Interview conducted by Meagan Torello
On 28 September 2018, Ms. Rajaa Altalli met with the Journal of Diplomacy to discuss her work and involvement in promoting women’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Rajaa Altalli is the co-founder and co-director for the Center for Society and Civil Democracy (CCSD). Originally from Syria, she studied Mathematics at Damascus University and later attended Northeastern University on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue her master’s degree and subsequent PhD. She began her involvement in the Syrian conflict while in the United States and in 2012, moved to Turkey to advocate for democracy in Syria. It was then that she helped found CCSD. Since then, she has focused on how Syrian civil society, particularly women, can play a role in developing better governance and facilitating transitional justice and peacebuilding. She has trained multiple civil society activists and has served as the connection between grassroots networks and international negotiators. Ms. Altalli is also one of twelve Syrian women appointed by the UN Office of the Special Envoy to the Women’s Advisory Board.
How can NGOs and international organizations like the UN empower women to get to the negotiating table? Have they effectively attempted to do this in Syria?
Women and civil society’s participation in the peace process are essential to have sustainable peace. If we don’t want to talk about any other reason, having fifty percent of the population marginalized and excluded from following and formulating the future of the country would affect the whole process and would lead to a failure in the system. The main issue [is the] fight of including women and civil society in each peace process around the world. Even though there was a Security Council resolution that was adopted in 2000 – Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security which [calls] for effective participation of women in the peace process – it’s still the case that it is very hard to include women effectively [or] to include women at all in the peace process, actually.
Syrian women were aware of this and have made movements since 2012 when the first Geneva communiqué (the first international framework to solve the Syrian conflict) to include women in the peace process. Since 2011, Syrian women have been trying to mobilize, lobby, and advocate for having women civil society [at] the table. It was hard to do in Geneva [due to] the particular process which was formed in the beginning of 2013. But we had the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy which played a role in advocating for Syrian women to be [participants] in the peace process. We kept the fight and struggle to include women until there was a new process started in the beginning of 2016. With the help of the special envoy, there were two mechanisms which were established: one called Woman Advisory Board and one called Civil Society Support. It was the first time in history that this type of mechanism was established, and it has the ability to include, even indirectly, women’s voices and civil society voices in the peace process. It wasn’t the ultimate goal that Syrian women and civil society were looking for because we didn’t have decision-making power or the authority to sign any decision that was made, but at the same time it was an opportunity – a space for us to operate in order to influence decisions. I would say that we moved a step ahead in including women and Syrian civil society in the political process, but it’s not enough.
Where are women most active in the Syrian conflict? Are they negotiating in their communities or are they spreading their goals outside of where they live, such as at the UN?
The Syrian conflict is very complex. It’s not just the Syrian-Syrian conflict, it’s also a regional and international conflict. With that complexity we need to also take into consideration the effect of Syrian relations and civil society during the conflict and since the uprising started in March 2011. At least twenty-five percent of the population was forced to leave Syria and at least fifty percent of the population is displaced inside the country. Many of them [have] actually been displaced more than once. With this dynamic change that happened within the country, it’s very essential to notice that the Syrian woman and civil society were very active in their local communities but also in their new communities [both] in and outside of [Syria]. It’s one of the extraordinary things that you notice: the resilience of the youth, women, and civilians in general, and the determination to keep the fight on. I’m not necessarily talking about the armed fight, but the opposite. I’m talking about the non-violence movement and fighting for change in Syria [that] calls for democratic change. So, with that, you see women and civil society active in humanitarian sectors, communication, health, and service positions. Not only this, but [also] in governance and empowerment [through] a lot of raising awareness and advocacy. I don’t see us, as Syrian women and Syrian civil society, as active as we need to be in the international community. We can do better work to [get] involved more in the international arena or even regional arenas and in academia as well.
The media has given a lot of media attention to activist groups in Syria, such as the White Helmets, which are predominantly male. Are there any female led and operated negotiation or activist groups within and outside of Syria? Do you think they are underreported and under-supported?
There are many women-led initiatives. Recently, you hear about Families for Freedom, which is led by women. They are the families of detained and arrested people – mainly men. The women in [the detained person’s] family have been very active in raising awareness regarding the atrocities that are happening in the detention centers in Syria. Especially recently, the Syrian government has given hundreds of names telling families that their family member died in prison from health problems [such as] heart attacks. This is four of five years [after] their death without even giving the body to their families. With that atrocity, you have the movement of Families for Freedom which is very active.
There is also [the] I Am She network which is a network of women’s circles which have been very active in negotiating cease-fires or safe places in their communities. Or [they’re] negotiating with tribal or community leaders about [creating] laws on [child] marriage or advocating locally [for] women’s participation in the local governments along with many other initiatives and interventions as well. Those are only two examples of very big initiatives that are happening on the local level. It’s definitely underpublicized, underfunded, and under-supported.
Syria is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the twenty-first century and full recovery seems to be very far into the future. Do you see Syrian women becoming key leaders and shapers in Syria’s long road to recovery?
[There are] a lot of challenges and obstacles in front of the Syrian women to overcome in order to be decision-makers in Syria. Those obstacles are not only from the Syrian community from the security perspective, but there are also social and protection challenges, as well as [facing] international norms. [These] are big challenges, [but] at the same time you are seeing a big effort from Syrian women. They are already leaders in doing what they are doing in trying to recover in their local communities. It will require a lot of courage and a lot of risk-taking from women in order to play a bigger role in decision-making. The culture of marginalization has been dominating in not only Syria but the whole region, and maybe in the whole world. It’s a big challenge and I see Syrian women up to [this challenge]. But it will also require support and engagement with Syrian women on different levels.
How can everyday women in the United States, or even just in New Jersey, support Syrian women activists and negotiators from abroad?
Sharing information is a very, very powerful tool that we always underestimate. Showing solidarity is also very powerful. Sometimes we don’t know how powerful it is. This is where I would encourage women and civil society in New Jersey to show solidarity with the Syrian cause, with Syrian women, and Syrian civilians. The feeling of being abandoned by the international community – I don’t think anyone would like to have this feeling. Since I am speaking about Syria, Syrian civilians and Syrian women deserve to feel that there is solidarity with their cause. They have the right to [make] changes in communities and call for democracy. [Advocating for their cause] should not be a crime that people are bombed, arrested, starved, or tortured to death for. Showing solidarity and understanding of this is very, very powerful.
*Note: this interview has been slightly edited for clarity.