"The struggle against patriarchal Syrian structure is also international – the struggle of all women in a world that gives very little attention to the voices of women and girls. Our struggle is not going to stop."
Mariam Jalabi was born into nonviolent resistance to the regime of Hafez al-Assad in Syria. Her father, a doctor, was imprisoned five times, and before she began school the family fled to Germany. At 7 she went to live with relatives in the Golan Heights until she graduated high school, then left again to study political science. A shift took her into a successful career in the NY fashion industry, where she started a company to design practical – and beautiful – clothing for the modern Muslim woman.
Then in 2011, the Arab spring gave birth to the Syrian revolution. Mariam she became a founding member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, sending support and ideas back home; when a meeting was called to take place in Turkey, she says, “I knew I had to go.” Today, the war is in its eight brutal year, and Mariam is the both United Nations representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.
What called you to become so active in the opposition?
At the meeting in Turkey I met a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time, others in exile, others who had taken different paths in life. More meetings followed, and I slowly let go of the fashion business. One of my interests was the lack of women represented in this new opposition, the lack of youth. I saw the old guard, men of my father’s generation – I respected them, but thought we needed to be involved, too.
As new dissident and opposition figures fled Syria, many groups began. In November 2012, under the auspices of the international community, we formed the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force, or Syrian Coalition. It was recognized as the official representative of Syria by 120 countries and organizations; because the UN is in New York we established an office there. And because I was such a loudmouth, always complaining ‘We don’t have enough women,’ I was asked to run it. I said I would, under the condition that I would dedicate part of my work to including the voices of women, youth and the marginalized.
What were key elements of that effort?
At first we included women from within organizations that already existed but had been dominated by men. Last year, we realized that one obstacle was that women were always pigeonholed into civil society – we had to be neutral peacemakers, without political opinions.
For example, when Steffan di Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria created a Women’s Advisory Board, it included women from such a continuum of religious and political positions that our only common denominator was humanitarian aid.
But our issue is a political one! In October 2017, we launched the Syrian Women's Political Movement. It is a way to say that we Syrian women are not just there to deliver aid. We are not in competition with what exists; our motto was “we here to hold your hands and take you in the right direction.”
Why has it been so difficult to bring women’s voices into negotiation of the peace process for Syria?
We live in an international patriarchal structure – a world that’s ruled by men and the military. The Syrian women’s case is no different from the case of women in the US, the UK, Europe, Africa. We’re all in the same boat.
Can a new Syria emerge offering greater equality and female power?
Syria has been completely destroyed. It will be completely rebuilt. This is an opportunity for us, in the future, to make sure that women will have seats in parliament, in decision-making, in the courts, in government.
Our immediate plan is that we’re not leaving the space open for only men to decide what’s happening. We have monthly, even weekly calls with the men’s opposition and experts who are working on the ground. We will be a part of every process, including the negotiations process. In the medium term, when a new government forms, we will be part of it. It’s important to stress that we’re establishing ourselves as a bloc. Showing that we will not be ignored. In the long haul, we look to a forming a feminist party, guaranteeing women’s and girl’s rights. Our bloc is open to both women and men who believe in feminist ideas – in fact, our group is 11 percent men.
The word we hear in the West is that the Assad regime has won the war.
The international community has lost interest in the war, or become worn out. No one wants to get involved. And at the moment, that community gives respect to whoever has more military power and controls more land. With the help of Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime has taken 75 percent of the land. But when we first began calling for our liberty, justice and freedom, we held zero land. The regime can take back everything. The regime can go on arresting and killing people as they do now, every day.
The Syrian struggle for human rights and international law is the struggle of the international community. The struggle against patriarchal Syrian structure is also international – the struggle of all women in a world that gives very little attention to the voices of women and girls.
Our struggle is not going to stop.
Read more about Mariam's role as the United Nations representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Learn more about the Syrian Nonviolence Movement.