Women Play Growing Role in Opposition Ranks

But it seems there are still many obstacles to their engagement in politics.

Women Play Growing Role in Opposition Ranks

But it seems there are still many obstacles to their engagement in politics.

Tuesday, 3 March, 2009
Fida al-Hourani, 51, has become a heroine for the opposition since she and a number of other activists were sentenced last year to 30 months in prison on what observers say were politically-motivated charges.

The only woman among 12 democracy activists to be sentenced in a trial that ended in October, Hourani was called “a star amidst eleven planets” by a commentator on an opposition website.

The activists were convicted at the First Damascus Criminal Court on vaguely defined charges, including “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country”.

During the defence phase of the trial, Hourani called for greater freedom in Syria.

“To end the state of emergency [in Syria since 1963] and the martial courts and to improve public freedoms – especially freedom of expression – are necessary conditions [for improving] the living situation of the Syrian citizen,” said Hourani, according to the New-York based Human Rights Watch, HRW.

Hourani, a gynecologist, is the president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.

Observers say that her conviction has opened a debate in Syria over the role of women in the opposition.

“Through Mrs Hourani and others, women have a more effective and clear presence in Syrian political life,” said Mazin Darweesh, president of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, SCM, a partner organisation of Reporters Without Borders, RSF.

According to Darweesh, women are relatively active in Syrian political life compared to other Arab countries.

But he said that sentencing Hourani was a “warning message” to the opposition that the government will crack down on all opponents “whether [they be] men or women”.

While there are no official figures on the number of female political activists, a recent study carried out by the SCM showed that ten per cent of those banned from leaving the country by the authorities were women.

This figure can be taken as an indicator of the extent of women’s role in opposition ranks, as travel bans are usually imposed on individuals active in the human rights or pro-democracy groups.

Observers say that female opposition leaders often have fathers who are prominent politicians. Hourani’s father, for instance, was veteran socialist leader Akram Hourani.

It’s thought her father’s status was an important factor in her election as president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration in December 2007, especially as she did not have a significant role in the opposition before that date.

Another notable example of a female opposition politician who has followed in her father’s footsteps is Suhair al-Atasi, former president of the al-Atasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue.

This forum, which was established by her father, Jamal al-Atasi, in 2000, was one of the most important venues for the meetings of political opponents before the authorities shut it down in 2005.

Yet in spite of these prominent figures, other observers say that the role of women in the Syrian opposition remains largely symbolic.

Democracy advocate Razan Zaitouna noted in an article posted on a local website recently that the number of women in the opposition was still relatively low.

Many fear that Hourani’s conviction could discourage women from entering political life.

Zaitouna said political oppression and social discrimination make women reluctant to join opposition ranks, “Women face a double battle: against the authorities and against their families and society.”

According to activist Nahid Badawiya while women are becoming more active in cultural, journalistic, and scientific fields, the opposition is still failing to attract them because of outdated male-dominated views persistent within its ranks.

Badawiya also noted that politically active women in Syria were more concerned with social issues, such as honour crimes, custody laws and domestic violence.

Because the country lacks an active civil society, women are not trained to participate in public life in general, and more specifically in politics, she said.

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