The Geneva Diaries

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

By Cynthia Enloe


Day I of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva :

Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks.

Monday, January 20, 2014


If you haven't been to Geneva, it's a beautiful city straddling the far end of the very large

Lake Geneva. Alpine hikers only have to take a tram to start a day of mountain walking.

On one side of the bridge is the old city - think Calvin - now small shops, cafes,

museums. On the opposite side of the lake, where I am, are modern apartments, the big

train station, halal butcher shops, and acres of glass high rise international agency offices:

the UN refugee agency, the UN labor organization, the UN human rights council, as well

as the offices of Doctors Without Borders, the International Committee of Red Cross,

among dozens more.


The major transnational feminist organization with its headquarters here in Geneva is

"WILPF,” the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Founded in 1915,

in protest against the waging of World War I, WILPF is headed now by Madeleine Rees,

one of the really smart feminist strategists who has been pushing for women's rights to be

taken seriously in UN peacekeeping operations and in the crucial post-conflict

transitional political arrangements. WILPF is one of the organizers of this gathering.


Also here taking part in these alternative Syrian peace talks are two Nobel laureates -

from Northern Ireland (Mairead Maguire) and Iran (Shirin Ebadi). Shirin explained at

lunch today that she's been forced to leave Iran now that the government has forcibly

closed down her law firm because of its work for human rights advocates. With other

Nobel women laureates, Shirin has created a Nobel Women’s Initiative working

internationally for peace.


We all gathered at the Graduate Institute, wonderful new glass buildings just a short walk

from the UN. Lisa Prugl, a well known feminist International Relations scholar and a

faculty member at the Institute, had arranged for the space. The politics of space is

always interesting. We all sat in a big circle - we are feminists after all! The focus was

and is: How to persuade the UN officials and the US and Russian officials - as well as all

the Syrian men invited to the official peace talks table (which officially begin in two

days) - that inviting the only men who wield guns (and the men with brief cases who

have large armies behind them) to make peace is not a formula that will work. In fact,

there's an international track record – evidence! - to prove that this "only men with guns

can make peace" is not an effective formula.


Instead, the women who have come together here, as diverse as /we they certainly are (in

experiences, ages, nationalities, occupations), agree: the only productive formula for


moving towards a sustainable ("sustainable" was used repeatedly - these are not "quick

fix" sorts of thinkers) peace is to have at the official table (not mere "observers")

representatives of those women civil society activists inside Syria. That is, sitting at the

official negotiating table should be Syrian women who have knowledge about creating

peace, reducing violence, creating a genuine social contract, AND who are not coming to

the official table to promote post-war political careers for themselves.


In public, the government and international agency officials have learned over the last

decade how to say the polite, diplomatic things about caring about women in war zones.

But, in practice, they go on taking seriously only men with guns.


One Syrian woman active with civil society groups working inside Syria under terrible

told us a story ( "civil society " is the term used by all the women gathered here to mean:

NOT militias, NOT political parties, NOT groups representing any regime; to create a

civil society is to create a society of genuine citizens, not subjects). This woman's name

is Rim Turkmani. Rim is an astrophysics professor and local community organizer (Rim

could give her name, unlike many of the Syrian women activists here, who cannot give

their names or be photographed - it's too dangerous). Rim explained to us that she comes

from Homs, the Syrian city where the non-violent movement calling on the Assad regime

to open up politics for a more transparent, democratic process began in early 2011. She

said that no one in Homs ever used to identify anyone else or any neighborhood or village

by its sectarian majority. That is, no one she knew in Homs called village X "Shiite" or

suburb Y "Sunni.” Rim: "I had a roommate and I didn't even know whether she was

Shiite or Sunni. Who cared?"


But now, in year 4 of the violent conflict, Homs residents are being urged to think in

these divisive sectarian terms. Rim blames this divisive new trend in part on outsiders, for

instance, the Saudi, Qatari and Iran governments, each of which is pouring in money for

their respective proxy fighters and political organizations, each of which wants to think of

the Syrian war in those sectarian terms for the sake of their own regional ambitions.

When US and other officials also start seeing any Syrian with an idea as "representing"

one sect or another, then that plays right into this destructive dynamic ---It also, Rim told

us, reinforces Assad's claim that only his regime represents "all Syrians," even though he

has been playing the ethnicity and sectarian "cards" for years.


Listening to Rim's story, I was reminded of Iraqi feminists during the years of the US

occupation saying that the more the US officials insisted on seeing Iraq's troubles in

sectarian and ethnic (Sunni vs Shiite vs, Kurds) terms, the more Iraqis themselves, many

of whom had married, had had friendships and neighborly relations without employing

such narrow identity boxes, began to think of themselves and their fellow citizens in

these divisive terms!


