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A female president for a council of men

By: Iman Omar Hashim, activist and former head of the local council of Aleppo.

Seated behind her desk in her office, the female president, Iman Hashim, received a member of one of the neighbourhood councils. He looked at her with a mixture of astonishment and shock. The visitor contemplated various possibilities as to why a woman was occupying the president’s office. Thoughts raced through his mind – perhaps she was the president’s wife or sister, or maybe the society had progressed to the point where female secretaries became an acceptable phenomenon. However, the idea that the lady in front of him could actually be the president didn’t initially cross his mind. The incredulity of the visitor stemmed from the deeply ingrained biases in his social heritage and cultural background. Neither he nor anyone sharing a similar background could easily consider the possibility that the lady in front of him was rightfully in the position of authority. This incident represents just one among numerous challenges this determined woman faced. She unwittingly became a recurring narrative, with people questioning, “What is a woman doing at a men’s council?”

Her primary motivation for seeking the position was a deep sense of responsibility towards her revolution. She aspired to demonstrate to her society that her revolution was not only about change but also centred around reconstruction and the establishment of robust institutions. She always felt guilty, always contemplating whether the upheaval she and others like her initiated at the peaceful onset of the revolution led to the Syrian people’s subsequent tragedy.

Despite these introspective moments, she clung to her unwavering faith in the potential and capabilities of women. She convinced herself that being a wife and a mother while having a job shouldn’t hinder her progress. She assumed the daunting responsibility of challenging an entire society, with its various sects, orientations, and cultural backgrounds, along with their contemptuous perspectives of women. She boldly confronted the view that sought to confine women within a rigid framework. She will forever recall the moment when she, the only female member of the council, secured the majority of votes in the elections, conducted with absolute transparency and integrity, earning her the position of president of the city council. The council comprised twenty-five members, all men except for herself. However, at that historic moment, a member of the council attacked those who elected a female president and accused them of heresy and violating religious principles. The accuser implored them to reconsider their faith, indicating that appointing a “woman” to rule over them was a sinful act.

Numerous individuals, predominantly men, frequently visited her office, often without a specific reason, just to witness what they perceived as a “strange phenomenon” – a female president! They expressed bewilderment as to why men in the community would accept leadership from a woman. Some wondered whether there were no qualified men for the role, while others sought to understand the factors that led to the appointment of a woman in a traditionally male-dominated position. In one instance, a visitor, identifying himself as the head of a neighbourhood council affiliated with the Aleppo City Council, requested to talk with a man as he didn’t “sit with women”. On another occasion, a colleague at the council, perhaps with good intentions but displaying a degree of short-sightedness and lack of confidence in her abilities, attempted to assert dominance. He sought to impose his opinions on her, dictating how she should conduct herself and what actions she should take. This was based on his claim of possessing superior knowledge regarding the council's administrative issues.

The “female president” confronted these challenges with patience and determination. She successfully navigated numerous obstacles, challenging preconceived ideas about women’s capabilities in leadership roles. Moreover, she managed to re-define expectations and reshape perspectives regarding women’s work. The president implemented a set of restrictions and rules of etiquette for council members and employees. This included guidelines for communication, such as a specific tone of voice and eye contact when addressing her.

Additionally, she enforced a culture of respect by discouraging offensive conversations, jokes, innuendo, and gossip in her presence. The additional challenges she experienced may be attributed, in part, to her being the only female within a group of men. Implementing legislation mandating a gender quota across institutions would potentially make the situation better and enhance women’s confidence in their professional endeavours. Such a quota system might foster a more inclusive environment, providing women with greater opportunities to showcase their capabilities and add their female touch, which men cannot adequately substitute in the absence of women.

She consistently responded calmly, at times adopting an indifferent tone, and occasionally providing stern responses to sarcastic comments. These remarks included questions such as “Who makes the decisions at home?” or comments like “I can’t imagine how the president looks like at home,” “Do you wear makeup at home?”, “Do you cook?”, “Do you clean the house?”, and “How do you take care of your baby girl?”. The comments implied that she was expected to assume traditionally defined male roles simply because she worked predominantly with men and did what others perceived as male responsibilities. On one occasion, a relative disapprovingly questioned her trip to France, suggesting, “Why didn’t your husband go on your behalf?” as if she was going to a male-only party. In response, she asserted, “What does my husband have to do with my work and responsibilities? I am fully capable of fulfilling my job on my own. He has his own work, and I have mine.”

Many women aspired to be in her position and admired her achievements. She received support, encouragement, and well-wishes from those women who wished they had similar circumstances to be able to pursue their goals. She played a vital role in inspiring many women and girls, encouraging them to aim higher in their lives. Her experience in that position was marked by considerable challenges and hardships. However, her determination to prove herself as capable as men, and possibly more so, was fortified by various factors. Notably, the unwavering support from the women around her and the belief of a few male individuals in her abilities and professionalism served as pillars of encouragement. She strived to be the right woman in the right place, acknowledging that blunders are inevitable for everyone, regardless of gender. Embracing the reality that both men and women make mistakes, she emphasised the importance of learning from them, gaining valuable experience, and developing the necessary skills to achieve goals and objectives.

In the culmination of her journey, the “female president” successfully completed her tenure, supported by her family members, her biggest and most prominent advocates. They believed wholeheartedly in her capabilities, consistently offering encouragement and standing by her side.  Her husband and brother, in particular, proudly spoke of her achievements in various forums, providing not only moral support but also a robust foundation of encouragement. As for her daughters, they were always proud of her and expressed a desire to be like her when they grew up. This positive influence reflected in their behaviour at school and with friends, making them more responsible and cooperative team players.

Despite numerous challenges and problems, she persevered with determination, facing both implicit and explicit threats. Then the situation in her area underwent a significant transformation when Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Islamic militant group, took control, taking over the council building and all its resources. Faced with the choice of working under their management or abandoning the council to them, she tried tirelessly to save the council. However, her efforts were thwarted, leading to her and all council members being forced to vacate the premises, refusing to operate under their authority. During the remainder of her term, from 2018 to 2019, she nominally completed her responsibilities. She also operated in other regions by implementing some of the council’s projects. At the end of her term, a new president was elected.

The former president of the Aleppo City Council summarises her experience by saying: “Our society lacks awareness and knowledge. They are naïve societies that are averse to what is new and different because they fear change. They are selective societies that accept those who are similar to them and forcefully reject those who challenge and revolt against their mistakes.”

In summarising her experience, she emphasises the importance of societal participation for achieving social justice in Syria. She asserts that every member of society must play their role and enjoy their rights to freedom, a dignified life, and respect for all segments of society. She highlights the significance of addressing women’s issues, advocating for their freedom, justice, equal opportunities, and active participation in decision-making across the political, legal, and social spheres.

By: Iman Omar Hashim, activist and former head of the local council of Aleppo.



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