Semi-Open Doors

The Political Participation of Syrian Women Refugees in France

Farah Youssef

After six years of the so-called European migration crisis, the issue of political participation of the asylum community started to be tackled in the academic and administrative public space in France. Civil society and governmental initiatives, individual and collective efforts, success and failures stories all revolve around the belief in the right and duty of refugee women and men to contribute to decisions that crucially affect them.

Once a refugee woman receives the asylum decision, her rights to official political participation are automatically forfeited; no casting a ballot or running for candidacy in the country of origin. For example, a woman refugee is not entitled to participate in the presidential elections at the Syrian Regime’s embassy in Paris, and the same applies to the host country before she obtains her citizenship. The doors of official participation are closed, but the ones of unofficial participation remain open, or semi-open, to be more specific.

In the following, we review the context and experiences of women who believe in political participation and were active to varying degrees in Syria before they became refugees and are still willing to play a role in the Syrian political arena on the one hand, and the French on the other. We try to monitor some of the obstacles between the Syrian refugee woman and her voice at the French level.

Upon losing the meaning of something, a question is raised: Does the participation in a space where we do not speak the language, metaphorically and for real, seem realistic? What demands might concern the refugees apart from demonstrating against amending the immigration and asylum laws and a march calling for respecting the rights of asylum seekers?

The French citizen woman stands under the umbrella of her country’s public affairs. She chooses the issues that affect and concern her to be active for, and her action can voluntarily extend to include international issues or local issues of countries she does not belong to and do not directly affect her life. 

The matter is different for the Syrian refugee woman, who holds in one hand the umbrella of the Syrian cause that vitally affects her, and she may have voluntarily chosen to work for it. On the other hand, there is the umbrella of asylum and integration affairs that intervene in the details of her daily life. Besides, the French public affair surrounds her as an enormous, vague umbrella where she has no hand in but may want to have.

The need to organize energy, time, and attention rises here. It happens that exile imposes itself on the exiled. Thus, finding a practical arrangement of priorities, measuring the amount of Here and There becomes vital in the refugee’s political composition. Further, it is essential to reconsider the position of politics in her life and the channels of participation she wishes to use as the exile transforms from an emergency to a new life.

Language: The First Closed Door

Perhaps the first step to understanding and interacting with the environment is language. Despite being a country of immigration and asylum, and despite the constant debate about the importance of improving the programs and efforts, the integration policy in France is still unable to provide intensive and effective language education that enables the refugee community to work and integrate. Numerous reports are annually issued to analyze the problems of the lessons provided by the French Office for Immigration and Asylum. These lessons provide education up to the A1 level that helps only to “survive” and does not come close to the necessary level for integrating in French society. In addition, asylum seekers are deprived of any formal language education in the period between applying for the asylum and the approval decision, which may extend for several years. This training does not take into account the great diversity of the refugee community at the academic, professional and age levels.

Government programs share the burden with civil society organizations, but they remain less than the needs. Moreover, the programs are not distributed in a balanced manner among small cities, city centers, and the capital. Women refugees face a double challenge as programs are not always designed to suit women’s needs and the challenges of accessing women. Programs specifically targeting women are few, and child care solutions are not sufficient for everyone, especially for single mothers.

Najwa G. is a Syrian refugee who arrived in France five years ago, she left Damascus after her minor son was forcibly conscripted into the Syrian army and her attempts to find him failed. Najwa, a feminist since her teens, believed in the importance of political participation. She even wanted to run for the People’s Assembly at the age of twenty-four, but her application was rejected because she did not fulfill the legal age requirement. Najwa later worked in a government sector institution, and she witnessed corruption, partisanships, and mafias, as she put it, so she lost the desire to occupy a position in that landscape. She pursued her social activity, as she calls it, on a low scale, through forums discussing women’s rights and amending the constitution, and with the start of the revolution, she tried to encourage her colleagues and co-workers to sit in, but they refused out of fear.

Najwa’s asylum was approved in six months, she considers herself fortunate that members of her family helped her with the administrative procedures, but it took seven months from her to find a French course with three days a week by one of the associations. Thus, she worked to improve her French level individually at home.

“I decided to scream, and my cry would be the cry of all women who are unable to speak. I wanted to talk about my son who was kidnapped by the Regime, the least I can do”. That was Najwa’s main motive in France to break the silence imposed by her poor French and psychological state as a mother who does not know whether her son is still alive or not. “I isolated myself, I was psychologically tired, and my language did not help me to communicate. The way they teach French here needs to be updated, especially for the Orientals who did not speak French in the past. Learning French is not mandatory, and it is difficult to find a course. I was in a distant city on the outskirts of Paris and transportation was very difficult. I was following the news, all news matters to me, but the translation exhausted me.”

Najwa’s participation was limited to the Syrian issue and inside Syrian gatherings, but she considers that to be the first step and she considers overcoming challenges a form of gratitude to France, which “protected her and her eldest son”, as she believes women’s political participation a benefit to the society as a whole, “raising the political awareness of women, making them aware of their rights and duties is central to the progress of the state,” asserts Najwa.

As for Wejdan Nassif, a feminist political activist and former detainee, who obtained asylum in France in 2014 and after a busy political career in Syria, she continued her action, since she arrived, in various forms and for different causes. Wejdan agrees that there are shortcomings of language education programs for women refugees. “Language is the cornerstone and the most important tool for participation,” as a report prepared by the “France the Land of Asylum” organization highlights, “as it is proven that language proficiency is closely linked to other areas of integration (employment, housing, citizenship…), which highlights the need to develop a comprehensive approach to the policies that aim at refugee integration”. However, English helped her for a while to communicate, as well as her social nature and persistence to learn French and resume her political and social activities.

Therefore, the first step of integration falters, and this causes a delay in many milestones. Perhaps the most prominent repercussions are in the labor market, as statistics show that the employment rate of refugee women is lower than that of refugee men. As for the quality of work, the difference is clearer between the two sexes, as more women are obliged to occupy positions lower than their original positions in their countries of origin or their qualifications compared to men.

“Our economic situation is bad. I arrived in France at the age of 50. In Syria, I was about to retire, and here I am starting from scratch. How can we establish effective participation if we are not strong and able to live a decent and normal life? How do I participate?” With these questions, Najwa explains how reality influences her ability to participate in politics. Even if a refugee woman succeeds in integration by overcoming the language barrier, she would encounter many barriers, perhaps the most prominent of which are: the law and the different structure of the political scene from that in Syria.

Legal Challenges and the Different Political Scene

As mentioned earlier, women refugees do not have the right to vote or run for office in France before obtaining the French citizenship, adding to this the poor official legal/ political education in France. This education passes through civil training, the integration course – as Syrian women and men would like to call it, which happens over the course of two days, extended in 2019 to four days, in French. There, women and men refugees are presented with the basic values, the history, the geography of France, health, work, then the topics of children’s rights, school life, and finally housing in France were added.

On the one hand, this brief training does not offer pathways to exercise civil rights under the absence of the right to vote. Additionally, it does not sufficiently include sections related to women’s rights. Moreover, it does not take place in a safe environment that allows women refugees to ask about her rights and tools for legal, social, and political empowerment.

There, in our country, and over decades of al-Baath rule, the two Assads did their best to dry up the channels of political participation and stifle any spaces for influencing public affairs. With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, we were exploring our tools, creating coordination committees and organizational mechanisms. The revolution was a huge laboratory for experimentation, in which we sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed.

While in France, in a semi-presidential system of government, the role of the broad spectrum of political parties, and the importance of partisan experience in making politicians and influencing public policy that control all aspects of the country, cannot be overlooked. This political climate is nothing like the experience of living under one-party rule.

Women refugees must then learn about the idea of ​​an effective party, the deployment of parties on the political map, the relationships between them, their relationships with totalitarian regimes, and their position on issues of immigration and asylum, and then find the most appropriate ways to join the suitable party if they believe in partisan work, or even read the electoral programs to select women/ men candidates in the elections.

The balloting boxes do not cancel the French women’s and men’s fondness of owning the streets, as they do not seem ready to give up the power of strikes, demonstrations and marches or limit their role in influencing the public policy, and union and student organizations occupy a central position in their political life. This seems to be consistent with the way in which Syrians in Syria had expressed, shouting out loud in the streets and demanding rights despite all accompanied risks. But a demonstration in France has a different meaning, and violence has other means, and the issue goes beyond the belief in anarchism over every land and under every sky, and our precious experiences are not enough to be actors and influencers to the extent that we are affected by it.

In Syria, Najwa was deliberately reluctant to formal political participation, “I wish to vote in France. I did not participate in Syria, not once, because it was a fake election, but I am waiting for citizenship here to be elected. With citizenship, I am a citizen.” Najwa’s voice shines up when she says “citizen”, but she does not disregard the difficulties of exploring the political agendas of women and men candidates, primarily because of the language barrier, and the different political scene from that in our country.

For Wejdan Nassif, the right to vote is one of the main tools she seeks to enjoy as well, and she does not mind joining a party in France “if its values get along with hers, if it advocates for the just cross-border causes, democratic, intuitively respects women, active and makes a difference”. However, she does not hinder its entire activity waiting for these rights.

Both Najwa and Wejdan resort to civil society to confront the blockage of official participation channels and to exercise their right to political participation. Najwa says: “I searched on the Internet for associations because I wanted to participate. I selected the Renaissance Association because it is concerned with Syrian women, and there, the director put me in contact with journalists. So, I spoke for the first time about my son, six years after he was kidnapped and recruited.” In addition to joining the association, Najwa established the “Hani” Association that aims at combating child recruitment and raising awareness among children and their families.

As for Wejdan, her activity is a civil and political action from a feminist perspective, as she defines it. She feels that she belongs and is free of the burdens of others’ judgments. Besides, she considers openness to the other a necessity, “that we should cross borders and not drown in our grievances and overcome the two words of Me and the Other to be able to build bridges and influence our surroundings. In addition to liberation from the fear of participating in public affairs.”

So, the path of participation starts stumbling. A woman refugee loses her official voice, and she loses her actual voice due to the difficulties of learning the language. Consequently, she is not always able to follow up on the French public affairs except through translated sources of various ideologies; a difficulty in receiving and in expressing. Despite that, cracks began to open in the decision-making bodies and public policy in France, including the intervention of women and men refugees with steady or less steady steps, trying to make their voice heard in this country.

A Seat at the Official Table

The political participation experiences of women refugees at the official level are almost non-existent. I can tell my personal experience as a Syrian woman refugee interested in political affairs. I arrived in France five years ago, and I began to understand the asylum landscape through volunteering tasks in associations concerned with escorting refugees and working on a master’s thesis on professional integration of refugees. Due to the lack of political representation of the asylum community, my interest in participating in the French political scene grew.

The establishment of the Inter-ministerial Assembly for the Reception and Integration of Refugees in 2018, under the Ministry of Interior, marked a turning point for the participation of refugees. Since its establishment, the assembly has adopted the rhetoric of “working with refugees” to understand the gaps and problems of integration in France at the various administrative, social, economic, or technological levels.

We began to notice a change in the attitude towards listening to the stakeholders and including them in the laboratories of developing the asylum process administratively, technically, socially, and politically. However, the Syrian voices were coming out of men refugees’ throats, and our presence as Syrian women remained shy and limited by all the burdens that stifle the voice of Syrian women in all public spaces. Programs are then designed based on the needs of beneficiaries, but many of the women were completely isolated from the political scene. The political participation here seems to be a luxury in the asylum battle.

The work with women and men refugees was through the establishment of the Academy for the Participation of Refugees, in partnership with the High Commissioner for Refugees and the French Institute for International Affairs. Therefore, a two-year program is established to enhance the participation of refugees in the programs and policies related to them. I was accepted, along with 12 female and male refugees of multiple nationalities, on the basis of activism in the field of asylum and integration, with a requirement of a good level of French reading and writing.

I was among six women under a deliberate gender balance. It is possible to note here the great discrepancy between the numbers of male and female applicants, as only 50 female refugees applied out of a total of 235 applications. Although this number is not representative, it is one of the indicators of the status of female refugees’ participation in France.

After nine months of periodic meetings with actors from the governmental, institutional, and international sectors in order to prepare us for effective participation, I entered the Ministry of Interior and sat at the table of the strategic committee to evaluate Refugee reception and integration policies. The only woman refugee again among three refugees, and I talked about the challenges of accessing psychological care. I later accepted an invitation to participate in an intensive discussion session on the vocational integration of female and male refugees, and I spoke freely and extensively about the roots of the problems of women refugees’ access to the labor market, and I met a parliament member to discuss the participation of refugees.

That experience was one of the richest political experiences I went through in France, but it was not without difficulties. In addition to all the challenges of participation, the experience coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. I was classified as one of the lucky refugees, I have access to the Internet, I speak French, I live in a separate room and not a collective housing, a university student about to graduate, but this did not prevent the quarantine from leaving heavy psychological and physical impact on me, nor did it prevent me from facing severe financial burdens with us being prevented from leaving our homes.

After several months, and unlike the people who lost their jobs due to the health crisis, I worked in the French Ministry of Health and Solidarity in the Crisis Management Center, which needed all possible expertise. I was the only woman refugee, and I was not shocked by that, and there was not enough color diversity, and I was not shocked by that either. Although my work was purely administrative, I was at the heart of the political decision, watching closely and daily the hierarchies, contexts, and mechanisms by which not only the affairs of the health crisis were managed, but also everything related to public health and solidarity. At a time when the refugee community was experiencing one of its most severe crises, the consultation of its members was not offered at the ministry level. Coincidentally, my work environment offered a rich political education.

I had an acceptable economic status, there was not much to spend on when we finished work after the quarantine time in the evening. In addition, we worked on weekends as well, except for paying the rent and bills, there was nothing to spend on, so I was able to invest myself in an organized sharing project.

These invitations and initiatives, despite their importance, remain limited and concentrated in the inter-ministerial assembly for reception and asylum, a body of which presence may completely eliminate the rightists’ access to the French presidency. It also remains financially burdensome for those women wishing to participate. More importantly, it is not representative due to the absence of electoral mechanisms. Furthermore, it is unable in the short term to address the institutional shortcomings in building a solid health foundation that allows for the effective participation of refugee women, not only in the policies that affect them, but also in a manner that leads to real citizenship.

The path to women’s political participation has never been easy. There is still a long way for Syrian refugee women in France to create channels through which their voice can pass, despite language difficulties, legal challenges, and the fragility of official and unofficial initiatives. Nevertheless, those steps go towards one goal, a common building of public policy, and women’s restoration of their voices.