GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Syrian women filled the conference room and lobby of a hotel in this border city for one week in late August this year. They were the focus of a “Space for Collaboration” workshop, providing networking and training to women working on political solutions to the Syrian civil war. A majority of the women were civil society activists — who work outside governmental and military structures at strengthening communities and civil institutions — and in Syria they are insistent advocates for peace.
The news media tend to concentrate their gaze on peace talks, but these have been largely ineffectual for Syria so far, and many activists complain that negotiation efforts by the official opposition’s interim government has been undemocratic and noninclusive. The work of activists on the ground, in the field, has done more to mitigate the effects of war but has been strangely marginalized.
Thirty-six women from inside Syria and neighboring refugee host countries gathered for the conference, which was organized by the Syrian Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD), based in Turkey. (Gaziantep is one of several cities close to the Syrian border whose population has swelled with Syrian refugees during the civil war.) The activists at the conference came from all parts of the country, a diverse group, and they are filling the void that the failed peace talks have produced. They are also fulfilling the original intentions behind peaceful protests demanding democratic change in Syria.
In Syria, some nongovernmental organizations did exist before 2011. Sabah al-Hallak was at the conference representing the Syrian Women’s League, which has been fighting since 1985 to make Syrian law more pro-women and its society more inclusive. But life was very difficult for such groups under the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and of his father, Hafez al-Assad. The league fought to make Syrian laws more fair for women, but al-Hallak says they could not even change just one. The network mostly consisted of older women who had joined the movement when there was still hope. Now younger women are joining and, al-Hallak said, “That is very, very good for us.”
One younger woman, Zahra (not her real name, since she is still operating in the Idlib countryside) has been an activist since she got to college in 2006, but all she and her fellow students could manage were secret discussion groups. Now she is trying to connect women with political opportunities that arise in local governments (called generally Local Councils) that have emerged in rebel-held areas. She feels that women lost out when these power structures formed by not getting onboard quickly enough.
“I think they waited for men to say come and participate,” Zahra said. “But that will never happen. They should’ve taken the steps to participate.” Now she keeps her ear to the ground: when international funding associations demand female presence in a local governing body, she makes sure that women hear about it.
In rebel-held areas, the war and the power vacuums it has created is providing a perverse possibility that didn’t previously exist, to more openly pursue an inclusive civil society. In all areas of Syria, activists have been galvanized by the revolution to pursue their goals relentlessly. But war is also not a conducive environment for the evolution of democratic institutions. If not killed or imprisoned, activists are fleeing or forced underground or living in difficult conditions.
A CCSD network member, Abu Hamad, for example, was kidnapped by the extremist group ISIS in June 2013, and there has been no word. In government-controlled areas, activists are under constant threat of prison and torture. Armed groups hold sway and are invited to peace tables where civil society organizers are not. And yet, on the ground, civil society groups are having more success in unofficial peacemaking.
Alwan, another activist, is from Zabadani, a small town near Damascus that was the first city to come under complete control of the Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the opposition group Syrian National Coalition, albeit briefly. The town has been under siege by the government for more than two years, with intense fighting ongoing. Last January, the situation was particularly desperate, with daily shelling and barrel bombing preventing people from going to the fields during planting season. Negotiations between the rebel-controlled local council and Assad’s government constantly broke down when one or the other side walked out.
Alwan is part of a women’s peace circle group called Damma, which contacted merchants who had ties with government officials to request an audience on the town’s behalf. With this access obtained, they went about getting approval on points of negotiation from all parties in the Zabadani area, including the Local Council, the Free Syrian Army and Islamist brigades. After they agreed on points that could be included, they went to five rounds of negotiations (back and forth, back and forth), and in the end achieved a cease-fire. It broke down after 40 days, when promised conditions on both sides were not met. Meanwhile, however, crops were planted, a concrete and critical result in an area suffering often from food shortage.
These small peace intervals not only save lives but also prove that meaningful interventions with inclusive dynamics can have positive results. Women were a small fraction of the opposition delegation at the Geneva II conference early this year — organized by the United States and Russia with the United Nations.
“But,” Sabah al-Hallak says, “the Coalition and the regime don’t really believe in women’s participation. They take two women. But not feminists. And it’s women who talk about politics, not about women rights. We need to go as feminists to the negotiation table, and demand our rights.”
Women held their own Syrian Women’s Peace Talks, which were thoughtfully and thoroughly documented by Cynthia Enloe, to address issues given scant attention at the conference. A research professor at Clark University, Enloe focuses on international development and women’s and gender studies. Her blog articulates a growing realization that official peace talks, official peace treaties and official narratives cater to the most harmfully reductive fantasies of what real progress is and that strong anecdotal evidence that civil society organizations have done more for the long-term benefit of many conflict-ridden countries.
While it would be speculation to say that peace talks would have been successful if the negotiating entities had been more representative, it is clear from past examples that a peace treaty created without thoroughly democratic input has less chance for long-term success. The most compelling argument for this, as presented by Enloe, is Bosnia, where peace talks dominated by men, held far from the civil society in conflict, on a military base to boot, produced a constitution that fractured the society and is largely considered dysfunctional today.
Rajaa Altalli and Renas Sino founded CCSD (Center for Civil Society and Democracy) in September 2011. They began in the early days of the conflict, in March 2011, by maintaining records of human-rights abuses happening inside Syria, but now they embrace a wide variety of civil society building activities. The group works with a network of 3,000 activists — men and women — in Syria and has 80 full-time staff members, mostly based in Syria but with a central office in Gaziantep (also home to the Syrian Interim Government). The group is nonpartisan, a policy extended to Syrians who are pro-Assad.
“There are definitely contacts with the people who are pro-regime,” Altalli said, “and the idea is to build common principles . . . respecting human rights, accepting each other’s opinion, transparency and accountability, believing in the rule of law.”
The center seeks best-practice advice from numerous sources and partners. For example, its co-organizer for the August workshop was the Women’s Democracy Network, a branch of the International Republican Institute, based in Washington, D.C. The network’s facilitators at the conference were initially skittish about talking to anyone from the press, even though their relationship with Syrian activists is well documented on their website. Erika Veberyte, director of the Women’s Democracy Network, said afterward that there was concern that these activists could lose local legitimacy if they were perceived to be beholden to Western countries. And the International Republic Institute has had to defend itself vigorously against allegations of interference in the past, particularly in Haiti in the 2004 overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as reported in The New York Times and Salon (IRI has an FAQ response on its website).
The Women’s Democracy Network is a worldwide consortium of women who share their success stories and challenges with one another. Two years ago, for example, the network invited Monica McWilliams, the Northern Irish academic and activist, to work with its Syrian members because she fought a similarly uphill battle to get women represented at peace talks in Northern Ireland. McWilliams formed the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition in 1996, a political party representing Catholic and Protestant communities and eventually won a seat at the negotiation table, ultimately becoming a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement. She was present at the Gaziantep conference to help the attendees through group workshops.
Though the scale of the situations in Syria and Northern Ireland are radically different, many of the women were inspired by McWilliams’s example and the specific strategies she discussed. Maisa, a young schoolteacher who is living in a camp in northern Syria for widows and children, learned that “we should have a lot of patience.” Her inspiration was McWilliams’s assertion that “we had to knock on about 35,000 doors just to get 10 seats or 10 voices in some council.”
Many of the women felt discouraged by the end of the conference, however, feeling as if they didn’t have enough experience yet for the work at hand and that they didn’t know enough about politics. But McWilliams was optimistic.
“Every woman in this room had as much experience and expertise as I had,” she said. “I was an ordinary woman who was asked to do extraordinary things. There were 36 ordinary women in that room being asked to do extraordinary things. And I believe they’ll do it.”
Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at www.veradonnafilms.com.