Demonstrations began in early 2011 demanding democratic reforms, including the withdrawal of the 48-year state of emergency, the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and an end to nearly 5 decades of Ba’ath Party rule. Protests were repressed by military and security forces with increasing violence. Civilians, women and men, have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, detained and tortured by the military and security forces.
The political participation of all citizens is impeded by the repressive general climate. Discriminatory laws and practices present further obstacles to the participation of women. There are no measures to ensure the representation of women in parliament. There are 3 women in the 33-member government.
Women’s participation in the uprising
Since the outbreak of protests for democratic reforms, women have been on the frontline, organising demonstrations, strikes and all-women marches in solidarity with victims, calling for the release of family members and an end to state violence. Women protesters, like men, have been arrested and detained by security forces. In response to security forces blocking access to hospitals and reports of injured people being interrogated and tortured in military hospitals, women and men have attempted to treat injured protesters in makeshift clinics set up in mosques and private houses.
“In demonstrations in the universities, women protest side by side with men. In the streets of Damascus, women gather in the centre of processions and men surround them to protect them. In villages, men start the marches and women follow. When the security forces arrive to make arrests, women intervene to prevent them. When the security situation prevents women from participating in street demonstrations, women organise meetings inside their homes. They use social networks and online videos to let the outside world know what is happening”. Interview with a Syrian activist, January 2012
On 16 March 2011, activists and families of detained protesters demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Interior in Damascus. Security forces arrested more than 25 protesters, including many women who were charged with “attacking the prestige of the state” and “inciting sectarian strife”. On 13 April, hundreds of women marched in Bayda, blocking the main road and refusing to leave until the men were released. On 7 May, in Baniyas, the army surrounded the city with tanks, armoured vehicles and soldiers and security and military forces broke into houses arresting more than 500 people, including women and children. Two days later, security forces open fire on an all-woman march in Baniyas, killing 6 people, including 4 women. On 13 May, women organised a “Friday protest of Free Women”, in which thousands demonstrated across the country in the name of the women killed and imprisoned during the uprising.
“When protests are repressed, security forces fire indifferently at at men and women. In such cases, men and women are equal...”
Relatives of activists have been targeted as a measure of intimidation and retribution. In April 2011, Razan Zeitouneh, lawyer and human rights activist, was forced into hiding after the arrests of her husband and brother. In July 2011, Samar Yazbek, writer and activist, fled the country with her family after security forces threatened to arrest her daughter. In July, following raids in Maarat Al Nouman, members of the militia (Shabbiha) branded houses with threats: “If you go out to demonstrate, we will kill you, destroy your house and rape your families”.
There are widespread reports of sexual assault and rape of women, men and children in detention. However, these crimes are extremely difficult to document, in large part due to the fear of reprisals and stigmatisation of victims.
“In detention centres, women who participated in protests are insulted and labelled prostitutes. Traditionally, it is considered shameful for a woman to even enter a police station, it's even worst if she is arrested or spends time in detention. People suspect that women are sexually abused in these places. Hardly anyone makes complaints about such crimes or even talks about it. If it is known that a woman has been raped, nobody will want to marry her”.
There have also been widespread reports of abductions of women, as a means of pressuring their families to surrender members of the family involved in protests and to prevent others joining protests. On 27 July 2011, Zainab El Hosni, sister of activist Mohamed El Hosni, was abducted. Mohamed was told that Zainab would be released only if he stopped participating in anti-regime protests. On 13 September, Zainab's body, was returned to her mother, decapitated and her arms and skin cut off.
“In the areas where there are the biggest protests, such as Douma, women and girls are targets of abduction. In conservative areas, if a young girl is abducted, the honour of the whole village is tarnished. Kidnapping has become an instrument of terror used by the security forces. We don't know where the women are taken”.
Timeline of key events
2011 Feb: Calls for a 'Day of Rage' are launched via social networks to demand political reforms and an end to corruption. Demonstrations in Damascus are violently dispersed. Women are among those beaten by police. 15 Mar, 'Day of Rage': Protests take place in several cities. 6 people are arrested in Damascus, including one woman. 16 Mar: Families of detainees and human rights activists gather in front of the Ministry of Interior in Damascus to demand the release of political prisoners. Dozens of men and women are arrested. 18-25 Mar: In Dar’a, over 20 protesters are shot dead by security forces, hundreds are injured and dozens arrested. Protests spread to other cities and violent repression increases. 14-21 Apr: Assad forms a new Government, lifts the state of emergency and abolishes the Supreme State Security Court. 25-29 Apr: Soldiers backed by tanks besiege the city of Dar’a and open fire on civilians. Women march in Daraya demanding an end to the siege. Thousands of people who attempt to bring humanitarian aid to Dar’a are ambushed by security forces and more than 40 men, women and children are killed. May: The army enters many cities, including Baniyas, where over 500 men, women and children are arrested. Security forces open fire on an all-woman march in Baniyas, killing 6 people, including 4 women. Military and security forces bar residents from obtaining food and other basic necessities. Thousands of women demonstrate across the country in the Friday Protest of Free Women”. Catherine Al Talali, lawyer and activist is arrested and detained. Jun: The army besieges the cities of Jisr Al Shogour and Maarat al-Numaan near the Turkish border. Thousands flee to Turkey amidst heavy artillery attacks. Several opposition groups establish the Syrian National Council: there are 3 women in the 36-member Secretariat General. July: 136 people are killed and hundreds wounded when the military attacks demonstrators with tanks, artillery and snipers. Most of the deaths occur in Hama. An unknown number of defectors from military and security forces organize themselves into the “Free Syrian Army”. Nov: Military and security forces target public assemblies and funeral processions in several cities, killing many civilians. The League of Arab States (LAS) suspends Syria's membership and imposes economic sanctions. The UN Human Rights Council denounces widespread human rights violations by security and military forces, including summary executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. 4 Dec: Razan Ghazzawi, blogger and activist, is arrested and detained. 26 Feb: A new Constitution is passed by referendum. Mar: The UN estimates the death toll at over 7,500 civilians. Thousands have been arrested, detained and tortured.
