A rebel since childhood, Yazeji in her 70s is giving women a voice in Syrian peace talks

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Nawal Yazeji speaks on Tuesday about representing women’s rights in the Syrian peace talks. The forum at the University at Albany was sponsored by the Center of International Education and Global Strategy

How did Nawal Yazeji come to represent women’s rights for the first time ever in peace negotiations among world powers?

It started with feminism.

She came to be someone who “resists the usual,” said Yazeji who chairs the Women’s Advisory Board for the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy to Syria.

Yazeji struggled to find the English words to express her thoughts as she spoke with The Enterprise Tuesday evening after centering a panel discussion at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.

The translator who was at her side during the panel discussion suggested possible words. So did Ilham AlMahamid, an assistant professor at the university, who was also on the panel. Then a woman who had been in the audience spelled out the word “rebel.”

“Yes,” said Yazeji. “Rebel.”

She went on, “When you hurt in your soul, you can only go in a direction different than tradition.”

Her sense of being a rebel went back to her childhood. “Inside me, there was a girl who never accepted things like it’s normal, like it’s usual.”

She explained, “My father depended on me. When I was a little child, he sent me with my brother to buy food. He asked me to protect him. In my house, I never felt any different,” she said of the way a son and a daughter were treated.

Her father, she said, never used “control in a cruel way.”

As a girl, Yazeji read French classics and the work of feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, translated to Arabic. “You read, and you discover, and you communicate,” she said. “This is how people develop.”

Yazeji said, “This can free you, free your thoughts. You are not as slave of traditional thinking. Day by day, you develop this free will. You choose your way. I did have a right to choose when I was young.

“When you see ….” Again, Yazeji stopped, struggling to find the right word. She repeated what sounded like “zulm” until someone in the group of onlookers came up with the word: “injustice.”

Yazeji picked up where she had left off. “When you see injustice, oppression all around you, and you have this free thinking, then you decide to end this injustice.”

Women’s rights as part of peace negotiations

Yazeji is a leader of the Syrian Women’s League. She told the group of about 30 who came to the panel discussion on Tuesday that the Women’s Advisory Board that she chairs for the U.N. is to give women a voice.

“We see the political solution is the only way to solve our tragedy, to stop the war,” she said. She also said, “No negotiation before … no women at the table or even behind the table.”

Of typical negotiations in war-torn countries, she said, “The first thing they compromise on is women’s rights. We learned that in Yemen, in Libya, in Egypt.”

The development of feminism in Syria has taken generations, she said. “I am third generation, maybe fourth — there were a huge number of activist women before me.”

She was 2 years old in 1948 when “magnificent ladies” established the organization she works for, Yazeji  said. “Before the revolution, we were working on gender issues.”

Syrian women suffered from discrimination and violence, she said, despite the “huge number of well-educated women..” Giving an example, she said, women could be divorced by their husbands without knowing it and have no rights to raise their children.

“When the revolution started, we joined it because something should happen and change everything,” Yazeji  said. The Arab Spring protests in 2011 showed many Syrians’ frustrations with the rule of Bashar al-Assad.

Six million people have been displaced inside Syria since the war started, and 4 million have fled outside Syria, the panelists said.

“Dictatorship … for a long time put pressure on people,” said Yazeji. “They were calling for change … Change for women is very important.” As people called for reform and justice, “We followed,” said Yazeji. “We were aware things may go the wrong way … We decided to start having women’s rights seen clearly inside the demonstrations.”


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Two views: Nawal Yazeji, left, listens as Ilham AlMahamid says that the rights of everyone in Syria are being violated, men more than women. Yazeji responded to
AlMahmid’s point, “Ilham has a certain idea … that many young ladies like her have — support the revolution.”


“We never lose hope”

The war, which has dragged on for years, involves many factions and complex alliances. “Syria is a soup with a lot of different people that see themselves separately,” said one of the panelists, Victor Asal, an associate professor of political science at the university.

“The Assad regime encouraged divisions,” he said. “Historically, Syria has been a country without extremists.”

Yazeji said there are 27 different religious groups in Syria. “If you talk about equality, no religious group will support us,” she said of the struggle for women’s rights. “If we talk about women’s participation,” some will support it, she said.

At talks in Geneva in January 2014, Yazeji  said, “We established Syrian Women for Peace and Democracy.” Their belief is that democracy can’t exist without human rights and that human rights can’t exist without democracy.

“In democracy, you can be free to at least fight for your rights,” said Yazeji.

After two years of calling “for a separate women’s delegation at the table,” Yazeji  said, the reception from the United Nations was polite but resistant.

But then the Women’s Advisory Board was recognized by Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria. Describing him as “almost feminine,” Yazeji said, “He had this belief on the importance of women’s role in the process.”

