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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 Sarah Birke/ Correspondent / June 7, 2010

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.

Sarah Birke

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Damascus, Syria

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.

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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.

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."

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