Reem Halibi joined the Syrian revolution early. A student at the University of Aleppo when the revolution started, she was shot in a demonstration and, determined to participate, journeyed to Gaziantep, Turkey, in September 2012 to receive training in civil administration and media.
The State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) has had a team in Turkey since early 2012 to help train and equip the Syrian civilian opposition. "Reem is one of the rock stars," says CSO's Jennifer Marron, who spent six months in Turkey. "She started Radio Naseem, the first woman-owned independent radio station in Syria. It also was the first independent station in the province of Aleppo." Radio Naseem is dedicated to increasing awareness of political activism, humanitarian assistance, the dangers of extremism, and other issues. Reem even launched a national women's magazine Jasmine, which carries stories on human rights, women’s role in the revolution and their communities, and civil society.
The United States believes that the opposition can do more to take advantage of women’s strengths and skills. CSO has conducted a variety of workshops, four for women only, educating them on how to improve security in their communities. Since few women are being elected to local council leadership positions, training from CSO, DRL, and USAID helps women find their voice and get involved.
"The training also increased their self-confidence," says Marron. "Even receiving a laptop prompted several to comment that they felt stronger and more ready to tackle community issues."
It is easy for an American to forget just how steep the challenges can be for a woman trying to gain a foothold in government. During a trip to Turkey in October with Catherine M. Russell, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, I spoke with a number of the women we have trained, and heard about resistance from men on local councils who told them: "It is too dangerous right now for women; they have their roles in medicine and education -- their job is not politics."
One woman told us, "I had lost hope of being able to practice as a judge and bring justice...especially after increased tension and difficulty of women's participation forced me to flee to the safer countryside." But after participating in a workshop, she said, she has renewed energy to conduct her work and participate in decision-making. The laptop has helped her document violations so that perpetrators can be held accountable when the security situation improves.
U.S. policy seeks to make the opposition more capable for today and tomorrow -- in order to advance a negotiated agreement. As in all our engagements, CSO relies on valuable teammates, including MEPI, OTI, NEA and DRL in the State Department, USAID, the United Kingdom, and various nonprofits based in Turkey. Together, we are raising women’s voices in this conflict.
About the Author: Rick Barton serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.