How is the commitment to women's political participation in North East Syria realised in practice?

There is a strong discourse in gender and peacebuilding circles, suggesting that post-war reconstruction provides a unique opportunity for changing gender relations, usually disrupted when women take on new roles during conflict. However, whether such changes lead to more gender equality in the long haul, remains to be investigated. For this purpose, I will assess the quality of women's political participation in the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (NES), where a federal system of governance has been established in 2016 amidst the ongoing civil war. Applying a feminist institutionalist (FI) lens, thus centring my analysis around gendered power asymmetries, I will examine the institutional change introduced by Democratic Confederalism (DCF), whose main pillars are democratic self-governance, ethnic inclusiveness, gender equality and social ecology. By observing how newly implemented reforms interact with informal norms and practices, I aim to find out whether women's decision-making power on the ground has actually improved, or if the introduction of gender equality strategies merely serves the purpose of legitimising the federal system. The theory of feminist institutionalism addresses the relationship between informal institutions, institutional change and gender, a relationship neglected by mainstream IR. In this thesis, I will identify social norms (informal institutions) based on constructions about femininity and masculinity (gender) that might stymie institutional change (policies aimed at gender equality). I argue that actors are not simply constrained by institutions, but also constitute them by adapting to, resisting, or circumventing institutional change, thereby shaping the exercise of power. I will operationalise the quality of women's political participation by evaluating the effects of quotas and gender mainstreaming in institutions, analysing DCF's gender discourse, and observing debates about "women's issues". Through participant observation, I will examine how actors justify their behaviour, thereby discovering implicit gendered rules. By means of in-depth interviews, I will establish how actors view gender change and how women assess their decision-making power. In recognising that gendered power asymmetries are inherent to processes of institutional change, FI helps explain why institutional change rarely happens as intended by its designers. I consider DCF a particularly useful object of analysis because it provides a rare example in which both women and men have attempted in the midst of an ongoing conflict to bring about institutional change that aims to include women in politics and eliminate gender discrimination. By the means of this case study, I hope to devise strategies that could help minimise the extent to which social norms and practices subvert formal rule change and thus make women's political participation more meaningful in Syria and beyond.

Supervisor:Laurent Goetschel
Co-Supervisor: Elisabeth Prügl (Graduate Institute Geneva), Elizabeth Mesok


Julia Wartmann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Social and Cultural Anthropology and Arabic from the University in Zurich. She then went on to receive her MSc in International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic from the University of Edinburgh. Over the course of her Master’s degree she did a trimester at Bir Zeit University in the occupied Palestinian territories. There she was living and working with the women in the refugee camp al-Ama’ri near Ramallah. Upon finishing her degree, she successfully completed an internship at the Swiss newspaper Wochenzeitung WOZ for the international department. Her interests include democratisation and peace, radical democracy, gender and feminism, as well as class relations.

Portrait Julia Wartmann G3S

Julia Wartmann
Bernoullistrasse 14-16
4065 Basel