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Women of northwestern Syria: A tireless fight for representation

Even under conservative HTS rule, women in northwest Syria are fighting for their right to be seen and heard in public life.

15 July 2020

AMMAN — “I’m sorry, women’s phone numbers are private here—you can’t speak with them.” This was the most common response Syria Direct received while working on this report on women’s representation and roles in the institutions of the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and civil society organizations in northwestern Syria.

In addition to the “dilemma” of reaching female officials, which required Syria Direct to contact dozens of male sources as alternatives, the limited number of women working in administrative roles in SIG bodies and civil society organizations in the area, in addition to the little power they actually exercise, made assembling this report difficult. 

Symbolic official presence

Out of 300 employees in the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Finance, only 14 are women, SIG Minister of Finance Abdul Hakim al-Masri told Syria Direct. However, “their authority is no different from the men in their workplace,” he said. 

While al-Masri considered “women’s presence on the work teams very important,” he attributed the low rates of female participation in the Ministry to “the nature of the institution’s work, especially on the night shifts or at the borders in the mills and customs [offices].” 

Thus, women’s work in the Ministry is limited to entering travelers’ data into the computer and searching women crossing through the border, in addition to a woman in charge of the women’s prison and an agricultural engineer who heads up a department in the Grain Foundation, according to al-Masri. “We do not have a deputy minister position, so the head of the department is the second-highest position in the Ministry,” he added. 

Baraa al-Masri, who heads up the Human Resources Department at the Free Grain Foundation and to whom the minister was referring, told Syria Direct that only two out of 10 employees working at the Foundation are women. 

Echoing the finance minister’s reasoning, Baraa cited the nature of the Foundation’s tasks—such as buying wheat from farmers and transporting it to mills and bakeries—as the reason for low female participation rates. He also added that “women have an effective role in other institutions, especially in the health and education sectors, where they enjoy more authority than men.” 

“When there are vacancies, all applicants are accepted whether they are men or women, then the best candidates are chosen,” said Minister al-Masri, stressing that “the [interim] government encourages women’s work.” 

But even in the education sector, where women have a relatively high presence by virtue of their work as school teachers, they have disproportionately low representation at the management level. In addition to the Minister of Education Huda al-Absi, only one other woman works in the Ministry, as director of the Office of Informatics, al-Absi told Syria Direct. At the leadership level, she said, women’s role in the education sector is “small relative to their numbers and capabilities.”

“Society’s view of women as inferior, and the lack of acceptance of them at the administrative level in education directorates and groups leaves their managerial work limited to schools,” al-Absi explained. “Those in charge are mostly men whose thinking is dominated by [the idea] that they should not be led by a woman,” she said. “In general, society is patriarchal and views home as a woman’s place. And the most appropriate vocation for her, in society’s view, is teaching and working with other women.” 

Empty women’s centers

In a one-room Women’s Office, Salwa Muhammad (a pseudonym) sits with three colleagues, waiting for women’s complaints and requests for help. 

Four years ago, Salwa, a 32-year-old, was displaced with her family from Reef Dimashq province to the opposition-held territories in northern Aleppo known as the “Euphrates Shield” area, named for Operation Euphrates Shield launched by Turkish and Syrian opposition forces in August 2016 to expel the Islamic State (ISIS) from the northern countryside of Aleppo province. A year and a half ago, Salwa began working at the Women’s Office affiliated with one of the local councils in the Euphrates Shield area.

The role of the Office, she told Syria Direct, is to “facilitate women’s affairs in society and to take complaints from them if they are facing problems or violence.” 

But since it was founded, “no complaint or request for assistance has reached the office from the women in the area, nor have we even heard about any cases,” Salwa revealed.  “In our society,” she explained, “if there were cases of violence, harm, or problems for women, they would be afraid or ashamed to speak out. That is probably the reason why they don’t speak out or ask for help.” 

To overcome this problem, the Office has sent members of its office to workshops in the area and been vocal about its work and the services it provides, such as “facilitating access to legal institutions if they face any problems or violence,” Salwa said. 

In the local council with which the Office is affiliated, only four of the 20 employees are women. Even so, “the powers granted to a council member depend on the job description, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman,” said Salwa. 

Civil society organizations

Women’s Centers in the Syrian civil defense (also known as the White Helmets) are “a fundamental pillar of the organization’s humanitarian work, which aims to provide its various services to all groups of Syrian society,” Raed al-Saleh, the director of the White Helmets, told Syria Direct.

The civil defense has some 33 women’s centers spread throughout northwestern Syria, where 228 female volunteers work. The total number of the organization’s volunteers is more than 2,800 men and women, according to al-Saleh, but the organization works “to continuously strengthen the role of our female colleagues, and to make room for them to work in leadership positions, such as in the main administration of the Syrian civil defense through its board of directors.” Although there is still no “balance in this regard,” al-Saleh added, “I believe that we are on the right path and that the organization’s philosophy is bearing fruit.” 

