Citizenship and Gender in the Arab World, The role of women’s organizations and other NGOs in highlighting citizenship’s and women’s rights, the Case of Syria

In the Middle East, people suffer from many issues which we can divide in two main items: foreign occupation and interventions on one side and on the other side the lack of democracy. External actors and countries have indeed played for quite a long time now a negative role in the region. This is undeniable, but the lack of democracy in the region is also a fact and especially in two particular areas: citizenship and women’s rights.

The concept of citizenship is often linked with the notion of nationality: these two terms interchangeable and interdependent in the framework of the Nation State are defined primarily as the membership of an individual to a political community. Each individual actually have rights (whether social, political and cultural) and duties in this political community. This is the usual and given definition of citizenship, but this latter is not a static concept and is on the opposite constantly evolving. We would include this vision of citizenship in our definition of the concept explained during a meeting of the Program of Education for Democratic Citizenship at the Council of Europe in 1996: “citizenship is a complex and multifaceted reality that should be seen in its political context and history. Citizenship can only make sense linked to the real needs of society or political system.” This definition of citizenship is interesting because it takes into account the dynamics of the society people are living in. This version of citizenship will help us understand the demands and the struggles of women organizations and NGOs in the different countries we study.

In the Middle East, religious affiliation has very often been a prerequisite of citizenship, partially due to the Ottoman system heritage. Arab States have actually legalized a social reality but moreover they have actively constructed it by requiring membership to a religious community as a strategic necessity for citizens. The status of religious identity has been elevated to the level of civil status; the State has designed a Nation fragmented into sub communities. The existence and the legal recognition of communities have led some researchers to crystallize the communities and particularly the ethnic and religious communities. These communities are however not coherent entities, delimited or fixed by sharing common interests. They are divided from within by class, status, nationality, ethnicity and sex. Individuals can actually change their religion, nationality, regional or class affiliation.

This situation has led to different levels of citizenship in relation to rights and obligations. The Lebanese political system is for example essentially established on a sectarian share of power: the President of the Republic must be a Maronite (Christian) and other denominations whether Christian or Muslim are not entitled to this position. This distribution of power according to sectarian affiliation is generalized in the Lebanon political and administration system. In Syria, it is enshrined in the Constitution that the President must be Muslim. In most Arab countries, Personal Status Laws is linked to your religious affiliation, creating great disparities in terms of women’s and children rights according to your sects between citizens from a same country.

Citizenship inequality has also been the case on a gender perspective and in relation to women rights; women actually suffer more than men in the Middle East in terms of law and social discriminations. In the far majority of Arab countries for example, only men have the legal right to transmit their nationality to their wives and children, while women are forbidden to it. This discrimination also affects the children of these women married to non nationals. They face often costly administrative complications. The children of women married to non nationals must obtain residence permits to be renewed regularly. They have no access to welfare benefits, such as free health care and education. They are treated as foreign students when applying for a university and face restrictions on the employment market. This situation is the case in our two case studies Syria and Lebanon. Women have also been the target of social injustice and discriminations such as “honor” crimes and their non punishment.

Nevertheless, many NGOs and women organizations in the region have struggled for complete and equal citizenship, as well as against women’s discriminations and injustice towards them. We have decided in this article to concentrate on the action of NGOs and women organizations based in three different countries: Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The situation in which these organization works is very different from a country to another, from an authoritarian and opaque system in Syria, to a more or less open system governed on a sectarian distribution of power in Lebanon and to a population struggling against occupation in Palestine. The instruments and the struggles of these NGOs and women organizations are therefore different for each country.

We will start our article with the case of Syria. This latter has been under a state of emergency since 1963 which suspended or curtailed very strongly many legal rights such as freedom of expression and association. Women in Syria have nevertheless a long history of emancipation in the country; they actually obtained the right to vote in 1949 and participated in the struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the last century, as well as during the French mandate. Women’s literacy is estimated to be around 76% in 2007, while women’s labor participation amounted to 31%, mainly in the fields of teaching, medicine and agriculture (Summary of Official CEDAW Reports 2007).

Syria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2003, but the government filed it with several reservations affecting key provisions of the covenant, quoting their incompatibility with national law and Shari ‘a. The current nationality law for example continues to prohibit women from passing on their citizenship to their children, while placing no such restrictions on men. Several discriminatory provisions of the penal code also remain unchanged such as the definition of an evidential burden for adultery is different depending on the gender of the perpetrator, and women face higher minimum sentences than men (Freedom House Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010 – Syria ). More generally Syrian women face discrimination in a number of areas in the private sphere, specifically with regards to maintenance, freedom of movement, guardianship and violence against women.

