Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast
Episode 12: Djamila Ribeiro interviews Dima Moussa
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode, Djamila Ribeiro, Brazilian feminist philospher and journalist, interviews Dima Moussa, member of the Syrian political opposition, former Vice President of the Syrian National Coalition and a Founding Member of the Syrian Women's Political Movement, about her experience as a Syrian politician and Syria’s feminist movement.
Djamila Ribeiro: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Djamila Ribeiro and I am a Brazilian feminist philosopher and writer. My guest today is Dima Moussa. Moussa is a member of the Syrian political opposition, former vice president of the Syrian National Coalition and a founding member of the Syrian Women's Political Movement. Thank you for being here with me, Dima Moussa, today. I'm looking forward to this conversation. The first question: last year, we celebrated the twenty-five anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. What do you think has changed for women in political leadership and decision-making and what has stayed the same, in your opinion?
Dima Moussa: First of all, thank you, Djamila, I'm very pleased to be here for this conversation and to be interviewed by you. With regards to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action, I think one of the most significant changes is the actual recognition of the importance of the role of women in all parts of public life, especially in political leadership. Meaning that it has become nearly impossible, if not entirely impossible, to argue or even suggest that that is not the case. And it is far harder to hide behind pretext like traditions, culture, religion and the like. Unfortunately, what has stayed the same is the fact that women are still severely underrepresented in political life. For example, if we take one indicator of that, women's participation in parliaments, worldwide that percentage is still below the 30% minimum mark. And the number is even lower if we look at certain regions where it's even more crucial for women's voices to be represented in politics as there still is a lot of change needed there. And here I can point to the region where I come from the Arab world where women's representation in parliament is actually below 20%.
Djamila Ribeiro: Okay. You were the president of the Syrian national coalition and founding member of the Syrian women's political movement. In your opinion, what’s the role of women today in resolving the Syrian conflict?
Dima Moussa: Actually, I was the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition. And as you know, in addition to all the other reasons why it's crucial to have women in politics, especially in the case of conflict and wars, it is even more important to have women be represented in the peace processes that lead to resolving these conflicts. And we know that peace processes and resolution, or solutions are more sustainable when women participate in them in greater percentages. And I think that takes us back to that 30% minimum participation, which we see everywhere. In addition to the fact that in conflict and wars women are often used to pressure political sides sometimes. Especially in certain cultures, like we see in Syria, women are used to pressure male family members, for example, to hand themselves in to the opposite side, or, you know, in this case, you know, the government has used it a lot and other sides have used this. So women tend to be in the group of the more vulnerable groups that get affected by the war, therefore the solution has to include them in order to resolve everything that has happened to them as a result of the conflict.
Djamila Ribeiro: And what motivated you to get politically involved? Was there a personal connection to an issue? A political party? Your family?
Dima Moussa: Well, I grew up in a politically inclined family, so I've always had an interest in politics. And it's always been a major part of my life. Nevertheless, professionally, I was going in a completely different direction. I had studied engineering, then law and I was working in the field of intellectual property law. What changed was when the popular uprising in Syria started in spring of 2011, when Syrians took to the streets in massive numbers, demanding change, freedom, and dignity, and that passion for politics was revived because of this, or perhaps it's more accurate to say it resurfaced and took over in a way that, that made me feel it is where I could contribute or be actually part of the change that Syrians were demanding. And I should note here that my family had left Syria in the mid-nineties, more or less for political reasons. So that also was a significant factor in becoming politically active in the Syrian cause. And you can say it was somewhat of a personal connection as well.
Djamila Ribeiro: Yeah. And what challenges have you faced? What have you seen work to increase the number of women in political leadership and advocacy?
Dima Moussa: I think one of the things that works is when we have women who work in this sphere, obviously there are a lot of obstacles. There are a lot of challenges. There are a lot of things that happen in this environment that make them maybe stay away from it or leave it after being in it for a while and being exposed to some of these challenges. So what works is that when we have more women, you know, stay in politics, are not afraid to be publicly exposed and you know, try to withstand everything that comes their way. Especially when we look at women in politics and especially in certain cultures, the way women are attacked really touches on her persona, on her appearance, on her honor sometimes. So you really do have to have the support of your family to begin with, your community. But I think when we support each other as women in politics, that really helps us be able to withstand all these things and remain in this field.
