Rowaida Kanaan, Feminism is a way of life
- By: Mona Katoub
- updated: January 30, 2023
- reading time: 19 Minutes and 3 seconds
“My mother Houriya told me that giving birth to me was easy, and that I was a quiet baby, hence my name Rowaida, which means calmness and tenderness. But I was an angry teenager most of the time because I always felt that my dignity was being infringed upon. I love watching football and I support the French national team. My favorite clubs are Barcelona in LaLiga and Liverpool in the Premier League.” This is how Rowaida chose to start this interview about her.
Rowaida studied Mathematics and specialized in Informatics at Damascus University. She also holds a Master’s degree in Digital Humanities from Paris 8 University, and certificate in Data Analysis. She currently works as a journalist, data analyst and as a researcher. She is currently a volunteer member of the General Secretariat of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.
Rowaida hails from the village of “Efreh”, a mountain village in the countryside of Damascus. Speaking of her home, she says: “it has a charming nature and it is full of kind people from whom I learned patience, calmness and giving without expecting anything in return.” Rowaida then adds: “My father was keen that we spend a long time in the village and help him in farming. He believed that our relationship with the land grew stronger as we worked with it and touched the soil. I learned from my father, the farmer, that politics permeates all aspects of our lives. He always followed the news in Syria and the rest of the world. He used to say that “the continuing pressure in Syria will lead to an explosion”. He was expecting this event, the Revolution, to happen any minute but unfortunately, he did not live to witness it.
Rowaida lived between her hometown Efreh and the suburb of Barzeh Al-Balad in the countryside of Damascus, of which she also had fond memories. “Before the Revolution, I lived in a popular area called Barzeh Al-Balad, which was very diverse. It was home to people from various religious, intellectual and geographic backgrounds. I had wonderful relations with my neighbors. This beautiful demographic diversity widened my view of life and I still miss the people of Barzeh Al-Balad even though after 2011 there was some in-fighting there for various reasons.”
“I thought about the possible consequences of my participation in the Revolution, which included death, arrest or dismissal from my job. I considered all the outcomes and still decided to be part of the Revolution.”
Rowaida remembers an incident that she considers her first experience with fear: “I remember when I was ten years old, I heard my father and his friends talking about the massacres perpetrated by Hafez and Rif‘at al-Assad in Hama. Like all children, I told my friends the next day on our way to school what I heard from my parents and friends. Two hours later, I was summoned to the Principal’s office. There were five huge men from the Intelligence forces sitting with him. They asked me: ‘Where did you hear this discussion? Who said that?’ Intelligence in Syria is not like in other countries of the world. They are everywhere, even in children’s schools. I told them that I heard it from someone in the local market. I don’t know if they believed me or not, but they left the room. Then my teacher, who was from Deir ez-Zor, said to me, ‘Watch out. The walls have ears.’ It was hard for me to imagine a wall with ears, but I later understood what that phrase meant. This was my first experience in politics and my first experience with fear.
“The beginning of the Arab Spring coincided with my reading of the book The Shell, which talks about the infamous Tadmur prison. I used to ask myself, if a revolution took place in Syria, would I participate or not?” says Rowaida. “On March 18, 2011, when I heard the news of the first martyr of the Revolution in Daraa, I said to myself, Bashar al-Assad’s approach is not different from his father’s. I will not stand idly by as many did during the events of Hama in the 1980s. I thought about the possible consequences of my participation, which included death, arrest or dismissal from my job. I considered all the outcomes and decided to be part of the Revolution.”
Rowaida participated in the peaceful revolutionary work at its start. Later, her participation became more organized. “I had no political participation before the Revolution. Because I knew nothing about the revolutionary circles, I tried to find out about them and looked for reliable people to collaborate with. My personal motive was that I did not want to stand on the sidelines while change took place in Syria, like my father and his friends in the 1980s. My motives were my desire to see Syria as a developed democratic country, with a constitution that respects everyone, and a rule of law that protects everyone, a place where the wall with ears is demolished forever.
“I participated in peaceful demonstrations, writing graffiti, distributing leaflets, and calling for strikes. At the end of 2011, I realized that we needed more organization, and I thought that political parties and movements could play this role. My first organized political participation was as a member of a political movement called ‘Together for a Free and Democratic Syria’, a movement that sought to overthrow the regime through peaceful protest, and rejected all forms of violence and sectarian incitement. It aimed to establish a free secular democratic state, and reinforce national unity through a unified civil society.”
“My faith, my activism, and every detail of my life have become feminist. For me, feminism is not only a theory; it is a way of life.”
Rowaida was arrested three times because of her participation in the Revolution. About the experience of being arrested, Rowaida says: “In 2011, I was arrested during a demonstration in Amara Street in Damascus. I was detained for three days in the Criminal Security branch in Damascus on charges of inciting riot. The accusation reminded me of my childhood because I always caused a riot when someone would shout at me, invade my private space, or take my games and rights. When I was in prison, I had time to think about the impact of small events in our childhood on our personalities. Four hours after I got out of prison, I was at a demonstration in the Maidan area.”
Rowaida’s second arrest was in February 2012. “I was arrested for the second time in February 2012. I spent a month in Al-Khatib branch and branch 285 of the General Intelligence Directorate, on charges of supporting militants and promoting changing the constitution to undermine the prestige of the State. They had raided my house and found medicines that we intended to send to the city of Homs after the massacre in the Khalidiya area. I thought carefully about the phrase ‘undermining the prestige of the State’. Do we really have a state in Syria? No, we have an authoritarian regime that has dominated and permeated all the aspects of the state. I reached the conclusion that our struggle must continue until we have the state that we want,” Rowaida commented.
Although Rowaida’s third detention was the longest, and included different forms of torture, it was the reason for Rowaida’s adoption of feminism as a way of life. “The third detention was in 2013, and was the longest, as it lasted for ten months,” she says. “I was imprisoned in the Airforce Intelligence branch in Damascus, and was subjected to various forms of torture. My imprisonment did not bother me that much. What bothered me the most was the idea that prison was preventing my participation in the most important stage of building the new Syria. But in prison, I had time to get to know Syrian women from different classes and backgrounds. I realized that the injustice against women did not only come from dictatorial regimes, but was the result of structures of political, legal and societal injustice. I decided to become a feminist and defend women’s rights with all my might. My faith, my activism, and every detail of my life have become feminist. For me, feminism is not only a theory; it is a way of life.
“I got out of prison as part of an exchange deal between the Syrian regime and Jabhat al-Nusra group who had kidnapped some nuns from a monastery in Saidnaya. During the exchange, I asked the security officer to let us meet the nuns when they arrived. We all sat together, 21 female detainees held by the regime and 14 nuns who were held by al-Nusra. We were surrounded by many armed men. I realized then that our feminist struggle was long, very long. All parties are exploiting women and using them whenever they want for their interests”.
Rowaida has no regrets despite being arrested three times: “I never regretted what I did, as I knew in advance that freedom had a price which could be very high. If I went back in time, I think I would follow the same path with only minor changes”.
After her release from detention, Rowaida started to fear not only for herself, but for her friends and the people around her. She began to develop negative feelings towards Damascus and towards people who claimed that life in Syria was normal. “After I got out of prison, I had a feeling of fear, not only for myself, but for others around me. Some of my friends were avoiding me for fear that I might be under surveillance by regime agents. So my relationships were limited to friends I met in prison. I no longer saw Damascus as the city I loved. I also started harboring hostile feelings towards people who lived their lives normally and either did not bother to know, or deliberately ignored that there could be a prison under their feet in which people were being tortured and killed because they demanded freedom for everyone”.
Leaving Syria became the best option for Rowaida after her release from prison. She tells us how she left Syria. “One of the intelligence officers called me and invited me to have a cup of coffee in a place near the Mezze highway. I spoke with my friend, who was also a former detainee, and I told her that the next cup of coffee that we would drink must be in Turkey. And this was what happened.
“The day before I left Damascus, my friend and I walked through the streets of the old city. I did not want to take pictures in case I was stopped at one of the checkpoints that spread everywhere, so I decided to save images and videos of Damascus in my mind. I still have these mental images and I review them from time to time so that they remain in my immediate memory.”
