The Syrian Women's Advisory Board – lessons to be learned

An example of misunderstood identity and representation politics on the part of the UN: the international intervention to include Syrian women in the negotiation process was not a success.

Syrische Frauenaktivistinnen sitzen in einem Sitzungssaal vor Mikrofonen
Teaser Image Caption
Syrische Frauenaktivistinnen auf einer Konferenz in Genf zur Beteiligung von Frauen im syrischen Friedensprozess (2014)

In February 2016, days after the abandonment of The Geneva III Syria peace talks[1], the former UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, set up The Women's Advisory Board (WAB). The purpose of the WAB was described as to advise de Mistura, to specifically raise important matters missing from the UN Special Envoy’s agenda propose gender-responsive perspectives and channel relevant civil society expertise.  

In their first press statement, the WAB described themselves as “12 independent civil society representatives chosen by Syrian women’s organisations through their own consultative process… women from all walks of life that have committed themselves to support the Special Envoy in his efforts.” However, its founding mechanisms were marred by mystery and a lack of transparency. So it seems more likely that the board was established by international decision and was built on the ruins of the “Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy” by former UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Later in March 2016, four members of the WAB demanded an "immediate relief of economic sanctions on the Syrian people that impede the arrival of food, medicine, and medical equipment." (WAB 2016).  That caused many (Syrian oppositional) women's groups to angrily object to the announcement because it was interpreted as a call to ease sanctions on Bashar al-Assad's regime. The day after, social media was buzzing, with the hashtag '#WABdoesNotRepresentMe.'

How can we prevent politics of representation from tipping over into essentialism?

Many activists understood from the WAB’s first press statement that the WAB intended to be ‘representative’ of [all] Syrian women. However, a disconnection between the WAB and Syrian women on the ground became apparent quickly expressed in the question on how twelve women could represent all Syrian women. Oppositional reactions not only manifested themselves on the issue of representation but also in the depoliticization of women’s action, depoliticization: to remove the political aspect from any actions or interventions, I will come to this later. Such criticism seemed to be legitimate especially due to the complexity of the Syrian context; and the way of selecting the WAB’s members from UN and UN women and western entities that supported the creation of WAB like USA, British and Dutch governments among other.

Against this background the following question emerges: How to walk the fine line between a reductive and predictable sort of essentialism and the continued need for representation? Here Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is of importance as she distinguishes between two senses of representation. The first one is Vertretung referring to “treading in someone’s shoe” and being closest in meaning to “political representation” and speaking for someone or something. The second is Darstellung referring to ‘placing there.’ 

The WAB members, who are feminist activists and decade-long defenders of human and women’s rights, were trying to play the Vertretung role by striving towards proving that the WAB is a representative body, a proxy for all Syrian women. However, they were merely ticking the box of diversity, trapping themselves into mission impossible of speaking for and representing all women in Syrian embracing a “romantic vision”  of diversity.

Precisely, the opaqueness in the selection process caused a lot of divisions and anger within Syrian women movements and groups as the role played by international Western entities in forming the WAB consisted of a lot of stereotyping and re-stereotyping of Syrian women that is so common when it comes to women from the Global South. As stated it seemed like a simplistic box ticking choosing women based on being female, coming from certain religions and sects, certain different political affiliations and geographical locations.

Especially veiled Syrian women felt offended because there were very few of them in the WAB, giving the impression as if the veiled women are a minority in Syria while they are the majority. Choosing non-veiled women as a majority conveyed a meaning of superiority and imposed a certain image on Syrian women. Further, women from certain cities and few from rural areas were chosen fostering further the superiority of a certain group of women over another whereas the Syrian revolution started in small cities and evolved in rural areas. It also placed women supporting the Assad regime with women from the opposition into a single block and not as two political parties, as is the case with men around the negotiating table involved in the peace process. Stereotyping was also done by ignoring young women and trans women.

The list is non-exhaustive, and its purpose is not to create another list but to emphasize that Western entities created a group based on essentialism and stereotyping of Syrian women and Syrian society lacking diversity of identities and inclusion. Thus, not representing Syrian women in their complexities and multiplicities.

Due to the pressure received via social media and from Syrian women the WAB members had to admit that they were not representative of Syrian women but “women in civil society” (Gambale 2016). In the Syrian context, the civil society does not have a definite definition, but means at most: women who are working or engaging in activities with non-profit organizations. This is in line with Spivak’s second sense of representation which is Darstellen, meaning ‘placing there’ by merely creating a ‘portrait’ that displays a selection of Syrian women that results in a binary discourse with the WAB on the one hand and the heterogeneous group of Syrian women on the other.

In my opinion, the WAB was limited from the beginning to be only a front image, to what the UN Special Envoy entitled to experiment with at the local level, by using the WAB “the women” to give impression that there is progress happening by including women in the negotiation while the WAB asked to change the statements and to remain attached only to his team.

Depoliticizing women

From the very beginning of the WAB’s establishment, UN Women and international supporters insisted that Syrian women put aside their differences, especially the political ones, and come together in seeking to make peace. As a result, criticism towards the ‘neutrality’ of the language employed by the WAB was raised while its depoliticization failed to recognize the important political role women have been playing in the Syrian revolution and instead “marginalizing the contribution of women by portraying them as peacemakers only”.

Christina Shaheen (from the UN envoy’s team) further notes that many women were not prepared to see a woman affiliated with the government standing next to a woman who is seen more like the opposition. Against this background, I could conclude that women were asked to come together, to put aside their political affiliations while their selection process was based on some essentialist box ticking in order to fulfil some aesthetic representation that pays merely lip-service to resolutions such as the 1325 one. All this was further underlined by asking the WAB to remain silent on crucial issues, such as the Syrian regime’s use of barrel bombs

In sum, the international intervention to include Syrian women in the negotiation process was not a success, because firstly, it put WAB members in a very paradoxical situation and in the front line to take all the anger of the failure of negotiation at that round. Secondly, the UN created a non-political women entity to counter women's absence in the peace process, instead of paying more effort to create space for women at the negotiation's table. Thirdly, the UN in particular UN Women insisted on the inclusiveness of the WAB while women have been mainly chosen based on their particular political, geographical, and religious background. What remains, after six years since the creation of WAB, is a poor model for the international intervention to include women at the negotiating level- In addition, I think it was an incident to divert the attention elsewhere but not the peace talk or the absents of women from such political process.
Using Spivak's twofold concept of representation has allowed me to highlight the two main problematic issues with the constitution of the WAB: first, its failure to represent the entire spectrum of Syrian women (in terms of political position, religious affiliation, etc.) by actually depoliticizing the Syrian feminist/women's movements and side-lining it through the creation of the WAB. Second, the representation of women as privileged and central actors of peace-making in fact depoliticized them as actors in the process.
Through the establishment of the Women’s Advisory Board, the struggles of Syrian women’s groups were reduced to a traditional, quasi-apolitical body, and the WAB became the principal and definitive reference for any issue related to the Syrian feminist movement. However, the Syrian feminist movements on the ground disagreed with how the WAB was formed, the role it was assigned, and how it was presented as an “achievement” by its creators. Not only has the UN failed to steer the negotiating parties towards reconciliations, but it was also unable to enforce a representation of women on the negotiations table. Instead, it formed a peripheral board whose tasks are confined to providing counsel to the UN Special Envoy Office and controlling and silencing those women's voices by this sideline channel.

As result, mixed concerns emerged about tokenism, assemblage, and silencing, and the challenge continue in how to walk the fine line between a predictable sort of essentialism and the continued need for representation.

[1] The "Geneva Syrian Peace Talks" were intended peace negotiations between "the Syrian government" and the opposition in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nation (UN).