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Women Rights in Syria: Caught Between Discriminatory Law, Patriarchal Culture and Exclusionary Politics

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.

Two women standing at the window of a governmental institution desk
Image credit: WILPF
WILPF International Secretariat
23 February 2021

Read the blog 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.

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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.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

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

VICE-PRESIDENT

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

PRESIDENT

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. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

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

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Demilitarisation

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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