Noura Burhan, Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD)

Counting them off on her fingers, Noura Burhan can list Syria’s many “peace circles” without a second thought.

Aleppo, Qamishli, Zabadani, rattling off a dozen cities across Syria. Plus three in Turkey, two in Lebanon, one in Jordan, and another in Kurdistan. That makes 25, she says with a smile. The 25 peace circles coordinate together within I AM SHE network.

Today, Syria’s peace circles are each composed of 8-25 women that engage in local level advocacy related to women’s rights and gender issues. With an acute focus on local needs and contexts, these peace circles work to empower and elevate Syrian women to leadership positions within their communities, thus transforming regular women into advocates for women’s rights and creating a new generation of women leaders in their own right.

Just three years ago, Burhan herself founded one of these peace circles in her hometown of Zabadani, a Syrian city near the Lebanese border. Today, she is director of the Women for the Future of Syria program with the Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD), where she works to coordinate the 25 peace circles operating today.

But her office in Gazantiep, Turkey, is a long way from the home and the life that she once knew.

The 37-year-old mother of two, Burhan fled Zabadani two years ago after her husband was arrested and presumed tortured to death by the Syrian regime.

“The majority of my family was arrested,” Burhan said quietly, recounting how her mother was forcibly disappeared by the regime while visiting Burhan’s sister, who had also been arrested, in Adra prison. Her husband, who is still missing, was taken after trying to secure passports for the couple’s two children.

In many ways, Burhan’s own story mirrors the development and power of Syria’s peace circles as a means to advance women’s rights, even within the ongoing conflict, and to present women’s liberation as a tool to end the ongoing civil war.

Before the revolution, there was legal discrimination. Women did not have full rights. Women were more or less limited to specific types of employment, they could not give nationality to their children, there were honor crimes…it was a really bad legal system with respect to women’s rights.

But with the outbreak of protests against the Syrian regime, the space for women’s participation drastically changed.

In the beginning, there was significant participation by women. Many women leaders participated in the revolution at the same level as men.

And Burhan was one of those women. In the early days of the revolution, Burhan had to learn, quickly, how to successful engage in political and social activism and overcome intentional obstacles and divides put in place by the regime, such as gender stereotypes and religious tensions. For example, in the early days of the uprisings, she worked tirelessly to encourage women to participate as equals to men and developed strategies for Muslims and Christians to oppose the regime together, such as the Zabadani Christmas Tree in 2011.

Even when circumstances grew more difficult, Burhan used these newly developed skills, and her unmatched bravery, to save many lives in her hometown.

When Zabadani fell under heavy bombing by Syrian regime forces, Burhan mobilized the women of her city to negotiate a bomb-free zone in the city, a cease-fire, and permits to allow women from Zabadani to pass through checkpoints. She even successfully secured the release of a number of female detainees, fundamentally changing their lives forever.

Even within her own apartment building, she made sure that all of her neighbors made it to safety for the basement and arranged for their needs to be met. Sometimes, they would even stay in the basement for up to two weeks.

But as the civil war continues to rage, the ongoing violent has slowly pushed the door for women’s participation shut.

The regime is using weak points in society. It is doing things like arresting women, which it had never been done before and it has made a lot of women scared, especially when it comes to political organizing, advocacy, or anything related to civil society.

And when Turkey closed the borders, Burhan continued, CCSD could no longer bring women to Turkey for trainings, which forced them to resort to Skype or other forms of online training for women still in Syria and do the activities from inside Syria.

We have lost many women, from bombings, displacement, fear.

But it is exactly in these areas where these women-led peace circles are pushing back against women’s marginalization, and using gender empowerment as a tool to build a better Syria for the country’s women not just for tomorrow, but today.

We are still continuing our work,and women continue to join us.

And the results of these circles, operating against incredible odds, in a time of war, could not be more clear.

In the countryside of Aleppo, Burhan said, one peace circle successfully lobbied an all-male local council to include female representatives for the first time. While the council resisted at first, Burhan said, the women eventually convinced them to admit women, and to even add a women’s committee.

Then there is the story of a peace circle in Rif Dimashq, which worked in town with high rates of child marriages, especially for young girls. In response, the circle placed pressure on the local shari’a council, a religious authority, to prohibit child marriage: a demand that was ultimately met. Emboldened by their success, the circle then succeeded in changing the municipal law to raise the marriage age, thus instigating an important change in the area’s cultural norms as well as legal structures.

There are also examples of peace circles working with other civil society groupsto achieve women’s equality within communities of activists and engaged citizens. In the city of Qamishli, for example, there are an abundance of civil society organizations, but very few include women in leadership position. Dissatisfied with this status quo, the Qamishli peace circle surveyed the local civil society ecosystem and, based on the results, lead successful awareness and mobilization efforts to elevate more women to leadership roles within their respective organizations.

These are just a few stories, Burhan said, of the many, many women in Syria making a difference in their communities today and of women laying the groundwork for their full participation in the post-conflict transition in Syria.

We need a strong role for women in the future government and in the political transition, but we need to start from the local level,” she added, arguing that this is the only way to serve community needs and build the necessary coalitions to address these needs on a national and international level.

Despite their many accomplishments, Burhan recognizes that these peace circles may seem to be a little more than a drop in the ocean. But while it is forget their significant within the larger context of the civil war, Burhan remains undeterred.

There are lots of messages coming our Syria today, Burhan stated “But if there is not knowledge about violence against women, the country cannot progress.”

We need to end violence against women and to teach women how to end the violence against themselves,” she concluded. This is the only way.

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