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Syrian Women: Passive Recipients or Empowered Agents?

Khawla Dunia: Syrian writer & feminist activist.

Where to begin?

This is the pivotal question that confronts us after over twelve years since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, thawing the icy grip that froze the political, civil and human rights of Syrian women and men alike. We, the marginalised Syrian women and men, lack the bare essentials of contemporary political life, as years of dictatorship have even devoured our capacity to ponder our rights, let alone our responsibilities!

The hiatus has persisted and solidified, embedding itself into the social, familial and legal fabric that otherwise could have potentially progressed in terms of women's rights both as women and as citizens. The Syrian woman who actively engaged in political life, contributing to shaping the destiny of their nation up until its independence, and who stood among the world's pioneering women to secure the right to vote and subsequently run for public office in the early 1950s, faced a setback with the ascent of dictatorship, which shut off the public domain starting from the early 1960s onwards, confining it to quasi-official institutions under government control. Organisations and initiatives that constituted the bedrock of civil society dwindled, and the civil society itself became distrustful and regressive in its perception of women, their roles, significance and participation.

Public education has provided a significant percentage of women with an opportunity to be active and productive. However, this has not been mirrored in legal terms, as discrimination against women persisted, especially in personal status, penal and labour laws. Their presence in decision-making roles within both executive and legislative bodies has remained primarily symbolic, lacking significant impact. The same applies to the institutions which they were already in—institutions that lost their independence from governmental and security control, rendering them completely ineffectual, and tethering them to a decision-making nexus personified by the Presidency, which monopolised legislative, executive and constitutional authorities.

This reality extended into the realms of social and familial life where women are also excluded from decision-making, grappling with a cultural legacy that belittled their roles. Thus, they are often seen working in household businesses—be it agricultural or industrial—without pay. Their earnings are funnelled into households without any holdings being registered in their names. Meanwhile, a woman who claims her inheritance from her family becomes socially stigmatised and faces disapproval. It is so easy to kill a woman in the name of family honour if she dares to assert her choice in selecting her life partner.

Against this backdrop of sombre tableau, both socially and in terms of women's status, the revolution erupted, with women becoming a part of it, not just as supporters but as active participants. They began to realise the bitterness of their experiences both as women and citizens and the losses they had endured due to their gender. Their involvement transformed into a deeply personal endeavour, and their sacrifices were made in pursuit of a brighter future for themselves, their families and their nation. This signifies a sense of belonging to a broader community where women and their causes make a significant part of what must be advocated for—a goal necessitating transformation. This leads us to the point below.

Gender Justice:

Justice, defined as equal rights and entitlements for citizens, ensuring equitable political, social and economic opportunities and outcomes, implies the prevention of disparities among population groups within the state and even within those groups themselves.

Regrettably, after twelve years of conflict, there has been regression in all forms of justice for Syrian men and women, compounded by a loss of hope for a day when such justice will be realised and accountability will be enforced in line with international statutes and the entitlements demanded by victims.

Notably, this prolonged conflict has bred multifaceted forms of injustice, including:

Retroactive Injustice manifested through the deterioration and destruction of accumulated material and non-material cultural wealth. This has disproportionately affected women, with their status deteriorating due to disrupted access to education as well as social, economic and sexual exploitation.

Ongoing injustice, a byproduct of contemporary circumstances, notably includes transformation of productive economic, social and cultural activities into destructive activities (conflict economics, social polarisation and cultural degradation). New forms of violence against women and girls have arisen during the conflict, most notably sexual violence, with women viewed as spoils of war, symbols of conquest and instruments for breaking the opponent's will. Women have also suffered arrests, abductions, killings and trafficking perpetrated by all parties to the conflict, although the Assad regime bears the largest share of violations. Equally compelling are the far-reaching consequences of displacement and refuge, leaving indelible marks that prove daunting to overcome, both physically and psychologically, exacerbated by the exploitation of bodies, material resources, and a callous trade-off of dignity for the mere sustenance.

This was accompanied by a marked surge in domestic violence, a preexisting issue that burgeoned extensively amidst the conflict's turmoil. It was coupled with distressing trends, including the early marriage of girls, absence of essential healthcare services and an educational gender divide between males and females. Furthermore, violence by family male members intensified, especially with the spread of weapons, a void in legal enforcement and the lamentable lack of protection institutions accessible to women.

Prospective injustice, where dominant forces institutionalise conflict-centric structures, relationships and economies, extending their dominion and control. This would hinder for years to come any escape from the vortex of violence and exploitation, perpetuating institutionalised and legalised violence and impelling women to struggle for even the most basic rights that were within their grasp just a few years ago.

In light of the foregoing, how does the current Syrian landscape look like today, and what ramifications does it have, particularly on women, within the broader context of justice?

The United Nations defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life."[1]

Gender inequalities and the criteria that tolerate violence against women are fundamental reasons behind the perpetuation of such violence. This can be categorised as economic, legal, societal, cognitive, health-related, familial and even digital violence.

