Geneva Day 2 Part C

Day 2 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks (Part C)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

We’d taken a break for finger food lunch and coffee and just to pause so we could digest all that we’d been hearing. The 4 newly arrived Syrian women also got a chance to get their bearings.

We all reconvened. First was a short, but powerful talk by Shirin Ebadi, the fearless Iranian human right lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. She speaks English, but asked if she could offer her thoughts to us in her native Farsi, with a translator, so that she could say exactly what she meant. She began by apologizing to the Syrians present for herself and for all those Iranians – and she said there were many – who opposed the Iranian government’s current militarized interventions in the Syrian conflict (the Iranian government is a major backer of the Assad regime and directly supports the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militiamen’s cross-border interventions in Syria). Shirin then widened her message, energetically arguing that, time after time, external military interventions have worsened the violence endured by people inside the war-afflicted societies, while also shrinking the chances for a sustainable peace agreement. People crowded into the room broke into spontaneous applause when this part of Shirin’s talk was translated.

Without a break, we segued immediately to the next session. The four newly-arrived Syrian women took chairs in the inner semi circle, where they were joined by Madeleine Rees of WILPF and Lena Ag of Kvinna till Kvinna. I was asked to serve as moderator. Our task was to specify what were the particular obstacles to women civil society activists getting a place at the peace talk table. Madeline, with direct experience in Bosnia where she had served as Mary Robinson’s Special Representative for the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights, told us that she has repeatedly witnessed so many elite men’s dedication to the “medieval” narrative: “Only men with guns can bring peace.”

Madeleine urged each of us all subvert that conventional militarizing, masculinizing narrative everywhere we hear it. She pushed us to go further, to articulate an alternative and more realistic narrative: civil society activists, many of them women, bring to the table their knowledge of local conditions and their commitment to creating sustainable peace and meaningful security in ways that produce a more genuine security; it is these attributes and skills that has the best chance of producing an agreement one that fosters citizenship and political transparency.

Lena’s contribution underscored these points. She described Kvinna till Kvinna’s recent cross-national detailed study of the dynamics that today continue to favor masculinized peace negotiations. She reminded us that this was in spite of the UN Security Council’s members (including, of course, the US and Russia) in 2000 – 14 years ago – having voted to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 1325 On Women Peace and Security (what many women in the room refer to simply as “1325”). 1325 commits both the agencies of the UN and every UN member state to take actions that will insure that women are not just treated as “victims,” but are treated as serious players – that is, that women have an effective voice in all peace agreement processes, in all post-agreement transitional political arrangements, and in all on-going post-war state reforms and peace-building development. Thus it is in flagrant violation of their own formal commitments, Lena reminded us, that the key political players in so many of today’s peace processes and now this international Syrian process marginalize women civil society representatives.

From left to right: Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF; Susan Alloush; Gracia Namour (Elham’s interpreter); Elham Ahmad, and Rim Turkmani

From left to right: Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF; Susan Alloush; Gracia Namour (Elham’s interpreter); Elham Ahmad, and Rim Turkmani. Photo by WILPF (

The Syrian women who had just recently arrived then gave nuanced accounts of what women are experiencing but also what women activists are doing in the midst of the ever-escalating violence. With the support of Karama, a Cairo-based women’s rights group, some of them have formed the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace. Mouna Ghanem, trained as a public health professional, is among its co-founders. They have tried to bring together the scattered women’s groups working locally inside of Syria. Mouna said that 1325 was beginning to become more familiar to many of those activists, who now saw it as giving their demands for inclusion in the peace talks international recognition. She noted that these women, many of them trained in law, social work, and medicine, have been working to deliver humanitarian aid, neighborhood by neighborhood, to document violations of human rights in the midst of the violence, to create micro-ceasefires allowing food and medical supplies to reach Syrians isolated by violence.

Rim Turkmani, the astrophysicist who had spoken earlier in the day, told us that doing this sort of work “on the ground” was really effected by specific local conditions. For instance, she explained, in one neighborhood of a larger city there might be 5,000 armed fighters, most locally recruited, surrounded by 20,000 civilians. In that instance, local people – many of whom personally know the male fighters amongst them – can wield significant influence. Under these conditions, local civil activists stood a good chance of creating a temporary cease fire.

By contrast, Rim explained, if the violence had escalated to a point where living has become intolerable, forcing thousands of residents to flee, then the fighters might number 5,000, but the local residents will have have been reduced to, say, 2,000. Under those conditions, creating even a short-lived cease fire is unlikely.

Each of the four Syrian women were determined that women in Syria, no matter how difficult their immediate situations, should “not be passive.” They wanted both younger women and older women to demand that they be taking part in all sorts of community decision-making, that they craft their own plans and visions for a future Syria.

Despite the now-spiraling sexual assaults and kidnapping of women – perpetrated by those warring men who see women as mere currency in their rivalries with other men – these Syrian women insist that Syrian women should not be imagined by themselves, by the international media and agencies, or by us, their listeners, as mere victims. Syrian women, in all their diversity, were people with a stake in the direction their country took; they were people with skills and knowledge. That is, Syrian women were citizens.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.