Bassam al-Kadi, founder of the country’s most prominent women’s rights group, has gained a fierce reputation as someone who knows few limits when it comes to challenging discriminating practices or campaigning against outdated laws. I sat down with the social activist to discuss what inspires his work.
As a young man you were involved in politics. What made you swap the political arena for the social one and establish the Syrian Women Observatory (SWO)?
I joined Syria’s Communist Labour Party in 1982 to achieve change. I was imprisoned for seven years because of my political work and have been banned from travelling for the past 19 years. Following my release from prison, I started working as an electrician at a Syrian university in 1996. While working there I met a lot of young people and began to realise the huge potential they have to achieve change. I began to see the importance of separating society from politics, so I left the latter and went into the area of social work.
Political decisions are necessary for improving society, but they are not enough. Change should be initiated from below before pressure is applied on the government to enforce it. I decided to open the observatory in 2005 with the aim of raising awareness about violence and discrimination against women, children and the disabled. Today, the observatory is the only organisation which provides information in Arabic about violence against women in Syria. On our website you can find all of the relevant Syrian laws, reports and international agreements relating to women’s and children’s rights issues.
The SWO will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the beginning of next year. What have been the organisation’s main achievements?
Since it was established, the observatory has taken part in a number of major campaigns. Prime among these was our involvement in the ‘Say No to Violence against Women’ campaign organised by the United Nations Development Fund for Women in 2008. We are also involved in an ongoing campaign which is demanding that Syrian women be granted the right to pass on their nationality to their children.
In addition, we have launched three major initiatives of our own. The first campaign lobbied for change of Syria’s Law of Associations, a law which gives the government the authority to control the activities of social organisations and to shut them down at any time. This control is so far-reaching that an organisation cannot even publish a flyer without applying for permission.
Our second major campaign was launched in 2005 and lobbied for change to those laws in Syria that permit honour killings.
Our latest campaign, launched last June, was against a proposed fundamentalist draft law to replace the existing Personal Status Code. The draft law violated women’s rights and was kept secret until it was leaked to the press earlier this year. Under pressure from our fierce campaign, the government dropped the draft law.
The observatory’s most important achievements, however, are not the campaigns themselves. Rather, it is the change we have achieved in the way the country’s media covers women’s and children’s issues. Before the observatory was founded, you couldn’t find more than three articles about honour killings in the Syrian media. Since we launched our campaign, more than 1,000 articles and programmes about honour killings have been aired on local TV channels, radio stations and published in print and online publications.
What is most important, however, is the quality, not the quantity, of such articles and programmes. The Syrian media used to condemn violence against women out of pity or because they viewed it as haram or as hindering social development. The observatory has encouraged a new approach to media coverage by coming at the issue from the angle of human rights and citizenship. Women should not be violated, not because it is haram or hinders development, but because it is simply their right as human beings and Syrian citizens. Today, 80 percent of the media coverage about women’s and children’s rights is in line with our approach, or very close to it.
The observatory has also pushed for young Syrians to play a greater role in developing their society. Working teams at Syrian organisations are usually closed and they do not include young people. The observatory works with any young Syrian volunteer willing to help raise awareness about women’s and children’s issues. We do not set specific work plans or recruit employees. Instead, each of our members sees what they can do from their position in their workplace, village or family. Even though the observatory doesn’t receive any funding and is based solely on voluntary work, in the past five years we have managed to launch several campaigns and expand our network to cover all parts of Syria.
The SWO-led campaign to cancel the proposed draft law to replace Syria’s Personal Status Code was hailed as a victory for civil society. A number of local observers described the campaign as a daring initiative that crossed a number of the country’s infamous ‘red lines’. How important was the campaign to the development of Syria’s civil society movement?
Our campaign did not cross any red lines. While it is fair to say we face a number of red lines, they are not as tight as Syria’s civil society organisations pretend. Instead, Syria’s civil society movement uses red lines and a lack of funding as an excuse for its own incompetence. When I launched my campaign against the draft law, many civil organisations refused to cooperate, choosing to remain passive for the first 37 days of the campaign, the goal of which they described as impossible to achieve. We did not cross red lines. Instead, we broke our fear to act and realised our potential in the process. From the first day I opened the observatory, I decided that what should be said must be said, regardless of the consequences.
You have said the reason why such a controversial draft law was able to reach such an advanced stage is because the local civil society movement has failed to effectively monitor the rise of extremism in society. What are you now doing to tackle this issue?
Syria’s civil society movement has turned a blind eye to the rise of extremism happening all around it. The observatory is trying to correct this mistake by establishing the Private Syrian Observatory for Monitoring Extremism. At the moment, we are working on defining extremism because it is such a wide term. When we have done this, the private observatory will monitor all forms of extremism affecting Syria, be it in the form of audio, visual or printed media, or in other ways such as general attitudes. The observatory will document and publish these forms of extremism on its website and comment on them from a human rights and equal citizenship point of view to raise awareness.
Although religious extremism will be our main theme, we will also focus on other types of extremism. A secular man’s degrading attitude towards a woman who wears the hijab is a form of extremism, as is a radical man’s harassment of a woman because she is not fully covered. Through our activities, we hope to change public opinion by prompting media outlets, NGOs and religious organisations to tackle the issue of extremism, the same way they have tackled women’s rights.
Are you working on any other campaigns?
The observatory is presently lobbying the government to make any future draft law available to the public before it becomes a law. It is unacceptable to have secret draft laws. When I, as a Syrian citizen, elected the members of the country’s parliament I didn’t elect them to replace me. I elected them to represent my opinions. However, I cannot have an opinion on a draft law unless it is made public. This campaign will be long and it is only in the initial stages, but I’m very optimistic that it will produce results.
We are also planning a campaign to raise awareness about child rape, an issue the Syrian media has done a great job of tackling recently. We plan to launch a campaign focusing on how to raise a child’s awareness of the issue, what symptoms and behaviour a sexually harassed child displays, how to deal with a child who has been sexually harassed and the role children’s organisations and the courts can play in combating this issue.
Why would a man dedicate his life to defending women’s rights?
Trying to stop violence and discrimination against women is generally defined as defending women’s rights. But I believe that by doing so I am also defending men’s rights. Women are the prima facie victims of violence and discrimination, but men are also victims. When you violate women’s rights, restrict their development and treat them as second-class citizens, you create an unstable marital relationship and an unbalanced family. This takes its toll not only on women, but on husbands, children and the whole of society.
For more information about the SWO, log on to www.nesasy.org.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.