On the Syrian Feminist Effort in Political Action

Challenges and Strategies of Political Action Before Syrian Women in Germany

Wadiaa Ferzly

It is not easy for most Syrian women to achieve their professional goals in the various fields of work, given that they work in environments and workplaces which are non-supportive of women’s work and the development of their professional experiences. Professional difficulties get more complicated in politics, where women cannot get through and work except after strenuous and doubled efforts, especially since political work in the Syrian context enjoys a wide gender gap and is dominated by men. In addition to the lack of systems and laws that support and protect the participation and representation of women in the political decision-making positions and in political formations, to say the least: they expel women. While developing this report and conducting interviews with women activists, politician Alice Mfarrej described the Syrian political work as an incinerator. The lawyer Jumana Seif represented the challenges as harsh and unfair to women activists and workers in politics. This makes us say that, to this day, the practice of political work by women can only be achieved with hard work and after making continuous sacrifices at the personal and professional levels.

About 20 years ago, in 2000, Resolution No. 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security was adopted unanimously by the Security Council to take the necessary measures in issues related to the participation of women in the decision-making and peace processes and to integrate gender in training and peacekeeping and to protect women. In addition, it aimed to integrate gender into all United Nations reporting systems and program implementation mechanisms. Today, we reconsider the dynamics of enforcing that resolution in the Syrian opposition political bodies formed after 2011, and women’s continued political work even after the forced migration and arrival to Germany, including several prominent women in the Syrian political life, who played a significant role in critical political files of the Syrian cause, such as the file of detainees and missing persons, the file of trials and justice paths in Germany, and the file of Syrian refugees in Germany.

We interviewed three women activists in political and civil work residing in the German capital, Berlin. The dialogues revolved around the difficulties of political work faced by women, the strategies of women and feminist political work in the current political practice, and the fruits of this feverish effort during the past ten years.

The first interview was with Jumana Seif, a human rights activist born in Damascus, cofounder of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, and a cofounder of the Syrian Women’s Network. Jumana joined the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in May 2017, working on the issue of sexual violence and gender-based crimes more than three years ago. We also met with the feminist activist and politician Alice Mfarrej, born in As-Suwayda Governorate. She started her political activity from the Communist Action Party and became a leader in the party with the start of the Syrian revolution. She worked with feminist coordination committees to support and empower women in conflict areas. Then, she founded the Syrian Women’s Network in Sweden and participated in the initiative of Syrian Women for Peace and Democracy under the auspices of the United Nations and the establishment of the Political Feminist Movement. She is a member of the Constitutional Committee and the Negotiating Committee and was elected in Geneva 4 to be the deputy head of the negotiating delegation. The last interview was with Mariana Karkoutly, a Syrian human rights defender and civil activist working in international investigations and crimes against humanity investigations, such as the crimes of siege and systematic starvation that took place in Syria. She is a founding member of Huquqiyat Organization. She worked with Adopt a Revolution Foundation in its political education program. Besides, she worked in Visions for Syria Initiative and participated in establishing the Unsafe Syria Campaign, which emphasizes the importance of not deporting Syrian refugees to Syria. Three interviews enriched this report and helped draw a map of the strenuous feminist political effort in the political process, its strategies, and intersections with the political and humanitarian issues that concern Syrians in Syria, as well as refugees and forcibly displaced people outside it.

Difficulties of Political Work:

Women and men face great difficulties and challenges in practicing politics under dictatorial regimes that do not recognize the political pressure and do not allow a just and democratic political life for all parties, as this was the case before the revolution. However, it is becoming more complicated for women who decide to engage in politics for several reasons, including the political milieu itself, and the surrounding communities that practice pressure over women and try to stereotype them using social molds that empty their political activity of its essential meaning. Jumana Seif entered the political fray when her father, Riyad Seif, was arrested for five years from 2001 to 2006 and was stripped of his full civil rights. She was appointed as her father’s legal guardian and spokesperson. “Back then, my father was forcibly disappeared, but he was also left alone, as it was not possible to provide support to him because this poses a security risk to everyone. I decided to support him legally and politically. I remember that the source of violence at that time was not only the authority but I was also subjected to stressful societal violence, as a woman who worked in politics and was seen as vulnerable and prone to arrest at any moment, that did not allocate enough time to take care of her family and children. I was always held responsible, so in case any harm happened to me or my relatives, I would be the only one to be blamed because I knew the outcomes of that battle and what the Regime was capable of. The main supporter at that time was my close friends who were not involved in politics but were in solidarity with me.”1 This was political work for many years, even before the revolution. However, after the revolution and after the formation of opposition political bodies, the manifestations of men’s dominance over political bodies became clear. Jumana tells us about one of the meetings to expand the National Council, where she accompanied her father. A large number of women political and human rights activists attended that meeting. But when selecting members of the executive office, not one woman was chosen from all the female participants. “The role of women was not seen as essential or foundational, but rather it comes in later stages of the political action.”2

