Besieged but Unbroken: An interview with Lubna Alkanawati

They survive shelling and barrel bombs from the Syrian government, and airstrikes from Russia. Some have been living under siege since 2012, with little food and potable water and hardly any medicine or electricity. Almost all parties involved with the conflict in Syria use hunger as a weapon against them, though none as systematically as the Syrian regime. This is everyday life under siege for the remaining residents of many Syrian cities.

Even before Aleppo came under siege in July 2016, the non-governmental organisation Siege Watch established the number of people living under siege in Syria at one million. The regime was implicated in 99 percent of the sieges, and was the exclusive besieging party in 85 percent. Hundreds of citizens have died through starvation in the country, all in areas outside regime control. Those who feel the impact of siege the most profoundly are those whose are also physically the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. Ignoring international humanitarian law, the regime uses hunger as a weapon, starving cities and villages into surrender while continuing to shell the areas.

The areas surrounding Damascus have been particularly affected by this strategy of using sieges against civilian populations. This interview with Lubna Alkanawati of the organisation Women Now for Development is maybe the most dramatic example of the regime’s brutality.

Darayya, which has often been held up as a positive example of how women can be included in local decision making in Syria, suffered under siege as the world looked on. Well known for its peaceful resistance and the fact that none of the extremist groups ever was able to establish itself here, Darayya was besieged beginning in 2012. As of January 2016, it became difficult for Women Now to continue supporting activities in the area. In April 2016 the organisation urgently appealed for help, saying aid could no longer be delivered due to the actions of the regime. In summer, crops planted by the people of Darayya were burned as the first aid convoy reached the town – a delivery that felt to many as if a death knell had finally tolled for the suburb because it was followed by enhanced and relentless bombardments by the regime through which it sought to hinder the distribution of aid, and it at this time it also destroyed the last hospital with incendiary ammunition. In light of the army’s notorious 4th division threatening to capture the place, Darayya’s local council finally agreed to a deal to transfer all its remaining citizens to other locations.

Heinrich Böll Stiftung Middle East talked on several occasions to Lubna Alkanawati. Lubna is a Syrian activist who escaped the siege in Eastern Ghouta in 2014. Through a route in the north of Syria she made it to Gaziantep in Turkey. She works with Women Now to coordinate their activities inside Syria. In areas outside the regime’s control, where local militias are in charge, the security situation is the main challenge for Women Now because these areas have been subject to constant shelling and starvation through sieges.

Perspectives: Aerial bombardments of residential areas are indiscriminate attacks against civilians, no matter whether men, women or children …

Lubna Alkanawati (LAK): Indeed, the major needs are more or less related to the security situation affecting the families in general and the women in particular. It affects their freedom of movement from area to another. When an area is being subject to shelling, women and children are being evacuated first. They are usually sent to neighbouring areas depending on the intensity of the bombardment.

Men are usually involved in the military work and in some cases they stay in order not to lose their properties, hoping that they can get their families back after the situation gets calmer but women, elderly and children are being pushed to leave.

To be safe from the bombs in that moment does not mean, however, that they are personally safe because fleeing women are being subject to many abuses and are thus particularly vulnerable. If it is not possible to evacuate the area, however, women are often subject to a (male) head of household’s decision, some of which say the whole family should be together and in case the house is hit by a barrel bomb, die altogether.

Last but not least, women have different needs, which under conditions of war make life more difficult for them.

Perspectives: What are these needs?

LAK: First of all women need a safe, decent and well served place to stay at. Clean water, clean bathrooms, hygiene kits, women's sanitary napkins, cleaning products - and since they are the ones to provide for the children as well: diapers for children, baby milk… They do not take such items along when fleeing in such circumstances and they are quickly consumable and always needed.

The places where people are fleeing to are usually not well equipped. There are no or shared toilets, there’s a water shortage… Women’s needs are different from men’s needs. Men can go to the bathroom wherever they like!

Inside Syria, everyday basic services are not reliably available. Most of the areas witness severe electricity and water cuts, there are hardly any means of communication – basic services are absent. All this has an impact on women’s day to day life. It is indeed disastrous. Women are the ‘alternative’ to these services: cooking, washing, and doing all the housework is on the women’s shoulders anyway, and this burden is being doubled when water or electricity are cut and fuel is not available. Maybe in the south or the north there are generators but in the besieged areas for instance this is not the case.

