Rafif Jouejati – December 5, 2012  – Dignity and freedom for all

We, as Syrians, must not limit our post-Assad narrative to simply repeating the goals of the revolution; we must act to implement them. Dignity and freedom for all must be more than a platitude or a sound bite; it must include dignity and freedom for women. Democracy implies that all citizens are equal before the law, and by extension, enjoy equal opportunity. We cannot address human rights in Syria without discussing women’s rights, just as we cannot expose human rights abuses without calling to attention the specific abuses against women. We too have been the victims of Assad’s brutality: detention, sexualized torture, and systematic destruction of our homes, our children, and our society.

Until the formation of the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolution, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was the main opposition group abroad. It had little regard for women, as evidenced by its abysmal failure to give women any significant voice or vote. The SNC, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, did not promise much for a free and democratic Syria unless one was a member or a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. If nothing else, by its very name the Muslim Brotherhood excludes women and non-Muslims. There is no dignity, freedom or democracy for all in this. The new National Coalition faces similar challenges. It can begin to overcome them by refusing to marginalize women and by including them in every step of political strategies and negotiations. The many important tasks ahead of the National Coalition must include bringing gender equality into its efforts to declare a government in exile. Thus far, women have been excluded from real positions of power, and key opposition members, many of whom have not been in Syria for 30 or 40 years, have made such inane claims as “nobody inside will accept that women have 50 percent representation, ” as one SNC member said during a meeting.

Who is “nobody”? More than half of Syrian society is made up of women. Women’s representation should be equal to the number of women. If women make up 50 percent of the population, their representation should be 50 percent, not “negotiated” to a lesser number predetermined to keep men in power. Indeed, women must be recognized and empowered as a political and economic force in the rebuilding phase, if for no other reason than dictated by the practicality of having so many men killed in combat or in torture centers—otherwise, Free Syria risks marginalizing more than half its population.

The increasingly Islamist armed resistance is not reassuring. With some groups calling for an Islamist state in Aleppo, we, as women of all faiths, need to stand up to this. We must question how such a state would achieve democracy, dignity or freedom for anyone who holds different beliefs or values. Neighboring Iran and other regional theocracies provide a glimpse of what that future would look like if we do not make our voices heard now. We cannot merely rely on Syria’s traditional cultural mosaic, or the progressive thinking in Syria’s larger cities, to lead the way to full equality once Assad is gone.

We can nostalgically and romantically call up such female personalities as Nazeq Al-Abd, who fought with the Syrian rebel army against the French military in 1920 and who was dubbed The Syrian Joan of Arc. We can extol the virtues of a society that is far more progressive than, say, Saudi Arabia’s, where women cannot drive, let alone participate in the political process. But what does this mean, on a practical level, in post-Assad Syria?

We need to focus on the meaning of equality and find a way to implement it in Syria. Through education, we can change misogynistic notions that women are not suited for certain tasks because “they are emotional and therefore make decisions based on emotion” or because their “physiology prevents them from performing the same tasks as men,” as one anti-Assad activist claimed. Notions that women are the “weaker” sex have been perpetrated by men around the world since the beginning of time, and we have an opportunity to rise to the challenge and chip away at that myth in Free Syria. After all, Free Syria will require the active participation of all its citizens, regardless of gender, ethnic background or religious belief.

Through education, training and empowerment, women can help Syrian society shed the notion that they are equal participants simply because they raise children or keep tidy homes. Women will continue to work in administrative jobs, or as teachers, nurses and volunteers. But they also must take leadership roles in business, government and society. Let us see Syrian women as CEOs, doctors, mayors, governors, ministers, and yes, president. Let us see women working as peers, side-by-side with men, in professional, political and domestic capacities. Let us see Syrian women demand, and receive, the right to the same education, opportunities and pay as their male counterparts. Let us put to rest the old ideas that women must be hidden, covered or isolated to protect family honor. Instead, let us measure our honor by our work ethic, by how we treat others, and by our accomplishments, not just in the home, but in the hospital, in Parliament, in the ministry and the president’s office. Let us continue the good work of our revolutionary heroines Razan Zeitouneh of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, Suhair Atassi of the Syrian Revolution General Commission and National Coalition, Rima Dali of the Nonviolence Movement, and Thwaiba Kanafani of the Free Syrian Army. Let us continue to honor and support the thousands of other women who have served as equal contributors to the revolution. All of these women have risked their lives and been subjected to the same abysmal conditions as their male counterparts.

The Assad regime has destroyed nearly all of Syria—from the lives of tens of thousands killed, disappeared and displaced, to our infrastructure, to the bonds keeping our communities together. This murderous regime has destroyed so much that we will need to rebuild our country, society and institutions from scratch. Syrian women, let us stand together and seize the opportunity to introduce and implement full equality. Let us accept nothing less. Let us rebuild our country with dignity, freedom and democracy for all—ALL—Syrians.

Rafif Jouejati is the English-language spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, and the director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria).