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Sunday 3 January 2016

Women’s Perspectives on the Syria Conflict

An event with Laila Alodaat and Raheb Alwany

“Peacebuilding defines our future now” is a study of women’s peace activism in Syria by the Badael Foundation. On December 16th, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP chaired an event organised by Syria Solidarity UK at Portcullis House to discuss how women civil society activists inside Syria are responding to the war. Speaking were Laila Alodaat, Crisis Response Programme Manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and Raheb Alwany, a researcher at Badael and a co-author of the report.

The Syrian conflict began with violence against peaceful civilian protesters, and as targeting of the civilian population has continued to be central to how the war is fought, so women have suffered particular disproportionate effects of that violence. This event however went beyond describing how women are victims of the conflict to discussing women’s contributions towards resolving it, and as a consequence arguing for the importance of including women in the current negotiations.

In introducing the event, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh cited her own recent experience of visiting a UNHCR camp in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, to confirm the key role of women in helping those fleeing the conflict: “That involves very much psychological support also, because of what women have had to experience, and indeed what their children have had to look at.”

Laila Alodaat talked of how the Syrian conflict has been one of the most violent in recent times, and also the best documented. We know the violations that are happening, and we have the chance to analyse and to understand how we can impact them.

Unfortunately this information is not being transformed into wider understanding around the world: “Everybody feels that there must be something to be done but we don’t know what it is. What we try to do here, and what the report by Badael has done, is to give examples of what actually can be done, and how this information, the documentation that people literally lost their lives to make possible, can be made use of.”

The physical impact of the conflict

Laila Alodaat described three areas where the conflict has a disproportionate impact on women, beginning with its physical impact, on which she gave two examples.

A February 2015 report by Physicians for Human Rights said that in the year prior to that the Assad regime had attacked 83 health facilities in areas outside of regime control where health care is almost non-existent:

“And although this is not the worst that has happened to civilians in Syria, this in particular has an enormous impact on women, because we found in a report by my own organisation, I work for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom… what we found around the conflict in Iraq and the conflict in Syria is that 80% of women who died during pregnancy or delivery, their death could have been prevented if they had any access to health care, which the way this conflict is being conducted is actively preventing them from.

“These women will die in their homes giving birth and we will never hear of them as casualties of the conflict.”

The second example of physical impact given by Laila Alodaat was the extensive use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

“The Syrian regime has used it for a long time, now there are more powers using it. The Russian intervention in Syria—direct intervention—is only making this worse. And to be honest every intervention will make things worse. But we’ve still to find out actually the figures for other interventions and how they’re impacting.”

In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that most civilians killed in Syria were killed by explosive weapons.

“Mainly they’re dying by the most common use of  explosive weapons which is barrel bombs; they’re massive containers of explosive that are thrown over populated areas. They’re not directed at anything, and they cannot be directed; they’re indiscriminate by nature.”

This extensive use of explosive weapons against populated areas is making front lines safer than homes.

“So for a child to be at home, the chances that they will be targeted and killed are higher than if they were in the front lines being targeted by hostilities. And I can’t think of a better recruitment policy, where people go to the front lines to be safer, to have the illusion of being protected by arms.”

The increased use of arms

An increase in using arms also has disproportionate effects on women, Laila Alodaat explained.

“We see that when there’s so much arms and no legal system, because it was completely systematically incapacitated by the conflict, and by the repression in the first place, men have arms so they can go apply their own version of justice; women don’t so they hide in homes because they are targets for repression or even retaliation.

“Everybody’s arming in Syria. Everybody’s sending arms to Syria to different parties, and nobody’s thinking how to disarm—women are thinking how to disarm, and again the report shows excellent examples of how women are trying to get these enormous amounts of arms out of their communities, out of the reach of their children, and even of the men in their family.”

Feminisation of poverty in conflict

Laila Alodaat talked of the theory of feminisation of poverty, describing how most of the poorest families have women heads of household, and most families with women heads of household are poor. This is amplified in conflict, where suddenly women have extra demands upon them but with very little freedom of movement, and with no community support.

“So having said all of that, things are very bad for women in Syria in every level, on the grassroots level and on the representation level.”

Laila Alodaat pointed to the Vienna talks where there was not just an absence of Syrians, but an absence of women, Syrian or not, from the negotiations—with the sole exception of the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.

The challenge, she said, is not just having women present at negotiations, but having them be heard, of avoiding “simply two men with guns and territory” making all the decisions.

“I have the privilege to work with amazing women who have not stopped trying from day one, from Geneva One to Geneva Two, and Vienna, and everything in between. They have been systematically denied a place at the negotiation table and they continue to try; not because they want to sit there… it’s very easy to put them at a table and make sure they don’t say a word… no, all of that is for us to make sure that people who witness all of this, who have a direct interest in stopping all of this, are at the table in adequate numbers so they can make their point to the agreements.”

