Syrian Feminism; its roles and responsibilities

Syrian Feminism; its roles and responsibilities
Facebook Share

Lama Rageh

March 07, 2018


The Syrian revolution has been credited with freeing women from many social restrictions. In many cases, they have been able to dispose of the cloak of a patriarchal society, become active and engaged in the realms of civil society, political and economic circles. This increase in engagement has been accompanied by the revival of the Syrian feminist movement, which raises the questions of whether or not the Syrian feminist movement is a necessity in the community today? And whether or not it meets the aspirations of Syrian women?


Apart from the terms that some members and supporters use to characterize and describe the feminist movement, what is important to us is to highlight Syrian feminism, and to clarify the difference between it and gender theory as well, especially since there has recently been significant confusion between these terms.


There has also been a great deal of debate on whether feminism is a social, political or intellectual movement. Our answer is that feminism is active on all social, political and economic levels, as it seeks to achieve equality between women and men at work and at home, within the confines of family and in the public sphere. Feminism stands against the patriarchal system and calls for fair treatment and equality for women in all fields.


According to some sources, the history of women's movements dates back to the thirteenth century. These began as individual and collective initiatives and continued in various and scattered forms until the 19th century. Between 1550 and 1700 many women fought for their cultural and social rights, which led to a change in attitudes and the establishment of new ideas that were the basis from which the feminist movement emerged in later centuries1.


Economic and social transformations took place during the pre-industrial revolution and as new political ideas emerged that embraced the values ​​of democracy and equality. Additionally, there was a transformation in the lives of women themselves during that period, for example the transition from working in family agriculture to manufacturing work under difficult circumstances. Within that context, social feminist groups and movements were formed – by individuals influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, socialism, liberalism and Marxism – to demand equality.


In the middle of the 19th century, the Feminist Movement began to develop philosophically and practically. It developed in harmony with other major social and political movements that emerged during the same period. Since then, feminism has developed multiple intellectual trends that can now be considered separate philosophies or feminist doctrines; this process happened through three stages, as explained in Suhair al-Tal’s research.


In the case of Syria, Syrian women were not excluded from the global feminism movement, as they brought the same concerns to Syrian society. They formed women's associations and committees, such as the Arab Girl Awakening Society in 1915 and the Al-Amour Charity Association. In 1916, the A’mal (work) Foundation was created to improve female employment; it would go on to establish a workshop that employed 1,800 women. In 1918, the Noor Al Fayhaa Association was founded. When the French tried to invade Syria, the Red Star Women's Society was formed in 1920, and many other women’s foundations and charity organizations were established during the same period. These organizations and experiences were fundamental to the subsequent struggles of Syrian women.


Among the most prominent leaders of the Syrian women's movement at this stage were: Asma al-Khoury, Nasek al-Abid, Suad Mardam Bek, Sanaa Al-Ayoubi, Thuria Hafiz, Khairia Mamesh, Masra Daghistani, Munira Mahairi, Zibian, Balqees Kordali, Zahra Al-Yousuf, Al-Adlabi, Rima Kordali, Jihan Moussalli, Malak Diab, Zainab Al-Hakim, and many others.


Feminism as a societal necessity


The Common Space Initiative published a research paper entitled "The Women’s Agenda Between Realities and Demands". The study consisted of a survey of about 50 Syrians – both women and men – who are interested in women's affairs to get their views on the women’s agenda. While the sample size was small, it is still possible to consider the paper’s conclusions as the basis on which scholars can build upon to further study the challenges faced by the Syrian feminist movement and its agenda. We agree with some of the conclusions reached in the study; that the feminist agenda is often unclear and that it is weakened by the absence of a clear and constructive strategy for its supporters to support.


Although civil society organizations, associations and movements working on women's issues, as well as feminists themselves, agree on the importance of empowering and enabling women and deepening their participation, coordination between these organizations and bodies remains insufficient. More importantly, women’s empowerment work is being conducted within the margins of the larger society, which has sometimes led to its rejection of ideas and awareness raising activities by these women’s groups. Additionally, there is an absence of a clear horizon for enhancing the participation of women, especially on in politics. Here, we must inevitably ask about the form of political participation we as women are seeking. Also, perhaps we should contemplate the importance of creating a general political awareness among men and women to enhance our participation, bearing in mind that we do not just want to adorn political or public forums – in the pretext of involving us as women in public, while quietly silencing our voices in private.


It will be important to join quantitative measures of female participation, such as the quota system, with qualitative measures. This will motivate us to to work on educating ourselves and to utilize active participation tools and methods in order to combat stereotypes that have become inevitable and that have formed convictions among men and women that male domination is natural. The French philosopher and sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote about this, saying that this control is embedded in the collective unconscious in humans and has become an invisible and imperceptible part of relationships between men and women. So, we should therefore remove this subconscious thought and transform its opposite into a consciousness that will rewrite history.


As an example, let us discuss the expansion of the Syrian Coalition to include more women. This step was not the result of their belief in the importance of female participation, but was rather the result of foreign political will and following international political directives. At the same time, the Interim Government was not the ideal actor, as when it wanted to break the stereotype of women, they created another through assigning non-binding seats to women. The current session of the Interim Government has no place for women except within the corridors of the Committee on Women and Family, which is still being established. Of course, these actions extend to local councils as well. When local councilors wanted to increase female participation, they created specific offices and positions for them, as if women are not fit to take over finance, planning, services or other decision-making departments within the councils.


Intersectionality in feminism


When examining the work of feminists and the challenges they face, it is important to take into account what is called ‘intersectionality’, which means that each of us has her own characteristics and experiences that shapes identities that are different from others. Not all women are alike and we do not all face the same injustices and discrimination. For example, the best person to share the voices of detainees are those women who have been arrested, as they were discriminated against for being women and for being detained. At the same time, the best person to share the voices of refugees are female refugees themselves who have faced many injustices and displacement as women and as refugees.


Otam Barney explained the meaning of ‘intersectionality’ in an article published and translated by the Musawa Center for Women's Studies into Arabic on July 7th 2017. Barney wrote in regards to intersectionality that “feminists must understand that every woman has her own intersection. So, you cannot speak on behalf of every woman! White women do not understand the inequality faced by women of color and most women from the privileged classes do not understand what true poverty means."


What Barney referred to may be reflected in the positions of Syrian feminists in leadership roles, as they cannot represent the concerns of all Syrian women. They should also work to involve women from all walks of life in forums, meetings and conferences to talk about their own concerns and to shed light on their experience in their own voices. To conclude, the concerns of women are not one and the diversity of female experiences contributes to enriching the feminist movement.


Feminism and Gender


Feminism and gender theory are often conflated, even though gender is one of the theoretical frameworks upon which feminism is based.


For that reason, let us pause here to contemplate the differences between gender and feminism. Scholars and academics have struggled over the years to develop a specific definition of gender theory. Gender theory is defined as the process of studying the interrelationship between men and women in society. This relationship is defined and governed by different economic, social, cultural, political and environmental factors through their impact on the value of reproductive and productive roles of both men and women[1].


Ann Oakley is considered the first to use the concept of gender and she distinguished it from the concept of sex. Thus, Oakley defines sex as the physiological and biological characteristics that distinguish males from females, while gender was defined as the masculinity and femininity that are socially formed and culturally developed. The concepts of masculinity and femininity are acquired through the process of socialization through which a person learns how to become male or female in a given society at a particular time. Gender is a social trait rather than biological one. As a result of upbringing, socialization, customs and tradition certain behaviors are imposed by society on people from both sexes that are consistent with defined social roles, such as forbidding men from crying because crying is associated with women, while preventing women from seeking employment in certain fields because they are for men.


As for the differences between gender and feminism, I will present Maggie Humm’s findings in The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. Humm concluded that gender studies have focused on the power dynamics between the genders and its implications on the concepts of femininity and masculinity. Whereas feminisim was formed as a result of its conviction that there is a power imbalance between the genders, by focusing on the position of women within an unfair structure. Feminists sought to uncover the aspects of this imbalance, to criticize and analyze its manifestations, and advocate for change in order to achieve gender equality in rights and duties[2].


The Syrian feminist movement faces many challenges as a historically rooted movement that has been influenced by movements worldwide. It remains in need of improved organization and recruitment to advocate for various issues that are of importance to Syrian women. It also needs a clear roadmap that defines the movement’s road ahead and gathers support from people of all genders of all walks of life.




[1] Amima Bakr, Shiren Sukrey: Women and Gender, eliminating social and cultural      gender discrimination. Al-Fikr house, Damascus, 2002. Page 14

[2] Maggie Humm, Gender in the Dictionary of Feminist Theory, Ohio State University, Press, 1990, p.74



Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry
Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry

Follow Us on Facebook
© 2019 Suwar Magazine. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Boulevard