Women’s organizations in northern Syria have come a long way

Although women’s organizations are successfully raising awareness about women’s rights and the need to fight sexual violence and crimes in north Syria, challenges represented by a patriarchal society remain.

al-monitor A meeting of Sawiska, a women's organization, Maysaloun, northern Syria, image uploaded June 17, 2015. Photo by Facebook/KomelaSawiska.

Jan 16, 2018

On Dec. 15, Star Forum, a female organization affiliated with the Movement for a Democratic Society, staged a protest in Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, condemning the murder of Maryam Mohammad Ali by her brother-in-law. The circumstances of the crime have not been revealed and investigations are ongoing, but the story circulating is that 25-year-old Maryam, a mother of two, had approached Asayish, the security forces of the Kurdish self-rule administration in northern Syria, to lodge a complaint of sexual assault by her brother-in-law and father-in-law. Her brother-in-law was furious, and the two clashed. He shot her twice, in the head and right shoulder.

Women’s organizations have been working in northern Syria, specifically in al-Jazira province, for more than six years, but the event in December was the first time a women’s organization had publicly demonstrated against the area's social norms. The objective behind establishing the Star Forum was to help women break free from societal restraints, according to Walida Bouti, the Star Forum's director.

“The protest, in which dozens of men, women and children participated, was organized against the patriarchal thinking that legalizes killing women under the pretext of honor, regardless of sect, religion or race,” Bouti told Al-Monitor. “The main goal behind this step is to protect women’s rights, curb ignorance and eliminate the idea that women are inferior [to men]. We want to show society that no matter what the offending action, we strongly condemn murdering women.” 

Najah Amine, a member of Sara, a Qamishli-based nongovernmental organization working to fight violence against women, told Al-Monitor that around the time of Mohammad Ali’s murder, a man from Amuda had burned his wife alive. No other information was available. Sara, a social and civil organization, has been actively documenting violence against women for the past four years as well as challenging all forms of discrimination against them.

The awareness campaigns about women’s rights by women’s organizations in northern Syria, including Sawiska and the Free Kurdish Women’s Organization, in addition to Sara, might be the main reason behind the declining cases of violence against women. Statistics published Dec. 30 by the Social Justice Council in al-Jazira indicate that murders of women have dropped, from 22 cases in 2016 to 7 in 2017. Rape cases also declined, from eight to three, for the same time period. Child marriage dropped from 31 cases to 13.

“Some crimes against women are committed but shelved as suicide,” Amine told Al-Monitor. “The security forces and the office against organized crime, which follows up on criminal cases, are not cooperative enough and claim that they have to protect the privacy and sensitivity of investigations into such cases.” She noted that Sara, in its mission to expose the truth and punish culprits, is seeking to be able to bring charges against individuals alleged to have committed violent acts.

According to Amine, in 2017 Sara noticed a positive change in the self-rule tribunals’ behavior toward it. Whereas previously they would not allow Sara and other observers to attend trials, concerned organizations can now be present to listen to the testimony, follow cases and review investigative files on the cases. She sees this as a step forward in developing civil society. Cases related to women, she said, are insufficiently investigated. They have been rushed and closed, because they are socially sensitive.

The Free Kurdish Women’s Organization based in Qamishli is one of the oldest women's groups in northern Syria and has branches in Turkey and Germany. Yousra Zabir, the organization's director, told Al-Monitor that its members have been harassed by Syrian security since its establishment in 1994.

Zabir explained that her group has come a long way in raising women’s awareness about their rights, but without encouraging them to rebel. She said that society’s acceptance of a role for civil society organizations (CSOs) is key in helping them reach their goals. Alternatively, by raising women’s awareness of their rights and taking advantage of the tools available to that end, CSOs can influence responses to violence against women.

She said her organization wants not only to raise awareness, but also to empower women socially and encourage them to learn new skills. It regularly provides training sessions in nursing and computer programs as well as foreign languages. Such activities, Zabir remarked, nurture a culture of openness toward women, instead of their only being seen, as is common, as housewives. She noted that some families and individuals do not accept women even leaving the house and interacting with their environment.

Rojine Habbo, director of the women’s department at Shar for Development, told Al-Monitor, “The direct results of civil society organizations in al-Jazira working on women’s issues, like violence against women and raising awareness about their rights to work and divorce or other basic rights, cannot be immediately felt. Work on these cases takes time to reach the desired results.”

Habbo observed that CSOs are not reviewing the impact of their work closely, as some programs are slowly implemented or not at all. She stated, “Some social constraints, such as a patriarchal mentality, can be a factor hindering women-related organizations from reaching oppressed women. Social constraints also prevent these organizations from tackling sensitive issues like honor killings.”

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