Sochi: No place for feminists

The feminist struggle can’t be separated from the democratic struggle, writes Maya Rahabi, explaining why Syrian feminists boycotted last week’s Sochi conference.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 1 February 2018]

“As a feminist movement, you should go to Sochi,” said a Western feminist activist to us prior to last week’s ‘Syrian National Dialogue Congress’ in Russia. When I asked her why in God’s name we would do such a thing, she replied, “What if there are no women? What if women’s rights are ignored in the concluding statement?”

I believe the foreign entities steering the Syrian regime drew its attention to this question, for a relatively large number of women were assembled at the conference. And even if this number didn’t exceed a tenth of the total participants in all likelihood, it provided enough window-dressing for the regime to portray itself as secular and progressive.

Similarly, it seems the regime was advised to include in the final statement that sentence for which we’ve called for more than twenty years—“That the representation of women be no less than 30%, with an eventual goal of parity”—and to include in the so-called constitutional committee the names of several women, never mind that certain members of the committee know nothing of the meaning of the word ‘constitution’.

The important question that poses itself here is: What is the extent of feminism’s relationship with national causes? A great number of Western feminists hold the feminist struggle to be a global one, recognizing neither borders nor nation-states. Third World feminists, on the other hand, have always tied the feminist struggle to the causes of national liberation. As Nawal al-Saadawi put it: “Women joined forces to strike external and internal colonialism together; political, economic, religious, and racist [colonialism] at one and the same time; the colonialism of the land and the body and the mind at one and the same time. Liberation encompasses all three together: land, body, and mind […] It’s not possible to liberate half the society of women under conditions of occupation or colonialism.” I would add: or despotism.

How would it be possible for us today to separate the demands of women’s rights and women’s causes from the demands of our people for freedom and justice? How could we speak of women’s rights in isolation from the ongoing killing and displacement and torture of our people?

Is it possible to speak of women’s rights under a regime that has killed almost one million men and women, most of them civilians, using every form of weapon available; and displaced more than seven million people internally, and over five million externally, meaning around half the population overall; and plundered and impoverished ‘its’ people for decades; and jailed hundreds of thousands; causing tens of thousands to die in its prisons, applying every means of torture, including sexual violence in all its varieties against women?

Does feminism seek just one set of rights, bearing no link to human rights in general? And can women obtain their rights under a despotic regime adept at joining its political tyranny with patriarchal and religious oppression?

The situation for women under this self-proclaimed ‘secular’ regime never differed from the situation under a theocratic tyranny. No feminist association calling for women’s rights was ever authorized, for a start. For almost fifty years, none of the hundreds of anti-women legal articles were ever amended, with two trivial exceptions regarding the child custody law (raising the age of custody, without granting any rights to the custodian mother), and two equally slight and non-radical changes to the penal code pertaining to honor crimes and the punishment of rapists. Indeed, the 2012 constitution established the right of religious sects to determine their own personal status laws, all of them unfavorable to women, discriminating between different kinds of women in the same country.

And even though there are certain women in superficial and ineffective decision-making posts, such as the vice-presidency, or some non-sovereign ministry, or a powerless seat in parliament, they nonetheless voted unanimously to uphold Syria’s reservations to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). That is, they voted against their interests and in favor of their disadvantage. I don’t believe they had actually read either the Convention or the reservations prior to their vote, or were able to voice their opposition to the vote if they had. This is besides the gross infringements committed against women by those in power, and the regime’s arrest and torture of thousands of women activists, even before the revolution.

In summary, no citizen, whether male or female, can obtain their rights under a despotic regime that attaches no weight to the law in the first place, and under which the people cannot elect their representatives in the first place, and there are no legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of power with their well-known prerogatives in the first place, and where the people live under the domination of security agencies ruling all aspects of their lives, to the point they can even take those lives with full impunity.

How can women obtain their rights under such a regime; one that has committed crimes without parallel in contemporary history? Is such a regime to be expected to allow even a call for rights, let alone their attainment?

The feminist struggle cannot be separated from the democratic struggle. Women cannot obtain their rights apart from by establishing a modern, democratic state, built on the foundations of equal citizenship, with no distinctions between citizens on the bases of gender, ethnicity, religion, sect, region, or anything else. A state neutral toward all varieties of its people. A state of law, placing women and men on equal footing without discrimination; criminalizing any and all violence against women; backed by a constitution guaranteeing the rights of women and eliminating all forms of discrimination against them—political, legal, economic, social, and cultural—and ensuring the effective participation of women in all decision-making centers.

For these reasons, we in the Syrian Women’s Political Movement declared our opposition to the Sochi conference and anything deriving from it, because it represents the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, and the imposition of ‘solutions’ in harmony with its desires and those of Russia, which assists it in the bombing and killing of our people. We will not obtain our rights except by tying our struggles to the demands of our people’s revolution for dignity, freedom, and justice.

To my Western feminist friend, I say: If you want to support our feminist causes, you must support the just causes of our peoples, and tie the global feminist struggle to the general struggle to change the structure of the masculine, patriarchal system, built on domination and force and the exploitation of downtrodden peoples’ resources, and the keeping of them under despotic client state rule, and the kindling of conflicts between them, and the waging of wars by proxy on their land; for humanity and civilization and human rights are all one, indivisible whole.