Syrian women in political leadership roles

In 2011, pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Syria where peaceful protesters chanted for freedom, dignity, and justice. The Assad regime used deadly force to crush the protests demanding the president’s resignation. The unrest spread and the crackdown intensified. Opposition supporters took up arms, first to defend themselves and later to rid their areas of security forces. The Assad regime used besiegement, chemical weapons and scorched-earth policy to forcibly displace the civilians and opposition armed groups from cities and towns that rebelled. As a result, Assad has regained control of Syria’s biggest cities, but large parts of northern Syria are still held by the opposition in the northwest (NW) and the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in the northeast (NE).

The article tells the story of Elizabeth and Nazira, two Syriac women, who had a distinguished experience in the Syrian political process. They had been politically active even when such activity was forbidden by the regime, had an effective role in making decisions side by side with men, and they became joint heads of centres that had a major role in the Autonomous Administration of north and east Syria. This story led Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN) to further research about women’s political participation and representation in Syria, seeking to raise awareness on their involvement and crucial role in Syrian people’s life. 

(Photo: Syria Untold and Syrian Female Journalists Network)

By Nareen Nuru (pseudonym of a journalist based in Qamishli)

Qamishli: Elizabeth and Nazira are Assyrian women, who have had a distinguished experience in the political process. They are women who have held sensitive positions and played an effective role in decision-making side-by-side with men in Syria. They became co-leaders of centres of great importance in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. 

Let us start with the story of Elizabeth Kuria and her experience in the political process. 

She began her journey in political work with the establishment of the Syriac Union Party in Syria in 2005. The party is a political movement representing the goals and aspirations of the Assyrian people and defending their rights in their homeland, Syria. 

During her time in the party, Elizabeth contributed to following the party’s path and aspirations. She helped convey the voice of the Assyrian people to the region and in international fora. She worked hard to end the injustice faced by the marginalised Assyrian people and defend their right to their identity, language and ethnicity – especially in the Syrian constitution, which does not recognise their rights, much like other Syrian minorities. Her goal was to help build a new democratic constitution that would recognise the ethnicities and equal rights of all Syrian citizens, whether they be Assyrians, Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Armenians or members of other Syrian communities. 

A lone woman 

Elizabeth was the sole woman among the group of men who founded the Syrian Union Party in Qamishli. Regardless, she worked with them hand-in-hand. “I worked alone among a group of men and I did not care; it was normal for me, though some deemed it uncomfortable or unusual,” she said to Syria Untold. 

She then worked with her comrades to establish the Syriac Cultural Association in Qamishli in 2008, which became a cover for the party’s secret activities. “We used to work and hold our meetings in secret, in fear of the regime, which prohibited any political activity by minority parties,” she said. 

Elizabeth Kuria: “We used to work and hold our meetings in secret, in fear of the regime, which prohibited any political activity by minority parties.” (Photo: Syria Untold and Syrian Female Journalists Network)

During her years of activity, she was in charge of this Syriac Cultural Association, which served as a cultural center holding intellectual and cultural seminars that revived Assyrian heritage and the Syriac language. She also worked for a long time as a teacher in public schools, but was summoned to security branches and detained as a result of her political activity, and eventually dismissed from her job. “I was subjected to a lot of pressure from the Syrian regime because I was involved in partisan political activities. At the same time, I was a teacher at state schools. They summoned me for interrogation, and I was banished to southern Syria. In the end, they fired me from my job,” she tells Syria Untold. 

Co-founding the Autonomous Administration 

These pressures did not discourage her, however, but rather increased her determination to follow the political path she had chosen. At the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, she worked within civil society institutions and fought to preserve civil peace. She also played an essential early role in the establishment of the Autonomous Administration. She is considered one of its co-founders, having represented the Assyrian community during the writing of the social contract of the Autonomous Administration in 2013, which was announced in January 2014.  

“I saw the Autonomous Administration project as a hope for all the region’s communities to obtain their rights as it guarantees justice and equality for all. I wanted to be among its founders to convey the voice of the Assyrian people, demand their rights and represent them in international fora,” she tells Syria Untold. 

