Syrian member of parliament Huda al-Homsi al-Ajlani is a strong-willed woman who believes women in her country are making progress.
In excerpts from an interview with IRIN in the capital Damascus on International Women's Day, she assessed the achievements and challenges facing Syrian women today.
QUESTION: How do you see the status of Syrian women?
ANSWER: The accomplishments that women have achieved in the country are due to Syria’s principled stand on women.
The constitution of Syria, issued in 1972, has considerably enhanced and advanced women’s position and this is manifested when we compare the status of women at present and 50 years ago. Women have acquired all their constitutional and legislative rights, enabling them to be essential partners in the development process and giving them the right of equality in social services and wages, and the right of making political and economic decisions.
However, a number of women were unable to maintain such gains due to personal or social circumstances. We women have made great achievements and we must continue on this road.
Q: How far has Syria gone towards the goals set by the Beijing Declaration in 1995 where specific commitments were made on violence against women, women in armed conflict, refugees and internally displaced women, and women activists.
A: Syrian women enjoy all their constitutional and legislative rights, there is no red line as they can take up the highest ranks and share in decision-making. Syrian women can assume any post whether political, economic, or social.
Q: You say there are no legal impediments to women's progress, what about the culture? Are women still considered unequal to men in the workplace, at home and in government?
A: Most men have an Asian mentality. They refuse to be on an equal footing with women and think empowered women may threaten men's status.
However, young people play an important role in influencing the state of opinion that future generations will share. Women can make a difference when they work with the youth to bring about behavioural changes on women's rights.
Women must have confidence in themselves and understand that their equality with men in rights and duties does not mean at all that they are superior to them; they should realise that they are not in a competition with men.
Q: Has the media promoted a positive image of Arab women in Syria?
A: The media has not performed its fundamental role in reflecting the true image of women and shedding light on their capabilities. In addition, women are excluded from high positions in the media, although women are strongly present in this domain and have considerably contributed to this field. They are brave enough to cover areas such as war and occupation.
On the other hand, the media has exaggerated in making women a commodity through advertisements, while the images of women are used to sell products.
Furthermore, some programmes show that a woman’s top priority is appearance and not content. This is unfair, especially for Arab women. The media must focus on pioneering Arab women. The media must depict the true role of women as mothers, wives, and active members of society.
Q: A number of issues are recognised as a violation of women's human rights such as domestic violence, forced marriage, etc. How prevalent are these problems?
A: There is domestic violence but it does not constitute a trend in Syria. One of the peculiarities of the Syrian society is the glorification of family. Many NGOs in the country are very active in this and are making huge efforts to eliminate domestic violence. Regarding forced marriage, women must be armed with education and equipped with suitable jobs that enable them to have a say in choosing their husbands. Honour killings are also not a trend in this country.
Q: Can laws and legislation in place in Syria ensure and safeguard women's rights and interests?
A: Legislation and laws are not always sacred and need to be changed according to circumstances and the development of communities because legislation is the mirror that reflects political, economic and social, and cultural life.
Laws and legislation in Syria need to be revised and at present a draft law is under consideration to enable Syrian women who got married to non-Syrians to give their nationality to their children.
Q: Dozens of Syrian feminist activists are now cabinet ministers, diplomats, etc. What have these people achieved for women?
A: This is the responsibility of both men and women. Female members of the People’s Assembly (parliament) are working for society as a whole in political, economic, cultural and social aspects. We men and women in the parliament work together on family issues such as the issuance of a law last year on increasing the age of mothers’ guardianship of their children to 12 for boys and 15 for girls.
Q: Official data show that poverty has actually increased among Syrian women over the last 10 years. How would you comment on this?
A: Women make up almost half of society and are vital in the process of development and modernisation. They play multi-faceted roles in life, as wives and mothers with domestic and outdoor responsibilities. Thus, women must be basic partners in order to achieve a true development process. Women must be aware of family planning, as population growth in Syria is about 2.7 percent.
The empowerment of women is manifested in the government's efforts on women’s empowerment and capacity-building. The government has and is making relentless efforts to empower women, especially in rural areas. For example, the implementation of small income-generating projects with easy conditions, which in turn will increase rural families’ resources, decrease unemployment rate, and upgrade the living standard of target categories. We can only make a difference when we achieve a full partnership with men.