The following is an interview with Sawsan Abou Zainedin, a Syrian architect and urban development planner. She works as a researcher on addressing the challenges of Syria’s reconstruction and recovery with a number of organisations including with the Syrian Centre for Policy Research and the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.
What challenges do women face in HLP rights?
I think that paying attention to HLP rights and its issues is a relatively new phenomenon in the Syrian case, and so is the inclusion of women’s rights, which are easily neglected. HLP includes urban, legal, economic and media dimensions, and they became clearly visible since mid-2012, when the regime began to adapt the urban system as a strategy within the war. On the other hand, and according to what previous conversations have taught us, feminism is a mode of thinking that has been demonised, or at best it is considered the product of women who have special privileges, and who have the luxury of discussing things with a gender lens.
The Syrian war has highlighted many challenges tied to HLP rights, especially the problematic reality for women within this issue. In this sense, the war revealed the role of women, after the absence of men. Here, a change has occurred to the stereotypical gender roles within the family. Syrian women became responsible for the family after arrests and forced disappearances focused on men. This gave additional responsibilities to women, but also brought them in direct confrontation with rights issues: family properties, in most cases, are registered in the names of males who are now gone or being pursued by security forces, and there is no way for women to deal with these properties—that is, if these family-owned properties were not already confiscated under the provisions of the terrorism court.
This issue is not related just to laws directly concerning HLP issues, but also to the overall set of regulations and customs that have drastically impacted women’s rights since before 2011. For example, Syrian women do not have the right to pass on their nationality or surname to their children. This became a very complex problem during the war, amid the widespread phenomenon of women marrying foreign fighters or men of unknown descent, whether by force or voluntarily. Children [of such marriages] have been deprived of even a surname. Can a child be considered the descendent of a father known only as Abu Al-Qaaqaa? This matter has automatically reflected on issues of inheritance and ownership.
So, it seems that we are facing an overlap of two rights issues—HLP rights and women’s rights—at a time that has radically changed the nature of gender roles within the Syrian family.
In truth, HLP rights are a direct dimension, in which the exclusions that women face in the Syrian context are reflected or manifested under the control of numerous de facto powers. The most important aspect of this issue is the overlap of discriminatory structures against women that were present prior to the Syrian revolution, and the change in stereotypical gender roles due to the war. Women have come to the fore in everyday life, in the sense of their responsibility and sustenance of the family, accompanied by a real clash with legal and social discriminatory structures.
What is needed is to widen the gulf between these two poles—meaning to prevent, through legal pathways and societal efforts, a return to the discriminatory structures of pre-2011. That is, to refuse to reproduce the same system that brought about the current devastation. This is done by requiring any legal efforts for social justice to not place women’s rights second, but rather to consider them an essential part of solving property rights issues in their broadest sense. This must be accompanied by work to change the exclusionary social practices against women and building on the increased societal awareness taking place on the ground after Syrian women took on the position of production and responsibility within the family institution.
How can, as a strategy, HLP issues be given a feminist dimension?
The presence of women, in a gendered sense, within any group will contribute to highlighting feminist issues, as the experiences of women in various issues—with their diverse array of affiliations and privileges—differ from the experiences of men. This makes women more capable of understanding the discriminatory structures that govern their experiences, and of highlighting them.
The female presence within any platform reflects on its dynamics in one way or another, and discussions become more focused around rights issues—without falling into the trap of hierarchy in which women’s rights issues are typically low among the priorities. Over time, the presence of some cliches will be diminished, such as: “There are thousands of forcibly displaced people, whose lost rights must be addressed before we address women’s issues”. This decrease will also be linked to a shift in focus from those who have legitimate and documented HLP rights within the legal structures that already exist in Syria, and their legal means of defence, to mainstream discussions around the right to housing, right to land, and right to secure tenure, with a focus on the rights of marginalised groups and those most vulnerable to exclusion—that is, introducing concepts of social justice, and not being limited to general legal rights.