About the journey to Turkey, Rowaida says: “I went from Damascus to Idlib and then to Turkey by bus. At the regime’s checkpoints, I was afraid that I would be arrested. But as we drove closer to Idlib, I became more worried that I would not be able to tell whether the checkpoint belonged to the government or the opposition. I did not wear a veil and the driver told us that we must put the veil at the opposition checkpoints. In all cases, I was afraid and did not feel reassured until I reached Turkey.”
Talking about the reasons for her fear, Rowaida says: “The saying that our participation in the Revolution ‘broke the barrier of fear’ is not accurate. Syria is a whole world of fear that manifests itself in all aspects of our lives. If we ever overcome this fear at some point in time and space, this doesn’t mean that it’s over, at least for me and especially after suffering three arrests.
“I decided to live in Turkey, it is a beautiful country which is close to Syria. I felt that I would be able to return to Syria whenever I wanted, at least to the areas out of regime control. But after months of being in Turkey, the borders were shut and visa-free entry to Turkey stopped. Two years later, Aleppo fell into the hands of the regime and racism increased in Turkey. So, I decided that being far from Syria would be better than being close and not being able to reach it, and I traveled to France.”
Rowaida arrived in France and started a life “from scratch” as she put it. “At forty years old, I started a completely new life in France. I learned a new language, built new relationships, developed my skills, and continued my studies. I was scared when I arrived in France, but now I’m taking my first steps comfortably, not least because I’m not scared and I feel safe.”
“Being in France,” Rowaida adds, “especially since I was granted political asylum, does not mean that I have to melt into the new society and forget the cause because of which I was granted asylum. I am working on integrating into French society while closely following what is happening in Syria. I acted in a play in France, in Arabic, called ‘X-Adra’. It talks about women survivors from Syrian prisons. I co-starred alongside four great Syrian women and a young man. Syrian-French director Ramzi Choukair directed what was a special and useful experience for me on a personal level, because theater and letting my feelings out helped me to reconcile with the past and accept reality.
“Every activity we carry out that aims at political change is a political action. I consider my participation in the Revolution to be a political act par excellence,” says Rowaida about the beginning of her participation in political work.
She continues to give more details about her involvement in organized political work: “Near the end of 2011, in one of the demonstrations, I heard the chant “Our leader forever, is our Prophet Muhammad”. The voices calling for taking up arms became louder. I felt that certain parties or people began to derail the Revolution towards goals which were different from those goals that we went out to achieve at the beginning. I realized that I must be within an organized political group to work on correcting the direction of the Revolution. I joined the Together for a Fee and Democratic Syria movement.”
“I have moments in which I feel that everything we are doing is futile. But I come back to myself and think that I should continue, in order to be one of the Syrian women and men writing our own narrative so that our cause is not forgotten.”
On the challenges facing political action in Syria, Rowaida says, “The main challenge is still the regime’s violence against any opposition”. Rowaida sees that ten years of the Revolution were necessary for us to learn the lesson. “Most of us lacked sufficient political awareness. I think we needed ten years of Revolution to learn politics better. I believe that the regime has worked through its presence in power to kill national identity and destroy the social contract that unites Syrians. In addition to that, during war and crises, people seek protection from sub-identities, like a tribe or a religious sect, rather than the national identity. This makes political work more complicated.”
Other challenges hinder political action, Rowaida points out. “The internationalization of the Syrian issue has made political work in Syria more complex. It is dominated by various international bodies seeking to achieve their interests. Thus, political decisions are no longer in the hands of Syrians. The spread of weapons in the various regions of Syria is a massive challenge in the face of political action, as no political voice is louder than the sound of a gun.”
“Everything around Syrian women poses a challenge to them in political work, starting with the family who practice guardianship over women, either under the pretext of their right to control their lives or under the pretext of fear over them.” This is how Rowaida describes the challenges facing women in politics, citing as an example the fact that “some politicians, who are considered veterans in politics, have banned their wives and daughters from political work under the pretext of fear for them.”
