The Syrian Civil War is a conflict like no other because it is a conflict that has produced an immense and unique amount of suffering for all involved. Whether an innocent civilian, a combatant, or a foreign entity the war has left none untouched. However, no other group has been oppressed more than Syrian Women.
Transitional justice in postwar Syria is a topic that has been examined from every lens but from the lens of those who are suffering the injustices. Those who lost children, brothers, fathers, Sons, Husbands, and whole families. There is a great lack of emphasis on guiding the subject of transitional justice through the will of the Syrian people. This is even more so the case when it comes to Syrian Women.
By beginning to address transitional justice from a Syrian Women’s perspective, a complete and comprehensive approach can be taken to the table. It is crucial to highlight the fact that we cannot begin to understand the severity of oppression of the Syrian people or the transitional justice process, without addressing the most oppressed group. This will help in rebuilding Syria not only as a nation-state but as a people. It gives victims a chance at reconciliation and closure while accommodating their needs for returning to life. Syria as a people are oppressed, but among all the groups in Syria, women face the most oppression.
They face several existential threats including honor killings, forced marriages, rape, sexual violence, and domestic violence. These threats have become increasingly prevalent during the conflict as there is no enforcement nor rule of law.
Combatting this oppression means having Syrian women spearhead accountability processes. Accountability is a central aspect of achieving transitional justice and is necessary for moving forward towards a future that recognizes the injustices committed while empowering those who suffered it. Secondly, women must also be equipped and heavily in Documentation and Digital Communication Technologies (DCTs).
These tools play an important role in recording the atrocities committed, while doubly preserving them for memory and potential use in criminal proceedings. Finally, Involving Syrian youth, especially Syrian girls which are often ignored by the international community and elites is foundational to capturing the full scope of the conflict.
It is often overlooked or blatantly ignored but the matter of the fact is that Syrian women and girls are an instrumental part of the future of the country and must be treated as such.
Through a once in a lifetime interview, there was a connection that I felt as a Syrian and as a person. I had sat down with a Syrian woman who wished to remain anonymous. This was to protect her identity, her family, and her organization. She served as a United Nations (UN) Administrative Officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for over 20 years. Now she is the director of an NGO that serves refugees and single women. She too was affected by the war, forced to move to the United States because of the eruption of violence.
There is a constant fear that follows Syrians, even to the other side of the world, a general fear. What she had described to me was a fear that is unaccounted for, one that forces you to be on edge at all times. Any word that you say must be said with caution as even being at the wrong place at the wrong time can be lethal.
“What does justice mean to you?”
When asked the question “What does justice mean to you?” The answer was “equal opportunities.” She went on to explain that in Syria, there is no such thing as equal opportunities. Under the Assad Regime, there lacks the existence of any plurality of political parties, despite having a parliamentary system. There isn’t any way for Syrian citizens, let alone Syrian women to represent their ideas and themselves in a safe and open environment. She also went on to explain the lack of social justice in Syria. This she explained results from an absence of any societal or political framework. The key change that saw this extreme oppression and lack of liberty can be attributed to the Assad Regime. She explained how before the 1970s, women
had representation in Syria. Every person had their civil rights, justice, and social justice equality. She emphasized that what is seen today is not representative of all of the true will of the Syrian women. It wasn’t their heritage, in the 1950s women in Syria were liberal and able to speak out and protest. Yet, when Hafiz al- Assad came to power, there was a whole change. Everything became a Tabula Rasa. Women were not represented well at all, there was no way for a woman to be political from that moment forth. The Assad Regime perpetuates fear and prevents political activism and education. This results in ignorance, a lack of knowledge. Hafiz and Bashar al- Assad had implanted the roots of fear, birthing a great ignorance.
There was a striking point that she had mentioned, she said today you find younger generations ignorant and that the newer the generation the more regressive it seems. Again, she returns to the pre-Assad era and describes how the ranking of the University of Damascus was high. There was a sense of pride, to be from Syria and attend a University in Damascus. There is no longer any pride, it has been replaced with fear.
“Do you think forgiveness has a part in transitional justice in Syria?”
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to think of in a transitional justice process. Lives have been lost, families torn apart, there are many deep wounds that might never truly heal. How does one forgive? Who or what group do you forgive? When asked about forgiveness, I was surprised to hear a positive response. She explained that “forgiveness is an essential part of justice and that we cannot get anywhere without it.”3 She also acknowledged that it is not easy and might not even be doable in certain situations,
but it is an absolute must. There was a pause, and then she had said “think about the dad or mom whose child is returned decapitated.” She described that while it is difficult to forgive in that situation it is important to do so. It is important, for the reason of transitioning, of moving on. Else, it will kill you from the inside. It is unhealthy but antithetical to a true transitional justice process to live with anger and hatred. Forgiveness may take time, yet it is necessary.
What is the role of women in the Syrian war?
The role of women in the Syrian war is incredibly important and it is mandatory for women to be treated as equals, not subordinates. When asked the question of women’s role in the Syrian war? There was a profound response to the action. She elaborated on how women had to take on greater responsibility for everything. Since the Syrian war in 2011, men were called to the frontlines on both sides. The population of men in the country had decreased, either because they were killed in fighting or had fled the country altogether. This left a void, one which the Syrian woman had filled. On the opposite side, she explained how the women of the regime had taken up arms or become nurses and did absolutely everything in their power to support Assad. She explained how nurses in government-run hospitals were brought the wounded from protests and had killed them instead of treating them. This points to the fact that women are also perpetrators as much as they are victims.
For the women who support the regime, she feels heartbroken. As they have so much potential to do good but had simply chosen to support the wrong side. Those who committed crimes ought to be held accountable for them.4
What should be the role of Syrian women in the justice process?
The role of women in the justice process is one of representation. She exclaimed hope that “women can have a mission and mission that is managed by women for women.” There is a lack of female leadership in the Syrian justice process. This must change as women play an integral role. Empowering women and involving them equally is a lens that has not been researched or talked about. There is no political action for women’s involvement in politics unless you are a supporter of the Assad Regime.5
What do you think Syrian Women need the most in the Syrian Justice Process?
Finally, when asked about what women need the most in the Syrian justice process, the answer was also surprising yet practical. “From what I’ve seen here I discovered, that there isn’t any worth for women’s education in Syria.” This is a key aspect that needs to be focused on and incorporated into the Syrian reformation. She goes on to say that there must be a focus on “specifically those women in impacted areas.” These heavily impacted areas have seen the worst of the war. An example she used was the city of Homs which is the third highest populated city in Syria. There was a shocking amount of illiteracy among the population, from the refugees she handles at her local NGO. This can ultimately source back to the Assad Regime. The legacy of fear they have left on the country has shattered any progression either for women or any Syrian. As a final note, she said, “Syrians are progressive people, yet fear acts as reigns, holding us back.” 6
1 van Dam, 2017 Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria
2–6 UN FAO Officer Interview, 2019