Interview Mariah Al Abdeh – Women Now For Development
Mariah is a scientist by choice, but in times of war and upheaval, we do what we feel destined to do. That’s why Mariah’s days as a scientist are long over. for the last four years she has been the director of Women Now for Development SFD, a Syrian feminist organization supporting women and children in Syria and Lebanon. Despite her busy schedule, Mariah took the time for an interview:
SFD started in 2012 supporting about ten families. Can you tell us more about the history of the organization?
The history of the organization starts in the second year of the Syrian revolution in 2012. The initiative was started by Samar Yazbek, a well know female writer who fled Damascus from the regime because she joined the peaceful uprising in 2011 to demand liberty and democracy in Syria. Samar went back to northern Syria from her exile in Paris one year later and witnessed how the peaceful revolution had turned into a full-fledged war and how women especially in rural area she visited suffered most in the conflict. Many Syrian women found themselves overnight the sole breadwinners for their families in a country where stability and security were getting scarcer. Samar started helping those widows to continue their husband’s work to support themselves and their families.
When SFD started the war in Syria had already begun. What were the most difficult to overcome obstacles in your way to establish the organization?
Well, SFD started as a national cause with a revolution spirit to support all Syrian women to be a part of the new free Syria. Unfortunately, the peaceful revolution turned into a war and the initial project is facing lots of challenges especially in term of security. My colleagues inside Syria are working under bombings, siege, without clean water or electricity. Another challenge is the division of the country and the fact that it’s almost impossible to enter or leave Syria today. That means that all our work and communication depends on social media and internet.
It’s also worth mentioning that in addition to the ramifications of the conflict, women have to deal with the results of 50 years of state corruption and lack of development. Large numbers of women were left with no educational or professional qualifications due to the lack of opportunities long before this war broke out.
How did you personally come to work for SFD?
I believe my feminist engagement drove me to join Women Now. In fact in summer 2013, I was visiting North Syria to work with traumatized children for 15 days. Samar and I were visiting the same areas without meeting each other. Mutual friends put us in touch because of our feminist views and then everything happened very quickly, she proposed me the project, I fell in love with it and today 3 years on we are around 112 women in the organisation.
Empowering women in Syria and its neighboring countries has always been your main issue. In what way are women part of the social society in Syria and has the war diminished the few feminist goals achieved in Arab countries during the Arab Spring?
Since the very beginning of the revolution in March 2011 in Syria, women have been highly involved in the struggle for freedom. As a result of this active role they have been detained, tortured, sexually assaulted and killed. Yet the revolution, especially in its peaceful phase, gave women an unprecedented sense of empowerment as active and powerful social and political actors. When the revolution turned into a full-fledged war, women suffered most in the conflict. Many Syrian women found themselves overnight the sole breadwinners in their families in a country where stability and security are getting scarcer. The rising radicalism and militarization means added limitations on women freedom and educational opportunity. Even in the areas under political and military control of opposition entities, women have been denied their right to participate in the political process and or in being fully represented in local governance entities they have contributed to creating.
The Arab Spring per se did not bring feminist goals with it, rather it was a common struggle of all Syrians for freedom and social justice. This struggle is not over and we aim to bring women to the center of it. However, from my personal point of view it’s unjust to judge the fruits of the Arab Spring after just five years. The situation for all citizens is getting worse; not just for women. The notion of liberty, respect and accountability are absent. The revolution is still ongoing and building new systems and social norm take decades.
SFD has many very different projects, ranging from agricultural initiatives to a mobile school inside a bus, from manufacturing dairy products to repairing a fire truck. Is this why official organizations like the UN often come short of being able to really help in regions of political tumult, because their help is not individual and custom-made enough? Does the UN try to hand out one solution for any problem around the world?
As a grassroots organisation, we have our ear to the ground and are closer to the people actually receiving the help than a large international organisation could. We are able to listen to the women and their needs and re-tailor our programs accordingly. This is an important advantage considering the volatile situation Syria is in. However, we have refined our work in the past years. We used to work in a wide range of projects, but have since redefined our focus on empowering women through education and vocational training. There are limits to our flexibility as well of course and we have developed as an organization and become more refined in our programs.
The UN does not necessarily hand out a “One-size-fits-all” solutions however their engagement in the Syrian is problematic. We have been involved in a campaign to break the siege on Daraya, a city which had not received any kind of aid since 2012 due to a harsh siege imposed by the regime. Together with “The Syria Campaign” we advocated for airdrops of aid to break this inhumane siege. Recently, the first convoy in four years of aid entered Daraya. However this aid was medical and did not contain any food, which is not the kind of help these people need as they are literally starving to death! Since then food aid has indeed arrived, but not nearly enough to save the civilian population. This is only one example of how large institutions, not only the UN, depend on government approval and sometimes work outside the actual needs on the ground.
More than 10.000 women and children are benefitting from your work today, a very impressive number given how relatively young SFD still is and how difficult the war makes the situation in the country. What is the most important and most effective project right now?
One of the most important elements of our work are the women centers inside Syria and Lebanon. Running these centers enables us to offer different services, such as vocational training, education courses, childcare and so on. But more than that, it is a safe haven for women to come to and speak freely and meet. In the extreme violence and uncertainty of the areas we work in, such as Daraya and Eastern Ghouta, the centers are a little beacon of hope for the women.
The centers are also the most effective way to reach many women and girls at once, as we can run multiple activities at once. In general, even after the courses are completed many women return, because they see it as a place of gathering, which is exactly what we are trying to achieve: for the women to come for education, empowerment and see the centers as a safe haven.
More than 100 women belong to your dedicated team, most of them being located in Syria or Lebanon. How dangerous is their work? Have they been directly affected by air strikes or armed troops?
We are actually growing and now are happy to say that we have over 112 women and 10 men working in our team. The team members inside Syria are of course in danger, because there is frequent shelling in the places where they live and work. However, when the ceasefire took affect earlier this year, we saw a big influx in the number of attendees in the centers. These women are resilient and keep on living their lives to the best of their abilities in spite of the war. They are the real heroes of this conflict.
Most of your work takes place in Syria and Lebanon. How is your outlook on the future? When will Lebanon reach its breaking point with the mass of refugees and how long can the war in Syria go on?
Lebanon has taken in a tremendous amount of Syrian refugees, which would be a burden for any country, let alone one that already struggles with its domestic politics. To think of Lebanon as on the verge of breaking however is not useful in this context. The current circumstances are not easy, this is true, but there are very few alternatives now for Syrians. The Europeans have closed their doors and people are drowning by the thousands in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering this, Lebanon has been and will continue to be one of the most viable options for Syrian refugees.
The war in Syria unfortunately can go on for a long time, however we are already thinking about what will come after. At one point, it will end and we need to be prepared for what will happen then. It will be important for the Syrian women, especially those who have developed themselves and their skills during the war to return and rebuild the country to be safe and democratic. Our vision is of a Syrian society in which all people benefit from full human rights, dignity, freedom and justice. In this society Syrian women will play a meaningful and active role in political, social, cultural and economic life.
You follow an inclusive approach in empowering women, meaning it is important to you to include men in the process because you think only then cultural, social and economic independence for women is possible. While I would agree in general, I think it is very difficult to achieve in Arabian countries with their long history of anti-feminism. How are your experiences?
Empowering women to mobilize for greater social and political access builds egalitarian structures for the future. From our experiences in the centers we have realized that in order to create real-world change in women’s lives, children, youth and men should also be included in the process. So when possible, centers offer courses to youth and men as well.
The inclusion of men in these activities was not anticipated from the beginning; rather it was discussed with the women and found useful together with them. These men of course have to abide by the rules of the centers and cannot disrupt the education of the women.
More generally speaking, there is a disconnect between the approach of Western female empowerment and the understanding in the Arab world. Western feminism sees it as a privilege and a positive thing, if women can sit together and discuss only among themselves. In the Arab countries however, women are always with other women, as the society is more segregated along gender lines. Therefore, the idea of only women sitting and discussing with each other about their rights in order to achieve empowerment does not work in this particular context. In patriarchal societies it is also very much the men who need to understand what women’s rights mean and what needs to be done in order to ensure women’s participation.
Also, I believe that women are disadvantaged everywhere not just in “Arabic countries”. The colonial history was followed by many years of dictatorships and bloody repressions which affected all human rights. This exposed women to more repression, which is why women participate fully in the uprising movement, because they understand that their rights constitute a large part of the overall demands for freedom and dignity.
What are SFD’s next plans?
In the coming 3 years, it is our plan to consolidate the work of our eight existing centres working on empowerment and peace. In addition, we plan to build 4 new centres and to extend our activities to Turkey. Whilst the vast majority of our beneficiaries in Lebanon are Syrian women, activities are offered to all women in the local area, whether Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian. They face marginalisation in Lebanon as well and are sometimes just as vulnerable as Syrians.
In addition to the programming, we will initiate a number of new organization-wide activities, mainly in the areas of research and advocacy, representing the interests of Syrian women in national and international forums through commissioned research and participation in policy groups. This part of our work is vital, because the issues Syrian women face have to be brought further up on the international agenda. Finally, we aim to build an international women solidarity network.
Supporting Mariah’s projects is easy, just click here and donate via papal. SFD is also supporting our project regarding building a tent school!