Nursel Kilic is proud to be part of what she called a growing feminist movement in the Kurdish-controlled Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava. A self-described “militant,” Kilic is working to give the Kurdish Women’s Movement international exposure.
“We want to convey the point of view of women and represent their struggle for a new social model,” Kilic said.
The new model in the self-proclaimed Kurdish canton aims to be a blueprint for the future of a decentralized and democratic Syria. However, political agency remains elusive for the majority of women in the rest of Syria, where the question of political representation becomes entangled with the quandary of who is in control.
In 2014, the leading political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), promulgated a 30-clause equality decree for gender equality at the social, economic and political levels. It also established a power-sharing system that requires a female counterpart in all positions at all levels of government and enforced a 40 percent quota of women in all governmental institutions and bodies.
“The system of co-presidents is a guarantee to a confederal system based on the liberation of women,” Kilic said, adding that female popular assemblies are also increasingly emerging at the local level. New laws have since been introduced, including the abolition of underage marriage and polygamy, and the women-only internal police unit known as Asayish actively combats violence against women.
Groups of non-Kurdish women also reportedly created similar female popular assemblies and battalions in villages liberated from ISIS, including in Manbij and Raqqa. This, Kilic believes, is evidence that the Kurdish model can expand to the rest of Syria and beyond.
“This is not only a new model for Kurdish women, but also for Arab and Assyrian women,” Kilic said. “The fight of women is universal.”
However, Kilic noted that the feminist movement in Rojava is deeply rooted in the ideology promoted by Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish nationalist leader and a founding member of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), who sees the advancement of women as synonymous with progress. Though some western media depicted Kurdish female fighters as a new phenomenon, their current achievements are born from a struggle that has extended across 40 years and a history rich with examples of women warriors, from Kara Fatma – who led an army of men during the Turkish War of Independence – to Leyla Qasim, who was hanged after rebelling against the Baath regime in Iraq.
Consequently, some analysts view the Kurdish experience as too foreign to take root in the rest of the country.
“The Kurdish women of Rojava are not Syrian,” Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said. “They barely speak Arabic, I am not sure we can consider them to be adding to the political participation of women in Syria.”
South of Rojava and past the last ISIS pockets, the issue of female political agency is complicated by broader competitions for relevancy in Syria’s future. “We do not really have a political process in Syria right now for either men or women to emerge from as political leaders,” Ziadeh said. “What we have instead is a tragedy that can [hurt] any leader.”
Historically, Syrian women have had some political representation, obtaining the right to vote in 1949 – while a progressive European country like Switzerland only granted this right in 1971. In 1990, women held 9 percent of seats in parliament while British women only held 6 percent. In its Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) five-year plan, the Syrian government vowed to increase women’s participation in public life and decision-making to 30 percent by 2005. Despite the country’s fall into armed conflict, in 2016 Syrian women still held 13 percent of seats, compared to roughly 3 percent in Lebanon.
“The presence of women in the political arena is minimal,” Mariam Jalabi, a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee at the U.N. and director of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ Representative Office, said.
According to former independent Syrian M.P. Maria Saade, the Syrian parliament still grants women greater opportunities than in most Arab countries. “Even someone like me, who comes from an environment unrelated to politics as well as from a Christian family, can [enter parliament],” Saade said.
Saade, who set aside her career as an architect in 2012 to work in parliament until 2016, says she went into politics to convey “the voice of the Syrian people” and was largely successful in doing so.
“Inside parliament my words were a little bit different,” Saade said, alluding to the fact that she softened the speeches she gave at the United Nations. However, other members of the parliament generally respected and took into consideration the ideas expressed by female representatives, she said.
In 2016 Hadiyeh al-Abbas, who previously served in the regional branch of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party for a decade, was nominated the first female speaker of parliament. Another woman, Najah al-Attar, has been in office as Syrian vice president since 2006 after having served as culture minister from 1976 to 2000.
According to Saade, the reason women are still a minority in parliament is not due to a lack of opportunities but to the paternalistic culture women grew up in and introjected.
“It takes a strong woman to enter parliament,” Saade said, adding that meekness is not a good quality in politics. “However, women can still improve [their position] outside parliament.”
A study by the Forced Migration Review noted how, out of sheer necessity following the outbreak of the conflict, Syrian women have become actively involved in the civil society and transformed themselves into “agents of change.” For example, in besieged areas, women have taken risks regularly to help smuggle medicine or food past checkpoints, as they were less likely to be frisked than men.
While the conflict arguably brought about a turnaround of traditional roles within community structures, political representation is still scarce in the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) – the grassroots administrative groups that emerged in territories under the control of the Syrian opposition.
The available data puts female representation in the 427 local councils at approximately 2-4 percent. Lama Kannout, a founding member of the Syrian Feminist Lobby and author of a study on the political participation of Syrian women in the political arena, identified a drop in the number of female representatives in the LCCs since they emerged in 2011.
“There has been a gradual disappearance of women from the local councils,” Kannout said. In 2012, Idlib’s local council, for instance, had five female members out of a total of 20. She cited a 2016 survey by the Omran institute, which found that women made up 2 percent in only 105 of the 427 local councils.
According to Kannout, the reasons behind the scant female presence are mainly cultural, including lower levels of education and society’s tendency to elect men with connections to certain families or ethnic groups.
A study by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting also noted the strong influence of military groups over the nomination of candidates by the local councils. As decisions are taken by majority vote, this is bound to result in the marginalization of Syrian women on the ground.
Beyond the country’s borders, however, Syrian women in the opposition are taking new steps to increase their representation. Jalabi talked about a forthcoming “women’s political movement for Syria” that is set to launch its mission for effective female political representation in mid-October and present at the U.N. later this year.
“What is special about this movement is that we are getting a couple of sponsors but it is purely Syrian-led and women-led,” Jalabi said, adding that the new group will mark the women’s rejection of their role as advisers and their reclaiming of a place in the political arena.
One of the movement’s goals is to enforce the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution’s 30 percent quota for female representation.
“This article has not been implemented despite all the efforts,” Jalabi said. “[This is] because we live in a patriarchal society and a U.N. patriarchal society that has made no sincere efforts to ensure that women are included at the [negotiations] table.”
U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura established the Women’s Advisory Board in 2016 to increase the participation of Syrian women in the peace talks. However, Jalabi and the other women on the board have advisory roles and have not been granted access to all the talks the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – the opposition delegation at peace talks in Geneva – takes part in.
Rather than increasing women’s participation, Jalabi says the creation of the advisory board further encouraged their marginalization. “It created this nice excuse for the Syrian opposition to also create an advisory committee instead of including women at the negotiations table,” Jalabi said, referring to the fact that the HNC also created a women’s consulting group rather than increasing the number of women.
Female participation in the HNC is limited to two representatives, while no women were present among the opposition military delegations at the Astana peace talks. Similarly, the meetings held in Riyadh in August to gauge the possibility of a united front for the opposition did not include any female representatives.
However, studies have proved the link between women’s decision-making power with regard to the peace process and the likelihood of a lasting agreement. While Syrian women are active agents of change within their communities, there is so far little indication of sufficient political agency, which Jalabi said calls for a more assertive stance.
“We don’t want to be the civil society, we don’t want to be selected [by men] because of our family ties or because we are not considered a threat,” Jalabi said. “We want to create a real movement of women.”