Rowaida continues to talk about more challenges facing women in politics. “Societal and religious traditions prevent women from being active in public affairs. A woman’s home is considered her kingdom. Political violence against women, especially arrest, and the various forms of violence against women in detention, including sexual violence, keep women away from political action. Women politicians may be subjected to violence just because they are politicians, and bullying them through the Internet is perhaps one of the most important forms of violence today. Women’s activity in the political field can also be hindered by economic reasons. A woman busy securing her and her children’s daily livelihood cannot be politically active. Moreover, being a member of a political party or movement can deprive a woman from employment in so-called ‘neutral’ civil society organizations. One of the most important reasons that hinder women’s activity in politics in Syria is the authoritarian regime that derives part of its legitimacy from the religious leaders. The latter are keen on keeping women out of the public sphere to consolidate the patriarchal mentality.”
Several factors were behind Rowaida’s decision to join the Syrian Women’s Political Movement. Some of the reasons are “the need for organized feminist political action with a wonderful group of Syrian feminists; ensuring the presence of women in the political process; the presence of feminists who stand in solidarity with other women; sharing my knowledge and experience with other members; and my need for feminist solidarity.”
As for the challenges facing the SWPM, Rowaida says that through her experience with the movement she can summarize them as follows: “the lack of a license for the movement, which restricts its activity in several countries; the inability of female members to participate physically in the movement’s activities; and the violence directed at some activists and members of the movement because of their political activity and their membership of the movement.”
“I believe that the SWPM as an entity and its members are still committed to the basic principles of the Revolution in freedom, dignity and justice, and to its goals in Syria as a civil state and a neutral state for all religions. We are still a movement that demands real change in the lives of women and campaigns for giving women access to their rights through changes in law and the constitution, which in practice means political change.” This is how Rowaida sees the position and work of the SWPM a decade after the outbreak of the Revolution in Syria.
Upon her arrival in France, Rowaida had the idea that she should continue her life without looking back, but, she says, “I thought about it and realized that I was here not because I had a European dream, but because I participated in the Revolution. Therefore, I had to continue my activity for Syria in some way. This is what I found in the SWPM.” Rowaida continues: “I have moments in which I feel that everything we are doing is futile. But I come back to myself and think that I should continue, in order to be one of the Syrian women and men writing our own narrative so that our cause is not forgotten.”
Rowaida’s message to Syrian women urges them to be present in political work, because: “Feminism cannot be separated from political work. The way to achieve our goals in equality and obtaining all our rights is to be strongly present in political life. Our political work is what will change the law. I call upon Syrian women to participate in all available political venues, not only participate, but also struggle to secure their role in political life.”
The word “freedom” played a key role in changing Rowaida’s mindset and indeed every detail of her life: “When the Syrian Revolution began, I participated in it even though I knew all the possible consequences. After the first demonstration in which I shouted at the top of my voice ‘Freedom, Freedom, Freedom,’ I returned home and decided to review all the decisions I had made in my life or that anyone had made for me. I took off my hijab, because I felt that I would be comfortable with myself without it, and there was no convincing reason for me to put it on. I decided to live completely independently, intellectually and financially, and in every single detail of my life.”
On the harsh experiences that she lived during the years of the Revolution, Rowaida says: “Any experience from which I come out alive is like a lesson from which I learned something, regardless of whether it was a harsh experience or not. I don’t believe that anything in life is easy. When I was arrested for the third time, my friend Khaled, of Palestinian origin, was arrested with me. He is still forcibly disappeared. I am still waiting for him to return to his family and children. Sometimes I wish that time could go back and stop before the moment of Khaled’s arrest. I hope that his daughter, who was born after his arrest, will have the chance to live with him, and know firsthand how kind, affectionate and generous he is and how much he loves freedom and life.”
Rowaida continues talking about imprisonment: “I experienced detention three times and I was subjected to different forms of violence, but through these experiences I got to know myself better and I knew my strengths and weaknesses. I met women whom I am now proud to know. The Revolution taught me that I have to accept the Other no matter how different they may be , and that there is richness in diversity. It taught me how to be flexible, patient and calm, and taught me that there is nothing more important in life than putting a smile on somebody’s face. It taught me to believe only in humanity and in science, and that the only truth in our lives is death, so we have to live our short lives as we wish, not as others wish us to live them.”
Rowaida concludes by saying “I wish the SWPM success in achieving all its goals.”