Plotting for a woman-shaped peace: Syrian and Bosnian women confer

Bosnian women live with the malign consequences of a peace agreement engineered by internationals between male war leaders. Syrian peace negotiations are heading the same way. Recently Syrian women met with Bosnian counterparts to strategize for a peace that delivers on the interests of women and civil society.  

Cityscape in black and white Sarajevo, new and old. Photo: Cynthia Cockburn

The war now raging in Syria differs in many ways from the frenzy of ethnic aggression that afflicted Bosnia-Herzegovina twenty years ago. Nonetheless, when twenty Syrian women sat down in Sarajevo on February 10 for a five-day exchange of experience with Bosnian counterparts they found plenty of common ground. Both groups described hyper-masculinized societies featuring the sexual abuse of women as men's weapon of choice for humiliating enemy males. And Bosnian women recognized themselves in Syrian women's stories of misogynistic religious conservatism encroaching on their secular and civil space. Even in areas where you are safe from bullets or barrel bombs, 'It's ever harder to go out of doors without head cover and a man,' said one young Syrian participant.

This conference in Sarajevo, organized by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) brought Syrian women directly from the conflict, and yet others from refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The meeting coincided with UN-mediated peace negotiations being conducted in Switzerland, at which Syrian women's organizations, despite support by UN Women, WILPF and other international NGOs, had so far failed to get representation. The purpose of the Sarajevo conference was for Syrian women to strategize in the light of Bosnian women's experience of exclusion from the Dayton peace negotiations of 1995, and the consequent marginalization of women's interests in the post-conflict decades.

Three women on a panel at a talk. Nawal Yazeji of the Syrian Women's League (centre), with Oula Ramadan (left) and Reem Aleppo (right). Photo: Cynthia Cockburn

Bosnian women recalled how the war had galvanized them in projects of self-help and mutual help. Memories of unity in Yugoslav days had enabled some of them to reach out across the ethnic conflict lines and support each other in work for women refugees and survivors of war rape. But the negotiation of a peace agreement, when the moment came, had taken place five thousand miles away at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio. The negotiators, dragged to the table by international actors, were the male war leaders, their sole motivation to retain territory and maximize power. Women and civil society had no presence and no voice in that process. What's worse, the Dayton peace accord simultaneously created a state and a constitution. It drew territorial lines between the now deeply antagonized Serb, Croat and Bosniak (Muslim) identity groups in such a way that each became a dominating majority in one part and disadvantaged minority in the others. What's more, the constitution set up a clumsy fourteen-level political and administrative system, further subdividing the population, impeding public services and inviting corruption.

'You see,' Gorana Mlinarević told the meeting, 'the Dayton Peace Agreement taught us precisely how not to live together'. The lesson for the Syrians was: get your act together now, with all the international support you can muster, to achieve a voice in the peace negotiations. And on no account allow the negotiators to double as constitution-builders. The constitution must be hammered out later, back home, in an inclusive, democratic process.

Two women look at a computer together Nela Porobić, coordinator of WILPF's Syria programme, with Gorana Mlinarević (right). Photo: Cynthia Cockburn

The Syrian women reflected on the Bosnian experience in separate daily strategy meetings. They also discussed what they could learn from Bosnian women's struggle for 'transitional justice' after the war. They learned how, post-war, the Bosnian women had pressured the government for legislation giving women survivors of rape in the war the right to acknowledgment and reparation. They were deeply touched by the testimony of Nura Begović and Hatidža Mehmedović, two elderly members of the Srebrenica Women's Association who are still pursuing the perpetrators of the massacre of ten thousand men in that Bosnian enclave in July 1995. Many of the Syrian women told how they are trying right now to document human rights abuses occurring in the course of the fighting, to get autopsies done, medical evidence of injuries recorded and deaths certified, with a view to taking war criminals to court when the fighting ends.

The solidarity that grew between the Bosnian and Syrian women during these intense five days was heart-warming to see. Bonding was fostered by the organizers' understanding that emotions matter as much as thoughts: participants could take a break at any moment to enjoy "wellbeing" sessions run by feminist therapists. Another gift was skilled and sensitive three-way language interpretation between Arabic, Bosnian and English.

However, it early became apparent that, despite sharing a language, the Syrian women were seriously challenged to reconcile their political differences. Attendance at the conference had been by open application. The women who came were of different ages, differently feminist, and active in women's organizations with a range of views as regards a solution of the conflict. Some, like those of the Syrian Women's League, and its partner organizations in the Coalition of Syrian Women for Democracy, including Msawat (Equality), were already deeply committed to gaining access to the Geneva peace negotiations. Others saw a certain elitism in such venerable women's NGOs, and perhaps wondered whether long survival under the Assad regime had compromised them. Some, particularly younger participants, were involved with groups that had sprung up during the war, such as Refugees Not Slaves (Lajiaat La Sabaya), prioritizing the urgent needs of displaced and refugee families. Najlaa Alsheek, for instance, told me her own appalling story - how the regime detained her husband and her father, how she fled a bombed house with an injured child, how she escaped across the border to Turkey. Now she was running a project from her small temporary home to empower a group of refugee women through making and selling handicraft products. At one moment in the conference, a women involved in the Geneva initiative called out to Najlaa, "Leave the knitting! Come with us to the peace talks!" She was unshaken by this scornful evaluation of her daily work for refugee women. No, she said, I stick with the knitting.

Some of the Syrian participants were living in 'liberated' areas, and had close relations with the armed opposition forces. Some of these were suspicious of the word 'reconciliation' and hungered for victory as much as peace. Others were part of the Syrian NonViolent Movement (Alharak, or 'Uprising'), who disagree with an armed response to Assad. How were these women to find common ground, meeting each other here in a foreign city? One said, "In Syria we so like to attack each other. We need to start respecting each other, even if we disagree. Personally I need to work on that. I have seen it modelled here among the Bosnian women." Nawal Yazeji, a leader of the Syrian Women's League, candidly admitted in the concluding session, "This has tested my ability to learn from the younger generation. But if I am open to them, I myself am young." Najlaa too, notwithstanding the knitting jibe, told me that in these five days she had come to understand the importance of the work some women were doing to influence peace negotiations. These new relationships had changed her, she said.

The Syrian women, in telling their story to Bosnian counterparts, constantly referred back to women's presence in the 'revolution' of 2011, their moment in the Arab 'Spring' before nonviolent uprising was brutally crushed by the regime and turned into civil war. What gave added meaning to our conference was that, during the week before we arrived, and even as we spoke, Bosnians were out on the streets in their own 'strike for dignity' - as the Syrians put it. Protests were happening in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Mostar and other towns. Buildings had been burned. Already four cantonal authorities had resigned in response. Several Bosnian women,  among us all day, were out in town at night doubling as protesters. They ferried news back to us from a thousand-strong plenary, at which a third of the speakers had been women. They confirmed our sense that these were the first stirrings of a unified popular rejection of the divisive and corrupt nationalist authorities installed by Dayton. We learned that protesters were demanding the governments' resignation; drastic cuts to the inflated salaries and perks of political leaders and officials; diversion of mis-spent money into public social spending; and a reversal of the privatization of industry.

The Bosnian women felt this rebellion clinched their argument. The Bosnian political system was a stitch-up between rival nationalisms - militaristic, patriarchal and corrupt - reducing ordinary people, and especially women, to penury and impotence. Learn the lesson, they warned their Syrian friends. If civil society doesn't get a say in shaping post-war Syria, before long you too will need another revolution.

About the author

Cynthia Cockburn is a feminist researcher and writer, living in London, associated as honorary professor with the Department of Sociology, City University London, and the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, Warwick University. Her most recent book is Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements.