Leveraging the Expert Knowledge of Women Organizing in Conflict

By Danielle Y. Demers, MALD’16

In Syria, and in conflict zones around the world, women are organizing to help their communities cope with the devastating effects of war. The individual and collective efforts of women in Syria have included the negotiation of ceasefires, clearing of checkpoints, and coordination of humanitarian assistance. Yet despite their impressive achievements, women in civil society have been systematically excluded from substantively contributing to peace negotiations.

Speaking to a rapt audience at the Fletcher Conference on Gender and International Affairs, feminist professor and scholar Cynthia Enloe explained the gendered underpinnings of this phenomenon. She then called on the international community to recognize the expert knowledge obtained by women who organize during times of conflict, and in doing so help them to claim their rightful place in their country’s peace processes.

By recognizing the political significance of women’s civil society efforts in wartime, the international community would assign political value to actions that are often construed as belonging to the private, apolitical realm. In conflict, where heavily masculinized, militarized actors monopolize the political sphere, naming women’s activities political is both an act of feminism and an act of peace. It is feminist because it seeks to dismantle the hegemonic patriarchies of war by resisting the de-legitimization of women-led initiatives. It is an act of peace because it seeks to convince political actors that non-violent organizers must be taken seriously in discussions on Syria’s future.

To better understand the country and its needs, Professor Enloe walked the audience through a feminist, gendered analysis of the Syrian conflict. In doing so, she encouraged all in attendance to seek to understand how the war is experienced across hierarchies such as race, class, gender, and religion. She also emphasized the importance of understanding what women’s political participation looked like in the years leading up to the war. Unlike other countries in the region, the Assad regime’s stranglehold on politics meant that Syrian women had virtually no space to organize. This makes their current actions all the more remarkable, and all the more deserving of support and recognition.

What, then, are concrete actions that the international community can take to better support women in Syrian civil society? While there is no simple answer to this question, assessing the situation with a critical feminist eye suggests a few places to start.

Firstly, it is important that support – be it financial, logistical, or political – is not viewed as something to be provided solely by actors in the Global North. In fact, it is important to remember that strategic support and exchange is already taking place between women engaged in peace processes across the world. For example, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has established a chapter in Syria and is coordinating discussion and knowledge-sharing between Bosnian and Syrian women. These pre-existing linkages may be spaces that other actors, such as peacebuilding organizations and practitioners, could explore and seek to strengthen.

It is also important to advocate for an overhaul of the explicit or implicit criteria by which individuals are deemed worthy of sitting at the peace table. Acknowledging that women organizers are qualified to sit at the table is necessary, but ultimately insufficient. This is because although they may be qualified, their potential contribution to negotiations may be overlooked because they do not hold bargaining power in the form of territorial or military control. Therefore, the international actors who oversee negotiations must make a conscious decision to reframe the ways in which participants are selected, and to devise creative ways of helping those with less traditional power nonetheless have their voices heard and seriously considered in decision-making.

The war appears to grow more intractable with each passing day. However, in the midst of conflict Syrians are already undertaking the formidable task of deciding the terms of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction that their country will be based on once hostilities formally end. Looking at developments through a holistic, gendered lens will be critical ensuring that the work and experiences of all Syrians are included in this critical process.

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