One of the slogans that the Arab Socialist Baath Party in Syria adopted was that of liberating women. Over the fifty years of its rule, the party’s propagandist media never stopped talking about the role women play in building a progressive country. It was even said that as a sign of the party’s emphasis on issues that affect women, it intentionally chose March 8th, International Women’s Day, as both the date for its own coup d’état in 1963, and as the launch of its modernist project in Syria.
In 1980, members of the Defense Companies, a paramilitary force in Syria, forced women in the streets of Damascus to take off their head scarves in the name of liberating women and rebelling against old and outdated conventions.
That day was the beginning of a 20-year war in schools, universities, and work places against veils for women in Syria. These oppressive antics led to a strong reaction, and inspired tens of thousands of Syrian women to wear the full veil that covers their faces. Tens of thousands of families also transferred their daughters to religious schools, or to home schooling, which led to large numbers of uneducated women in Syria.
We wonder today whether forcing progressivism brings positive change for women, and we wonder whether these Baathist practices were in the interest of Syrian women.
The party established a Women’s Union and a Women and Family Committee, and named streets and schools after women, but none of these steps provided Syrian women with real empowerment. The party’s leadership has been dominated by men, with only one woman ever serving in the party’s national leadership. There has also been an occasional female minister or two every now and then, and the vice presidency was held by a woman, but the position was ceremonial at best in a country ruled by one party and one president.
From my own experience, despite ten years of many efforts in parliament, trying to change the law that prevents Syrian women from providing their children with Syrian citizenship, we did not achieve any progress. Although the party always applauded our efforts, every time we asked the party’s leadership to instruct the party’s representatives at the parliament to vote for our proposal, we were told that the leadership could not intervene in the country’s democratic process.
After fifty years of empty slogans about empowering and enlightening women, what are the results?
The conservative, rural areas did not participate in the country’s process of political development as it relates to gender. Religious leaders shouted with confidence and enthusiasm that women should simply stay home and get married. They further believed that if women sought education, they were succumbing to temptation, and that the only place for women to get an education was in religious schools, where the Baath party allowed women to wear veils. Many Islamic leaders strongly urged women to avoid falling for temptation, and praised the old times of the Harem, when a woman would go out of the house twice in her life time; one time from her parents’ house to her husband’s, and the second time from her husband’s house to her grave.
Conservatives reacted strongly against Baathist liberal policies, and effectively forced a large number of Syrian women out of schools and work. Despite this, the oppressive regime did not reconsider its policies. The party always claimed that the country needed a revolutionary purifying campaign, but unfortunately, the party’s campaign cost the country a whole generation of educated women, and led to the formation of a new generation that opposes the principles of modernity.
When comparing the realities of Syrian women and those in the Gulf, we realize that despite the traditional Islamic discourse in Saudi Arabia, the fatwas that ban women from driving, and the strict segregation policies, women in the gulf have realized many real achievements. Saudi Arabia established the largest women’s university in the world, which covers all specialties and uses the most advanced American curriculum. The number of Saudi female exchange students in Europe and the United States is more than 40,000 students. Women constitute more than one third of the representatives in the Saudi Shura Council. Saudi women have also realized many achievements in fields of business and development. A number of educated princesses in Kuwait have led a pioneering women’s movement. In the United Arab Emirates, there are eight women ministers, of whom the Minister of Youth is only 22 years-old, and the Head of the Emirati National Council is also a woman.
Real progress for women does not necessarily require a confrontation with social values and traditions. In order to be successful, progress must embrace social values and integrate them into the development process. Traditions and values from the past are the flame of life, and we need them in order to keep our roots and continue with life.