Read “Women Rights in Syria: Caught Between Law, Patriarchal Culture and Exclusionary Politics” in Arabic

“The relationship between the state, women, and citizenship [in Syria] is now confused and deficient, as it is governed by customs, traditions, (patriarchal) culture, and the security and police state outlook.” – Syrian woman/Idlib

Since the eruption of the Syrian civil war a decade ago, the challenges and suffering endured by Syrian women have been as clear as day. Women in Syria have steadily lost their security, homes, livelihoods, family members, and social status, in addition to being subjected to domestic violence, sexual harassment, and institutionalised discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives.

Yet, human rights violations and gender-based discrimination against women in Syria date long before the 2011 revolution. Discriminatory laws, the entrenched patriarchal culture, and the exclusionary politics of the regime have consistently denied them of their most basic rights as “citizens”.

To shed light on the complex nature of women’s citizenship in Syria and the necessity of urgent change to ensure gender-sensitive transitional justice mechanisms, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) – along with partner organisation Dawlaty and six Syrian feminist and women-led organisations based in Syria and in neighboring countries (Zenobia, Release Me, Nophotozone, Start Point, Syrian Women Survivors, and Damma) – conducted an intersectional analysis of the legal violations affecting women before and during the conflict.

Based on a series of field consultations with women in Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon in 2020, a newly released policy paper unpacks the many aspects of a deficient and conditional citizenship for Syrian women before 2011, which have been further exacerbated by security, military, and patriarchal factors over the past decade.

The paper also offers recommendations towards active citizenship for women from a transitional justice perspective.

A collage of Syrian women

Citizenship rights in Syria before 2011

According to various reports documenting the concept and application of citizenship in Syria before 2011 – and going all the way back to 1963 – the Syrian regime has followed a totalitarian approach, one that is centralised and dictatorial. This has created longstanding challenges for minorities and marginalised populations, with the aspirations and rights of specific Syrian groups being suppressed “under the guise of a civil secular state and equal citizenship.”

As a consequence of its totalitarian politics, Syrian policies have been governed by sectarian considerations, the militarisation of security, and a patriarchal culture – all of which constantly deepen the exclusion of women and undermine their citizenship rights.

This indirect and mediated relationship between women and the state has shaped the lives of Syrian women, who – as our consultation participants have noted – are treated as “second-class citizens [and] deprived of [their] rights,” despite the latter being recognised by the law and the constitution.

A deficient and haphazard notion of women’s citizenship since 2011

Following the 2011 revolution that ignited the Syrian civil war, the pre-existing circumstances and many others impacting the lives of women were – and continue to be – further exacerbated.

Syrian women have been paying the highest cost of the ongoing conflict. The punitive and retaliatory approach of the regime, and the return to clan, sect, and religious affiliations in some areas as a result of social and political exclusion, have contributed to the progressive deprivation of women’s civil rights and social entitlements.

Seeking to repress any opposition, the Syrian regime has resorted to violence, imprisonment, and murder to intimidate both men and women. The regime’s repressive tools include arms proliferation, property theft, and arbitrary arrests, in addition to sexual harassment and gender-based violence, including rape – topics that were thoroughly examined in a prior policy brief issued by WILPF and Dawlaty last year.

The Syrian diaspora is also suffering from administrative and political constraints, preventing them from gaining access to justice. In countries like Lebanon and Turkey, Syrian women often face challenges in renewing their residency permits and accessing justice mechanisms without the support of a “male guardian” – which is impossible for many due to the death or disappearance of the husband, or in cases where the necessary documents are unavailable due to displacement.

The below slideshow presents a few testimonies of Syrian women depicting the aforementioned challenges

Towards active citizenship for women from a transitional justice perspective

Despite their challenging and often dire circumstances, women participants in the consultation sessions identified several approaches that can be built upon in light of the transformations that have occurred since 2011, in order to gain their rights to citizenship and establish respect for Syrian women as active participants in political and economic life.

These approaches include advocating for a shift in women’s gender roles and reinforcing the role of civil society in reclaiming women’s rights.

As one of the consultation participants said, “In Syria, women used to submit to society, but now they take decisions that suit their lives and do not submit to society’s view of them. Women’s characters have been strengthened after displacement.”  

Accordingly, as the newly released policy brief recommends, “placing the concept of citizenship and its active practice by women themselves within the context and mechanisms of transitional justice in Syria requires monitoring legal violations that take place against women, and their status from a gender perspective, in order to ensure their fair, equal, and equitable access to justice.”  

For a more detailed analysis of women’s citizenship rights in Syria and the most pertinent recommendations to the international community, the United Nations, and actors developing and supporting gender-sensitive transitional justice mechanisms in the country, read the full policy brief: The human rights of women in Syria: Between discriminatory law, patriarchal culture, and the exclusionary politics of the regime.