Women snubbed in Syrian exile poll

The leadership of Syria’s main opposition bloc in exile, the Syrian National Council, has become an all-male affair after elections failed to promote a single woman to a decision-making group of 41.

Female delegates at the SNC convention in Qatar rushed towards the podium in protest after the results were announced early today.

They say the shut-out fails to reflect the key role of women in the push to topple Syrian president Bashar Assad and erodes the SNC’s attempt at diversity.

The SNC’s first leadership election had been meant to showcase a new diversity, at a time when the group faces intense criticism from the international community and Syrian activists for not being representative enough.

After the vote in Doha, the SNC tried to redress the lack of women in its new leadership, with one spokesman saying women would be added to the 41-member general secretariat by decree.

The women’s marginal role in the exile-based opposition is in marked contrast to their active participation in Syria’s 20-month-old conflict.

In the early days of the uprising, women organised mass rallies and featured prominently in local grassroots organisations, risking arrest and torture just like their male counterparts.

As the uprising became militarised their role receded, but the civil war, fought in populated areas, is hitting them just as hard as men.

The SNC, trying to boost its image, had set a 15% female quota for its new, expanded general assembly of 420 delegates at the conference this week in the Qatari capital.

SNC spokesman George Sabra said that in previous gatherings of the group, women only made up about 5% and the new quota was needed to help women get a foot in the door.

“Otherwise, men will do everything by themselves forever,” Mr Sabra said before the results were announced.

Early today, SNC delegates gathered in a hotel ballroom to hear the new leadership line-up. After it became apparent that women had been shut out, some rose from their seats in protest.

“Where are the women?” Fariza Jahjah, a maths teacher from the southern Syrian town of Sweida, said in a raised voice across several rows of seats.

A heated discussion ensued, with many male delegates saying women needed to be represented in the leadership group. A few men argued the women should accept the results. “This is democracy,” some kept saying.

Rima Fleihan, a Syrian playwright and women’s activist, attributed the fact that men are firmly in control of the exile-based political opposition to the influence of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC. But, she said, women also lack political experience.

Ms Fleihan, a prominent anti-regime activist who fled Syria a year ago, is a member of a grassroots organisation, the Local Co-ordination Committees. She said she left the SNC because she believes the group has been ineffective.

The SNC, formed a year ago from a pool of long-term exiles and academics, has faced mounting criticism from within Syria and the international community that it is out of touch with those risking their lives in Syria. The group’s Doha conference was largely intended to deflect such claims and present a more broad-based membership.

However, those efforts might have come too late. The United States and other foreign backers of the rebels are promoting the idea of a new leadership forum in which the SNC would only play a diminished role.

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