Anyone who claims there’s no way out in Syria hasn’t met someone like Farah Nasif, who spent the past spring in Washington as a fellow at the New America Foundation’s Middle East task force. The enterprising 27-year-old stringer for Western news outlets and Damascus University graduate hails from Deir ez-Zor (an agricultural and petroleum hub in eastern Syria) and is representative of all that remains hopeful about Syria’s future.
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Nasif’s stories of everyday acts of courage and resilience across Syria — stories that don’t often make it into the Washington narrative about the conflict — helped me see beyond the unbending red lines (Assad stays, Assad goes) and the endlessly horrifying images of death and destruction to a potential force for change in the country: women. She illuminates the work of Syrian women who are continuing a decadelong trend of leading civil-society initiatives in Syria but laments how they have been sidelined in the current conflict. That’s a shame. History suggests that raising the profile of women is essential toward resolving conflict.
Long before the uprising erupted in 2011, Syrian women were successfully building broad coalitions to challenge gender stereotypes, unequal inheritance and nationality laws, and the discriminatory allocation of resources. Although Syria was often portrayed in Western media as a secular bastion, the Assad government was deferential to conservative religious leaders when faced with strong female advocates. Still, through a deft combination of political lobbying and social-media savvy, women achieved incremental social and legal change, such as the defeat of a personal-status law that would have scaled back women’s rights and a change in national textbook representations of the roles of men and women. This all may appear less significant against a backdrop of escalating violence, but women’s activism hasn’t stopped.
The militarization of the resistance, fueled primarily by conservative donors in the Gulf who don’t typically see women as part of the solution, hasn’t helped matters. National opposition politics are also distorted by the agendas of external backers, with women sorely underrepresented in the major opposition bodies.
Women continue to work nonetheless — quietly, effectively — all over Syria. They are using socially inclusive and community-based methods to launch relief and education drives, convene networks to develop new constitutional models for Syria and, most important, bridge sectarian and urban-rural divides. It’s a prototype of engagement that could help transform the conflict’s dynamics — and unlock the stalemate. Yet they face threats of attack and arrest from both the Assad regime and radical armed elements. Both parties see progressive civic engagement as a threat to their narratives of domination and control.
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Anyone interested in resolving Syria’s conflict and improving the outlook for the entire region should advocate for greater support for these women’s voices going forward. As the international community recognized in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, enacted in 2000, more women at the negotiating table is instrumental to resolving conflict. It’s not simply that women comprise at least half of the affected population; they also tend to promote an ethos that leads to a more sustainable peace process that address the full scope of a conflict’s causes and effects.
So how do we unleash women’s potential as peacemakers in Syria? Nasif and I dug into that question during the weeks that she was in Washington and reached some initial conclusions:
- Policymakers need to start with a gendered analysis of the situation: women and men experience conflict differently. Decisionmakers need to take those differences, and the political priorities they may give rise to, into account.
- International sponsors of peace talks should recognize the applicability of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 to the Syria conflict and work to ensure that women are adequately, honestly and collectively represented in any peace talks.
- Syrian strategists, policy experts on Syria and U.N. special representative on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi should all devote more time to studying and enabling local mediation inside Syria to explore strategies for de-escalating violence and increasing humanitarian access until a political settlement becomes possible.
- Donor countries, including the U.S., should lend more support to local councils and community-based organizations in Syria in which women have more presence and influence.
All these recommendations originate from a foundational understanding: that neglecting women harms the cause of peace. Placing women at the center of conflict assessments and interventions can open up more options for alleviating conflict at the community level. Those strategies can then snowball into a sustained movement for national change.
What’s more, focusing a gendered lens on the civil war allows Syrians to return to the revolutionary values that initially inspired them to take to the streets. We’re reminded that the struggle for Syria’s future is not a simplistic binary choice but a struggle for a different order predicated on equity, inclusion and freedom. Achieving this starts with bringing to the fore voices like Nasif’s that emphasize what Syrians are trying to create rather than what they have lost.
Hilal is the director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation. This article first appeared in the Weekly Wonk. The views expressed are solely her own.