Moreover, nuanced forms of societal violence emerge, such as violence against married, divorced and widowed women, along with violence against young girls, exacerbated by pervasive community violence entwined with prevailing cultural norms, biases and social stigmatisation. This pattern is further compounded by discriminatory legal violence that permeates through laws, reducing women to instruments and minimizing their agency compared to men, be it within families, community, legal systems or workplaces.

With the prolonged conflict, civilians bear the brunt of its impact; women particularly endure war's consequences more than any other group. Amidst this unsettling backdrop of impunity, the widespread proliferation of small arms and the vulnerability of women who are used as instruments and components of conflict, the consequences are likely to be dire. These will have physical, psychological, social and economic dimensions that will affect the victims themselves, their families (trauma, feelings of humiliation and helplessness) and the broader community (propagation of fear and panic, erosion of social fabric). Hence, recognizing crimes against women as war crimes according to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) and subsequent resolutions is both imperative and essential.

Women and the Pursuit of Justice in Syria:

At least 10,363 women are documented to have been detained by various parties, including those who were killed under torture, in addition to estimated thousands of women who have been forcibly disappeared. Women are also subject to abduction by conflicting factions, aiming to use them in prisoner exchanges or trafficking. The exact number of forcibly disappeared women in Syria is not known, but it is estimated to be in the thousands.[2] The survivors, however, suffer from various familial, societal, psychological or health-related ramifications.

The conflict-generated legal dilemmas, as well as already-existing unjust laws governing personal status, nationality, etc., make matters even worse. Women's loss of their own or their children's identification documents compounds the challenges in regularizing their own or their children's status, particularly in cases of widowhood, divorce, disappearance of a husband or the birth of a child without authenticated marriage. The loss of housing and property rights adds to the complexities they face.

Empowerment as a Persistent Aspiration for Justice:

A generation of feminist, civil and human rights activists persevere, toiling to enhance their capacities, even as they confront obstacles such as stifled work opportunities, travel restrictions, limited mobility, exclusion, defamation campaigns and both online and offline societal backlash. Concurrently, a multitude of human rights and feminist organisations have emerged with the shared aim of empowering women and bolstering their roles. Serving as accessible avenues for seeking assistance, these organisations contribute to the broader endeavour by raising awareness, transforming prevailing cultural paradigms and extending psychological and financial support to the victims.

In its broader sense, empowerment necessitates dismantling systemic processes, attitudes and behaviours, in communities and organisations, that perpetuate gender-based inequalities and subjugate marginalised groups (particularly women). The central objective of empowerment lies in fortifying women's positions within contemporary societies, particularly in spheres of development and economy. To effectuate comprehensive development, the active involvement of half the population – women – is indispensable. Given their marginalised status within a framework that perpetuates suppression, isolation and exploitation, it is paramount for women to cultivate self-respect and self-confidence through their invaluable contributions to society. Empowerment is crucial across all realms, aiming to obliterate barriers thwarting women's advancement and participation in decision-making roles, both personal and societal.

Empowerment is a complex process that necessitates the establishment of policies, procedures, institutional structures and legal frameworks aimed at overcoming various forms of inequality, ensuring equal opportunities for individuals in utilizing community resources, and enabling broad participation in public affairs, governance and decision-making institutions, thus countering the dominance of the privileged minority. In this pursuit, gender emerges as a tool for social transformation, ensuring equitable benefits for women and men and curtailing disparities. Consequently, empowerment mandates the integration of temporary affirmative measures as a lever towards attaining tangible equality, while concurrently striving to transform prevailing cultural norms, value systems, beliefs and customs that shape people's behaviours and perceptions of women.

However, the process of empowerment is incomplete without the provision of protective measures for women within work and educational settings, along with accessible grievance and whistleblowing mechanisms. It is also inadequate to solely direct empowerment efforts at women; it must extend across all segments of society, particularly institutions and parties, to augment women's participation within them.


Various challenges confront Syrian women and men, and the road ahead remains long for the country we have dreamed and continue to dream of – a country governed by justice and equality, where all its members participate in its construction and enjoy its blessings.

Today, more than ever, we are in need of everyone, women and men alike, with all the accumulated experiences and the pains and sacrifices we have endured. Together, we must work to bridge the gap of the past by achieving justice for the victims, holding criminals, corrupt individuals and war profiteers accountable.

This extensive and obstructive destruction cannot be eradicated without our collective action, especially the involvement of women, at all levels of decision-making and on all platforms concerned with Syria, its history and its future.

It is the collective willpower to surpass the past and set forth towards the future that we aspire to and must strive for.

[1] UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted on October 31, 2000 regarding women, peace, and security. Reaffirming the importance of protecting women, it aims to take necessary measures concerning women's participation in decision-making processes and peace operations, integrating gender perspectives in training and in all UN reporting systems and program implementation mechanisms.

[2] Syrian Network for Human Rights Report, March 8, 2022.

Khawla Dunia: Syrian writer & feminist activist.



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