This is the first post of a new mini series on ‘Being a feminist in difficult places’.
Recently I spent time with Maria Al Abdeh, Executive Director of Women Now for Development (WND), a Syrian feminist organization. She was in London to help launch the UK branch of Global Fund for Women, which helps fund organizations like hers.
WND runs a network of Women’s Centres in Syria and Lebanon, often under siege or bombing. Maria stressed the bravery and determination of the women: ‘even amid the apocalyptic scenes on the TV, they send me messages saying, ‘we need to improve the quality of the English courses, I want this book.’
Here are a few quotes, but please listen to the whole 20m interview – she was brilliant.
On Education: ‘the women fear a lost generation without access to education, which aid organizations have too often ignored. ‘Women don’t want their boys to join armed groups, they want them to have a decent future.’
On feminism in wartime: ‘Our feminism is around solidarity, about respect. I have met amazing women who came to the Centres to learn under bombs. It’s about understanding every context. For us there are multiple ways of being a feminist. From their culture; from their religion. Islamic feminism is about women who want their rights – for them (women and men) Islam is about equality, and claiming it through religious tools that have been forgotten, because religion has been led by men.’
On the Aid system: ‘We have some solidarity but financially speaking, humanitarian system is about delivering and implementing programmes and treating us as implementers. V specific programmes and priorities that most of the time does not reflect reality. Most complicated is how women’s rights have been politicised. Everyone is coming and saying we want to fund women’s leadership training and political participation, but don’t want to discuss their reality. To be politically active, you need financial independence. The boxes are very tight.
Now we are discussing the reconstruction, but we have millions of people who cannot return to their home town. No one is talking about this. It’s like people are looking at the manual, not the reality on the ground.’
And finally, on Jo Cox: ‘We were working with a group of women on aid and how to deliver aid to a besieged area. They wrote an open letter explaining what was happening to them and their children, and Jo started advocating to break the siege of Darya. All her positions were so amazing, about the need to be ethical not political, we know who is doing the bombing. When she got murdered and we told the women this, they organized a gathering and wrote a letter to her family. Women who were being bombed took time to write because they really believed in her, and the amazing thing of solidarity for these women to see this woman who had never heard of them really felt responsible for their fate; that someone was standing in solidarity with them without having any political agenda.’