While it appears that there is more room for women to participate in civil society organizations than in SIG bodies, the imbalance referred to by al-Saleh persists, and an absence of real representation for women remains a common denominator among these organizations.

It is phenomenal, however, that women in the region have achieved “significant success in the civil society organizations despite the male[-dominated] society,” according to Thurayya Muhammad, the director of the Sahabat Watan center in the city of al-Bab in northern Aleppo province. 

“Despite all the male bullying and selfishness, women have fought to prove their effective role in building society,” Muhammad said. 

Still, “women are restricted,” said Alif Mawlawi, the director of the Center for Women and Children in the north Aleppo town of Azaz. “The role of the interim government and civil society organizations in empowering women at all levels needs prioritization and development,” she added. 

Carving out a space

Despite various social and security challenges, the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition—as well as the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) areas—remain fertile ground to create spaces that work to support and empower women. In recent years, many women’s centers have popped up in northwestern Syria, albeit unevenly from one area to another, depending on the dominant military group.

In January 2019, Maysa al-Mahmoud established the Family Development Center in Afrin, with women making up the entirety of the staff, save for two men who work in the center, one in media and the other in logistics. 

Al-Mahmoud had previously set up a center in the western countryside of Aleppo province called the Family Building Center before she was forced to abandon it and leave the area due to “security conditions.” She also helped found the Idlib Women’s Commission. 

In the three organizations, al-Mahmoud’s work focused on empowering women and building their capacity, including cultural and ideological empowerment and integrating women displaced to northwestern Syria with women from the host region. She also worked with survivors of detention, the wives and mothers of detainees, and raised awareness against child marriage. 

Most recently, al-Mahmoud’s work has centered on women’s issues in the Afrin area of northwestern Aleppo, due to the lack of women’s empowerment activity there because of “a lack of centers for women that are run by women, or independent women’s teams,” she told Syria Direct. “Rather, there were women’s offices run by organizations or local councils.” 

In the same context, in September 2018, dozens of women came together in northern Aleppo in a founding conference to form the Sahabat al-Watan Rally with the goal of “changing women’s situation in Syrian society, and highlighting their effective role in moving society forward,” said Thurayya al-Hadi, “as well as offering vocational training and cultural, social and educational activities for women.” 

Currently, the Rally’s team is made up of 23 women, and is tasked with empowering women “from a scientific and economic point of view, to bring them into the job market,” said al-Hadi. 

For Salwa Mahmoud, “providing women’s centers that are virtually free of men, and providing varied social and cultural services is a good thing that suits all groups of women in society,” she said, “especially those who don’t like the idea of being with men who aren’t family, but who have a strong desire to learn and grow.” 

In HTS-controlled Idlib province, many organizations are trying to support and empower women to work, despite the difficulty and challenge of HTS’s rejection of such activities. Years ago, Jabhat al-Nusra (the former name of HTS) detained Maysa al-Mahmoud, charging her with “secularism,” she said. “In their view, I was secular, and promoting liberal ideas,” she said, “but I just work to empower women to know their rights and duties, so they can be aware and cultured, and not marry off their daughters as young children.” 

Gradual change

When Salwa started her work, she faced several challenges, including society’s reluctance to accept her work given the nature of the area and its customs and traditions. But today, “it’s gotten easier,” she said, and there is “mutual respect among colleagues.”  

Baraa al-Masri echoed the same sentiment, stating that “colleagues don’t view men or women differently.” 

Alif Mawlawi estimates that 40 percent of society and colleagues refuse women’s work and education, while 60 percent support it. This indicates, in her words, a positive change in societal perception as a whole. The reason for this change, in her eyes, are “the trainings [within women’s empowerment workshops] and the benefit that women gain from being able to prove their presence and improve their standard of living by getting jobs and doing simple projects to help the family in daily life.” 

Maysa al-Mahmoud, on the other hand, believes that many customs, traditions and stereotypes have changed in light of the Syrian revolution, which “forced women to be present and participate.” 

“Women participate more than in the days of the [Syrian] regime, and [women] have taken on a lot of freedom.”

In addition, civil society organizations have taken it upon themselves to empower women. The civil defense’s bylaws, “helped strengthen cultural acceptance and protection for female volunteers and the uniqueness of their work,” Raed al-Saleh pointed out.

But the “marginalization of women and their exclusion from leadership roles, as well as the growing number of men in comparison to women in governmental and non-governmental institutions” continues, said Mawlawi, highlighting the abuse and exploitation of women’s issues in the region as well as outside of it. 

“Women’s issues are exploited in international forums, by political parties and even the [interim] government and civil society organizations,” she said. By way of example, Mawlawi pointed to the current interest of donors in the issue of child marriage, “so we see everyone heading in this direction to benefit some of the people, while nothing reaches women who are in need of real support,” she said.


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. This article reflects minor changes made on 16/07/2020 at 1:45 pm. 

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