Women therefore have to wash the clothes by hand because there is no electricity to run the washing machine. Cooking is done using firewood, and it is the same for taking a bath where they have to heat the water, and it is the same for baking bread as there are no bakeries. Women have to walk everywhere as there is no transportation.

The women’s role inside the family is in fact a very high responsibility. Women became the pillar of the family. Even more than before, the family cannot be coherent without the mother. Here we are just talking about the women’s role inside the family.

Perspectives: How about medical needs? Most of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed; the last paediatrician in the opposition part of Aleppo and the last gynecologist in Ghouta were killed by shellfire earlier this year … 

LAK: Indeed. We still have social obstacles and ‘our women’ are quite shy. Even if it is religiously all right and sanctioned by the Sharia, there are still many obstacles that prevent women from talking about their issues. Things become much easier when there are female workers and representatives with which women feel comfortable sharing their private issues. 

In Darayya, for example, we have a female team. I want to mention the Darayya’s women’s campaign and the women’s requests: Sanitary napkins, hygienic liquid for women, contraception pills are needed, food supplements and vitamins for women, especially the pregnant women and those who now are not able to feed their newborns because they don’t have milk. There should be baby kits with milk powder, diapers and nursing bottles, and women also ask for deodorant, tooth brushes, scabies shampoo and hair removal products. If there were no women supervising and relating the woman-related needs, these could not have been included.

Especially in areas under siege, survival has in some areas only been possible because there are some tunnels, or ways to bring in marginal supplies through smuggling. But these routes are controlled by the military leadership in the besieged area, and women would individually be shy to communicate their needs, even though in the end they are not private but in the interest of the entire society.

These are very important details that show us that women should be put in decision making positions, locally but also higher.

Perspectives: You mentioned on another occasion that domestic violence and violence against women was a problem – are there legal means by which women can claim their rights in areas outside regime control?

LAK: There are ways, and especially the community inside Syria is still playing a protective role towards women. But if the women’s rights have been violated by the protectors themselves, here is the problem. Women Now opened an office for legal counselling and most of the cases we had then in 2013 fall under the family law of civil documentation. The person in charge of this centre is a female lawyer who was liaising with the Sharia court in the area. These bodies might play a mediatory role – but they are running under the supervision of the militias/factions.

Some men are getting married to other woman after they send their wives and children to Turkey. And they are living their lives normally while women are married and have their children with them. They cannot get married and they do not know anything about their status actually. Even if they wanted to get divorced the men are not accepting!

Harassment cases are not being received although we know that they are very common. The community is still trying to protect perpetrators… So also the domestic violence cases are not being listened to. And there is no way to get your rights back in such cases. Women rely on ‘men’s morals’ when it comes to their rights as there is no law to protect them at the end.

Coming back to the Sharia courts inside: If the case is not taken by one court, the plaintiff can take it to another. Usually men against whom a suit was filed try not to have their case reaching al-Nusra courts as they are the strictest ones; the men know that there is no kidding anymore.

Perspectives: How do you see women’s rights and emancipation in this difficult situation?

LAK: One of the achievements of the Syrian revolution is that women had the opportunity to be in decision-making positions at the local level. And of course their roles have changed. Syrian women are aware of this change and the importance of the new roles they are playing.

What differs for women inside Syria and those now abroad is that outside Syria you have more freedom to speak or act freely and to be visible as female, while in Syria, there are millions of guns to be faced. Outside Syria you do not have to face this military authority and there is no war so you can easily highlight your work through media for example. Look how many Syrian women were awarded for their civil work over the past five years.

Acknowledging the contributions women have made and supporting them to reach decision making positions is still a challenge for Syrian society, and of course the de facto authority – the militia groups. Syrian women have tried to play a role in the Free Syrian Army but the Islamisation of the revolution and the emergence of jihadi movements weakened these roles. We still have hope though in the civil society movements, and even in civil revolutionary bodies such as the Local Administrative Councils.