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Lecturer looks to Syria and asks: Where are the women?

by Andrew Good
Cynthia Enloe addresses students at a lecture on the role of women in the Syrian conflict. (Photo/Indira Persad)

Updates on the Syrian uprising have been in the news for almost two years, yet many of the nuances of the conflict have often been overlooked by the average newsreader.

Chief among these is this question: Where are the women in this fight, and what will happen to them when it’s over?

That was the question Cynthia Enloe, adjunct professor of political science at Clark University, set out to answer at a lecture in the Tyler Environmental Prize Pavilion on the University Park Campus.

Enloe was invited to speak by Professor Emerita of International Relations Judith Tickner, whose background includes feminist perspectives on international relations policy.

The role of women in global conflicts often goes unaddressed in the academic world, Tickner said, making talks like Enloe’s all the more important.

“There’s this huge disconnect between the academic world and the real world thinking about gender,” Tickner said. “The academe has been very backwards about it.

The news media is guilty of this as well, said Enloe, who noted that news stories on both the Syrian conflict and others in the Middle East rarely feature the voices of women unless they’re being victimized, leaving out a crucial perspective on how war destabilizes a country.

When the protests started in 2011, they were largely nonviolent and inclusive of both genders.

“Initially there was a role for women and men to participate,” said Enloe, who added that it was reflected in the news coverage. “But when armed militias arose, the women disappeared.”

International news media did report on the “Brides for Peace,” four women in Damascus who protested in wedding dresses, in hope that taking on traditional vestments would be less likely to draw a violent reaction. But by 2012, women had largely disappeared from coverage of the uprising.

Enloe said women don’t stop participating in protests once they turn into armed civil war and that the history of the women’s movement in Syria goes back a long time.

In the 1910s, outspoken journalist Mary Ajamy challenged the cultural mores of the occupying Ottoman Empire and traditional nationalists. She and other feminist leaders of the time protested for voting, work and marriage rights — the right to divorce being a key freedom.

The challenge, Enloe said, is to preserve gains in women’s rights while also advancing a nationalist cause.

Syrian women are in a double-bind — supporting opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime may come with traditionalist strings attached. At the same time, the appearance of further fracturing within the opposition weakens their standing. As a result, Enloe said, the gender politics at play have become taboo to discuss.

But the fight for women’s rights isn’t just at risk on the front lines. The vast majority of Syrians in Turkish refugee camps are women, and last month, the camps held elections for an administrative council. It could be a major democratic milestone for people used to votes being rigged in favor of the established regime. Yet only three women ran for positions, all faced great opposition and none were elected, Enloe said.

Tickner said she hoped the students in attendance were prompted to think more about women’s roles in global affairs.

“When you see photos of world leaders and they’re all men, you do notice this,” she said.

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