Layla Moustafa is a 30-year-old civil engineer who now serves as co-president of the Raqqa Civil Council, the city that was once the capital of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria.
She symbolizes the triumph of women over those who once sought to enslave them. Moustafa is not the only powerful female leader to emerge in the new and free Syria.
In Deir Ezzour, where the last campaign to defeat the Islamic State is still being waged, the civil council is co-headed by Laila Hassan. Like Raqqa, Deir Ezzour was also ravaged by ISIS. It is also the second-largest governorate in all of Syria, with a population of just over 2 million, including internally displaced people.
In addition, Elizabeth Gawyria is one of the vice presidents of the Self Administration of Northeast Syria, a region that now encompasses approximately one-third of the country. These political leaders represent more than just the empowerment of women.
They also illustrate how the Self-Administration is striving to be inclusive of the ethnically diverse population. Moustafa is a Kurd, Hassan is an Arab, and Gawyria is a Syriac Christian. I had the privilege of meeting all three of them during a recent trip to Syria.
When I met Layla Moustafa in her office in Raqqa, she was wearing a black leather jacket, black skinny jeans and her hair in a bun. Layla Hassan in Deir Ezzour was wearing a traditional dress, bright green with gold embroidery and a scarf. She complained that under ISIS she had to wear a black niqab all of the time. Now she wants to wear colors. Gawyria proudly wore a necklace bearing a cross around her neck.
All the women face daunting challenges of overseeing the rebuilding of cities that lay in ruins with little to no help from the international community.
Hassan explained the dire situation in Deir Ezzour because of the lack of basic medical facilities. For a population of 2 million, they have just one single incubator. She told me “If two babies are born that require an incubator, one of them will die.”
Only two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reportedly operating in Deir Ezzour. Trump’s sudden withdrawal announcement and the uncertainty of the continued American presence has discouraged NGOs from setting up shop.
With Islamic State sleeper cells still living among them, the people of northeast Syria have to contend with the regime of Bashar Al Assad to the south and Turkish threats of further incursions along their northern border. Yet they carry on.
The Self-Administration is working to improve the lives of women and girls who have been traumatized by years of rule by extremists who put women in cages and sold them on the market. They have also passed progressive legislation on women’s rights, bringing their part of Northeast Syria into the community of nations that prohibits polygamy and child marriage.
In the territory controlled by Damascus, the Syrian Personal Status Law regulates issues of marriage and is based on Islamic Sharia and Hanafi jurisprudence. Polygamy is permitted, and the legal age of marriage for women is set at 16. However, girls may be married much younger.
The Self-Administration has set the legal age for marriage at 18 and outlawed polygamy. Turkey is opposed to the Self Administration, claiming they are implementing PKK ideology, which it views as an existential threat to Turkey’s national security.
In fact, the Woman’s Law passed by the Self-Administration is similar to Turkey’s own Civil Code, which also outlaws child marriage and polygamy.
The assistant chief of the U.K. General Staff, Major-General Rupert Jones, praised Layla Moustafa in a recent tweet, describing her as “a hugely impressive woman who has been at the helm of the civil council since it set up in early 2017.”
“Working with Kurds and Arabs, she has always worked bravely for the good of the population,” he added.
During her recent visit to Washington, D.C., Ilham Ahmed, co-president of the Self-Administration, was received warmly by many members of Congress. However, while praising the SDF and Kurds in particular for their bravery and fighting prowess, U.S. officials have been hesitant to offer overt praise for their political project, presumably out of fear that any political recognition or praise would be interpreted by Turkey as a type of provocation.
But this is silly. After all, many of the laws that the Syrian Democratic Council has passed in terms of women’s rights are in line with many constitutions around the world that guarantee basic rights for women and girls, including Turkey’s.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. The day happens to coincide with the final push against the last holdout of the Islamic State in Baghuz, near Deir Ezzour.
Beyond the poetic justice of defeating a women-enslaving terrorist organization on Women’s Day, it would be an opportunity for U.S. officials to acknowledge the herculean efforts of Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians like Moustafa, Hassan and Gawyria.
Out of the rubble and against all odds, they are trying to rebuild a new and free Syria that defends the rights of women and girls. It’s time we acknowledge their efforts.
Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Scholars Program and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. You can follow her @AmyAustinHolmes.