By Sheila Lyall Grant and Huberta von Voss-Wittig in New York
Today, we are all real-time eyewitnesses to what is happening in the world, and this puts us in a position of responsibility. Those courageous Syrians who are uploading videos on YouTube about the horrendous violence they face every day are risking their lives in doing so. They do not want us to ignore their message. They hope we will not only watch it, but react. "With thousands of children killed, wounded, detained and left without families, the world must know about this atrocity for medical aid and humanitarian assistance to reach them," claims the NGO Rise 4 Humanity.
In this digital age, we decided to write an online petition to Asma al-Assad in which we urged her to stand up for peace in this very crucial moment in Syria. The petition was combined with the film "Stop Being a Bystander," which was produced independently without sponsorship. It poses the question: When your children ask you 'What did you do to stop the bloodshed?' what will your answer be? We still hope she will say: "I waited too long to speak out for peace, but in the end, I did."
The objective was to gather global support from other women to pressure Asma, as a former modernizer, to use her influence in her own right. The global response to this petition was beyond our expectations: Within one month, more than 37,000 people, including an unexpectedly large number of men, have supported the appeal. We have received signatures from 167 countries. Every single signature is important, but it is noticeable how many have come from Syria and its neighboring countries, as well as from China, Russia and Iran. Nearly 300,000 people in almost every corner of the world, including thousands of Syrians, have watched the film on YouTube. Asma has not reacted to this petition, and we did not expect a direct response. But there is no doubt that she has gotten the message. We know this initiative has been discussed widely in Syria.
The Middle Eastern journalist known as Shahrazad has also written an open letter to Asma in which she expresses her disappointment with Asma's complicity: "When the violence is spent, don't whine about what was beyond your control; how you were somehow the victim. At times like this, semper paratus should be your guide."
We believe that it is not too late for action. We hope that, after being a leader in her society and a defender of women's rights, she will assume her responsibility and do whatever she can so that other women are empowered to do the same. Many victims in armed conflicts are women, but some women become compliant by staying loyal to murderous husbands and brothers. All those who supported the petition believe that women who seek and assume responsibility in their societies cannot relinquish it when the situation gets difficult by relapsing into the I-am-just-the-spouse role. We are all accountable for our behavior as individuals.
We know that Asma's word is not now powerful enough to end the violence in Syria. But, we are also certain that, by using her personal influence on the Syrian leader, she could still make a difference. We wonder whether Asma, who used to be an asset for the Assad regime, wants to be remembered as a second Elena Ceausescu of the Middle East. We know that speaking out is a dilemma for her. We know that it is a risk. But somebody within the regime needs to stand up for the women and the 6 million children of Syria. We believe that she still might be the one.
It is easy to be skeptical and cynical, to question whether creating awareness and sending out a moral message can actually change the course of events. It is still common to underestimate the role that women are able and willing to play in modern societies. Without their courage, their risk-taking and support, the Arab Spring would not have come about. The people in the Middle East have asked for freedom. Women will have their own expectations regarding the range of personal choices for their own lives. There is no doubt that women will be most needed in the reconciliation process after the end of violence.
A growing number of people in civil society are refusing to remain passive observers in the face of government-sponsored violence around the world. Maybe they think: If that happened in my country, would I not hope that other people wouldn't look the other way, but try to help as best they could?
Civil society cannot offer protection. But it can stimulate a public response that makes politicians react. It can appeal to the perpetrators and bystanders to stop the bloodshed. It can help to make sure that they are not getting away with it. It can offer hope to the victims, especially those who cannot speak up for themselves yet.
Is that enough? No, of course not. But we believe that each of us should do whatever little we can to raise our voice against this bloodshed in the heart of the Middle East.
Huberta von Voss-Wittig is the wife of Germany's ambassador to the UN. Sheila Lyall Grant is the wife of Britain's ambassador to the UN.
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