In a country where change was, and still is in many ways, usually imposed by the national leadership or through government affiliated organizations because of restrictions on freedom of associations, Syrian NGOs and women organizations nevertheless organized themselves to lead national campaign relating to citizenship and women’s rights. The Syrian Women’s League, founded in 1948, led a national campaign in October 2004 calling for equal nationality rights for women and men, notably the possibility of women passing on their citizenship to their children and husbands. The League have gathered thousands of signatures on a patent clarifying the ‎demanded adjustments in relation to this issue, and sent it to the President in 2006. The campaign was recently ‎revived by Syrian congressman, Dr. Mohammad Habash. ‎ This later, who is also an Islamic thinker, made a public seminar ‎organized by the Syrian Women League in the National Dialogue Forum, in which he gave his views ‎on how Sharia deals with Syria’s CEDAW reservations, and confirming that the article concerning nationality in the CEDAW is irrelevant ‎to Sharia, for nationality is a civic right only between citizens and state (Thana Al-Sabaa 2010-03-19).‎ The Syrian Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Badr Hassoun, in an interview with “Economy and ‎Transport” a Syrian magazine, also confirmed his approval to giving women the right to pass on citizenship to their children and husband because it is a ‎political and national right. We can also observe that governmental bodies, such as the Syrian Organization for Family Affairs, ‎and the Women’s General Union, have participated in making a study that recommends ‎lifting reservation on clause 9 of CEDAW, relating to nationality.‎ These different supports and mobilization did not unfortunately change the law and women are still not able to fully enjoy their citizenship rights.

The Syrian Women’s League has also been active in conducting studies on gender and development and training journalists on gender issues, but it faces close scrutiny by the government, limiting its ability to raise funds and hold events (Freedom House Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010 – Syria). In 2003, the Social Initiative Society, led by a group of women, managed to collect 15,000 signatures for a petition lobbying the government to change an article about child custody in Syria’s Personal Status Law. In response, the government amended the article, extending the period mothers can have custody over their daughters to 15 years of age and their sons to 13 years of age (Wael Sawah, The Dialectic Relationship Between the Political and the Civil in the Syrian Civil Society Movement; 30 November 2009). At the same period, the Syrian Women Observatory (SWO), launched its first campaign lobbying to change the Syria’s Law of Associations, a law which gives the government the authority to control the activities of social organizations and to shut them down at any time. The Syrian Women Observatory (SWO), which operates the Nisa’ Souria website, has worked for the past five years to promote and raise awareness about women’s rights. The organization’s major focus has been to raise awareness about violence and discrimination against women, children and disabled people in Syria. The SWO publishes information on its website about abuses of women’s rights in the country, as well as topics such as domestic violence and sexual abuse of women. The advocacy NGO also engages with local media to promote coverage of these issues in the local press. The organization also worked to publicize proposed changes to the country’s Personal Status Code which the group regarded as regressive, as well as a separate initiative to encourage the government to make proposed draft laws publicly available.

The SWO has participated in many campaigns such as one to stop honor crimes in 2005 which gathered number of individuals and civil society organizations. There were twenty-four participating groups, varying in size and influence. On the front line of these groups were Syria’s Women Observatory, the Syrian Women’s League, al Thara Magazine, the National Association to Develop the Role of Women, al Nour Weekly newspaper, and others ( Syria Today, 2009). The SWO director B. Kadi was besides able to collect on internet some 10, 000 signatures for this campaign Stop Honor Crimes. Before the campaign was launched, very few information about honor killings in the Syrian media could be found, while now more than 1,000 articles and programmes about honour killings can be listed on local TV channels, radio stations and published in print and online publications. The campaign has achieved a concrete presence among some popular circles and among scholars, professors, clerics, and even MPs. It managed to obtain the signatures of thousands of individuals on a petition that was sent to the President, the Parliament, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, the Bar Association, and the media. Renowned and influential personalities were also attracted to the campaign, including the Syrian Mufti A. Hassoun and congressman Dr. M. Habash. In 2008, President Assad issued a decree which amended Article 548 of the Penal Code to extend the prison sentence for those found guilty of committing honor crimes to a minimum of two years.

The last important campaign launched by Syrian NGOs and women organizations in 2009 was against a proposed draft law, considered by many as regressive, to replace the existing Personal Status Code dating back to 1953 which regulates marriage, divorce, and inheritance for Muslims in Syria, whereas other communities have separate laws. As soon as the content of this new draft was known, dozens of small civil society groups, in addition to hundreds of individuals, websites, and blogs, initiated a spontaneous campaign, that became more and more organized, to withdraw the draft, which was regarded as a huge setback for civil rights and the principle of citizenship, as well as for the rights of women in Syria. They spearheaded an aggressive online campaign protesting against this draft law and following this public outcry, the prime minister officially cancelled it. The director of the SWO, Mr. Al Kadi, said that working to adopt a national family law based on the notion of citizenship is his guiding principle.

We can observe a in these specific cases a vibrant movement of Syrian NGOs and women organizations struggling successfully on many aspects for citizenship and women’s right, but the road is still long. It is important to note that internet and new technologies were important in these campaigns to gather signatures and spread information such as the following website Nesaa Souria (or Syrian Women Observatory,, Thara (, Ishtar ( or even the “officially” forbidden social-networking site Facebook.
One Response to “Citizenship and Gender in the Arab World, The role of women’s organizations and other NGOs in highlighting citizenship’s and women’s rights, the Case of Syria”
  1. This is a really good read for me. Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw. Thanks for posting this useful kitts economic citizenship

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