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Muted Celebrations for Women's Day

Syrian advocacy organisations demanded that women be granted equal rights during International Women’s Day celebrations last week.

Activists said women continued to face legal and social discrimination in Syria, noting that the law prohibits them from passing on citizenship to their children. As in other Middle East countries such as Lebanon, citizenship restrictions can make it difficult for the children of non-Syrian fathers to reside, work, and enjoy other rights.

Women’s rights advocates celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 called on the government to change the law and fully apply the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Syria ratified the convention in 2003, albeit with reservations, as it opposed several key articles that give women equal rights and responsibilities during marriage and divorce, the right of freedom of movement and residence, as well as the right to pass on nationality to their children.

Women’s rights organisations also spoke out against laws that sanction honour crimes against women, and against the lack of criminal legislation to deal with domestic violence.

No official celebrations were held. International Women’s Day coincided exactly with the anniversary of the military coup that brought the Baath Party to power in 1963. However, Syria TV ran programmes praising the government for given women equality as a result of the party’s rise to power.

One female activist who asked to remain anonymous was critical of current government curbs on women’s advocacy groups.

“The absence of freedom of speech and the restrictions on the right of assembly greatly hinder the process of female empowerment in Syria,” she argued. “Most of the organisations concerned with women’s issues work without permission, and last year several women’s associations were disbanded for being illegal. This severely restricts the work of such organisations.”

Women’s right activists gathered unofficially for small celebrations, such as a party at a Damascus restaurant attended by about 80 people. In the city of Swaida east of the capital, some women refused to participate in a party arranged by female activists, because the event was reserved for women only.

For the most part, marking International Women’s Day is largely the preserve of the intellectual elite.

“The public knows almost nothing about International Women’s Day,” said one women’s rights activist. “This is because official institutions fail to acknowledge the marginalisation of women in society.”

“It is vital that the people of this nation understand these international events,” said another activist. “Today, more and more people are participating in these celebrations, but we still have a long way to go.”

One devoutly religious woman dismissed International Women’s Day. “This is nonsense,” she said. “Islam gave the woman all her rights and she does not need this kind of celebration.”

Of those who did mark the day, most did so by meeting friends rather than actively advocating women’s rights. One man expressed pessimism, arguing that some members of his sex who celebrated the day do not practice the values they claim to espouse.

“One of the participants at this party just verbally harassed a girl here,” he said, adding that sexism “is a culture and a behaviour deeply ingrained in the society”.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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