Peacebuilding within Syria

At this point Raheb Alwany was introduced to speak about Badael’s report:

“Badael is a Syrian non-governmental foundation which is committed to strengthening civil society groups that are active or want to be active in the field of peacebuilding, to reduce the violence, to break the cycles, and to reach the future peaceful Syria as we all want it to be.

“This report conducted by Badael team members is a testimony of how women activists in Syria were able to carry out crucial peace work in the midst of violence, and in the midst of the oppression that they are living with. These kinds of efforts usually go unrecognised by the outside world.

The report drew on questionnaires that were answered by 49 women’s civil society groups, and also one to one interviews with local prominent women leaders in Syria, and as a follow up stage, ten focus group discussions with almost one hundred women activists.

Raheb Alwany described the variety of circumstances in different parts of Syria:

“For example, Damascus city, which is now under the control of the regime, is somehow surrounded with small areas under control of opposition groups: some of them Islamic groups, others are Free Syrian Army, it depends on the time and on the geographical area.

“Another example, Raqqa city, my city, and also a large proportion of Deir Ezzor, is under control of ISIS.

“Aleppo for example, and Idlib city and the countryside, have been witnessing a very long and violent armed conflict during the last four or five years.

“Compared to this we have other areas which were rather quiet politically, Al-Hasakah for example.”
Raheb Alwany explained how women’s approaches varied depending on these different situations:

“In Al-Hasakah itself most of women’s activism focused on co-existence and civil peace, which seems to be rooted in the history of the conflict between different population groups in the area.

“Most of the activities in Damascus took something like a political or a legal line in their activism, and this is because there is quite a big number of political women who have wide political and legal knowledge. Before the revolution there were only four permanent civil society organisations in Syria, and they all were in Damascus, so we can say that Damascus  has a long history with political work and civil society NGOs.

“As I mentioned before, high degrees of violence appeared in Aleppo and Idlib suburbs—this is why women tried to combat violence, tried to combat child recruitment for example.

“Let’s talk about the area under the control of ISIS: we all know what the security situation is over there, and it was almost impossible to do anything without the knowledge of the ISIS fighters and the emirs and so on, so women tried to combat the phenomenon of child recruitment by projects which carried different names. They were trying to hide the project under different names so that they can go on with their work.

“Besides the women’s groups activism, there were also individual efforts in Syria, which leaned towards negotiation and mediation.”


Sheila Triggs, of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the UK, asked the speakers to elaborate on some of the peace initiatives.

Leila Alodaat replied with two of her favourite examples which related to the work of WILPF. The first came from Atmeh camp for internally displaced people close to the border with Turkey.

“It’s a refugee camp with an extremely critical  situation for refugees, and even worse for women, and at one point everybody’s holding small arms because there is no control… it’s not operated by any country.

“And one day there was a disagreement in the village and 17 people died, or some number, because everybody has arms. And the women gathered and decided that men will not be allowed to hold arms in the public area of the camp… and it actually worked!

“We have been working on any sort of disarmament in the country. Not only WILPF, but everybody has been trying… And these women, with absolutely no tools, no capacity, and I have no idea how they managed to control these men who are willing to kill somebody else over a parking space, they disarmed at least the public spaces.

“They created some safe space for children to be able to go to the market and buy food without seeing anybody who’s armed. And it’s an amazing idea—I don’t know how they can generalise it, but I insist on mentioning it everywhere because it has worked.

“Another example; it is in the Kurdish area. They have, in the most dangerous country in the world, they have managed to continue something called the Spring Festival, and it is very important, not only because of the cultural value, but because it’s an area that has every kind of conflict that you can think of. There’s an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds, there’s a sectarian conflict, and a religious conflict, a political conflict, and add them all together! And they managed to continue the Spring Festival even every year of the conflict until now, where every ethnic minority, and cultural minority, and lingual minority—those are very prosecuted in Syria—they managed to come and do their shows and for the first time since the Assad regime came to power they are doing shows in their own language that they have been denied the use of for fifty years.”

Raheb Alwany added another example of a women’s project in Syria.

“It was also in Al-Hasakah territory where children were gathered in school by one of the teachers, and they were trying to sing in different languages and represent and express different cultures all in one song. Maybe they were not aware that it is peace education, but actually it is peace education.”

Relations with fighting forces

Margot James MP asked whether there is any difference between the various fighting forces in Syria in terms of how supportive they are of women in peacemaking.

Leila Alodaat responded, “Of course there is a difference between fighting forces, especially in the eyes of women. Unfortunately it’s pictured that there’s the Assad regime and ISIS, and nothing in between—and even with the people in between, whenever you mention they exist it’s interpreted into us wanting them to be armed, which is not the case—we just want some real mapping to reflect what’s happening in the country. It’s not ISIS or Assad, there are so many in between—good and bad, but they are there—and they’re different when it comes to women.

“When it comes to ISIS and a few very religious groups, there’s no place for negotiation. But these people are fleeing from under these groups… if [these groups] want to continue to exist, they will have to start finding some way to start accepting the local populations. The point of ISIS is most of them are not Syrians, so it’s going to be very hard for them to find an accepting society. The only way for them to be accepted by the society is when everywhere else around is so more dangerous—as Assad is making sure is the scenario—that people will have to accommodate under ISIS rules.

“Other than that, Syrians will never accept them. They’re foreigners, and they’re foreigners from the way we think, and they come with so much oppression that we do not want, and the only way to get Syrians to accept them is for Syrians not to have any option outside of that. This is why we’re saying protect civilians outside of ISIS-controlled zones so they can fight ISIS, because with all due respect to all the powers who are trying to fight ISIS from outside, you’re not going to defeat ISIS; it’s us who are going to defeat ISIS, but for us to be able to defeat ISIS we need to stop people being killed in masses unnecessarily by the Assad forces.

“When our people stop having to fight Assad, they will be able to fight ISIS. Now they don’t have the means, because they’re dying under their own houses.

“On how they accept women, many of the groups out of the regime controlled areas, and that are not in ISIS territory, are the local communities; good and bad, these are the people of the area. And those cannot marginalise women, because they are the communities and we see them. Raheb can give great examples of them coming and being in the local community, local councils, and providing services, because they know the community and they’re part of it. When things are imposed are when I worry about the existence of women, or when there is a systematic repression like in areas under Assad control.

“So how to make use of these variations? We need to put as much support as possible to these areas where local populations are still able to operate, and where women are still able to take their roles. Unfortunately help to those people is being cut. The examples that Raheb gave about women who still operate under ISIS, we can only imagine how hard that is, and there their lifelines are being cut because of some anti-terrorism policies that only apply to civil society. Because terrorists are going and coming as they please, and their money is getting to them, it’s civil society which is getting cut, so we need the combatting terrorism to take into consideration that the natural opposition of terrorism is civil society, is the local communities who continue to fight, and they need support.”

Raheb Alwany added, “Of course I agree with Laila, the regime and ISIS are the worst, others are our community, they are all Syrians, they are all from our community; however when speaking about local partners, most of the women’s groups, civil society groups, named armed groups always at the end of the list of their local partners. So it is still a great barrier even though they were local partners.”

Challenges facing women activists

Raheb Alwany detailed some of the challenges Syrian women said they faced in their work.

“The first and the most important one was the ongoing violence in Syria, and the threat basically by the regime was the most important challenge mentioned during the questionnaires.

“Also financial support—there was quite a big number of initiatives that were suspended unfortunately because of lack of funds. This is a very great issue here because one of the conditions that donors impose on organisations in order to be funded is that the organisation must be registered, and in Syria this is almost impossible because almost all of the organisations are human rights defending organisations, and this is why they cannot be registered with the regime. And also in the neighbouring countries, they either prevent this kind of registration or impose very difficult conditions on them.

“Another important thing is the pre-designed agenda from the donors to the organisations; some organisations actually refuse to be funded by X or Y because there is a pre-planned agenda for the activism they want done. Also there are the restrictions that fall on their movement, on their clothing—some donors are religious, others are not.”

On the key call for women to be included in negotiations, Raheb Alwany pointed to the need for training, “They need to be trained more in the field of negotiations, and in other fields as well.”

“Speaking about training, here we face another challenge that was mentioned by the women, which is the besieged areas in Syria: they can not go out of their areas to get training here or there. And also the borders: because most of the Syrian borders are closed now, it’s almost impossible to get out of the country now unless you go smuggling, which carries a high risk.

“Visa procedures are a very important issue, because even when these women are invited to participate in the events related to Syria, in most cases they have been refused from getting a visa, so they want the international community to facilitate their participation, and also to put some pressure on the Syrian regime itself to guarantee their safety when they want to come back to Syria.

On the recent Syrian opposition conference in Riyad, Raheb Alwany pointed to the lack of a written agreement on a quota of women representatives to be included in negotiation delegations. “It was only agreed orally, like okay, we can agree on that, we don’t need to write it. The international community should push towards making this a written agreement. 25% of all the delegations must be women.”

Intellectuals in Syria

More questions followed on whether there was co-ordination between activists within Syria, between those inside Syria and the external opposition, and also whether there were intellectuals within Syria contributing ideas on Syria’s political future, and what role women played in this group.

Raheb Alwany answered on co-ordination: “Almost all the women’s groups, civil society groups, are disconnected from each other. They are not co-ordinating with each other because the situation can’t allow that to happen. Speaking about the Riyad conference, it was a political one, and there was not sufficient participation of women civil society groups or women leaders in that conference, but they were aiming to at least if they are not present they want the outcome of the conference to be at least logical for women, and for their difficulties on the ground.

Leila Alodaat answered on intellectuals: “Yes, there are intellectuals in Syria, just like any other country in the world. Unfortunately they’re all in prison, or have been killed, or have fled the country, or are in massive danger.”

“And these are the people we will run out of, because the only ones who can live in a place so dangerous are either armed, or protected by armed people, and intellectuals don’t get this privilege. Women don’t get it. Anybody who doesn’t agree with them doesn’t. And what we are hoping for is a small space for those of us who don’t want to be armed, and who don’t want to be under the protection of armed individuals, to still be able to live and influence what’s happening in our country.

“That is becoming less possible with the massive targeting of intellectuals, human rights lawyers, doctors, by the Assad regime and now by everybody else who’s getting more powerful.”

How can people in the UK help?

The next questioner was Rebecca Johnson, Green Party convenor on peace, security and defence, and also a member of WILPF and Women in Black. Asking about how people in the UK can help, she said, “You’ll know there was a big debate here about bombing… A lot of us felt we have to do something, but bombing wasn’t the right thing.”

Another questioner wondered, “If you’d had any connection with the Stop the War movement here, and whether they’d let you speak, whether you’d wanted to speak, what your relationship is?”

Ruth Cadbury MP picked up on Rebecca Johnson’s question, saying, “I’m a Quaker, I voted against bombing in Syria, but I was very conscious that I should be using my position to support, forward, encourage peacebuilding and active work towards peace.”

Laila Alodaat spoke first on the Stop the War Coalition, saying, “All Syrians that I know were big fans of the Stop the War Coalition in the past, in all the battles, in the core values of it, but it has been a horrible disappointment to all of us. They go into the streets saying that the way to stop ISIS is collaborating with Assad and with Russia—war criminals who are killing Syrians—they silence Syrians publicly every time they try to speak, they disregard everything they say.

“The message they tell to us is that ‘You only matter if you’re killed by our bombs, but if anyone else kills you then it’s fine and we will not do anything about it. We will actively allow them and maybe suggest collaborating with them.’  This is the message we get from Stop the War.

“And although we were in the same position when it comes to bombing Syria, we wouldn’t go and demonstrate with them, because the amount of what we consider fascist discourse that has been happening in these demonstrations was unbelievable.”

“On what could we actively do: When a discussion is taking place in the House of Commons, the question being asked is how to fight ISIS—do we do that to ISIS, or do we not do that to ISIS—and what’s being forgotten is that ISIS is in the middle of a sea of civilians that are being exterminated.”
In order to do something about ISIS, something must be done to prevent these people being killed,  Laila Alodaad argued.

“What we want is to have a civilian-centred approach to dealing with the situation—and it is one big situation—I’m not saying that Syria is an ISIS problem, I’m saying that the ISIS problem is one of the consequences of a major issue that wasn’t dealt with. And now, five years later, it’s a much bigger problem.”

Laila Alodaat is a Syrian human rights lawyer, focused on international accountability and the responsibility to protect civilians and marginalised groups. She has worked on several conflict situations including Syria, Libya, Iraq and Pakistan. She is currently the crisis response programme manager at at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and she volunteers as the Chairperson of Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, and as a board member of Badael.

Raheb Alwany is a human rights defender and civil society activist from Syria. Born and raised in Raqqa city, she received her MD from the Faculty of Medicine in Damascus University. After graduation she moved back to Raqqa to practice medicine in the National Hospital of Raqqa at the time the city was controlled by extremists of ISIL. Simultaneously, she worked for Badael Foundation on a peace building project.

Raheb was engaged in three programs of Badael, the first one is the capacity building program which has been implemented through training and consultation on several subjects (Conflict resolution and transformation, child recruitment, sex and gender based violence, human rights and transitional justice as a tool for sustainable peace). The second is the research program, through which Badael has published the study of “Peacebuilding defines our future now.” And the third is the advocacy program through which Badael participates in events that aim to advocate for peace and enable sharing experience and knowledge in order to create strategies for sustainable peace in Syria.

Badael (i.e. Alternatives in Arabic) is a Syrian NGO committed to strengthening civil society groups that are active or want to become active in the promotion of non-violence and in the implementation of activities to reduce the severity of violence, to break its cycle, and to prepare for the process of post-conflict peace-building.

Badael’s report, “Peacebuilding defines our future now,” is available here.

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh is the Member of Parliament for Ochil and South Perthshire.

Event notes by Kellie Strom.