Women for peace: Reem, Syria

To mark International Women's Day 2016, for which the official theme is #PledgeForParity, we are profiling some of our female peacebuilders around the world and asking them: What can gender parity mean for peace?

You can read all of their featured stories here.

Reem, Syria

Reem Assil is Chair of the Syrian Platform for Peace (SPP), a network formed by International Alert that aims to strengthen the contributions of the Syrian diaspora in the UK in promoting peace in Syria.

Please describe your professional background and the projects you are working on, in particular the Syrian Platform for Peace.

I have a Master's degree in Biotechnology and I had been working for three years on my PhD in immunology before this was interrupted when the Syrian uprising started in 2011. I’m now a Chief Biomedical Technician in the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, I chose to join my people in their quest for freedom and have been active in the Syrian cause ever since. Over the last five years, my activism has ranged from media and citizen journalism, human rights, civil society research, all the way to peacebuilding.

My most recent engagement has been with the SPP, which I now chair. The initiative started with a piece of research that was done by International Alert to explore the situation of the Syrian diaspora in the UK, looking at the challenges they face and how they can be better supported to promote peace. It highlighted the need to establish a sustainable, effective and inclusive platform, through which a diversity of Syrian organisations and individuals can work together to promote and build peace among Syrians.

Since its launch in March 2015, the SPP has worked on providing peacebuilding training for its members and done advocacy and networking with policy-makers in the UK. It also participated in Conflict Café last year [part of Alert’s Talking Peace Festival].

What are the challenges and opportunities for gender equality in Syria today?

Although the subject of gender equality has always been brought to the table in recent talks about the future of Syria, and western donors seemed to be stressing the need to meet the gender quotas in any project in order to get funds, I don’t think that it has always been put in the right context.

To explain more what I mean I’ll have to briefly touch on the special nature of Syrian society. At one level, women in Syria are a lot more liberated compared with other countries in the Arab world. For example, they can vote, drive, take part in all sorts of social activities, and hold senior positions across the private and public sectors. These are all rights that Syrian women have practised for quite a long time.

However, Syrian society in general remains conservative when compared with the west. And this should be taken into consideration when we plan to empower Syrian women. Some qualities in Syrian society are strengths when they are looked at as a part of the whole picture, and using these strengths as a base to build upon requires real knowledge, understanding and respect for the wider context. I’m more inclined to use the phrase 'women empowerment' than 'gender equality'. Women in Syria should be empowered with a 'Syrian spirit' if I may say that, not through simply enforcing other societies' rules and experiences.

What role do you think women’s empowerment could play in long-term peace in Syria and neighbouring countries?

I think it’s needless to say that women will be a vital part of any future peace process in Syria. First of all, if we are to look at the demographic structure of the country nowadays, we’ll find that females make up a large proportion of the population, thus there will be no peace without them.

Women are also key to sustaining peace between communities, simply because right at the base, in every house, there’s a mother, sister, wife or daughter who can influence everyone else in their household. As Harriet Lamb puts it: "peace in the end must always also come from the 'bottom up', as well as from the 'top down'." In Arabic, we also have a proverb that says: "Mother is a school: if she’s well prepared and equipped, you will get an entire nation of good people." That’s exactly the role that women empowerment could play in long-term peace in Syria and neighbouring countries.

Which women inspire you and why?

I don’t have a specific role model, but my biggest inspiration nowadays are those ordinary Syrian women, real women from the streets of my country. Those women who are not polished or sophisticated, but with utmost simplicity they bear all the determination and the resoluteness of the world in their sleepless eyes, yet their broken hearts hold all the warmth and safety that peace can possibly bring in. I can’t help but feel humble, resilient and empowered when I see their faces.

Will you be celebrating Women’s Day this year? How?

I will start my day by waking up my kids and preparing their breakfast and lunch boxes, before walking them to school. Then I’ll head to work and I’ll spend long hours working in the lab, before going back home to prepare dinner for my kids and catch up with them. Hopefully I’ll be able to snatch some time to check my social media and write a post to greet everybody for Women’s Day before performing all the bedtime routine with the kids, which will bring my day to an end. So in brief, I’ll be playing my role as a scientist-activist-single mother ... Oh, I mean I’ll be playing my role as a free, responsible woman. Does that count as a celebration?

Read more of Reem’s story in this Women’s Day feature in the Evening Standard.