Feminist Organizations in Syria during War; Experiences and Testimonies

With the Syrian revolution being reformed into a war at the end of 2011 because of the excessive violence used by the regime, emergency working groups made up of local male and female activists had begun to appear in each region. They called themselves later as civil society organizations. The workspace was called Syrian civil society-regardless of the correctness and legitimacy of the description. This space was the best arena for Syrian women, where they put most of their efforts, time and ideas. It was not only the mere arena available for relatively safe work, but it also proved the ability to deal flexibly and dynamically with the rapid changes on the scene, in contrast to the slow and stagnation of political action. Moreover, the civil work, which supposed to be neutral and far from political and military polarization, has been an attractive asset for supporters from international organizations and international non-governmental organizations that no longer see actual achievements in political process course in which participate the “parties to the conflict”.

However, this imposed on women a wide range of challenges. The Syrian women are confronting many obstacles. In political action, the whole thing is managed with a masculine mentality that excludes and belittles women as a partner and political actor. Within societal arena, the appreciation is based on family, clan, religious, sectarian and regional hierarchies that exclude women and place them at the bottom of the pyramid. For these reasons, Syrian feminists work through civil society organizations to find a space for them, a space that has begun to become clear and unfolded over time by learning with trial-and-error principle. So, imitating other experiences in other countries without considering the exceptional Syrian context seems a waste of effort and time.

Although governmental actors and international policies remain the main player in conflict countries, including Syria, non-governmental actors and international

organizations work primarily on conflict resolution programs and address the factors that would prevent the conflict to recurrent again. Foremost among these programs is working to empower women politically and socially in order to involve them in decision-making, based on the fact that the participation of women is a safety valve for democratization and sustainable peace.

Some distinctions can be seen between feminist Syrian organizations in terms of their focus on their priorities on the ground and their abandonment, on the other hand, of some priorities in order to obtain funding. The relationship with the donor seems an added challenge for civil organizations in general, inside and outside Syria. Particularly, feminist organizations’ association with a single donor, even though it guarantees the sustainability of funding, can lead to dependency and, thus, the absence of organization’s priorities in favor of the donor’s priorities. But if there is more than one donor, the organization can increase the range of its movement and the flexibility of its activities.

International non-governmental organizations fund empowerment programs for local councils and registered organizations in areas outside the regime’s control and often require the participation of women. Therefore, some non-feminist civil organizations have begun to put forth programs and activities on their agendas that target women. However, these agendas may not be based on conviction, a clear strategic vision, or even from studying the context as much as they aim to satisfy international donors. This is why many questions have been raised about the feasibility of these activities on the ground.

There is a fundamental need for having local donors to support the organizations inside. Most of them are fragile organizations, often operating without a license, guarantees and protection; therefore, in all their activities, even the small ones, they would depend on outsider donors rather than work on developing their tools by creating initiatives that rely on self-potential. It seems that it is difficult today to talk

about self-potential due to the scarcity of capabilities, or more precisely, their absence.

There is an equation that must be solved so that the organizations can obtain a wider range of independence from the donor. Although the funding provided to civil society is not dangerous in the end when compared to the funding given to political and military actors, the local organizations that receive funding should always quest for their interests; which are the interests of the groups they represent and target after all.

Funding problems also arise when working as a mediator between the male and female activists on the ground and the international donor. This affects feminist organizations abroad as they marginalize the final product in favor of office procedures and the satisfaction of the donor. It is also superfluous to say that donors have influenced changing the volunteering concept by making civil society’s male and female activists reports writers.

Societal policies are an issue for the entire society, with all of its men and women; therefore, the issue of women’s rights must become a public concern. It goes without saying that making an impact requires searching for temporary partners and allies for each problem separately, but without blinding the eye from the feminist vision that ultimately struggles Against monopolizing positions of power in the societal structure. Moreover, more work is needed to develop different tools for each stage, as well as plans for self-empowerment for organizations to proceed their work when there are neither funding nor international organizations around.

Donors can also, on their way to reach their goals, promote a culture of diversity, difference and partnership among organizations by working to increase funding for strategic work and giving more attention to the product on the ground at the expense of bureaucratic conditions that consume the activists’ time and contribute in distorting the volunteer work concept.

After a decade of hard work by Syrian feminists who had found in the revolution an opportunity towards the desired societal change, especially with regard to changing the stereotyped image of women, empowering them and making them participate in decision-making, the results on the ground seem modest and do not amount to the effort and money that have been spent. Nevertheless, the social and political work in the current Syrian circumstance is a long and hard cumulative work that requires patience, courage and perseverance. Although feminists still cannot see the results of their efforts today, it can be said that if we took a deeper look, there would be something that has changed we cannot see now.

So, women who have become aware of women’s rights and human rights, even if their voices are not heard today, these rights will remain in their conscious awareness and will emerge as words and actions when the appropriate circumstance arises. The Syrian women encountered other forms of tyranny while they were resisting political repression, and they had to confront not only the political restraints, but all kinds of repression and societal domination that have hindered their participation in the public sphere, robbed them of their rights and demeaned their work.

Today, they have a complex struggle that has begun to take shape after the intersections of the various sources of oppression have become clear. This struggle requires setting clear feminist agendas, developing tools and consolidating partnership while preserving independence and specialization, and accumulating struggles so that political or societal forces can no longer ignore the role of civil society and feminist organizations. These organizations have always been one of the most important tributaries of reform and change as they can promote and empower democracy in our societies.

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