A few weeks after hordes of chocolate Easter eggs were consumed around the world, another story about eggs, albeit of a less sugary kind, came to my attention.
Last year, Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus in Syria, suffered heavy shelling and blockades as the government tried to oust non-state groups in the area. Sieges left thousands of people on the brink of starvation – a human rights abuse and a war crime, according to Amnesty International. One food type that was being allowed into the area by the government, however, was eggs.
Chickens were not provided, for fear of contributing to a self-sufficiency that might benefit non-government forces, as well as feed local non-armed people. This meant that locals were unable to produce their own food and were left totally dependent on meagre government hand-outs. In response, a group of local women formed an initiative to change this. Together, they learned to manage the incubation and hatching of the eggs into chickens, helping to tackle starvation in the local community and create a sustainable food source in secret.
It is a common trope of war that women are often the worst hit by suffering and the last to be involved in the peace building process. Until February this year, women had almost no top-level involvement in peace negotiations in Syria whatsoever. The establishment of the women’s advisory board to the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in February this year marked a significant step towards tackling this lack of representation. However, at a grassroots level, women have already played a significant role in creating and leading the Civil Societies that have boomed in number, in Syria, since the start of the war.
The huge number of Syrians that have been forced to flee and the haunting apocalyptic images of deserted towns sometimes make it hard to imagine, from the outside world, how people continue to live in Syria at all. But, as war rages on, Civil Societies continue to try to provide for people and maintain a sense of society. As the war has evolved, so too have these organisations. While many focus on responding to urgent human needs – providing food, medical treatment, and shelter – others have grown into low-level governance systems that are working to improve the cohesion of communities.
In 2013, women activists in the Al-Jazira region organised a Spring Festival that has since run for three years in a row. The festival uses art and music as a gateway through which to celebrate the diversity of the local pan-religious, pan-ethnic community. Its aim is to promote peaceful co-existence. Performances are in several languages, with some musicians even including multiple languages within the same songs. Last year, the festival was attended by over 900 people. It perhaps goes without saying that organising an arts festival on such a scale during the midst of bloody Civil War is an astounding achievement.
As Civil Societies have grown and diversified in Syria, so too have the roles of the women involved in them. In an interview with Public Radio International in January this year, Maimona, a 30-year-old activist living in Douma, explained that the acute needs of the community have forced women to get involved in every area of society, including traditionally male spheres.
The renegotiation of the role of women in Syrian society has its roots in the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. In Maimona’s words: “When we started the Syrian revolution, it was also a revolution for women. And when the war is over, women’s accomplishments will remain.” Similar to other wars in other places, women stepping into leadership roles previously reserved for men has led to a perceptible shift in women’s opinions of what their role in society could and should be.
This is not to say that ideas about the direction that this change should take are uniform, least of all among women themselves. Syrian culture is extremely diverse, and a myriad of factors including religion, ethnicity, and community come into play. This diversity does not necessarily fly in the face of collective action, however, and some groups have even promoted it as a source of strength. The “I Am She” campaign launched by activists from the besieged city of Zabadani, for example, promotes the active participation of Syrian women from every cultural background in politics, the economy, and other social aspects of Syrian society. The campaign has widespread support from women in various communities.
The real challenges to women in Syria are posed by the military groups and government forces, as well as the perceptions of women they bring with them. The difficulty of movement and prohibitive cultural views are a factor, though they manifest in different ways in different places. In Amouda, women are not allowed to ride bicycles – a rule that groups of local women have protested by riding in groups through the streets in a bold but, dangerous move. In the besieged town of Zabani, women who have been detained by government troops have been stigmatised by their own communities as they are no longer seen as “virtuous,” whilst women whose husbands have been killed may be prevented from working, putting them at risk of poverty. Many women have also faced horrific physical brutalities during these five years of war, and there are reports of rapes and violent assaults in both ISIS-held areas and areas controlled by the government.
Despite these risks, women across Syria have taken a leading role throughout the war in the hundreds of Civil Societies holding the fabric of communities together. They have turned eggs into chickens, committed crimes by riding bicycles and organised festivals celebrating diversity in a country being carved up by rival powers. They have also kept hospitals and schools open and, as the new women’s advisory board to the UN in Syria have pointed out, played a key role in preventing the radicalisation of children.
For Syria to have a chance at peace, women need to have a central part in the process. The creation of the women’s advisory board is a welcome step, but only if it amounts to more than a token gesture. Women in Syria have many different opinions about their role in the future, but what matters is their right to have that discussion and for their voices to be heard. Syria’s future depends on it.