In Syria, the ongoing armed conflict poses immense challenges to peacebuilding efforts and has dramatically reduced safe spaces for civil society activities. Yet even under the harshest of circumstances, Syrian women have held onto the spaces that do exist and created new ones to continue their activism and achieve social justice within their communities.
In 2019, we witnessed a huge mobilisation of women revolutionaries taking the lead in protests and uprisings all over the world. At the same time, women human rights defenders face increasing discrimination and threats to their lives due to authoritarianism and militarised regimes, far-right mobilisation, neo-conservatism and a shrinking space for civil society.
This is largely the case in Syria, where the ongoing armed conflict poses immense challenges to peacebuilding efforts by civil society actors and organisations. All too often, feminist grassroots activists on the frontlines of the resistance bear the brunt of the violence.
Yet even under the harshest of circumstances, Syrian women have pursued their vision with courage and determination, holding onto spaces for change to continue their activism in pursuit of social justice within their communities.
Sisterhood among Syrian women
Peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian regime in 2011 and the regime’s violent response contributed to the birth of a civil society movement in the country. Across political, ideological and religious differences, grassroots feminists started to come together for informal discussions on how to collaboratively bring about change.
These discussions propelled action, leading to meetings and joint campaigns with bonds of trust behind them.
“Having these spaces is essential for women to build a sisterhood,” says Oula Ramadan, the Director of Badael, one of WILPF’s partner organisations in Syria. Badael supports local-level peacebuilding, rights-based campaigning and non-violent activism. “From these safe spaces, we can build solidarity among women and expand our reach outwards.”
Responding to the needs of Syrian organisations
WILPF is committed to prioritising the needs of Syrian women in its support of women-led and feminist organisations in the country. Constant communication between WILPF’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) team and diverse groups of women ensures a dynamic, participatory and locally informed approach.
Through early consultations held to deepen the understanding of the challenges facing Syrian organisations, funding was identified as one of the key challenge areas. Grants and other forms of financial aid are often short term and project-specific, leaving day-to-day administrative costs unaccounted for. This hinders organisations’ responsiveness as immediate needs arise, and constrains the thinking space required for furthering feminist agendas.
In response, in 2017 WILPF’s MENA team launched the Feminist Movement for Change in Syria project to provide flexible funding, tailored technical support and opportunities for networking and coordination to support Syrian feminist organisations’ independence and agency. In 2019, the project had expanded to support 13 different Syrian partner organisations to further their feminist agendas.
Feminists in conversation
Adjusting existing frameworks to address the multitude of challenges faced by women-led grassroots organisations brings us closer to reaching feminist peace.
Over the past year, WILPF took additional steps to address these challenges by facilitating spaces for feminist dialogues, shared learning and coordination across the MENA region and beyond.
In February 2019, this took the form of a meeting in Berlin to explore feminist political economy perspectives on conflict and post-conflict Syria. Syrian activists, along with Bosnian feminist experts, discussed how feminist political economy tools could be leveraged to strategise for peace.
In July 2019, 47 Syrian and Bosnian feminist activists met in Sarajevo for feminist solidarity dialogues. This came five years after the first of these dialogues was held in 2014. Over the course of three days of knowledge sharing, the participants exchanged experiences and spoke on reconstruction, justice and return.
Oula Ramadan attended the meeting last year as well as the one in 2014. She described it as an intensive learning experience, and symbolic of shared struggle and sisterhood.
Despite the attendees coming from many different backgrounds, Oula remarked: “Sharing the experience of struggle on a personal level is the source of our strength.”
Change is already happening
Safe spaces for learning and networking between women peace activists are essential for promoting gender-sensitive approaches to peacebuilding and post-conflict transitions. At the same time, strengthening the capacities of Syria’s civil society organisations and actors has meant strengthening the movements that drive change.
There are countless stories to suggest that despite shrinking space for civil society in Syria, women are determined to continue working for peace. Their persistence in making room for feminist peace activism means many more rooms full of strength, resistance and sisterhood.