF
WILPF International Secretariat
13 November 2019

“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.
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

ana Mustafa speaking during the Socio-political Feminist activism event in NYC.
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.
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.

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WILPF International Secretariat

WILPF International Secretariat, with offices in Geneva and New York, liaises with the International Board and the National Sections and Groups for the implementation of WILPF International Programme, resolutions and policies as adopted by the International Congress. Under the direction of the Secretary-General, the Secretariat also provides support in areas of advocacy, communications, and financial operations.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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