Elizabeth Kuria: "Eastern society has a patriarchal mentality; it is unaccustomed to the idea of women in politics and sees their involvement in political work as an unusual novelty." (Photo: Syria Untold and Syrian Female Journalists Network)

Elizabeth held the position of Deputy Head of the Executive Council for the Administration of the Jazira Region for two years. In 2016, the Syrian Democratic Council was established, which is the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces. She represented the Assyrian community during the writing of the social contract for federalism in Syria in 2016. In 2018, she became a member of the committee drafting the Memorandum of Understanding for the Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, which adopts a new political system for Syria; a democratic and decentralized system that recognises equality between men and women. 

Elizabeth has also held the position of Deputy Head of the Executive Council for the Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria since 2018. 

In addition, Elizabeth contributed to the establishment of the Assyrian Women’s Union in Syria in 2013; helped establish the Syrian Women’s Council in 2017 and the Women’s Council for Northern and Eastern Syria in 2019; as well as the Ulf Tau Foundation for training and qualifying teachers and developing curricula in the Syriac language. She also managed the Qabri Hayuri (a.k.a. al-Qahtaniyah) branch of the Syriac Union Party from 2008 to 2014. 

International activity 

On the international stage, Elizabeth attended a conference for Middle Eastern women in Turkey’s Diyarbakir in 2013, as a representative of the Assyrian people, where she delivered a speech on behalf of Assyrian women, focusing on their aspirations and the suffering and massacres they faced. She attended several meetings with the European Union in Washington D.C., Russia and elsewhere to shed light on women’s issues and convey the suffering of Assyrian people to European audiences. 

“I had several international meetings with representatives from the European Union from which I benefited greatly,” Elizabeth tells Syria Untold. “I came to understand their views of northeastern Syria’s communities and their thoughts on what we were doing. I tried to give them a true picture of the work undertaken by these communities and to present our demands in terms of support for the Autonomous Administration project.” 

As for the difficulties she faced, some were external, related to society’s views of women in politics and the old-fashioned perceptions prevalent in society which hold that a woman’s only job is to be at home taking care of her family. It required a lot of patience and wisdom to deal with people and try to change their views of women, she says. “Of course, Eastern society has a patriarchal mentality; it is unaccustomed to the idea of women in politics and sees their involvement in political work as an unusual novelty. I faced this problem, but I tried to convince those around me that the world was evolving and we had to set aside old traditions that confine women to the home. It took a lot of patience, and some people were convinced, while others were not.” 

She also faced domestic difficulties related to her family as her political activity demanded frequent travel and movement. She had to sacrifice a lot, being absent from home for long periods of time as a mother of three. Yet her husband and children were highly supportive, which has enabled her to continue her work to the present day. 

Nazira’s story 

Elizabeth was not the only woman who defied the restrictions of her community and customs – there were many. One is Nazira Kuria, who began in the women’s committee of the aforementioned Syriac Cultural Association, where she worked on several activities aimed at educating and empowering women, such as holding lectures and awareness-raising seminars to inform women of their rights and the importance of their role in society. Nazira also played an important role in establishing numerous educational camps for Assyrian women. “I started working with the women’s committee in the Syriac Cultural Association in Qamishli. I wanted to help the women of my Assyrian community to move forward, intellectually and culturally,” she told Syria Untold. 

Nazira Kuria: "It pained me, what happened to my ancestors in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman state, and I wanted to convey what happened to women who were unaware of this painful event, and to make every generation aware of this pain and the brutality of the Ottoman state at that time." (Photo: Syria Untold and Syrian Female Journalists Network)

Nazira worked to inform Assyrian women of the history of their people and what they suffered in 1915, during the events known as the “Sayfo” massacres when the Turkish Ottoman state put the sword (Arabic sayf) to Christians in Turkish villages. They killed 1.5 million Armenians and 700,000 Assyrians and Greeks and displaced hundreds to Syria. “It pained me, what happened to my ancestors in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman state, and I wanted to convey what happened to women who were unaware of this painful event and to make every generation aware of this pain and the brutality of the Ottoman state at that time,” Nazira said. 

