North and East Syria is currently an oasis of women’s rights in the Middle East. Not only is gender equality written into the constitution and each law of the local government, but official efforts at supporting the empowerment of women, such as women’s economic collectives, mandated inclusion of women in positions of leadership, and domestic abuse enforcement, have quickly supported women in entering public life.

Despite these inspiring advances, women in the region are currently facing several unique challenges that threaten to reverse their progress. What are the main challenges to women’s rights in North and East Syria?

1) Religious Extremism from Turkey and Turkish-backed Militias

Everyone is familiar with the threats that women of the region faced under the ISIS “caliphate.” The extremism of ISIS involves viewing women as property who exist at the behest of the men in their lives — their fathers, husbands, sons, or even their owners. Women under the ISIS “caliphate” had to adhere to a strict misogynist code that limited their roles to domestic servitude. The heroic and successful fight to defeat ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPJ, women soldiers of North and East Syria, has now been immortalized in the book, “The Daughters of Kobani.”

Few realize however that religious extremism continues to threaten women of North and East Syria, two years after the “caliphate” has been defeated and ISIS is on the retreat. There is ample Islamic extremism in the occupying forces of regions of North and East Syria — the Turkish military and the militias calling themselves the “Syrian National Army,” mercenaries who are paid, equipped, and supported by Turkey. The Turkish military and Turkish-backed militias are now occupying the Afrin region, Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ayn), and Tal Abyad (Gire Spi) in North and East Syria. 

In a region where women’s rights had been flourishing, now the extremism of the occupying forces has driven women back into the shadows, and out of public life. Today in Afrin, women are kidnapped, ransomed, imprisoned, raped. 

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report in September 2020 that documented rape and human rights violations against women in the Turkish-occupied region of North and East Syria. The report includes the cases of at least 30 women who were reportedly raped just in February 2020. There have been more than 150 documented cases of abduction, rape and/or murder carried out against women under the Turkish occupation of Afrin, according to the US-based Missing Afrin Women Project. 

Women who are still in the occupied territories have been pushed back into solely domestic roles. They are afraid to leave their homes due to continued harassment by the Turkish-backed mercenaries.

2) COVID Slows Progress of Women Entering Public Life

Before the pandemic, women in the Middle East were finding a wide variety of ways to enter public life and become actors in the world at large. But this past year, as schools, shops, and public spaces closed, there wasn’t a public world to go to.

“The pandemic could set back women’s rights by decades” on a global level, said UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

A report by UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, estimated, “The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to result in the loss of 1.7 million jobs in the Arab region, including approximately 700,000 jobs held by women. Female participation in the labour market is already weak in the Arab region, with high unemployment among women reaching 19 per cent in 2019, compared with 8 per cent for men.”

While the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) remains committed to gender equality at all levels, there are still many women in the region who feel the cultural weight of sexism, and feel relegated to women’s roles. The stay-home orders, social distancing measures, and closure of public spaces during the pandemic presents challenges to women trying to overcome a long history of sexism and live a public life.

3) Exclusion from Talks on the Future of Syria

In North and East Syria, there is a larger proportion of women participating in governance and leadership roles than anywhere else in the Middle East. Thanks to the revolutionary co-leadership model of the AANES, over 40 percent of government roles in North and East Syria are held by women (in the areas not occupied by Turkey).

These women would be at the negotiating table, participating in talks at the highest level. But currently these women are being excluded.

The UN peace talks on Syria, mandated by UNSCR 2254, have excluded leaders from North and East Syria. The Syrian Constitutional Committee has excluded the region as well. This means that only a tiny number of women are involved in the talks, and those women are mostly silent. It is not enough for a handful of women to be propped up at a table. Women must also be respected as the leaders that they are, and heard as they call for gender equality to be codified into law.

Representation of women matters. Research shows that women’s involvement in peacemaking negotiations and diplomatic talks across the globe does lead to better outcomes for women: ensuring women’s issues are addressed and guaranteeing women’s rights are included in the legal framework. It also makes the talks more successful — when women are signatories, peace agreements are more likely to be implemented successfully, and the peace itself lasts longer.

North and East Syria must be included in talks on the future of Syria, and with it woman leaders, in order to ensure gender equality is protected by law.