A version of this article, "Syrian Women Take on New Roles, Call for Political Voice" was originally published on Syria Deeply.
By Karen Leigh
Syrian women are running households, working jobs traditionally held by men, even picking up arms. But many say they are still marginalized on the political stage.
The role of Syrian women in their communities has been transformed since the country's conflict began; in opposition-held areas, they are more independent and prominent as local leaders. Many are now working outside the home and assuming head-of-household duties after their husbands leave to fight, or are killed by the ongoing violence.
But alongside their rising profiles, women have become more prominent targets by both regime loyalists and rebel extremists, coming under fire from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In a new report called "We Are Still Here: Women on the Front Line of Syria's Conflict," Human Rights Watch (HRW) says women across the country are being "arbitrarily arrested and detained, physically abused, harassed and tortured during Syria’s conflict by government forces, pro-government militias and armed groups opposed to the government."
Syria Deeply asked Hillary Margolis, women's rights researcher in HRW's Syria division and the report's main author, to weigh in on how life has changed for women in Syria, why they're choosing to take a more active role, and the importance – and need – for their representation at the local and international level.
Syria Deeply: Now that they're more vocal and active among the opposition, are women being treated worse than they were earlier in the conflict?
Hillary Margolis: One of the misperceptions is that for women, it's somehow safe to be out there protesting, or to be an activist, or provide assistance to other Syrians. That isn't the case. Part of what's happened is that as more men have been detained, injured, killed or are engaged in fighting, women are taking up a lot more of [typically male societal] roles, and their part in the conflict has become even more critical. Fewer men are able or available to participate in these ways.
A lot of them are "normal" women. One said that before the conflict started, she was just a normal woman with a family — a mother, just doing her thing. And a lot of women have taken on these new responsibilities by choice or circumstance and really put themselves at risk. They're being detained, and harassed and threatened. They're being abused and tortured in detention – sometimes sexually. So it's quite dangerous for women now as well.
SD: As ISIS and other extremist groups continue to consolidate their power, the treatment of civilian women seems to be getting worse. How does that impact their participation in the conflict?
Margolis: There's ISIS and to some extent Nusra, and then there's other [rebel] groups. They've had slightly different approaches. We did a piece of research in January on abuses by extremist groups and discriminatory restrictions on women in northern Syria, and what a lot of people described is that these groups would come in and gradually start to impose some forms of restrictions – not harshly at first, but slowly win hearts and minds. Then it would come to a point where once they seemed to be in control of the area they would really ratchet up the enforcement. There have been more discriminatory restrictions on movement and dress, in a more emphatic way.
And certainly this is continuing. I don't know if the treatment is exclusive to women. Some of what we've documented is more general, targeted to anyone who they may feel is somehow a danger. But certainly as these groups proliferate and spread out more, there's been more infighting and with all of that you're getting more risk in general.
SD: How important is it for Syrian women to have representation in the opposition and on the international stage?
Margolis: It's incredibly important. There was some mobilization around it just prior to Geneva II, but certainly now that the talks have been stalled, it's really lost a lot of the momentum that was building around it. We want to show that women are active, they're participants, they have agency – they're not just sitting around being passively victimized. They're participating as aid providers and heads of households and primary providers. Their role in Syrian society is critical, and that needs to be recognized. The conflict does impact them in different ways.
For example, there's the issue of female-headed households and that is a big shift in a lot of families, and the responsibilities women are taking on and the way they're functioning in the community differently than they did before. It's incredibly important that there be space for women to speak about what their needs are and what they want for Syria's future. We are concerned that otherwise, their experience won't be part of determining how to move forward. It's so often overlooked or relegated to "let's just make peace, and then we'll deal with women's issues." And the truth is that it needs to be integrated.
SD: How would that happen?
Margolis: We need to support women both at the international and local levels. That can mean anything from supporting local initiatives around women's participation and activism to teaching them advocacy, having them about the system and how to speak articulately and voice opinions. Women [need] to come together to form goals and a single voice. We need to support those initiatives and build that capacity so that when the time is right for active talks or any kind of state building initiative, women are ready and they have the tools they need to be heard.
We also need to continue to lobby key players, whether governments or U.N. representatives, to show that international governments are supportive of this and won't support a process that doesn't include women.
Karen Leigh is the managing editor of Syria Deeply.