Communal challenges and restrictions 

Nazira faced a number of challenges and difficulties related to the patriarchal societal restrictions prevalent in Middle Eastern societies, which place limits on the role of women. Being a mother responsible for a family added to her burdens. However, her willpower and determination were greater than these challenges which she confronted with a tenacity to prevail. “I faced a lot of difficulties before achieving my ambitions. Our society restricts women, limiting their roles to housework and raising children. Men still hold a mentality that rejects the idea of a woman playing a more important role than theirs. Still, with determination and persistence, I confronted and challenged the things people said and did not waver,” she told Syria Untold. 

Nizira Kuria: "Men still hold a mentality that rejects the idea of a woman playing a more important role than theirs. Still, with determination and persistence, I confronted and challenged the things people said and did not waver." (Photo: Syria Untold and Syrian Female Journalists Network)

She also faced challenges related to men’s perceptions of a woman’s presence among them in the political arena. “Being a woman in a political sphere dominated by men, I definitely suffered. Some men look down on women as a result of their flawed morals. Not all of them, of course; we also met men who treat women and their work with great respect, and appreciate their ideas,” said Nazira. 

The greatest challenge 

The greatest challenge was society’s view of her as a political activist opposing the ruling regime in Syria. This cost her many friends and acquaintances who disagreed with her or even feared contact with her, lest they be arrested or summoned for interrogation. “Some Syrians still support the regime to this day. When I got into political activism opposing this regime, I lost many people due to differences in political opinions. Some even feared interrogation by the security services,” she told Syria Untold. 

Yet her political activities never came at the expense of her family, she says. “Of course, I am a mother; I have a family and children. Despite being heavily preoccupied with political work, I try to never fall short with my family and to carry out all my domestic responsibilities. This certainly hasn’t been easy and has taken a lot of effort, but my family is understanding, and they have supported and helped me.” 

Many achievements 

Nazira was among the founders of the Assyrian Women’s Union in Syria in 2013 and was also in charge of the Union in Qamishli for several years, during which she accomplished many achievements pertaining to women and their intellectual, political and social development. She helped establish the Autonomous Administration and co-chaired the Legislative Council for the Jazira region for five years. After that, she co-presided over the Executive Council for the Jazira region; a position she has maintained to the present day. 

She has played an important role in the Syriac Union Party in Syria, of which she is an Executive Committee member. “As a result of the confidence placed in me by the Syriac Union Party, I was elected to the party’s Executive Committee,” she said. “I was very happy with their trust in me. At the same time I was concerned about the increased level of responsibility.” 

Nizira Kuria: “As a result of the confidence placed in me by the Syriac Union Party, I was elected to the party’s Executive Committee. I was very happy with their trust in me. At the same time I was concerned about the increased level of responsibility.” (Photo: Syria Untold and Syrian Female Journalists Network)

Some believe that violence against women comes only in physical forms, such as rape, murder, harassment and other crimes. This is mistaken, however, as gender-based violence also includes social injustice against women; fighting women intellectually; devaluing women and demeaning women’s political capabilities. 

Gender-based violence is defined as any harmful act perpetrated against a person’s will based on socially-attributed differences between males and females. These actions violate numerous universal human rights protected by international documents and conventions. Gender-based violence also includes coercion and the deprivation of liberty. 

Since 2000, the UN Security Council has placed the issues of women, peace, and security as specific items on its agenda. Security Council Resolution 1325 called for increasing women’s participation at all levels of decision-making and activating their role within political institutions and their participation in peace processes, negotiations and conflict resolution as well as focusing on the need to protect women from discrimination. 

We find that the democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has worked since its inception to grant women a significant role in the political process and involve them in decision-making. It has keenly adhered to a system of co-presidency in all its bodies and departments, whereby women take their rightful place in all meetings and are free to decide, discuss and object.  

Nazira concluded her story to Syria Untold as follows: “With determination and persistence, women can achieve everything to which they aspire. Women today are not as they were before; their purpose is not solely to meet their families’ needs. Today, they have become decision-makers, in control of their own lives.” 

The article was originally published by Syrian Female Journalists Network and Syria Untold. Read the original here

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality