“Syrian women are strong and tough and full of energy. … [They] will build a new Syria.”
Syrian activist Joumana Seif, 46, was shaped by opposition. Her father, a dissident member of Parliament, went to prison multiple times for his criticism of the Assad regime, and the family textile factory, where Joumana ran the Social Care and Development Department, was taxed into bankruptcy. In 2012, she fled to Berlin. She works tirelessly to bring women’s voices into peace negotiations to end the devastating war at home.
When did you first become active in feminist causes?
Before the Arab Spring and our 2011 revolution, I believed that we could not separate fighting for women's rights from fighting for human rights in general. Women worked day and night for the revolution, but after the regime struck back with mass killings, arrests, and detentions, our role became more marginalized. By 2012, we realized we would not have women's rights without a struggle, and we were determined to fight. We wanted a new, democratic Syria and there could be no democracy without equality between men and women. That understanding led 29 independent, non-governmental organizations and 200 individuals to form the Syrian Women’s Network; I was a founding member. Our goals were that a new Syrian constitution and set of laws include full equality for women in terms of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Since 2013, although many of us are in exile, we’ve worked to have women take a more central role in the peace talks for Syria.
Why is women’s involvement in peace talks so important?
Women suffer in unique ways during war. Today, in Syria, women and children make up a majority of refugees and internally displaced people. Those who escape often face threats of sexual violence along the road, and those who are pregnant have no access to treatment. And we’ve learned from conflicts around the world that higher participation of women increases the chances for peace. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, mandated that women must be present at all levels of peacebuilding, but we remain a tiny fraction of peace agreement signatories and negotiators. In the early, failed peace processes for Syria, women were not at the table or even on the margins.
What did you do to help change that?
At the end of 2013, fifty women representing many civil society organizations, including eight members of the Syrian Women’s Network, established the Syrian Women's Initiative for Peace and Democracy. Our aim was to promote the peace process, improve the humanitarian situation in Syria and bring women directly into the negotiations—from the beginning, to the writing of a new constitution. We put pressure on both parties, internationally, and with then-special UN Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, demanding a 30% quota of female participants during the Geneva sessions. Unfortunately, conditions were not right for us. Only a few women found a place on the negotiating teams, and had limited roles. These talks also fell apart quickly.
Did that improve at all over time?
In 2014 when Staffan de Mistura became special envoy to Syria, he said that involving women in peace talks was a priority, and by 2015, the UN Security Council passed a resolution “encouraging” the meaningful participation of women. We are still not at the negotiations table itself. Mr. de Mistura created “civil society rooms” at the negotiations – a space where representatives can discuss important issues and give him and his team our recommendations. I represent the Syrian Women’s Network. At the same time, Mr. de Mistura also created a “Women’s Advisory Board,” half of which is from the Syrian Women’s Initiative, to bring a gender perspective to the talks. For a variety of reasons, the Board has proved very controversial. It is politically diverse. In my opinion, the main problem is that these diverse members must reach consensus on every position. That’s impossible, which I think has allowed them to be silent on crucial issues, such as the regime’s use of barrel bombs. There is no discussion of accountability, which is crucial to preventing future war crimes. To me, there can be no peace without justice, and justice requires and needs accountability.
The situation in Syria seems so desperate. What gives you hope?
Syrians themselves, most of whom dream that one day they will rebuild a new, democratic country. Syrian women, who in some cases have found themselves facing a life outside the home for the first time, and yet show the strength to adapt. Women who fled alone or with their children, coming across the sea to Europe, learning a new language, and making new lives for themselves. Syrian women are strong and tough and full of energy, and if after the war, we offer them job opportunities and laws that protect their rights, they will build a new Syria.
Visit the Syrian's Women's Network website.
Read more about the Syrian Women's Network.
Read more from the Syrian Women's Initiative for Peace and Democracy.