Geneva Days 3 and 4

Days 3 and 4 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks

Wednesday, January 22, and Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

Back to drizzle after a lovely bit of blue above yesterday.

This morning’s International New York Times is full of the news of the rocky, acrimonious start of the official Syrian Peace Talks up in the mountain resort of Montreux. NOT A SINGLE WOMAN is mentioned or quoted in the long article.

Women seeking peace. Photo by Cynthia Enloe

Women seeking peace. Photo by Cynthia Enloe.

In fact, loads of women are actually outside the hall holding brightly colored banners calling for women to be meaningfully included in the talks. (You can go to Code Pink’s and WILPF’s websites for news and photos).

Back down here in Geneva, yesterday (Wednesday) the 10 Syrian women civil society activists spent their day in meetings with UN officials and with officials of various governments. The Norwegians have been esp supportive, as have the British. Last week, WILPF’s UN-based staff in its small but savvy NY office managed to facilitate a meeting of Syrian women activists with Samantha Power, the US delegate to the UN.

Really, the amount of persuading it is taking to pry open these Peace Talk doors is mind-boggling. And, of course, every Syrian woman who is here in Geneva or in NY has had to have her travel funded by someone, has had to leave her home area and make the risky trip out of the country – and soon must try to get back home again. Nothing that they are doing is easy.

In all the discussions, these Syrian women activists are underscoring the importance of creating civil society in wartime. They remind us at every turn that there has not been a history of civil society in Syria. The Assad (Senior and Junior) regimes have systematically sucked all the air out of civic space. For 40 years to be “political” has been shrunken to mean solely to be part of, or complicit with the regime. To be anything other than supportive, complicit or passive is in the Assad regime’s view to be a “terrorist.” In this sense, Syrians have been, until recently, even more politically deprived than Egyptians. Even under Mubarak, Egyptian women’s grass roots groups were allowed to exist so long as they labeled their fields of work “education” or “development.” In January, 2014, however, Egyptian civil society is beginning to look more like Syria’s in so far as the currently ruling Egyptian military is defining all civic activism as “terrorism.”

Thinking about Syrian and Egyptian women activists’ daunting challenges as they try to plant the seeds of civil society convinces me all over again that one of the most globally damaging political consequences of Americans’ post-9/11 “War on Terror” discourse has been its sharpening an instrument of repression in the hands of autocratic regimes.

These challenges notwithstanding, Syrian women activists have created the beginnings of a civil society – citizens’ actions independent of the regime, independent of any armed group, independent of any party machine. They have done this by acting locally, by fulfilling civic needs that the government will not address and the armed groups either cannot or will not address.

Thus delivering food and medical supplies to displaced people within Syria, people (a majority today are women with their dependent children – which is quite different from the conventional “women and children”) forced to flee their homes because of violence, has become a principal space in which Syrian women can act as genuine citizens. It has not been only women who have been doing this work, but, the Syrian activists told us, most men have been conscripted by the government’s military, have become fighters in the opposition, have gone into hiding, or have been wounded or killed. Thus it has been women who, now in the fourth year of the war, have taken the lead in most Syrian civil society groups.

This is why the Syrian women going from government mission to government mission are calling for an independent delegation representing Syrian civil society to be at the formal negotiating table: if civil society is at the table, women will be authentically at the table.

UN and government officials resistant to civil society women activists being “at the table” are saying to the women who go to see them, “It’s too early,” or “You’re not ready,” or “You aren’t organized,” or “You don’t have a plan to bring peace.” The women who have made it here to Geneva this week counter: “We have built networks of women active locally. We are ready, in fact we are more prepared more for peace than most of the men at the table. And we do have a plan.” The plan is a series of steps in order of priority. The first is a cease fire. The second is the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and the immediate ceasing of all imports of weapons. Both of these steps are intended to make the 3rd step possible: the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country’s most desperate cities and towns. Beyond the delivery of aid, their plan calls for women to be represented in all post-conflict institution-building and for the prosecution of all acts of violence against women.

Several changes have marked the year-by-year unfolding of the Syrian conflict, and, the Syrian women activists say, each of these changes have been gendered. First, while women were prominent in the leadership of the early non-violent pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, as the violence escalated, women’s visibility receded. That is, as militarization has spread, so has the masculinization of Syrian political life. Many of the women pro-democracy leaders have had to flee abroad; those who have stayed in Syria have turned to less visible local humanitarian work, which too often is erroneously imagined to be outside of political life. Now in late 2013 and early 2014 as formal peace talks have begun, even as tenuous as they clearly are, Syrian activist women are again becoming more visibly political.

A second change, the Syrian women report, has been the transformations of the structures of Syrian families and of the Syrian economy. The spread of violence has produced more and more women-led households. But, just as women have become more relied upon to provide for the economic survival of families, their economic opportunities have shrunk. Many of the new economic opportunities available in wartime Syria have depended on exploiting, not resisting, the violence.

For instance, some male fighters are now paid for fighting, not much, but enough so they begin to see fighting as an economic activity. In addition, some Syrian local village leaders have begun to see armed check points as money spinners. So they have been creating armed check points across roads around their villages at which they collect fees from any passing vehicle. In this way, some people have begun to have a personal economic stake in the continuation of the armed conflict.

Third, Syrian women here told us, as the conflict has become more violent and as the number of masculinized armed groups – Syrian and foreign – have proliferated, the targeting of women has become more pronounced. Trafficking of women and girls, sexual assaults on women, forced early marriages of girls, the arrests and torture of women, the tightening of control of women for the sake of ideological goals – all have increased between mid-2011 and early 2014.

That is, “War” is not a static condition. Armed conflicts are dynamic. Those dynamics are gendered. Crafting a sustainable peace agreement – and building a secure and civic society – in 2014 presents a different set challenges than it did even in late 2012.

I’ve been lucky to be able to sit in on several smaller strategy meetings during these days in Geneva. The transnational feminist groups that are in daily contact with Syrian civil society activists provide them with official contacts, with media outlets for their analyses and plans, with funds for travel so they can meet with each other, with chances to trade experiences and strategies with women who’ve experienced other wars and other masculinized closed doors.

The women active in these transnational groups – WILPF, Code Pink, Women in Black, Women Living Under Muslim Law, Madre, Equality Now, Kamara (the Cairo-based women’s rights group), ICAN (as well as US-based women’s peace groups such as WAND) – all are themselves in the process of constant reflection and learning, learning how to be supportive without being presumptuous, learning how to facilitate without becoming the “story” themselves. It is impressive to watch this on-going alliance-making among feminists in the most daunting of political environments.

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