Local contexts and Syrian political circles practiced pressure on women. Still, after the years of war and revolution, the transition to diaspora made political work even more difficult on the professional, personal, and psychological levels.

As for Alice Mfarrej, who was arrested twice in Syria because of her political work, and after she survived the bombing because of her civil work in the conflict zones, she was obliged after her second release to move to Beirut. Alice shared with us the stages of that enforced movement and asylum: “Beirut depleted us, psychologically, financially, and even on the security level. It was a very difficult year for my family and myself, and we were all still traumatized by detention, raids, and bombardments. The moment I arrived in Beirut, I decided to practice civil work with women in the Syrian camps in Lebanon. But after a year, we obtained political asylum right in Germany. So I moved with my family here. In Germany, I faced different challenges, including the language barrier that prevented me from integrating into German society and managing my family life. I used to be responsible for many things, now my husband is. Not knowing the language put me in several racist situations at airports while I’m traveling. As for my financial and livelihood situation, everyone knows I do not receive any compensation for my political work, and this is a principle that I am committed to it. On the other hand, from time to time, I face bureaucratic pressure from the German authorities that threaten the financial stability of me and my family. Despite the difficulties of learning the language, I was able to make use of my presence in Germany to work, coordinate, and network with German decision-makers. Now I have started learning the language and establishing a study center in Berlin, which will positively affect me on the personal and professional level.”3 The living conditions that Alice suffers from are similar to the living difficulties that a large group of Syrian refugee women and men suffer from in Germany. Nevertheless, as in Alice’s case, the political action requires her to devote herself to it fully. She has to move among multiple countries, attend meetings, negotiations, and follow Syria’s political and military developments. Nonetheless, individuals cannot pay for this effort themselves through personal sacrifices. Therefore, support, compensation, and facilitations are required from the German state to allow the political activist Alice and other women working in the political field to closely engage in the political process.

On the other hand, human rights advocate and civil activist Mariana Karkoutly thinks that the different age category and the different starting point of the political and civil action (in her case, it is Germany) were critical factors for overcoming the gender barriers in front of her as an activist woman. Personally, she did not face gender discrimination in Germany since the start of her civil and human rights work, as she arrived in Germany first to obtain a master’s degree in the field of social work and human rights. Mariana says: “since the start of my academic education here, I have been amid academic circles that are against all forms of racism and that enable women and men to possess tools to combat all forms of racial and gender discrimination. I am fully aware that my experience is a luxury compared to many people, and I am aware that it does not represent the experiences of Syrian women in Germany. I can say that in one way or another I did not fight a war with gender discrimination against me. But now that I belong to a younger age group, I am enjoying the fruits of previous battles other women fought at the level of gender discrimination in earlier stages.”4

Strategies of Political Action from a Feminist Perspective

It is worth noticing, that in all the interviews with the women activists in political and civil work, they affirmed their devotion to political action first. As well, they asserted the need to organize those efforts in political entities that bring together Syrians interested in political work in different geographical locations. Both Jumana Seif and Alice Mfarrej noted the need for perseverance and the importance of women’s devotion to political work. This can be understood in the context of the feminist political struggle and its history in political life in Syria or in the opposition political bodies that were formed after the revolution. The percentage of women’s participation in the political scene, which Alice mentioned to us, is really low, almost not exceeding 4% in all Syrian political bodies. Alice added “In the previous negotiating delegation of the High Negotiating Committee, there were 20 men and only 3 women, but now there are 37 men and 5 women. I am now a member of the Constitutional Committee where there are 50 men and only 6 women.5” These small percentages, as she explains to us, let women bear the burden of representation, attendance, and work-sharing among themselves, specifically regarding the gendered political process. ALice argued “In addition to my work on the file of detainees and missing persons, I work with my colleagues Basma al-Qudmani and Dima Moussa on gendering the entire political process. The three of us are obliged to make a great effort in addition to working on other files and following up on the negotiation process.”6

There is a need to organize the effort and create partnerships with feminist institutions, such as the Syrian Women Political Movement, which was co-founded by Jumana Seif and Alice Mfarrej, with the participation of other women politicians and activists. Jumana believes that “This movement includes a large number of women from inside and outside Syria. So, I am really proud of our ability to include this large number of women. We are working on preparing policy papers from a feminist point of view, after engaging in a collective discussion among people, in which the female participants present various views and discuss topics from different dimensions that would clarify confusion and build bridges between Syrian women inside Syria and outside it. This in itself is a significant achievement towards a participatory political process.”7 In the same context, Alice Mfarrej emphasized the same point that is developing policy papers from a feminist point of view and its great future importance in the transitional stages, which can guarantee wide participation of women.

It is not possible to achieve this organization and establish feminist political entities and movements without flogging and opposing the Syrian political environment that repels women. Jumana believes that several women participants in political work made a mistake in refraining from political participation or, at some point, withdrawing from these political bodies. Thus, this led actually to marginalize and expel women in different ways and forms. Nevertheless, the matter requires patience and that women do not neglect their political roles and positions.”8 This is what Alice Mfarrej agrees with: “Women should have thick skin when attending meetings and negotiations.”9 Alice does not intend to stereotype the form of women’s work in politics. Still, according to her experience, she reminds us that “women tend to seek peaceful solutions and coexistence, of course, I do not intend to stereotype, political work does not stereotype the roles of women and the roles of men. Yet, we notice that the percentage of women who withdraw from political work is large compared to that of men, who become independent in the event of political divisions or disagreements, but do not withdraw from politics as women do in most cases. We have to focus on a very important point and benefit from it, which is that women succeed in linking political action to the ground and civil work. Hence, they are active in organizing initiatives, and these initiatives are inclusive of all spectrums.”10 The reasons for women’s withdrawal from political and civil work vary. Nevertheless,the environment that repels them and their work in public affairs is the main reason for their withdrawal. They are exposed to campaigns of defamation, stigmatization, and threats which affect their professional future and the future of their families in many cases. In addition to the psychological harm, they are exposed to, which men do not face during their work in politics, and thus guarantees their continuity.

Mariana stresses the need to create spaces for political discussion between Syrian women and men in Germany and with different age groups that are politically and civilly active, which is the first level of the Syrian-Syrian dialogue. These spaces enable the exchange of political experiences and knowledge and organize periodic discussions for political empowerment, which is the focus of the Visions for Syria. Besides, the political education camps for youth and the younger groups, where discussion panels address the necessary goals at the current stage pertaining Syrians in Germany, along with the recent urgent issues, and who should be addressed in order to achieve these goals.

This Syrian-Syrian dialogue parallels and prepares for the Syrian-German dialogue, which aims primarily to create a counter-narrative to the Regime’s media narrative and provide reliable sources of knowledge for the German side.

Mariana adds: “Also, working on the file of Syrian refugees requires another strategy that we have tried to implement in the Unsafe Syria Campaign, which is the campaign that I contributed to establishing, and mainly addressed the German parties in the decision-making positions, and practiced pressure on the German authorities through, for example, sending mail to the German Ministry of Interior every year, in which we stress that Syria is an unsafe country, and holding it responsible if deportation decisions are taken, and demanding a response to the mail we send. Creating channels of communication between the Syrian and German sides necessarily requires political empowerment and education, in order to know which parties to be addressed, the possible pressure from inside these parties, and how each party can be addressed.”11

The need to organize also stressed by Mariana, who co-founded Huquqiyat Organization, an institution that seeks to include a large number of Syrian legal women with rich legal and human rights experience and who are present in Germany and abroad, However, because of the language barrier, they are unable to practice their human rights action. Mariana says “We thought about the Syrian legal women scattered in different countries, and how to benefit from their expertise. Therefore, we decided in Huquqiyat to provide training services in Arabic, create a network for communication and exchange experiences and empower legal women with the tools of international law that will contribute in the future to the paths of justice and building judicial files.”

