Lubna Alkanawati would love to return to Syria one day with her son. She can’t while danger, even death, awaits.
An activist in exile for nine years, she knows first-hand why Syrians settled abroad, or living as refugees, must not be forced to return. It’s a country where civilians are still disappeared, detained, tortured, and killed.
Human rights activists are prohibited by the Syrian government from returning to their homes and in so many cases their homes no longer even exist. They were destroyed or are occupied, and ownership for tens of thousands of women is impossible to prove without a missing spouse’s death certificate.
Based in France, Lubna is deputy executive director of Women Now for Development, a Syrian feminist non-government organization with offices and centers in Syria, France, Lebanon, and Turkey – the latter two countries trying to get some of millions of displaced Syrians to leave.
“We are involved in so many platforms working on the non-voluntary return or the forced return or the deportation, there are a lot of names for it,” Lubna said in an interview. “A lot of people who've been returned have been arrested, tortured, and forced to do awful things, like giving testimony about things that never happened.
“They cannot force them to return because Syria is not safe. Before talking about return, we really need to build an effective system to hold the Syrian regime accountable for human rights violations they have committed.”
Activism against forced returns is one element of Women Now for Development’s work supporting grassroots Syrian women’s groups inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.
Her activism began during the 2011 civilian uprising against the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. A graphic artist, Lubna was on the front lines of demonstrations. “It wasn’t all about being poor. I had a very good life, a good income, but I was without any freedom, especially freedom of speech or, as a woman, women’s rights.”
As the revolution turned deadly in 2012 and 2013, Lubna worked in the resistance movement in rebel held Eastern Ghouta on the suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus. As well as organizing demonstrations, she worked in medical relief. It was an eye opener.
“I was entering a lot of houses to deliver services to women like injections, changing bandages or giving them medicine. It allowed me to see closely how women suffered inside their own homes.”
Over the next months, she witnessed horror and hunger. She was in Ghouta when Assad forces massacred hundreds of residents with rockets armed with a chemical agent on Aug. 21, 2013. Residents starved living under siege.
While women were top organizers in the resistance at first, Lubna said the more militarized the Syrian revolution became, the less accepted were women in leadership roles. Her office had become a busy hub and she was personally threatened with death by regime and opposition patrols.
On Dec 9, 2013 an armed group kidnapped human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and fellow activists Wael Hamada, Samira Alkhalil, and Nazim Hammadi. It was a tipping point.
“I was very afraid,” Lubna recalled. She waited for a chance to be smuggled out of Ghouta. Then in August 2014, she got her chance. Through an underground tunnel, then using fake ID, Lubna made it to northern Syria and over the border into Turkey.
She established the Women Now for Development office in Turkey and lived there until moving last year to France, where she has shifted from day-to-day operations to strategic roles of advocacy, fundraising, management, and program planning.
Combatting gender-based violence plays a big role in her activism. “Sometimes I try to split my personal and public life, but I can't. I was sexually harassed when I was six years old. I couldn’t defend myself. As a woman human rights defender now, I really know how hard it is to experience gender-based violence or sexual violence.”
She gets frustrated as the world creeps toward normalizing the Assad regime. But for her, “there is no way back.”
The resourcefulness of women in Syria keeps her motivated. She tells of a group of teachers at a Women Now for Development centre who continued their courses by forming a WhatsApp group, despite shelling and bombing. “It shows you that those people don't want to let go of what they believe,” she said. “They have a kind of purpose I want to support any way I can.”
A big challenge is a lack of priority on women’s rights in Syrian society. “Women’s rights are seen as a Western trend; it’s a patriarchal system,” she said. “The word feminist is considered a call for women to divorce their husbands and abandon their caring duties for the family, for children. We need to work on the language, on the discourse.”
Peace is a process, not just a word or an agreement, Lubna emphasized, citing the examples of fragility in Iraq and Lebanon. “The kind of peace that exists in the region is very fragile. It's not sustainable. It's more like organized chaos. If you go deep inside in the community, there is no peace at any level.”
She said people need to feel safe and have recourse to real justice. “The courts will not be enough to bring justice to people who have lost their entire family or their property or spent several years in prisons, or women who have been raped and lost everything. It is very important to hold criminals accountable, but this must be combined with justice that makes victims feel at least that they can move on, they can start to recover and heal.”
Even though it’s exhausting, she finds herself constantly setting the record straight about what has happened in Syria in the face of massive disinformation. She believes this will help establish accountability.
“I'm sure that it will,” she said. “This is not just a dream for me; this is what history tells us about social change. It takes time.”
“So far, what's really helped me to survive is the women’s network around me. I always feel this powerful solidarity and I never feel alone.”
Lubna Alkanawati is a feminist peace and women’s rights activist from Syria based in France. She is deputy executive director of Women Now for Development, a Syrian feminist NGO active in Syria, France, Lebanon, and Turkey.
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ABOUT THE 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN
The 2022 Nobel Women's Initiative's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign features interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, these human rights defenders pursue peace as one pathway to reducing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.