Oh, and all of this is after just Day 1! My wee head is bursting....


Geneva Blog - Day 2, Part A – Tuesday, January 21, 2014


More from Geneva --


A brief glimpse of blue sky over Geneva this morning, now back to chilly gray, a view

snow atop the black mountains across the lake, but none of the snow in the city that is

falling now in Boston.


I’m writing this on Tuesday on Wednesday, (my “Day 3,” just to be confusing!), the day

on which the official Syrian Peace Talks are supposed to start up in the mountain resort

of Montreux, outside Geneva. A busload of women are on their way their now to hold

signs and unfurl banners calling for peace and for Syrian civil society women activists to

be at the official table.


The last we've heard, there will be 3 women in the Opposition's delegation and 2 on the

Assad government’s delegation. None of them have been given a speaking role. Last

evening (Tues.) in the WILPF offices, at "the meeting after the meeting," as soon as the 3

Opposition delegations’ women members’ names came out, everyone around the

crowded table (orange peels, coffee mugs, yogurt cups, notebooks, 6 Mac laptops)

compared notes on what they knew of the three women appointed by the Opposition.

Even though the male heads of the Opposition Council probably added them chiefly in

response to Syrian activist women's persistent public calls for women's inclusion, none of

the three are known civil society activists inside Syria..


This posed a dilemma: Should feminists be pleased or not that at the last minute the men

leading each of the warring sides added a few women to their official rosters? To answer

this salient questions, one has to be able to tell what is mere "window dressing.” Then

there’s a follow-up question to answer: Can even a token be turned into something



The Syrian women civil society activists and their transnational feminist supporters (in

groups such as WILPF, ICAN, Madre, Code Pink, and Sweden’s Kvinna till Kvinna)

never have called for just "any" women to be included. Rather, they have wanted Syrian

women "at the table" who now are actively involved "on the ground" inside Syria with

providing wartime aid, building community reconciliation and providing knowledge of

what the majority of Syrian women want for their own and their country's futures. More

on this below....


Yesterday, Tuesday, was “Day 2” of the alternative Syrian women’s and their

international supporters’ gathering. We came from Italy, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Northern

Ireland, Britain, the US, Turkey, Iran, Norway, Sweden, Western Sahara, France,

Germany, Guatemala – and probably other countries that I didn’t catch. Most women

had paid their own way, though several women whose experiences were important to be

shared had had their travel expenses paid by generous donors. All together, there were

about 80 of us crowded good naturedly into a room at the Geneva Graduate Institute.



From what anyone could tell, only a few embassies sent any staff to listen, a mere

smattering of people from any of the UN agencies came, and no mainstream media

seemed to be in the room. Code Pink activists had arranged for the day's discussions to be

live Web streamed so as to broaden the global audience. Even with this savvy

innovation, the story of the Syrian war and peace negotiations continues to be told by

CNN, Reuters, the New York Times, BBC, and the rest of the mainstream media as if

only men with guns and men from powerful gov'ts matter. How to "change the narrative

of the politics of war?" is still a huge political challenge for women peace activists.


Tuesday (Jan. 21) morning started with a semi-circle conversation among women who'd

taken part in previous peace negotiations. Each woman had lessons and caveats to offer

the Syrian women about these political processes. The two Northern Irish women - Anne

Patterson and Nobel Prize laureate Mairead Maguine - said that the key to their success in

getting women with genuine representative (non-partisan) credentials into Northern

Ireland’s 1995 "Good Friday Accord" meetings was years of organizing across the

Catholic/Protestant divides, women having mustered the courage and stamina to join with

women with whom they deeply disagreed, women whose sons had shot their own

children. Out of this trust-building they created a non-party coalition to run for the posts

of peace delegation representatives, winning enough popular votes to be inside, "at the

table." Anne and Mairead acknowledged that it can be pretty discouraging for Syrian

women to hear that they had to take years to build such a cross-community anti-violence

coalition. So they added: don’t be daunted; find your own pace to fit your own Syrian

conditions now.


Once inside the peace negotiations, Anne and Mairead recalled, they refused to let the

"men's egos" subvert the talks: when opposing male delegates threatened to walk out

unless they got their way, the women from the women’s coalition talked them back to the

table. Importantly, they told us, they insisted that in the formal peace agreement were

inserted commitments by all sides to create new public commissions, one on poverty, the

other on women's rights. Once created, each was headed by a woman. That is, the

women’s coalition realized that a peace agreement has to be a civil society rebuilding

plan. Laying down weapons was itself not sufficient for reweaving a tattered social



Anne's and Mairead's message to the Syrian women and all of us listening: *don't

imagine that external military intervention (i.e., the British Army's coming) will solve

anything, *reach out even though it's excruciatingly hard, *build a genuine coalition

among women for peace, a coalition that’s driven by the demand for the end to violence,

not by personal ambitions, *get inside, to the table, to be a signatory so you can hold all

the other signatories accountable in the coming weeks and months -- and don't let

opposing men's ambitions on show at the table prolong the violence. Finally, they warned

us all: *don't imagine you can demobilize women’s wartime organizing once the peace

accords are signed - implementation of those accords will take years of continuous

pressure, monitoring and public involvement by women.


Guatemalan feminist peace activist Luz Mendez spoke next. She told us that, initially, she

was on an official delegation to the Guatemalan UN-brokered 1990s peace talks that

represented one of the opposing sides, the anti-regime insurgents Their agenda: to end the

30 yr long deadly Guatemalan civil war. But, more significant, Luz told us, she also was

simultaneously part of local women's civil society groups and kept constantly in touch

with them. That open channel of genuine communication built trust between the official

delegates at the talks and the wider citizenry whose priority was ending the violence. At

the same time, this formal channel allowed for creative ideas, especially from women

civil society activists, to make their ways into the official deliberations.


Thus these Guatemalan peace negotiations were structured differently than those in

Northern Ireland. True, Luz was “at the table,” but for most of the talks she was the only

woman in the room: 1 woman, 29 men. Still, the structure created for the talks gave civil

society groups a formal channel through which they could monitor what was going on

and send their own thoughtful experienced-based advice directly to the delegates. That

made a major difference in the final agreement. Today, Luz warned us, though, post-war

violence continues, including systematic violence against Guatemalan women, violence

fueled not only by persistent poverty, but by the growing transnational drug trade.


Lutz’s double message to her Syrian counterparts and to all of us: first, the structure of

any peace talks matter; it determines how transparent (or opaque) the talks will be,

whether process of negotiation builds trust in the wider society or serves only to

undermine what little social trust even exists; and, finally, creating a formal channel

through which civil society activists’ ideas and priorities actually get on to “the table,”

can positively effect the negotiations’ outcome.


Sitting next to Luz was a Sri Lankan woman who has been active in organizing Sinhalese

and Tamil women during and since the deadly 25-year long conflict in her country. She

confirmed her Northern Irish and Guatemalan colleagues’ point: don’t give up when your

first try at building trust among women of warring communities fails. Her own initial

efforts failed. She and other pro-peace women just kept at it, trying again and again until

they could find common ground for diverse women to come together and, together, build

a vision for a revived Sri Lankan peace-sustaining civil society.


Tuesday night, Code Pink activists arranged to have shown 3 documentary films by

feminist filmmakers, each exploring women’s diverse experiences of conflict. One of the

films was Abigail Disney’s much-acclaimed documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”

The film documents how Liberian women managed, against all odds, to build a

grassroots women’s movement in the midst of violence. Its activists decided not to wait

to be invited into the Liberian peace talks. Instead, they dramatically forced their way

into the masculinized negotiations and successfully pressed the rival men to reach a



Several people at the Geneva gathering have been wondering out loud if such direct

popular action by Syrian women was going to be the only strategy that would compel the

Syrian male-led warring sides to prioritize peace instead of their own political survivals.

But here’s a crucial hitch: the Liberian peace talks – just as the Guatemalan and Northern


Ireland peace talks were held in the country where the conflict was occurring and

where local women were creating their own peace movement. The official meeting place

could be reached on foot or by bus. By contrast, the present Syrian official talks are being

held hundreds of miles - and checkpoints, visas and plane flights – away from all but a

small handful of Syrian women. This geographic choice by the talks’ international

brokers (the US and Russian governments and the UN) has put the rival delegations well

beyond the reach of any popular physical pressure.


I'll pause here. Next will come “Day 2, Part B,” focusing on what Syrian women told us

later on Tuesday afternoon of their lives now in war and their efforts to provide support

for everyone effected by the current violence and to craft a program for ending the

escalating violence.


Geneva Blog - Day 2, Part B – continuing Tuesday, January 21, 2014


I've had the chance to go out for a walk along the lakeside -- a couple of hardy Swiss

were IN SWIMMING -- it's about 35 degrees here....


So, to continue ..... Yesterday morning, Tuesday, after hearing the Northern Irish , Sri

Lankan and Guatemalan women peace activists describe how they managed to get

women's collective foot in the formal peace talks door, we heard from the women sitting

next to them in the semi circle (the rest of us were in outer rings of a semi circle). First,

two women from Bosnia: they reported that that women from Bosnia – but also from

Serbia and Croatia - scarcely had any voice at all in the 1995 US-brokered Dayton Peace

Accords that ended the devastating four-year war in the former Yugloslavia. Like the

current Syrian talks, the Yugoslav all-male negotiations were held far from the society in

conflict: at the Dayton US Air Force base in Ohio. As an aside, one of the Bosnian

woman said it was indicative that these peace talks were held on a military base!


Looking back now, the Bosnian women have concluded that one of the most damaging

aspects of the US-brokered Dayton Accords was that they included a new

CONSTITUTION! That is, it was bad enough that the peace agreement excluded women

(and there did exist scores of women's groups in early 1990s Yugoslavia - one of the

most prominent being the Belgrade Women in Black), and that these constitutional

arrangements were not subject to an open popular vote, but even worse - with the US

government taking the lead - was that by inserting a new constitution in the peace

agreement, ethnic differences among the women and men of the now-fragmented

Yugoslavia were hardened into legal and institutional barriers. This has made Bosnian

women’s efforts over these last 17 years to build a genuine post-war civil society that

crosses alleged ethnic identities almost impossible.


Constitutions matter. Writing a new constitution is integral to any transition from

warring, fragmented society to a new civic culture. A constitution can either nurture

societal reconciliation and the building of a sustainable peace or, contrarily, a constitution

can perpetuate masculinized elitism and social distrust and insecurity. Women civil

society activists, thus, need to be inside peace talks; they also need to have influential

roles inside any constitution-writing assembly.


Three women had joined the semi circle from the Western Sahara to share their own

experiences with us. Two of them gave their presentations to us in Arabic, with their third

colleague translating. You really get to see how the English language has become so

dominant when you're sitting amidst women from a dozen countries; the common

language that, say, Bosnian and Western Saharan women had to use to share their

feminist ideas was English, even though English is each woman’s own 2nd or 3rd

language. Then, too, for any present day transnational efforts, those people privileged

enough to have learned English are those most likely to be invited and to have their

thoughts heard...Paying for a translator is part of broadening women’s international



These Western Sahara three women stressed how INeffective all the peace talks have

been between the Moroccan government and the people of the Western Sahara. Women,

they explained, have been totally excluded. Consequently, over the years -- they are now

in year 14 of making their lives in what were intended to be "temporary" refugee camps!

– women who’ve become active in local affairs have tried at least to organize as women

inside the camps and to get women into positions of some influence within the camps’



Still, worst of all, these three women told us, they today feel as though "no one thinks

about us any more; the Western Saharan conflict is not on anyone's mind." I sat there

thinking, that's true. I think about Syria, about the Congo, about South Sudan, but I don't

even try to keep track of what has been happening to Western Saharan women.


In a short coffee break Tuesday I chatted with a woman who'd come to listen from one of

the big Geneva-based international aid organizations. Her specific job there is to insure

that her colleagues’ work is "gender-sensitive." (I won't give the organization’s name

because, given how few staff people in that building are assigned the job of monitoring

gender equity, it would be too easy to track her down). On Tuesday this woman was

fuming. Only the day before she had gotten an email message from one of her senior

male supervisors telling her that she should take care of the procurement of sanitary pads

for delivery to women refugees. But this committed staff woman has nothing to do with

procurement - that's an entirely different department. As explanation for his odd request,

this senior man said, "I don't do women."


This, of course, is a large international organization which, on paper, assures the global

public that it is dedicated to gender mainstreaming.....


The second of the intense morning's sessions then got underway. Four Syrian women

now living in exile spoke about how personally distressing it was to see their country

descend into violence. Two women described an effort they'd launched here in Geneva to

bring Syrians of all backgrounds and political affiliations together over Syrian food,

using recipes from all regions of the country. No talk of politics, religion, or even of the

conflict was allowed...the point was just to be together, to remind each other how much

they shared as Syrians.


These Syrian women -- as women from any country would - have quite dissimilar

understandings of what their society had been like before the outbreak of violence in

2011 - that is, before the Assad regime made military force its response to the non-violent

pro-democracy public demonstrations calling on the government to reform. Some of

these Syrian women, living now outside Syria, for instance, recalled a pre-war society in

which they felt secure: "Women could walk at night in Damascus without any fear."

Other women, by contrast, recalled that, while before 2011 there wasn't overt violence,

there was systematic political repression aimed at anyone who dared to be critical of the

government. So, even among this handful of women, there existed two quite different

understandings of history and of “security.”


One young Syrian woman, now in exile in France, gave an example of how the less

visible violence had been transformed by 2012 into a more visible violence. "I had never

been political. I was leading a pretty comfortable life. Then one day, after soldiers had

started shooting civilians, I saw Assad on television laughing as the news of the killings

was shown. That was it for me. I decided I had to do something." She joined a small

group of women who were trying to provide the simplest forms of support to those

families who had lost members to the violence. On Easter, she and a friend decided to

distribute chocolate Easter eggs to children in these grieving families -"We wrote

messages both from the Koran and from the Gospels on the eggs." But while on their

rounds they were arrested by police for distributing the chocolate eggs and taken to a

prison. "They put us in a cell next to a torture room, where we could hear other prisoners

pleading to be killed rather than be subjected to more torture." Eventually, she was

released and fled to Paris. Now she runs an on-line FM radio station for Syrians.


Just at this point - we were all very quiet - there was a commotion outside the glass wall

of the room. Cheerful welcomes and much hugging. Syrian women from inside Syria had

just managed to arrive! This was no small feat -- receiving international funding for the

trip, getting through check points, obtaining visas....


In “Day 2, Part C,” I'll report on what these women shared with us.


Geneva Blog - Still Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 – “Part C”


We’d taken a break for finger food lunch and coffee and just to pause so we could digest

all that we’d been hearing. The 4 newly arrived Syrian women also got a chance to get

their bearings.


We all reconvened. First was a short, but powerful talk by Shirin Ebadi, the fearless

Iranian human right lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. She

speaks English, but asked if she could offer her thoughts to us in her native Farsi, with a

translator, so that she could say exactly what she meant. She began by apologizing to the

Syrians present for herself and for all those Iranians – and she said there were many –

who opposed the Iranian government’s current militarized interventions in the Syrian

conflict (the Iranian government is a major backer of the Assad regime and directly

supports the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militiamen’s cross-border interventions in Syria).

Shirin then widened her message, energetically arguing that, time after time, external

military interventions have worsened the violence endured by people inside the war-
afflicted societies, while also shrinking the chances for a sustainable peace agreement.

People crowded into the room broke into spontaneous applause when this part of Shirin’s

talk was translated.


Without a break, we segued immediately to the next session. The four newly-arrived

Syrian women took chairs in the inner semi circle, where they were joined by Madeleine

Rees of WILPF and Lena Ad of Kvinna till Kvinna. I was asked to serve as moderator.

Our task was to specify what were the particular obstacles to women civil society

activists getting a place at the peace talk table. Madeline, with direct experience in Bosnia

where she had served as Mary Robinson’s Special Representative for the UN High

Commissioners for Human Rights, told us that she has repeatedly witnessed so many elite

men’s dedication to the “medieval” narrative: “Only men with guns can bring peace.”


Madeleine urged each of us all subvert that conventional militarizing, masculinizing

narrative everywhere we hear it. She pushed us to go further, to articulate an alternative

and more realistic narrative: civil society activists, many of them women, bring to the

table their knowledge of local conditions and their commitment to creating sustainable

peace and meaningful security in ways that produce a more genuine security; it is these

attributes and skills that has the best chance of producing an agreement one that fosters

citizenship and political transparency.


Lena’s contribution underscored these points. She described Kvinna till Kvinna’s recent

cross-national detailed study of the dynamics that today continue to favor masculinized

peace negotiations. She reminded us that this was in spite of the UN Security Council’s

members (including, of course, the US and Russia) in 2000 – 14 years ago - having voted

to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 1325 On Women Peace and Security (what

many women in the room refer to simply as “1325”). 1325 commits both the agencies of

the UN and every UN member state to take actions that will insure that women are not

just treated as “victims,” but are treated as serious players – that is, that women have an

effective voice in all peace agreement processes, in all post-agreement transitional

political arrangements, and in all on-going post-war state reforms and peace-building

development. Thus it is in flagrant violation of their own formal commitments, Lena

reminded us, that the key political players in so many of today’s peace processes and now

this international Syrian process marginalize women civil society representatives.


The Syrian women who had just recently arrived then gave nuanced accounts of what

women are experiencing but also what women activists are doing in the midst of the ever-
escalating violence. With the support of Karama, a Cairo-based women’s rights group,

some of them have formed the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace. Mouna Ghanem,


trained as a public health professional, is among its co-founders. They have tried to bring

together the scattered women’s groups working locally inside of Syria. Mouna said that

1325 was beginning to become more familiar to many of those activists, who now saw it

as giving their demands for inclusion in the peace talks international recognition. She

noted that these women, many of them trained in law, social work, and medicine, have

been working to deliver humanitarian aid, neighborhood by neighborhood, to document

violations of human rights in the midst of the violence, to create micro-ceasefires

allowing food and medical supplies to reach Syrians isolated by violence.


Rim Turkmani, the astrophysicist who had spoken earlier in the day, told us that doing

this sort of work “on the ground” was really effected by specific local conditions. For

instance, she explained, in one neighborhood of a larger city there might be 5,000 armed

fighters, most locally recruited, surrounded by 20,000 civilians. In that instance, local

people – many of whom personally know the male fighters amongst them – can wield

significant influence. Under these conditions, local civil activists stood a good chance of

creating a temporary cease fire.


By contrast, Rim explained, if the violence had escalated to a point where living has

become intolerable, forcing thousands of residents to flee, then the fighters might number

5,000, but the local residents will have have been reduced to, say, 2,000. Under those

conditions, creating even a short-lived cease fire is unlikely.


Each of the four Syrian women were determined that women in Syria, no matter how

difficult their immediate situations, should “not be passive.” They wanted both younger

women and older women to demand that they be taking part in all sorts of community

decision-making, that they craft their own plans and visions for a future Syria.


Despite the now-spiraling sexual assaults and kidnapping of women – perpetrated by

those warring men who see women as mere currency in their rivalries with other men –

these Syrian women insist that Syrian women should not be imagined by themselves, by

the international media and agencies, or by us, their listeners, as mere victims. Syrian

women, in all their diversity, were people with a stake in the direction their country took;

they were people with skills and knowledge. That is, Syrian women were citizens.



Geneva Blog, Wednesday and Thursday, January 22 and 23, 2014

Days 3 and 4


Back to drizzle after a lovely bit of blue above yesterday.


This morning's International New York Times is full of the news of the rocky,

acrimonious start of the official Syrian Peace Talks up in the mountain resort of

Montreux. NOT A SINGLE WOMAN is mentioned or quoted in the long article.


In fact, loads of women are actually outside the hall holding brightly colored banners

calling for women to be meaningfully included in the talks. (You can go to Code Pink's

and WILPF's websites for news and photos).


Back down here in Geneva, yesterday (Wednesday) the 10 Syrian women civil society

activists spent their day in meetings with UN officials and with officials of various

governments. The Norwegians have been esp supportive, as have the British. Last week,

WILPF's UN-based staff in its small but savvy NY office managed to facilitate a meeting

of Syrian women activists with Samantha Power, the US delegate to the UN.


Really, the amount of persuading it is taking to pry open these Peace Talk doors is mind

boggling. And, of course, every Syrian woman who is here in Geneva or in NY has had

to have her travel funded by someone, has had to leave her home area and make the risky

trip out of the country - and soon must try to get back home again. Nothing that they are

doing is easy.


In all the discussions, these Syrian women activists are underscoring the importance of

creating civil society in wartime. They remind us at every turn that there has not been a

history of civil society in Syria. The Assad (Senior and Junior) regimes have

systematically sucked all the air out of civic space. For 40 years to be “political” has been

shrunken to mean solely to be part of, or complicit with the regime. To be anything other

than supportive, complicit or passive is in the Assad regime’s view to be a “terrorist.” In

this sense, Syrians have been, until recently, even more politically deprived than

Egyptians. Even under Mubarak, Egyptian women's grass roots groups were allowed to

exist so long as they labeled their fields of work "education" or "development." In

January, 2014, however, Egyptian civil society is beginning to look more like Syria’s in

so far as the currently ruling Egyptian military is defining all civic activism as



Thinking about Syrian and Egyptian women activists’ daunting challenges as they try to

plant the seeds of civil society convinces me all over again that one of the most globally

damaging political consequences of Americans’ post-9/11 “War on Terror” discourse

has been its sharpening an instrument of repression in the hands of autocratic regimes.


These challenges notwithstanding, Syrian women activists have created the beginnings of

a civil society – citizens’ actions independent of the regime, independent of any armed

group, independent of any party machine. They have done this by acting locally, by

fulfilling civic needs that the government will not address and the armed groups either

cannot or will not address.


Thus delivering food and medical supplies to displaced people within Syria, people (a

majority today are women with their dependent children – which is quite different from

the conventional “women and children”) forced to flee their homes because of violence,

has become a principal space in which Syrian women can act as genuine citizens. It has

not been only women who have been doing this work, but, the Syrian activists told us,

most men have been conscripted by the government's military, have become fighters in

the opposition, have gone into hiding, or have been wounded or killed. Thus it has been


women who, now in the fourth year of the war, have taken the lead in most Syrian civil

society groups.


This is why the Syrian women going from government mission to government mission

are calling for an independent delegation representing Syrian civil society to be at the

formal negotiating table: if civil society is at the table, women will be authentically at the



UN and government officials resistant to civil society women activists being "at the

table" are saying to the women who go to see them, "It's too early," or "You're not

ready," or “You aren't organized," or “You don't have a plan to bring peace." The women

who have made it here to Geneva this week counter: “We have built networks of women

active locally. We are ready, in fact we are more prepared more for peace than most of

the men at the table. And we do have a plan.” The plan is a series of steps in order of

priority. The first is a cease fire. The second is the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and

the immediate ceasing of all imports of weapons. Both of these steps are intended to

make the 3rd step possible: the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country's most

desperate cities and towns. Beyond the delivery of aid, their plan calls for women to be

represented in all post-conflict institution-building and for the prosecution of all acts of

violence against women.


Several changes have marked the year-by-year unfolding of the Syrian conflict, and, the

Syrian women activists say, each of these changes have been gendered. First, while

women were prominent in the leadership of the early non-violent pro-democracy

demonstrations in 2011, as the violence escalated, women's visibility receded. That is, as

militarization has spread, so has the masculinization of Syrian political life. Many of the

women pro-democracy leaders have had to flee abroad; those who have stayed in Syria

have turned to less visible local humanitarian work, which too often is erroneously

imagined to be outside of political life. Now in late 2013 and early 2014 as formal peace

talks have begun, even as tenuous as they clearly are, Syrian activist women are again

becoming more visibly political.


A second change, the Syrian women report, has been the transformations of the structures

of Syrian families and of the Syrian economy. The spread of violence has produced more

and more women-led households. But, just as women have become more relied upon to

provide for the economic survival of families, their economic opportunities have

shrunk. Many of the new economic opportunities available in wartime Syria have

depended on exploiting, not resisting, the violence.


For instance, some male fighters are now paid for fighting, not much, but enough so they

begin to see fighting as an economic activity. In addition, some Syrian local village

leaders have begun to see armed check points as money spinners. So they have been

creating armed check points across roads around their villages at which they collect fees

from any passing vehicle. In this way, some people have begun to have a personal

economic stake in the continuation of the armed conflict.


Third, Syrian women here told us, as the conflict has become more violent and as the

number of masculinized armed groups – Syrian and foreign - have proliferated, the

targeting of women has become more pronounced. Trafficking of women and girls,

sexual assaults on women, forced early marriages of girls, the arrests and torture of

women, the tightening of control of women for the sake of ideological goals - all have

increased between mid-2011 and early 2014.


That is, “War” is not a static condition. Armed conflicts are dynamic. Those dynamics

are gendered. Crafting a sustainable peace agreement – and building a secure and civic

society – in 2014 presents a different set challenges than it did even in late 2012.


I’ve been lucky to be able to sit in on several smaller strategy meetings during these days

in Geneva. The transnational feminist groups that are in daily contact with Syrian civil

society activists provide them with official contacts, with media outlets for their analyses

and plans, with funds for travel so they can meet with each other, with chances to trade

experiences and strategies with women who've experienced other wars and other

masculinized closed doors.


The women active in these transnational groups - WILPF, Code Pink, Women in Black,

Women Living Under Muslim Law, Madre, Equality Now, Kamara (the Cairo-based

women's rights group), ICAN (as well as US-based women’s peace groups such as

WAND) - all are themselves in the process of constant reflection and learning, learning

how to be supportive without being presumptuous, learning how to facilitate without

becoming the "story" themselves. It is impressive to watch this on-going alliance-making

among feminists in the most daunting of political environments.



Geneva Blog, Friday, January 24, 2014

Day 5 – last but not final


Hi again to everyone --- thanks for your nice responses. It's been really helpful thinking

of each of you as I try to piece together all that I'm trying to absorb here in Geneva.


Today is Friday, Jan. 24. On the front page of the International New York Times (which I

still call the “International Herald Trib"!) there is a photo of a Syrian woman standing in

the middle of a rubble-strewn street in Aleppo. She has spontaneously put her hand up to

cover mouth as bombs have just fallen. As I looked at her, I thought: Who is

representing you here at the Geneva Peace Talks?


As so often happens in the mainstream media (as versus online and print reports by

feminist researchers and journalists), a woman is made the subject of a news photo, with

a brief caption underneath, but then she - and in fact virtually all women - vanish when

the full news article is written. This is what happened today. The Times inside story about

the "scramble" to keep the faltering peace talks alive was a story about men, rival men,

mediating official men, but all men – Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, John Kerry, the

US Secretary of State, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, the men of the

Opposition, the men of Assad's government, the men of the Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and

Qatari governments, the officers and conscripts in the Assad government military, the

commanders and fighters for the Syrian pro-anti Assad militias, the commanders and

fighters for the foreign Islamist militias....


At meetings yesterday, Syrian women civil society activists and their transnational

feminist supporters, however, remained engaged. The 10 Syrian women from inside

Syria, women active in civil society groups "on the ground," kept up their rounds of

meetings with various state delegations, with the EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton,

with staff of UN Women and with these independent "INGO's" (the lingo for

international non-governmental organizations, such as WILPF, ICAN, Kvinna till Kvinna

and other feminist groups).


But it is not clear that simply doing these rounds of embassy visits is proving very useful.

No government official offered to do anything. They did not expend any of their own

political currency. They didn’t even offer to get them passes so they could get inside the

building. Their meetings with these ten Syrian women representatives may just allow

these governments to claim that they "care" about Syrian women without actually doing

anything to insure that their important voices - their knowledge, their peace strategies -

are inside the peace talk negotiating room.


One puzzle I heard voiced yesterday was why the UN Women staff here are setting their

political sights so low, why are they recommending that the Syrian women push at most

for "observer" status in the talks --- to listen but not talk? Admittedly, they don't even

have that now, but why start with such a modest demand? Perhaps the UN Women staff

are also just "ticking the box"? That is, are they, like their counterparts in the various

embassies just eager to be able to say that they were "supportive" of the Syrian women,

without actually rocking any diplomatic boats - and thus without actually altering the

structure of the official peace talks? A puzzle.


But the feminist strategists working with the Syrian women are certainly not setting their

sights low. In all the conversations yesterday, they worked on plans to get the Syrian

women's voices , ideas, knowledge and proposals into the room.


For instance, one of the plans crafted by one of Syrian civil society networks would

implement regional ceasefires with the aim of delivering desperately need humanitarian

aid -- food and medicine. They say that all of Syria is not an active fighting zone. The

country really is made up today of violent war zones (for instance Aleppo, where the

Assad Air Force is bombing civilian areas), but also areas - even particular

neighborhoods of cities such as Homs and Damascus - where there is now a precarious



For instance, on the coast, there is currently little open fighting, but there has been an

influx of people from other regions fleeing to the coast in the aftermath of violence in

their own home regions. The coastal region is where many Syrians who identify as

Alawite (the group that Assad's governing elite draws upon for its male personnel), but it

has been women from this coastal community who have taken the initiative to actively set

up support systems for the incoming displaced people, a majority women with their

dependent children, even though outsiders would see those people as "Sunni."


The Syrian woman presenting this proposed region-by-region peace plan yesterday -

from the pro-civil society group Madani - drew a diagram on a white board (around the

table there were 13 of us -- British, Northern Irish, Turkish, Swedish, American,

Norwegian – today it was 8 Macs, 2 pcs). She stressed that in these unstable but not

openly violent areas such as along the coast and certain neighborhoods of Homs and

Damascus, what was immediately called for was NOT armed UN peacekeeping soldiers.

Rather, what was needed there were locally designated civilian peace monitors - to be

recognized by all sides - to oversee the bringing in of aid. In addition, there could be

external and locally trained mediators, who would spot rising tensions and intervene to

address them before they erupted into open violence.


The other point that was emphasized in yesterday's strategy meetings was that any and all

civil society/women representatives needed to put into place clear "feed back"

mechanisms. One of the groups that has conducted surveys among Syrians doing peace

work inside country - the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSDS) -

has found that the people who were most trusted by Syrians were "those who came and

asked us what we thought, then went off and DID something about that, and THEN

returned and told us what they had done and asked us for our responses to that."


All the women with experience not only in Syria, but in Northern Ireland, Somalia, and

Bosnia, emphasized that creating the conditions for ceasefires and maintaining them, as

well as keeping precarious areas back from the brink of violence is itself peace-
building. That is, we shouldn't imagine that this hard, smart work in the midst of war’s

violence and dislocation to be simply preliminary to peace; it itself is peace-
building. And, of course, right now it is women who are developing those crucial peace-
building skills and crafting these important political concepts.


So, I head for the airport in an hour with all these new ideas and images in my head. But

the story isn't over. Here in Geneva, feminists from independent transnational groups and

Syrian women representing civil society groups inside Syria are still meeting, still

strategizing, still pressing governments, opposition leaders, and the UN to make the

peace talks more realistic and more potentially productive by bringing Syrian women's

voices and ideas to the table.

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