Doha, Qatar: The leadership of Syria's main opposition bloc inexile, 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 under way in Qatar — some rushing toward the podium in protest after the results were announced early Thursday — say the shutout 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 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. Still, she said, 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."
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 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 gathered at the conference this week in the Qatari capital of Doha. 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.
Early 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.
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.
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.
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 may 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.
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 northern 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.