Women’s participation in political life: opportunities and obstacles
Women obtained the right to vote in 1949 and the right to stand for election in 1953. Women increasingly have access to higher education and paid employment. However, women remain significantly under-represented in public and political life. Despite government commitments in its 9th and 10th 5-year plans to raising the representation of women in such positions to 30%, no measures have been taken to implement this objective. In 2007, the CEDAW Committee expressed concern at the continuing low levels of representation of women.
The political participation of all citizens is impeded by the repressive general climate, characterised by severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association, as well as surveillance and persecution of opponents, human rights defenders and journalists, men and women. Rights have been curtailed under the state of emergency, maintained between 1963 and April 2011. Under emergency laws, women and men who criticise the government or call for reforms are regularly subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. Opposition parties are banned and all legal political parties belong to the ruling coalition, the National Progressive Front (NPF), dominated by the Ba’ath Party. The only legal women's organization is the General Women's Union of Syria (GWU), established by the government. Other women's groups operate illegally and are prohibited from receiving foreign funding. Despite these obstacles, many Syrian women have played important roles in the fight for democracy and human rights, including as leaders, and have been prosecuted and imprisoned as a result.
Discriminatory laws and practices present additional major obstacles to women's participation. The regime has adopted ambivalent positions on women's rights, often seeking to appease conservative forces by compromising women’s rights for broader political purposes.
“The regime gave certain rights to women but there is a huge gap between law and practice. Yes, there are women ministers, women judges, but they have to have a male guardian: their husband or father. When the regime is overthrown and replaced with a democracy, we will need a body that works specifically on women's rights, a body that really believes in change. Its work will be hard, because we need to change social attitudes towards women”.
Representation in government
In 1976, the first woman was appointed to the cabinet as Minister of Culture. In 2006, a woman was appointed Vice-president. The 33-member government nominated in 2011, contains 3 women: Vice-president, Minister of Tourism and Secretary of State for the Environment.
Representation in parliament
There is no legal minimum quota for the representation of women in the People's Assembly (Majles El Chaab), the unicameral parliament. The NPF is guaranteed 170 of the 250 seats, of which a minimum of 131 must go to the Baath party. The remaining seats go to independent candidates who are in practice approved by the regime. In the 2003 parliamentary elections, 30 women were elected, representing 12%. In 2007, 1004 women out of a total of 9770 candidates ran for election and 31 women gained seats, representing 12.4%.
Update (May, 2012): In 2012 parliamentary elections, 30 women were elected for the 250-seat council; marking 12% of the People's Assembly.
Representation in local councils
Women are particularly poorly represented in town and village councils. In the 2007 local council elections, 319 women were elected, representing 3.2%.
Representation in the judiciary
Women were admitted to practice law in 1975 but their representation in the judiciary has remained low. In 1998, a woman was appointed state attorney. As of 2010, women represented 13% of judges and public prosecutors, mostly in Damascus.
A discriminatory legal framework
Reservations to CEDAW
Syria ratified CEDAW in 2003 with reservations to article 2, article 9 (2) (transfer of nationality to children) Article 15 (4) (freedom of movement and choice of residence), article 16 (1) (c), (d), (f) and (g) (on equal rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution with regard to guardianship, the right to choose a family name, maintenance and adoption) and article 16 (2) (concerning the minimum legal age for marriage, “inasmuch as this provision is incompatible with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah”). In 2007, the government declared its intention to withdraw reservations to articles 2, 15 (4), 16 (1) (g) and 16 (2) but as of March 2012, this announcement had not been implemented.
In response to protests, as violent repression continued, Assad announced constitutional reforms, which were passed following a referendum in February 2012. Amongst other changes, it abolished a provision which entrenched the power of the Ba'ath party (art. 8), introduced presidential elections and limited the presidency to a maximum of 2 terms of 7 years (art. 88). (This limit will not apply retrospectively).
