Syria moving away from equality: report

Women in Syria are facing a deliberate campaign by religious conservatives to reduce their social freedoms

Critics say an initial draft of a personal status law attempted to make women the property of men.
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DAMASCUS // Women in Syria are facing a deliberate campaign by religious conservatives, supported by the government, to cut down their social freedoms, according to a new report published by a leading Syrian rights group.

The Syrian Women Observatory (SWO) said there had been a "backwards" movement in women's rights in the country during the past two years and that proposed new legislation, if passed, would further erode already limited legal protection. "It is not simply that progress in advancing women's rights has been frozen, there is actually a sense that the anti-women's rights lobby is growing more powerful," said Bassam al Kadi, the director of SWO and author of the report - released yesterday to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. "The Syrian government is working against those who want to improve the situation for women."

Syria is perhaps the most secular state in the Middle East and among the most progressive in terms of women's rights. Women hold parliamentary seats and senior government positions; there are women judges and ambassadors. Girls and boys have the same rights to education and the United Nations has praised Syrian efforts towards equal rights for men and women. But Mr al Kadi said the country was still too heavily governed by religious doctrine, which was growing in influence. "When people say Syria is a secular country, they are simply wrong," he said. "And we should not be satisfied because the situation here for women is better than Sudan. That is not enough."

A key source of recent controversy has been a personal status law, currently under revision, which deals with a raft of basic civil rights, including marriage and inheritance. A secret first draft was dropped by the authorities after details leaked into the public domain, causing outrage among liberals and moderates alike. Critics said the plans would effectively have made women the property of men. Another version of the law is now being drawn up but it remains highly restrictive and campaigners, including the SWO, hope to block it before it goes before parliament.

"Women have never had complete equality in the eyes of the law but the proposed personal status code is clear evidence that what few rights they do have are under threat," said Mr al Kadi. "A number of proposed laws that would have given women certain essential, basic rights have also been rejected by the government." Such legal setbacks were not isolated incidents, according to the report. It said that in 2007 the Social Initiative Society, a Syrian non-governmental organisation set up to campaign on women's issues, was forcibly dissolved by the state. At the same time a national education plan designed to prevent domestic violence was quietly shelved.

Syria is a complex mosaic of ethnic and sectarian groups, within which there are competing opinions on social issues. These divisions are far from simple, defying stereotypes. Among Syria's Muslim majority there are wildly divergent views on the subject of women's rights, ranging from those who advocate western-style social reforms to ultra conservative groups that go as far as to say that women should not be allowed to work outside their family home.

Some of Syria's leading advocates of pro-western free market economic reforms are socially conservative, while at least one government official has said she opposes tough action against honour killings. The security services officially recorded 50 such murders last year, but the real figure was closer to 200, according to the SWO report. Honour crimes typically involve a women being abused or murdered by her male relatives if they believe she has brought shame on her family. Honour killings carry a much lighter prison sentence than a normal murder.

In the absence of opinion polling it is impossible to know whether social liberals or conservatives have greater popular support in Syria. Mr al Kadi was adamant that the authorities were out of step with the general public on women's issues. "I am certain that the Syrian street is more liberal and open on women's rights than the government is," he said. "If that were not the case you wouldn't see such high levels of education among women in the cities. And in the rural areas there would be no agriculture without women who do most of the work." The underlying cause of attempts to reduce freedoms for women is, according to Mr al Kadi, a "masculine mentality" in government and a specific strategy of trading off social changes against economic reforms. "Women's rights are a bargaining chip," he said. "Religious conservatives support changes to the economic system in exchange for moving women's rights backwards." While the SWO is highly critical of the government's attitude and actions on women's rights, it was equally as scathing in its critique of Syria's fragile civil society movement. "I'm very concerned about the deteriorating role of civil society and NGOs in Syria, they are perhaps the major weak point," Mr al Kadi said. "It is civil society which must force the government to do the right thing for women, this is something that should come from the ground up." Syria places severe restrictions on NGOs and only those with avowedly apolitical goals are given licences to operate. The SWO, as with other human rights organisations in Syria, does so without formal legal permission. There has been a long-running crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners, many of whom have been critics of the government's human rights record. However, Mr al Kadi, who spent seven years in detention under the previous president, Hafez al Assad, said civil society groups were too quick to blame the government when in fact they were themselves too self-interested, divided and disorganised to be effective. "If you are professional and take practical, useful action rather than just shouting criticisms it is possible to make a difference and you are allowed to work," he said. "It is not a matter of courage to campaign for women's rights; it is a case of our collective responsibility to the future."