Through a panoramic view of these strategies, we find that feminist awareness and belief in the need to include more women in political and civic activity is a belief in itself of the necessity of participatory and democratic political process. This comes in order to create decision-making mechanisms and formulate a future stage from women’s and men’s point of view.

Where Are We Now?

After years of frantic effort and fatigue on all personal, social and economic levels, and given the political and social pressure to include more women in the political process and civic activism in Germany, and in the midst of a general sense of defeat, frustration and depression, it seems that any question about the achievements we have made is a stressful and frustrating question. However, the answers of the interviewees in this report carry a lot of hope and determination and are also realistic, taking into account the expectations desired for years ago. Mariana Karkoutly answers this question by thinking about the legal and judicial effort made by the Syrian women and men in Germany in the paths of justice and the rights of the victims and their families. She believes, for example, that the legal and judicial efforts in activating the jurisdiction in Germany and carrying out Koblenz trials, despite all the problems that happened, are a progress on the legal, judicial and documentary levels against war criminals, and the work on building judicial files against war crimes, which may not intend to prosecute specific perpetrators but rather document systematic crimes such as starvation and siege, are also steps towards establishing a form of justice and condemning war crimes.

As for Alice Mfarrej, she believes that the achievements of Syrian women politicians such as pushing towards a women’s participation quota of 30% in all political bodies as a result of their work in the Syrian Women Initiative for Peace and Democracy with the support of the United Nations, is a temporary positive measure in the face of regional and international quotas. It is true that it happened by a pressure from the United Nations, but it would not have happened without the organized feminist effort carried out by Syrian women who are politically and civilly active. Also, gendering any organizational or political work in the future and legalizing political work will be a cornerstone of democratization. Through gender processes, we will inevitably own the right mechanisms because they ensure participatory work.

For Jumana Seif, she confirms that the feeling of defeat and frustration is a general feeling but change always happens at a slow pace. She actually sees that during the past ten years clear features of a Syrian feminist movement emerged, calling for change from women’s point of view. It is true that the decision-making dynamics of the new political bodies are male dominated, especially the persuasive type of men who claim support to feminism as long as women in politics are neither competitors nor solid adversaries. However, feminist consciousness is now more effective, more powerful, and has become really frightening in the positive sense. Of course, the hope is in the future generations who obtain academic degrees and become fluent in the language and can convey the voice of the Syrian cause to wider German circles, so it is always necessary to convey this issue and to represent it with credibility at all times.

The map of the feminist effort, presented through the three interviews, reflects the extraordinary struggle and effort required from women to take their actual and influential positions in the political process. Furthermore, it reflects the need for solidarity and organization among women activists and politicians to take strategic and cumulative steps in improving the reality of Syrian women and their roles in political and civil action.

The significance of the political work of Jumana Seif, Alice Mfarrej, and Mariana Karkoutly stems from their work on sensitive and critical files for the Syrian issue. Their work includes a scope of topics such as the files of detainees, Syrian refugees, and the justice paths on the one hand. On the other hand, the importance of this work manifests in the persistence and devotion to building these files and working on them based on a feminist vision. Besides, this work establishes women’s political and social roles as foundational and essential in building a future Syria that guarantees justice, freedom, and human dignity.

  1. An interview with the Lawyer and Politician, Jumana Seif, by Wade’a Ferezly, 18 November 2021, Berlin
  2. ibid
  3. An interview with the Feminist Politician, Alice Mfarrej, by Wade’a Ferezly, 23 November 2021, Berlin
  4.  An interview with the Civil and Human Rights Activist, Mariana Karkoutly, by Wade’a Ferezly, 12 December 2021, Berlin
  5.  An interview with the Feminist Politician, Alice Mfarrej, by Wade’a Ferezly, 23 November 2021, Berlin
  6. ibid
  7. An interview with the Lawyer and Politician, Jumana Seif, by Wade’a Ferezly, 18 November 2021, Berlin
  8. ibid
  9. An interview with the Feminist Politician, Alice Mfarrej, by Wade’a Ferezly, 23 November 2021, Berlin
  10. ibid
  11.  An interview with the Civil and Human Rights Activist, Mariana Karkoutly, by Wade’a Ferezly, 12 December 2021, Berlin