FEATURE In spite of the powerful deterrents of Russian fighter jets, Assad regime barrel bombs and the extreme social politics of many radical militias, the women of Western Aleppo have fought their own battle for freedom, for women’s right to equality, and for the right to hold positions of power.
In its long and diverse history, the people of Syria has rarely witnessed true democratic elections, let alone meaningful participation of women in political life. Women were only permitted to vote in the 1950’s, and as recently as 1971 only four women held seats in parliament.
Under the rule of the Assad dynasty, few Syrians enjoyed political freedom or voted in anything other than a rigged ‘referendum’. Women who were appointed to a high office were, like many of their male counterparts, tokens with little genuine power to influence events.
Getting women into positions of power
Faced with the reality that they continued to be excluded from political and peace processes, women in western Aleppo took matters into their own hands.
In 2018 in a small town in the western part of the Aleppo region called Anjara, a group of women gathered to discuss what could be done to encourage and help women stand in local elections.
Even though they did not have any experience in political life, their innate sense of injustice drove their vision to create a movement demanding for women’s participation and influence in politics. After lots of discussions and workshops with other women from all wakes of life, the Syrian Feminist Society was formed.
The idea behind the Syrian Feminist Society came from the need felt by many of its members. They wanted to have an organised body that could empower women politically and encourage them to participate in the administrative affairs outside regime control areas.
The Syrian Feminist Society’s main aim is to help women get into positions of power, starting at a local level. In 2018, this was not an easy task given that Western Aleppo was under the control of warring militias with socially conservative agendas.
“There were threats from every corner. Everyone opposed the idea,” tells Farah Al Basha, who is one of the founding members of the Syrian Feminist Society.
“Running for elections is your right, Voting is your duty, choosing is yours,” reads the poster that Syrian Feminist Society distributed during the council election. Photo credit: Syrian Feminist Society.
A story of success
To many the drive for female participation in local governance seemed impossible at best, given that for many women the primary struggle was still to be allowed to go outside of the house; and yet, despite threats from the militia and in the face of resistance from the vast majority of men in the area, the members of the Syrian Feminist Society pushed on encouraging women to get engaged into politics.
The Syrian Feminist Society helped women to organise, educated them on the importance of political participation, and encouraged them to take part. In addition, they ran campaigns for four female candidates for membership of the local council. They put up banners, printed out posters and flyers, and organised rallies for the candidates within the local community.
In the end, the Syrian Feminist Society managed to get one out of the four women elected. This was an achievement that had seemed impossible only weeks previously.
Time to change the role of Syrian women
Syrian women realised early on in the 2011 uprising that for real change to happen, women need to be participating in decision-making – and in every aspect of life. During the conflict Syrian women have formed political parties, founded NGOs and charities to look after other Syrians, and continued the struggle for more visibility and recognition of women’s vital role in the society.
“Even though most Syrian have not experienced any democratic elections before let alone participated in one, they recognised the need for women to participate in local leadership as a no brainer. If women want to improve their situation they need to be in decision making position,” says Amina Aref, a member of the Syrian Feminist Society.
But being able to participate is not a right you get, it is a right you need to take – and it does not come without consequences.
Since the victory of the Syrian Feminist Society, the Assad regime has begun a campaign to retake the Western Aleppo. This will most likely be putting an end to Western Aleppo’s brief experiment of democracy. Many of the women of the Feminist Syria Society who campaigned for election, standing tall in the face of decades of oppression, have been forced into hiding or into exile.
In a changing Syria, it is time to also change the political role of women. The Syrian Feminist Society has shown that it is possible.
As the tanks role in Western Aleppo, there is little cause for hope in the town – and yet the experience of a Syria where women can stand side by side with their husbands and brothers on the political stage is being carried to towns, cities and camps around Syria and the wider world – one day to be reawoken in a free Syria.
Syrian Women Continue the fight for freedom
But in a changing Syria, the political role of women is changing too. Syrian women realised early on in the uprising that for real change to happen women would need to be there participating in decision-making, and in every aspect of life. In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrian women took to the streets to demand a just and equal society. They were the nurses that treated the injured, the journalists that documented the warring parties’ abuses, bore the brunt of the extreme violence and raised and fed their children.
In the diaspora, Syrian women formed political parties, founded NGOs and charities to look after other Syrians and continued the struggle for more visibility and recognition of women’s vital role in the society. But the right to participate has turned out to be a prerogative for which they would have to fight.