Djamila Ribeiro: And about what you just said, but what do you think is the role of education, for example, to make more women feel confidence to go to the public life. What's the role of education in that?
Dima Moussa: We need women and little girls to begin with equal access to education, which means equal access to the workplace and to the rights in general. And that also makes them more enabled economically. And I think, in essence, economic power translates to political power. So this is why it's very important to start early on from the basics of education and that gets translated to all the other arenas.
Djamila Ribeiro: The economic power is so, so important. Thank you for that. How do gender equality and democracy work together in your opinion?
Dima Moussa: This is a tricky question because for me, I see that they go hand in hand because can you really have true democracy or close to true democracy without equality at all levels, including gender equality? You know, I don't think you can. Of course I happen to be one of those people who do not believe that true democracy exists, but we can try to get as close to it as we can. And that can't happen unless there's as close to equality as possible among all the different groups in society, so, you know, including gender equality. And this equality needs to be cross-cutting. So no matter where I look the lens through which I'm looking should be distinction blind so that I don't see gender, race, color, religion, et cetera. Whether I'm talking about rights, obligations, opportunities, and at all levels, you know, economic, social, political, legal, educational, and so forth. So ensuring that people are on as much of an equal footing as possible, their access to and participation in the political process will also be as close to equal as possible, which lies at the heart of the concept of democracy.
Djamila Ribeiro: During these years of war, can you talk a little more - how did you perceive the changing role of women in negotiations and about the situation of the women in this war?
Dima Moussa: So when the uprising started, women were a major part of the peaceful demonstrations and also as activists on the ground, whether we're talking about media activists or human rights activists, and later, even when, you know, the uprising turned into a war, they were helping in the medical field. So they were always involved. In a way, the fact that this conflict had lasted so long I think one of the things, if we can call it positive, I don't know if it's positive, but it exposed where there has been major lack of women's presence. So this necessitated a political process and that put it in the spotlight and when it was in the spotlight, it was very clear that there are very few women at the negotiations table, which made a lot of civil society activists and different groups in society really push on this issue about inclusion of more women. You can't have true peace without having these women's voices at the table, considering how much they participated in the peaceful demonstrations and throughout the process. And definitely because they had been, you know, as much of victims, if not more as men throughout this conflict.
Djamila Ribeiro: And how is the coronavirus pandemic affecting women and the women's political participation in Syria?
Dima Moussa: In terms of how it's affecting it, now, I don't know how, you know, how it differently affected men and women. I think one thing that it has done is that, for example, in terms of outreach that involved women from inside Syria and, you know, here, it's worth to mention that I'm also a politician in exile. So, you know, reaching out to different platforms and different forums, especially internationally, we struggled before about how we can get these women's voices to these international forums. And there was always so much resistance that, you know, there are travel restrictions, we can’t get them visas. So it was always a few of us who could travel and be present at these forums and meetings. When the Coronavirus came along, suddenly everybody was doing everything online and magically they could actually include these women by dialing them in online, even though this is something that we had asked for before. But suddenly this thing has, you know, they were okay, we're all doing this over Zoom or Skype or some online platform. And we can have these women from inside Syria, different parts of Syria dial-in and directly talk about the things they are dealing with on the ground. So in that sense, it had provided the ability to hear more women's voices and actually really, men and women, but I think particularly women, to hear them in directly from them, instead of having to always go through the few of us who could physically be at these things prior to when COVID sort of paralyzed the entire world.
Djamila Ribeiro: Has the COVID-19 crisis influenced or changed your political viewpoints? If so, can you give us an example?
Dima Moussa: I don't know that COVID has really changed my political views, perhaps it has more, it's more accurate to say that it has confirmed some of my political views and made me adjust maybe some of my discourse to address issues that I might not have focused as much on prior to this crisis. I come from a background that emphasizes the importance of socioeconomic equality as being essential in establishing an equal and more just system. And perhaps that somehow has fallen into the background, amid the daily grind on work, of working on Syrian politics, a lot of which had been reactions to humanitarian emergencies. So the inequalities among the so-called developed, developing and underdeveloped countries -- and I should note here that I don't really like these labels -- but these inequalities became so much more strikingly obvious during the pandemic and more so now in terms of access to the vaccine. That I focus now in some of what I work on, on the roots of these issues more so than I did before.
Djamila Ribeiro: Sure. You're most optimistic about, even in the situation that we are living in?
Dima Moussa: This is probably one of the more difficult questions. I think you can ask anyone working in politics, especially in the context of a war-torn country. And these days with the pandemic, I'm not sure anyone can easily be optimistic about a lot. But personally, I consider myself one of the very optimistic people. And I always say you can't work in the public sphere if you are not optimistic. Because that drives the will and generates the energy to continue working, to make change, positive change. And if we look at the history of humanity, there are definitely a lot of bad things that have happened along the millennia, but the natural direction of movement is up in the positive direction. So I'm always optimistic that the net change is positive, which means there are always good things ahead, and we just have to work to find them or make them happen.
Djamila Ribeiro: What would you say for girls about the importance of the empowerment of women and to be engaged in politics? What would be your message?
Dima Moussa: So, you know, here, I have a few things to say. I think women need to realize that they are all capable of making change, of making things happen. They might not realize it, but they need to, they deserve to be in politics and they have to be in politics. They need to be in that space. If you're not in that space, somebody else is going to take it and most likely than not, it's a man. And that's one less place for women to relay their voices, their needs to represent other women. When you find yourself in that space, make sure that you support others, make sure that you ask for help from others, because it's very important to hold on to every place we can reach in terms of political work. Because what we need to do is to ultimately normalize the presence of women in politics, as much as men.
Djamila Ribeiro: Wonderful, thank you! In Brazil, you have similar problems in terms of the empowerment of women. We are the majority of the population, but we are not in the power space, as we would say. What can you say about the law representative of women in your country? And what's necessary to change that? Because here in Brazil, though we are the majority, we face different challenges, as the belief that we don't deserve to be there. We don't have the same opportunities, even in the parties. It's difficult, sometimes it's a very difficult conversation to have. Even the progressive side, sometimes it's very hard conversation. What would you tell us about this?
Dima Moussa: I think there are a lot of similarities to what you said in Brazil with regards to Syria. Of course, there are a lot of laws that still make clear distinctions between men and women. So while, for example, if we start from the constitution, you know, in the constitution, it has something about equal citizenship - everybody is equal with no discrimination based on anything, you know, and it lists a few things, one of them is gender, it's the sex, you know, you can’t discriminate. But then in the same constitution, it specifies that the president has to be a man. So you start from there and then you go and you look at the laws and the laws make a lot of distinctions between men and women. And in this part of the world, the pretext for that is that the culture is this way. It's based on certain religious beliefs. And a lot of people don't find it very easy to challenge some of these deeply rooted traditions or cultural ideas. And especially when it's related to religion, you know, it's nearly impossible in certain communities to even talk about that. Some of the things that we have been doing and you know, feminist movements in Syria go back a long time. They tried to focus on raising awareness about legal rights, how we can make this change, how we can make it sort of step-by-step instead of trying to just, you know, make it all change at once because that just seems nearly impossible. And I think this whole idea of working from the bottom up, you have to work at the community level, you have to work at the local level. Like you said earlier, you know, the importance of education, this is something very crucial. I personally also always focus on the economic aspect, ensuring that women understand their rights when it comes to you know, having a job and the wages they get, because a lot of times the culture imposes on them giving the money they make to some male member of the family and, you know, making sure that to take advantage of any opportunities they have. Like I said, to me, it's very important to go back and always focus on economic power translates into political power, political power, translates into changes at all levels. And this is where we can start working at changing things at the legal level, you know, changing legislations. Which takes me back to the point of the importance of having that critical mass in legislative bodies.
Djamila Ribeiro: You talk about the feminism movement in Syria. Can you talk a little bit more? Because here in Brazil, usually people look up only to United States or Europe, would be great to know a little more about who are the important leaders, what are the main work today of the feminist movement in Syria?
Dima Moussa: So previously I think, like a lot of like what you- what you said about Brazil, a lot of the pioneering feminists in Syria and in this region were probably more inspired by Western models. But you know, not to say that it's right or wrong, you know, but that sort of started this movement going. And they really challenged a lot of the concepts, the deeply rooted concepts in society, which you know, it sort of had this shocking effect on society. So for a long time, I think feminists were not looked at favorably. They were attacked by certain segments of society, of course. And they were looked at as trying to import Western ideas and Western culture into our culture, which is completely different. So one of the good things that has happened over the last 10 years is that, you know, this feminist movement started taking different shapes. And I think there was this realization, first of all, you have a younger generation that had joined this this movement and it's cross cutting from all parts of Syria, even some of the more conservative ones, because women suddenly found themselves having to work outside the home due to, you know, men, whether they're missing or detained or fighting. And they started actually realizing sort of understanding feminism in a very organic way. And these groups this way, you know, they sort of interacting with your traditional kind of feminist. We started trying to sort of come up with a Syrian flavor of feminism. So it's still a work in progress. There is still a lot of resistance from certain communities from certain you know groups or political parties, but overall I think it's starting to sort of take a different shape and again, you know, starting to become more Syrian-ized. So now we're looking at feminism from a Syrian lens and we're at the same time, we're trying to make sure those of us who have a more traditional background in feminism, trying to make sure it also does not undermine feminism as a general concept.
Djamila Ribeiro: It was great to hear that because here in Brazil, there are some movements such as the Black feminist movement that women from rural areas discussing a new kind of feminism. So it was great to hear you. I think we have time for a last question. Here in Brazil, the feminist movement, part of the feminist movement, are discussing what they call political violence against women who decided to run for election decided to have a public life and go to politics. They wrote recently a book about the first President, female, in Brazil, the way she was treated by media, by the opposition. What do you think about that? What do you say about this political violence, especially for these women who decided to confront men, confront in this, in this area?
Dima Moussa: You know, this is, it's funny that you say this because this is one of the main things I always talk about when people ask me about working in politics in this region. And I think it's true everywhere in the world where the women, I like this term political violence, you know, where the, kind of the sort of bullying and attacks that you see against women is so custom made for women and you never find it against men. And I always say, you know, we need to - we don't need to ignore it, we need to sort of deflect it - in a way that you know, so like changes the way this rhetoric is being used or maybe starting to undermine this rhetoric that is being used against women. For example, you know, even with media, what I do is somebody reaches out to me and says, “we would like to host you to talk about women issues.” And I say, you know what, I'm a politician. I don't just talk about women issues. I can talk about all political issues. So, you know, when you want to host me to talk about political issues, I will come in and I will happily participate in your program. The other thing is for women, you know, we need to support each other because a lot of times we know these types of attacks, this kind of violence that's used against women is making them discouraged from appearing - even if they work in politics - they don't want to appear in the media because they know as soon as they get on TV, before I even say any word I am labeled, you know, the way I dress, the way my hair is. In this part of the world, if my hair is covered or it's not covered. How much makeup I'm wearing, how much makeup I'm not wearing. So, you know, this is very vicious. But, you know, we need, we need to sort of try to ignore it in a healthy way and continue to fight it. And the way to fight it is to increasingly appear in the media. Increasingly focus on the messages that we want to relate to the public. And also we need to have, if we're in a political party, if we're part of a political body, we need to have these political bodies, these political parties actually defending us. They can't just ignore it and pretend that it's not happening. They need to come out there and also defend the women that are working within their ranks.
Djamila Ribeiro: Wow. Thank you so much, Dima Moussa. It has been a pleasure. I learned a lot and I'm pretty sure that the audience will learn a lot too. I'd like to congratulate you for the work, your important work and good luck to you. Thank you.
Dima Moussa: Thank you very much to me that it was such an honor to have you interview me and you know, it was such a great conversation. Thank you very much.
Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.