She gave two examples of differences the Women’s Advisory Board has made in the negotiation process. “We added five principles,” she said to the 12 that had been presented for transition.

Second, she said when the process of exchanging prisoners and people who had been kidnapped started, “We sent a letter … calling to have a committee from all parties … We called for having better enrollment for the detainees … We suggested every party declare the list of the people each had.”

She stressed, “This shows the advisory board is not dealing only with the women’s issues. We are going through every single detail.”

She also noted, “Many of the opposition groups didn’t have women.” Because of the board’s influence, women were added to the delegations, she said.

She conceded, “Our thoughts come through the special envoy … He adopted our thoughts and quotes at the table with the two sides.”

She also said, “We never lose hope.”

Asked if the United States is involved in Syria in a negative way, Yazeji said, “It is.”

She went on, “The American intervention has gone through steps … At the beginning, America showed support for the opposition against the regime. Then, after the chemical weapons … they were a little bit not that strongly supportive. There was no American strategy.”

She contrasted this with the war in Iraq where “America did have strategy.”

Referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which the U.N. has held responsible for war crimes and abuse of human rights, Yazeji  said, “The priority now is fighting ISIS.”

Yazeji concluded of the United States, “Not having a position I think is a position.”

Asked if religion had helped or been an obstruction, Yazeji said, “We didn’t consult religious leaders … We are way in advance of them.”

A different view

Panelist Ilham AlMahamid, who teaches public health, pointed out that 50 percent of Syrian medical-school students are women as are 70 percent of pharmacy students.

“Syrian society is not the worst with discrimination,” she said. “Any society can improve, including the United States,” she said as some of the onlookers voiced agreement, citing wage disparity.

AlMahamid disagreed with Yazeji on an important point. “Our main goal now is the people of Syria, the success of the revolution … It doesn’t matter if Staffan presents the ideas or you,” she said of the U.N. special envoy to Syria. “I want a solution to the mess we are in. I have no doubt Syrians will give women rights.”

She said that currently, “The rights of everyone is violated in Syria, men even more” than women, she said.

AlMahamid spoke of the “people who disappear” and the people who are tortured.

She described a 14-year-old boy, egged on by his friends, writing on the wall of a school building, “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad.” It was February 2011 and the implication was that Syria’s dictatorship would be the next to fall.

“Bashar’s internal secret service caught them and tortured them,” AlMahamid said. “It started in the city of my parents.” She described the 14-year-olds being rolled down in a wheel and kicked into a cement wall.

“For me, it’s a human being … This is what we should all work toward,” said AlMahamid. “People started being punished just for saying we want democracy.”

She went on to describe how themes for Friday protests were chosen democratically as thousands of Syrians voted through Facebook. AlMahamid read some of the names of the protests: The Friday of Dignity, The Friday of Glory, The Friday of Persistence, The Friday of Free Women, the Friday of Freedom of Prisoners, The Friday of No-Fly Zone, and The Friday of Your Silence is Killing Us.

She concluded, “The people conducting the revolution are not done … It is within them to be one day free, to make a change.”

Panelist Victor Asal said, “It’s important to realize the intersection between violence and gender.” He cited research showing countries that discriminate the most have the highest levels of violence.

Before the civil war in Syria started, Asal said, Syria was exceptional in that “certain women were treated better” than in neighboring countries.

The father of Bashar was “a dictator par excellence,” Asal said. He went on, “If you started anything, he’d crush you like a bug.”

His son, when he came to power, was “trying to look like a good guy,” said Asal. “He created a little bit of liberty.”

For example, women were much more incorporated into society.

“It let the anger spread,” said Asal. In return, Assad “ramped up” his control.

Asal went on, “Much of the world, including us — the United States — did nothing” as rights across the board were crushed, there were expulsions, refugees, and rape was used as a tool of war.

“Except for Russia, most countries are staying out of it,” he said. He also said, there is “a desperate need for the world to decide to be involved in Syria. … Islamic groups like ISIS are taking advantage of the situation … We have an ongoing nightmare.”

Yazeji responded to AlMahmid’s point, “Ilham has a certain idea … that many young ladies like her have — support the revolution.”

Yazeji had earlier spoken of a young woman writer who said, “Let’s support the revolution. It’s not time for women’s rights.” After that woman was forced from Syria, Yazeji  said, she established a women’s organization in Paris. “Sometimes they don’t know at the beginning what’s important for them,” she said.

“I and my colleagues believe the international community were part of the problem,” said Yazeji. “We call on them to be part of the solution. Because our people are tired. No one is going to win this war. We all lose.”

She concluded, “I am not optimistic. No…. the Syrian country won’t be the same … War puts things upside down.”


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