According to the 2012 Constitution, “The state shall provide women with all opportunities enabling them to effectively and fully contribute to the political, economic, social and cultural life, and the state shall work on removing the restrictions that prevent their development and participation in building society” (art. 23). A provision expressly prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex was introduced in the 2012 reforms: “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex” (art. 33). Article 3 provides that “Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation”.
Other discriminatory laws
Despite some legal reforms, numerous laws that discriminate against women remain in force. In 2007, the CEDAW Committee called on national authorities to “give high priority to its law reform process and to modify or repeal, without delay and within a clear time frame, discriminatory legislation, including discriminatory provisions in its Personal Status Act, Penal Code and Nationality Act”.
- Personal Status Act (PSA)
The PSA (No. 59 of 1953) applies to Muslims. Cases concerning the family and inheritance are heard before religious courts.
Marriage: Under the PSA, the minimum legal age for marriage is 17 for women and 18 for men, however judges can allow the marriage of girls from aged 13 years and boys from 15 years (art. 15(1), 16, 18). Muslim women are not allowed to marry without the permission of their male guardian (wali), usually the father or a close male relative (mahram) (art. 21). The marriage contract requires the signature of al-wali and 2 witnesses. However, a judge can override the objection of the wali, if the latter's objections are not reasonable (art. 20) and if a marriage is contracted without the permission of the wali, he can request that it be dissolved only if the husband is deemed incompatible (art. 27). Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men; no such restriction applies to men (art. 48(2)).
Polygamy is authorized and does not require the consent of the first wife. A man who wishes to take a second wife must prove that he has the financial means to support her and must provide a legal justification (art. 17).
A wife forfeits the right to financial maintenance from her husband if she works outside the home without his permission (art. 73) and if she “disobeys” her husband (art. 74-75). Disobedience is defined broadly and includes leaving the family home for reasons contravening Sharia.
Specific rules apply to the Druze community, such as the prohibition of polygamy (art. 307). Each Christian sect is allowed to adopt its own personal status law (art. 308). In 2006, a personal status law was adopted for Catholics, containing provisions granting women equal inheritance rights and guardianship rights during marriage (although upon divorce, the father has the choice of guardianship).
Divorce: Men can initiate divorce unilaterally, talaq (repudiation), on the condition that he informs the authorities of his decision. Women can initiate divorce by proving fault before a court on the grounds of “dissension, prejudice, lack of affinity, absence, or ailments” (PSA, art.105-112). A woman can also initiate no-fault divorce under the khula procedure whereby she forfeits her dowry and rights to financial maintenance.
Custody of children: Following divorce, women retain custody of children until girls reach the age of 13 years and boys 15 years. Women lose all custody rights upon remarriage (art. 138).
- Freedom of movement
A woman is obliged to travel with her husband, unless it is stated otherwise in the marriage contract, or upon decision of a judge (art. 70). A married woman cannot leave the country with her children without the permission of the children's guardian (art. 148).
- Penal Code
The definition of rape excludes marital rape (art. 498) and a male perpetrator of rape can escape punishment if he marries the victim (art. 508). In 2009, the Code was amended so that those who commit “honour crimes” are sentenced to 5 - 7 years in prison (art. 548), however honor remains a mitigating factor (art. 192). A man can only be prosecuted for adultery if it is committed in the family home. This limit does not apply to women (art 239 – 242, 548). In addition, a man can rely on any form of evidence in court but a woman can only present a written statement, such as the husband's confession. If convicted, a man can receive a maximum sentence of 1 year imprisonment, while a woman can receive up to 2 years. There is no law that specifically criminalizes domestic violence.
- Legal capacity
According to the Civil Code (art. 46) and the Commercial Law (No. 49 of 1949) (art. 15), women and men have equal legal capacity. In the criminal courts, a woman's testimony has the same value as that of a man. However in Sharia courts, a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man.
Inheritance is governed by Sharia law, according to which women inherit half of the share granted to men. Non-Muslim women cannot inherit from their Muslim husbands. This law applies to all religious populations, except Catholics.
According to the Nationality Act of 1969, women cannot pass their nationality to children (art. 3 and 138).
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, www.syriahr.com
UN Human Rights Council, Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 23 November 2011, www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/SY/A.HRC.S-17.2.Add.1_en.pdf
FIDH, Report, Bashar Al Assad: Criminal Against Humanity, August 2011, www.fidh.org/Bashar-Al-Assad-Criminal-Against
UN Human Rights Council, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic, 15 September 2011, www.ohchr.org/en/countries/menaregion/pages/syindex.aspx
Kelly, S., Breslin, J. (ed.), Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Syria, Freedom House, 2010, www.freedomhouse.org/report/women039s-rights-middle-east-and-north-africa/womens-rights-middle-east-and-north-africa-2010
CEDAW Committee, Concluding observations: Syria, June 2007, www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/cedaws38.htm