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Thoughts on Women in Constitution Writing

No Peace Without Women

In the twentieth century, constitutions written throughout the world have often explicitly referenced ‘Women’s Rights’ due to the efforts of historical feminist movements. However, the stated goals of even the most progressive constitutions have yet to be fulfilled as women are rarely allowed to fully exercise these rights. For example, one can simply look at the actual societal conditions of women today in ‘Western’ countries, where recent social movements such as ‘Me Too’ or the continued struggle for access to basic women’s health care in Europe, North and South America demonstrate the persistent difficulties women face trying to realize their basic civil and human rights.

In the case of women in Syria, past constitutions have put forward women’s rights on paper, however, in practice, most women haven’t been able to fully exercise many of these rights. As we all know, women in Syria face the added burdens associated with a brutal decade long conflict.

What prevents women from fully realizing their rights? This rhetorical question demands an honest response that acknowledges what we are up against. We are fighting against fundamental societal structures and attitudes that prevent women from exercising their civil and human rights, limiting their lives by inhibiting their economic, educational, and familial possibilities. These anti-democratic structures and attitudes can be found in the global political economy, in local economies, patriarchal and racial hierarchies, religion, and family relations. Law and the constitution are therefore just one piece of the structures that need change. In the case of Syria, the interconnected role patriarchy and religion play in preventing women from attaining their rights is notable and should be confronted.

Therefore, when drafting or revising existing constitutions, it is crucial not to only focus on theoretical rights of women, but to draft constitutional statutes that explicitly and in sufficient detail guarantee that women are allowed to fully exercise their civil and human rights in all fields of society. In the twenty-first century, these civil and human rights must be comprehensive and clearly stated to include access to economic opportunities, political office, healthcare, and education as these are the practical pillars of a safe, happy and prosperous life. These statutes must also be accompanied by well-funded mechanisms for implementation, and binding mechanisms to ensure enforcement.

Despite the obstacles that we are facing, I personally believe that by strengthening women’s economic, political, and educational independence, we can acquire the agency necessary to begin to challenge the even more difficult religious and familial obstacles to their human rights.

In any postwar peace and reconciliation process in Syria, the most economically vulnerable women, elderly, widows, divorced, and wives of the disappeared have to be protected through robust publicly funded social welfare resources. The case of the wives of the disappeared is particularly urgent, due to an Ottoman law which states that they must wait until 5 years after the disappearance to resolve child custody situations and receive widow’s pensions.

In Syria, women’s access to work and education have been restricted not only because of the dangers the conflict poses, but due to the constant fear families and husbands have that women’s ‘honour’ could be violated outside the home. At the same time, many women are forced to engage in sex work due to the dire economic circumstances. Finally, in light of continued sexual assault and harassment against women, explicit criminal statutes against sexual violence and discrimination should also be included.

Obviously, women must be included in any constitutional writing process. However, women’s rights advocates must guard against two potentially limiting possibilities. The first is being used as ‘token’ representatives in order to grant the constitution writing process legitimacy on ‘women’s rights.’ At the same time, women representatives cannot allow themselves to be restricted to only being consulted on women’s rights specific issues. They must be allowed to fully participate in all aspects of the constitution-writing process.

Those who are involved in drafting the new Syrian constitution need to consider how to guarantee women’s comprehensive participation in civil society, and in particular, their political and economic civil rights. Drafters can look to constitutions from West Asia and the Global South, where obstacles are frequently similar and there are numerous examples to draw from. In the last thirty years, seventy-five countries have written constitutions, processes in which one in five of the drafters were women.

Even when well-intentioned, there are numerous experiences that men lack, and that will lead to blind spots and bias. In light of this, women’s participation in constitution writing must be increased in order to enshrine their representation in civil society and politics. Representational quotas must therefore be addressed, a topic I have experience with. As a participant in one of the recent constitutional writing processes, I proposed a statute that would guarantee fifty percent representation for women in Syria’s future Parliament. Unsurprisingly, I was informed of the political difficulties which such a proposal would encounter and was warned that religious women could gain power through this statute. This is missing the point of representation. It is not to give one group or another precedence, but to ensure that governments will and can represent the people they propose to govern, rich and poor, rural and urban, religious or secular. We should be prepared to accept the will of the people in democratic processes, just as we need to provide safeguards for the protection and representation of minorities, as well as ensuring that voice is given to vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

I was even more surprised, at one of these meetings, to be told that there aren’t enough women ready to carry out such tasks. Women are half the world, and still roughly half of the Syrian population, although proportions may vary in specific locations due to displacement or migration. Underlying the comment on not having enough women who are "ready", is the idea that in order to be politically engaged, women have to correspond to a certain profile.. To my mind, what is actually required is a sense of responsibility, being prepared to consult experts or scientists when necessary, and a genuine will to serve the people, something that obviously both men and women can be lacking in.

Chavia Ali

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