In Syria, Women’s Experiences Are Uniquely Shaped by Global Policy

As politicians have hammered out recent policy strategy, from Washington to Hangzhou to Geneva to Moscow, Syrian women have worked, often invisibly, to spearhead many of the changes and humanitarian efforts taking place inside Syria’s borders. A series of tense negotiations culminated on Friday during a joint press conference by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with the announcement that both countries agreed to a UN-backed ceasefire deal for Syria.

Starting this past Monday, the terms—the specifics of which have largely remained secret out of caution against forces which might seek to undermine the accord—called for a seven-day suspension of airstrikes by Syrian President Ashar al-Assad’s regime and a cessation of fighting around and near government areas. The agreement would also see the Assad regime relax its hold on rebel-held areas allowing humanitarian aid to reach thousands of civilians in need of food, shelter, medical attention and supplies. While all caught in the crossfires of the conflict stand to benefit from this ceasefire, at the week’s end it is Syrian women who may benefit most from the UN-backed U.S.-Russia agreement—and who will likely also be tasked with sustaining the efforts that arise from the Putin and Obama administrations’ tepid exercise in trust-building.

Syria’s crisis has presented a challenge to NGOs and humanitarian interventions as government-controlled areas continue to refuse or complicate NGO and humanitarian organizations access to areas of the country. In the days before last week’s U.S.-Russia announcement, more than 73 aid groups composed a letter formally protesting the Syrian government’s “interference with the delivery of humanitarian assistance on multiple occasions” and their dissatisfaction with the 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan.

As NGOs have struggled against the infrastructure put in place by the Syrian regime, women have smuggled medicine across and between government and rebel-controlled zones and become citizen journalists, teachers and makeshift nurses in the clandestine hospitals that have sprung up in underground bunkers, the lower floors of private homes and in caves as attacks on health workers and civilians persist. Moreover, for the first time, women have taken up arms on behalf of the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime, as well as on the side of the U.S.-supported moderate rebel groups that comprise the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Off the battlefield, men have become a rare presence in what remains of Syrian municipal and daily life. Increased threats of sexual violence and abduction, primarily but not solely by President Assad’s forces, have limited women’s movement to a greater extent than prior to the civil war—but women who are able to make their way through the landscape of war-torn Syria are doing so in ways less constrained by the traditional female roles that dominated in the country prior to the conflict. As female-headed households have increased, so too have women’s voices become a more potent part of the public sphere. Radio Souriyat, Nasaem Radio, Jasmin Syria and Sayadet Souriya are all web platforms with a presence in and outside Syria and devoted to highlighting women’s roles in the Syrian conflict. Other’s voices have been sharply curtailed as the freedoms of those women who reside in ISIS strongholds have become more restricted.

What do you do if you are banned from going outside without a male relative if all are dead, embroiled in war or have fled abroad?

The UN currently estimates that 2.2 of Syria’s 4.8 million school-age children are not attending school. As reported by Al Jazeera, in Aleppo, a center point of the civil war, some parents forbid their daughters and sons alike from going to school for fear of targeted attacks. With men’s increasingly scarce presence in Syrian society, by necessity many women with school-age children must assume the roles of parent-protector-soother, provider and teacher—as well as tending to their own psychological and physical needs. Schools that have remained open or sprung up amid the violence have benefitted tremendously from the support of female parents and teachers in classrooms and in the simple, but what has become the life-threatening, task of taking children to and from school each day.

Monday’s temporary ceasefire also coincided with the beginning of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha (Bakr-Id in some countries). Assuming Russia wields its persuasive influence within the Assad regime, the seven-day ceasefire will ensure Syria and its 86 percent of Muslim inhabitants will be able to observe this holiest of festivals on the Islamic calendar with some measure of safety. As those in Syria prepare to celebrate the “festival of sacrifice” let us hope the temporary cessation of hostilities will enable the women at various forefronts of the conflict better equipped to persevere in their efforts by the week’s end.



Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.