Difference Maker

In Syria, the fight for women's rights means helping both genders

Bassam al-Kadi heads the Syrian Women's Observatory, which aims to change the way both the government and the culture regard women in Syria.

By , / Correspondent

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    Bassam al-Kadi works in his office in Damascus, Syria. His six-year-old Syrian Women’s Observatory distributes information about women’s rights online in Arabic and English.
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Bassam al-Kadi sees nothing strange in being the male head of Syria's leading women's rights organization, the Syrian Women's Observatory (SWO) in Damascus.

For him, defending women's rights is not just about helping women, but rather working for the good of society and both genders.

As he grew up, Mr. Kadi says, he came to see that Syrian society was afflicted by a culture of violence – both physical and verbal. It most obviously plays out against women, he says.

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His views may have been formed by his past. Kadi is the son of an Army officer and a former member of the outlawed Communist Labour Party. His political outlook led to several years in prison and a 20-year travel ban.

During this time, his ideas developed. When he inherited money upon his father's death, he decided to use it to found the organization.

"I am not defending women, I am defending society," Kadi says. "I as a man suffer if my wife has been subject to violence and is treated as a second-class citizen. [Then] we have an unstable relationship and our children suffer."

In short, he says, "Our society cannot function when we do not treat one another with respect."

SWO spreads knowledge about women's rights. Its reports and articles are posted in Arabic and English on the SWO website alongside a list of domestic and international laws relevant to the issue.

Since Kadi founded SWO in 2004, Syrian media coverage of the rights of women – as well as those of children and the disabled, also areas of SWO's work – has increased exponentially.

When the organization began, Kadi says, he could find only three news articles talking about the rights of these groups. Now, he says, there are thousands.

Even more important is a change in the way the news media cover the issue.

"The media used to condemn violence against women out of pity or because it was religiously haram [forbidden] or because it would hinder the country's development," Kadi says.

"We have altered that. Now the majority of articles and programs approach issues such as honor killings from the viewpoint of human rights or citizenship," he says. "This is how we want people to think about it."

Zaina Ernaim, a young Syrian journalist who frequently covers women's issues, says SWO had an impact on her in both her professional life and as a woman.

Kadi has changed attitudes in the news media, Ms. Ernaim says. "It is [because of] him that the coverage of women's issues is no longer focused on articles about makeup and raising children. He also taught me and my contemporaries that we are persons, not purely defined by our gender."

His aim, Kadi says: to empower Syrians to think for themselves and know their rights.

Using his website (nesasy.org) people all over the country can access information and become aware of their rights.

Providing information was a revolutionary step. "SWO broke the culture of silence that had gone on for too long," says Maan Abdul Salam, director of the Etana Press and Library. "It shed light on the problems in our society, for example, the traditions and the laws."

SWO also has run several successful women's rights campaigns and achieved results.

A campaign against honor killings led to the law being changed last year, raising punishment from one year to two years in prison – still a shockingly light penalty, but an achievement.

In June 2009, SWO launched a campaign against a government-proposed "personal status law," that would influence family matters. Formulated in secret, it caused an unprecedented uproar after being leaked.

Civil rights advocates described it as "fundamentalist" and as promoting the violation of women's rights. "The government was forced to drop the law under pressure from our campaign," Kadi says. Significantly, this was the first time actions by ordinary citizens – an unfamiliar concept in Syria – managed to successfully confront government authorities.

SWO was also one of the first national, independent organizations to promote citizen action in the country. "SWO brought a good example to Syria of how people can work together for a cause," Mr. Abdul Salam says. "It led to volunteerism and enthusiasm for grouping together to work on a specific area."

Citizen-led movements in Syria have long been suppressed. The country has been under emergency law, which heavily restricts freedom of association. The law also allows interference in the activities of private organizations.

Kadi says the need for organizations such as his is growing as conditions for women in Syria regress. The annual World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index shows the status of women in Syria has worsened in recent years.

Traditionally, Syria has had a good reputation for women's rights within the Arab world.

"When the government ... announces this year that diesel subsidies are not open to widows or divorcees, there is a problem," Kadi says. "There is more work to be done."

Women are also unable to pass Syrian nationality on to their children if they marry a foreigner; another issue SWO advocates against.

Kadi attributes the slide to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, which is pushing the government into backward positions.

Consequently SWO's next project will monitor extremism – from religious discrimination to secular intolerance of the wearing of the hijab (head scarf).

While Kadi rejects the notion that he can do more because he is a man, he says SWO works so well because he can devote 18 hours a day to the work.

He doesn't have the responsibilities of a woman, but he does have a wife.

While he promotes women's rights, Kadi agrees the rights of his wife – who works with him and focuses on the rights of the disabled – may have suffered.

Their office, scattered with papers and coffee cups, is also their home.

"She has had no privacy for five years," he says. "But I need my office to be at home, as when I get into something, I won't stop. That's what happened with SWO."

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