Samar Yazbek. Photo: Alamy
There is an important story about women, peace and security that needs to be told.
We are putting the spotlight on women who have paved the way – the bold and the brave – and we know there are and can be many more of them.
We are pushing for #MoreWomenMorePeace.
As soon as the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime broke out in March 2011, Samar Yazbek began travelling around the country to describe the regime’s excessive force.
She listened to people who had been subjected to sieges, bombardments and shootings, and having previously become known for breaking social taboos in her novels, she now became an active witness to the Syrians’ uprising against the Assad regime.
Samar Yazbek was forced to leave Syria in 2011, but she has secretly travelled back several times to continue her fight.
Samar is an Alawite, just like the Assad clan. But most Alawites started to see her as a traitor. Leaflets were distributed containing gross defamation and death threats against her. She was not able to travel to her home town of Jableh on the Mediterranean coast.
Soon she also became an object of hatred for extreme Sunni Muslims, Salafists. Samar represents what Sunni extremists detest: she is a feminist, and an independent and secular professional woman.
In 2012, she received the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize for her courageous writing, and that same year she also received the PEN Tucholsky Prize. She used the prize money to start ‘Women Now for Development’, one of several organisations working to challenge the traditional patriarchal norms in Syria.
Women Now currently runs seven centres – two in Lebanon and five in Syria – where women receive psycho-social support, opportunities to be trained in English and IT, for example, and support on the path towards making their own living. But Samar Yazbek also has a clear political goal for her organisation: to make women’s voices heard. They must be heard in the home and in international peace negotiations.
Feminists in Syria see this budding engagement – these islands of civil society created by Women Now and other organisations – as a foundation for the development of democracy that must begin when the war ends. In the shadow of war, women are creating an infrastructure that both strengthens the voice of women in one of the world’s most patriarchal regions and lays the foundation for a more peaceful, more democratic Syria.
And important steps have been taken, even at high political levels. The top negotiating teams for both the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime are entirely male – but in March 2016, a Syrian women’s advisory board attended Geneva talks for the first time.
“All of us are women who regularly face a room full of men attempting to resolve a conflict fought mostly by men,” Marah Bukai, one of the committee members, wrote recently. “In our own ways, we persist in taking on a political role that many people in our society do not accept,” she added.
Women Now wants to ensure that grassroots concerns are reflected too, and runs consulting sessions with women, supporting them to write recommendations and demands, which they then feed back to the opposition commission and the team of Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria.