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Women shut out of Syria's opposition leadership

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[November 08, 2012]  DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- The leadership of Syria's main opposition group in exile is an all-male affair after elections failed to promote a single woman to the decision-making group of 41 members.

Some of the female delegates at the Syrian National Council conference in the Qatari capital of Doha rushed the podium in protest after the results were announced in the early hours of Thursday. They said the new leadership fails to reflect the key role of women in the push to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On at least this point, the SNC appeared to fall short in its attempt to showcase a new diversity in the face of international criticism that it is not representative enough of the whole spectrum of the opposition. After the vote by more than 400 members of the SNC's general assembly, the group tried to redress the lack of women in its new leadership. SNC chief Abdelbaset Sieda said he was "so sad" and would try to add four women to the general secretariat by decree.

"The bottom line is that there is a recognition that the women got shafted, and that it has to be fixed," said delegate Muna Jondy, 37, an immigration lawyer from Flint, Michigan. It's "not going to cure the underlying problem, which I think was the lack of recognition of the importance of the voice of women at the decision-making table," she added.

The SNC, formed a year ago from a pool of long-term Syrian exiles and academics, has faced mounting criticism from within Syria and the international community that it is out of touch with those inside risking their lives on the frontlines.

The group's Doha conference was largely intended to deflect such claims and present a more broad-based membership. SNC member Khalid Saleh claimed some success, saying that 15 representatives of local activist groups inside Syria won representation.

However, those efforts may have come too late. The United States and other foreign backers of the Syrian rebels are promoting the idea of a new leadership forum where the SNC may play only a small role.

The women's marginal role in the SNC is in marked contrast to their active participation in the 19-month-old conflict.

In the early days of the uprising, women organized mass rallies and featured prominently in local grassroots organizations, risking arrest and torture just like their male counterparts. As the uprising became militarized, their role receded somewhat, but the civil war, fought in populated areas, is hitting them just as hard as the men.

The SNC, trying to boost its image, had set a 15 percent women's quota for its new, expanded general assembly of some 420 delegates attending the Doha conference that began on Sunday. Jondy, the Michigan lawyer, said she had been hastily recruited as a delegate in what she believes was an attempt to meet the quota.

Still, women seemed to have been largely relegated to the sidelines of the conference. The convention hotel lobby was full of male SNC members engulfed by clouds of cigarette smoke huddled over coffee to strike deals and talk strategy.

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

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

In the early morning hours of Thursday, SNC delegates gathered in a hotel ballroom to hear the new leadership lineup. After it became apparent that women had been shut out, some rose from their seats in protest.

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

A heated discussion ensued, with many of the 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.

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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 Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC. But, she said, women also lack political experience.

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

Some of the women at the conference had been active in the uprising, and left Syria only recently to escape arrest.

Ranna Ibrahim, a delegate at the SNC conference, said she was detained for three days earlier this year for organizing anti-regime protests along with fellow lawyers in the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa. Ibrahim, 31, fled Syria nine months ago after government threats against her intensified. Jahjah left four months ago, amid fears she might be arrested for her role in organizing protests.

Women were active in the uprising from the start.

Last year, human rights lawyer Razan Zaytouni, who went into hiding shortly after the revolt began, was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award for risking her life by breaking through the government's media blackout to report on the brutal crackdown in Syria. The award, named after the slain Russian journalist, is given annually to a woman human rights defender standing up for victims in a conflict zone.

Fadwa Suleiman, a Syrian actress who hails from Assad's minority sect, took center stage at anti-government protests in the central city of Homs, often giving speeches to inspire the crowds. She fled to Paris earlier this year. Women in the coastal city of Banias often blocked the highway to keep security forces and pro-Assad militiamen away.

Even under four decades of dictatorship by the Assad clan, Syrian women have been more active in public life than many of their sisters in other countries in the Arab world. Assad has a female vice president, and a number of women are Cabinet ministers and lawmakers.

At the start of the SNC conference, Jahjah still had high hopes, encouraged by the 15 percent quota. She said she expected representation to be increase to 30 percent soon.

Fleihan, the writer, said women must become more assertive and claim a bigger share.

"Women do many great jobs in the revolution, so they must get their rights, next to the men, in the fight against the regime," she said.

[Associated Press; By KARIN LAUB]

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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