Alex Howlett speaks to Lubna Alkanawati, the country manager of Women Now For Development, a Syrian women's rights organisation about the work they have done, life under siege in Eastern Ghouta and women's rights in Syria both before and since the conflict. Alex writes for the Financial Times, the Times Literary Supplement, Polyester Zine and XXY Magazine. She is co-editor of Plathoes Cave Magazine and Wander Women Community.
Lubna Alkanawati sounds busy. She has stayed home today, in Turkey, to work because she has to pick her son up from school later. As we speak on the phone, I can hear her multi-tasking as she tells me about Syrian women who have campaigned for women’s rights alongside finding ways to continue fulfilling roles as wives and mothers while living under siege.
‘Women’s rights have vanished from the area’
Before 2011, Alkanawati worked as a schoolteacher in Eastern Ghouta. But when conflict broke out in Syria, her life and her career changed drastically.
She quickly became involved in a nascent women’s rights organisation, Women Now for Development (Women Now), established in 2012. Because of Alkanawati’s work as a teacher, which meant that she “connected with women every day”, she quickly understood that these same women would need various kinds of support while living under siege. “I figured out that they needed to know about their rights and be empowered.”
By the end of 2013, Women Now had created four community centres; 3 in Syria and 1 in Lebanon. Alkanawati was working as Centre Manager while living in Ghouta, which came under siege by the Syrian army in May 2013.She now lives in Turkey where she works as Country Director for Women Now, continuing to work for the rights of Syrian women despite the distance. However, when they first started out as an organisation, she came across some very different challenges. “There wasn’t any space just for women in the area. People were not really familiar with this kind of activity. It was strange. They were asking, ‘what are you doing here? Why are you opening a centre?"
It was usually military groups, rather than local residents, who asked the questions, in case the women were going to undertake activities which might “cause problems”. On top of that, they struggled to find a safe venue because the city was being shelled.
Despite this, women started coming to the centre every single day and by the end of the first month, 300 were turning up. They had, and still have, waiting lists because of their literacy courses and opportunities to learn English, among other projects. Women can learn about negotiation, debating, team management, international law and citizenship policies.
“With this kind of slave life you are working all the time without any kind of appreciation. It’s abnormal. The passion that women have for self-development is amazing. It makes them feel alive”
“With this kind of slave life you are working all the time without any kind of appreciation. It’s abnormal. The passion that women have for self-development is amazing. It makes them feel alive”, Alkanawati says. The war has affected women’s lives even more outside the home than it has inside. She describes how “women rights have vanished from the area. They already didn’t exist, but it is very serious that women don’t have space to talk to each other, or to think about their futures. They hold the community together.”
Alkanawati emphasises how much Syrian women have been up against, even before 2011. “There were no rights before the revolution. Everything in Syria before was decoration. When the revolution started it revealed all these issues. Yes, women could go to school. But if you look at the Syrian government’s law, we still have honour crime. Women can be killed at any time and the killer will be free if it is for honour.” This is the shocking tradition of killing women for having ‘illicit’ sex; for which lenient Syrian law hardly acts as a deterrent, most recently leading to the death of Rasha Bseis at the hand of her brother.
Alkanawati lists the ways that women’s lives are restricted by both law and tradition: women cannot give citizenship to their children, they are not seen as equal with men, they are stereotyped into taking on much of the domestic labour. “You can’t demand anything. No one can gather. Under any condition. No union or group – nothing.” She describes how she considers herself “a very powerful woman” but has still been affected by these restrictions. Before the revolution, she had economic independence, access to higher education and came from a “supportive, open and secular” family. But when she wanted to divorce her partner, she had to beg him: she wasn’t able to do so herself.
But, for Alkanawati, it is not just about women’s experiences. Especially in a conflict zone, the whole system has to be overhauled to achieve basic human rights.
“We have conditions in the country where all sides have lost people, all sides have been abused. There’s no call for accountability. These criminals should be accountable. You cannot implement human rights under war conditions. Because there’s no logic at all. People are controlled by guns. Even very simple rights are not provided, like the right for life. You can die at any minute with no one to protect your life.”
I ask her, hesitantly, about President Assad, and the impossibility of advancing human rights with Assad as head of state. Even here, she assiduously emphasises that it is more complicated. “I do believe Assad should go, but it’s not just Assad or one person. We need to increase social cohesion again to fix everything between the Syrians.” It is essential for more women to be present at “the big conversations”, as Alkanawati refers to them, for change to be implemented. A report from 2012 by UN Women revealed that only nine per cent of negotiators globally were female. According to Dr. Karin Aggestam, Professor of Political Science at Lund University, “peace negotiations in particular are ingrained with masculinised norms of power”.
“peace negotiations in particular are ingrained with masculinised norms of power”.
In Syria, women have been coping and overcoming the biggest challenges – proving the necessity of their presence in both local and national negotiation and diplomacy. “In the toughest moments, like when the offensive happened in eastern Ghouta and people were displaced from the area, we managed to prove that everything we had been working on with Women Now, such as civic engagement and participation, was having amazing results”, Alkanawati says.
“The situation [in eastern Ghouta] was horrible. But big changes happen to women and they show you how empowered they are, despite how bad the situation is.”
Women Now has proved the necessity of organisations which provide spaces for women, “to think of their futures”, in Alkanawati’s words. Local Syrian women’s futures should equally be part of the future of their country.
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