Nibal Zeitouneh, Forced Displacement Journey in Mid-Life
- updated: September 24, 2021
Nibal Zeitouneh was born in 1962 in the city of Suwayda in southern Syria, and has been living in Vienna, Austria since 2018. She holds a BA in Arabic from the Faculty of Letter, Damascus University. Her career covered various jobs like working at the Arab Encyclopaedia project as an editor, and at the Archeological Research Center at the Ministry of Culture. In the year 2000, she started working as an Arabic language teacher in the schools of Eastern Ghouta alongside her work as a proofreader to news bulletins in the Syrian national TV station. She was dismissed from her job after her arrest by regime forces near the end of 2013. Currently, Nibal is focusing on learning German and she is a member of the SWPM.
After graduating, Nibal moved to live in the suburb of Jaramana. “In this town, I had my life, my work and my friends,” she says. “But I was uprooted from Jaramana and I had to leave Syria after my release from prison.”
Remembering the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Nibal says, “At the start of the Arab Spring, the Syrians were getting hopeful. Our dream of change was looking achievable. We wanted to grasp it so eagerly. We went out in demonstrations, planned sit-ins, and took part in women’s activities, which were there at the very beginning.”
Nibal talks about herself in the following terms, “I think I can be classified as a person belonging to the generation that grew up dreaming of change. I was raised in a house with a large library with books on various cultural, intellectual and political topics. My father was one of the first teachers in the governorate of Suwayda. He spent most of his career teaching outside his town, as a punishment for not being a member of the ruling Ba‘ath Party and for refusing to be a mindless supporter of the regime. My mother originally comes from Lebanon. She spent her childhood moving around the country with her family because her father was always being hunted down by the French occupation. I was raised in this environment where talking about politics was practiced albeit within a restricted circle of family members, for fear of the repercussions of such an act. We all had the freedom, boys and girls, to hold our own political views. Personally, I was more interested in literature than politics. However, I grew up nurturing the dream of change: the change for justice, freedom of expression, and freedom from the intrusive security apparatus run by the regime.”
Nibal believes that the Revolution started at a time when the need for change had reached its peak. Syria was in dire need for political pluralism after such a long period of single-party rule during which Syrians were denied access to political and civil activism. There was a thirst for social justice, equality, institutional reform due to the harm caused by dictatorship. People wanted to campaign for equal citizenship, women’s rights and the unfair laws claiming to be based on social and religious norms.
“It was a mid-life journey of forced displacement, with the full package of making a new start and leading a new life in a totally different society with unfamiliar language, culture and laws. It is little wonder that living as a refugee uses up the majority of our time and energy. On the other hand, however, I have found the safety which I so much missed in my own country. I now have a place to be, a space of my own where I can express myself, write freely and voice my opinions openly.”
Nibal was forced to leave Syria immediately after her release. She was arrested on November 28 2013, and she was released as part of the “Maaloula Nuns” prisoner exchange deal between the regime and the opposition. “It was difficult to return to my normal life,” she says. “The regime acted like a gang that does not honor its promises, as it re-arrested the released prisoners. I was also dismissed from my job and was not even allowed to get a document proving the dismissal.” In Lebanon, Nibal worked in refugee camps in the Beqaa, focusing on the education of children with “Kayany” Foundation. She also worked to shed light on the harsh reality faced by refugee women and children, both in the camps and outside them, by writing newspaper articles and investigations published on official website of the Syrian Women’s Network, of which she is a member.
Describing her move from Lebanon to Austria, Nibal says, “It was a mid-life journey of forced displacement, with the full package of making a new start and leading a new life in a totally different society with unfamiliar language, culture and laws. It is little wonder that living as a refugee uses up the majority of our time and energy. On the other hand, however, I have found the safety which I so much missed in my own country. I now have a place to be, a space of my own where I can express myself, write freely and voice my opinions openly.”
When we asked Nibal about the beginnings of her political awareness, she said, “I realized early on in life the repressive methods used by the regime. I also became aware of the hollow slogans and ideals which the ruling party propagated. The first instance I faced was being forced to be a member of the party. At a later stage in my life, I was forced to sign a declaration that I would refrain from contacting foreign radio stations after a poem I wrote about the mother was aired by the Jordanian state radio, in a program called ‘promising young writers’. I remained outside the field of politics until the start of the Revolution, when political activity became a reality under the pressure of huge societal shifts and the militarization, which pushed women away from the spotlight. I felt that it was necessary to take back control in order to assert women’s voice in the making of our shared future. Women generally felt that the circumstances were becoming detrimental to their future and thus it was necessary to re-formulate our official representation, hence the importance of our work in the SWPM.”
Nibal talked about the biggest challenges that hindered political activism before the 2011 Revolution. “I can sum it up in the phrase ‘the absolute absence of political life in Syria’,” she says. “The regime had total monopoly over power through the rule of a totalitarian party which did not accept the concept of pluralism. The regime had constitutional control over all the powers of government, backed up by secret police apparatus which oversaw political activity in Syria. People involved in clandestine political work received prison sentences varying from 1 to 20 years. Political activism was treated like a stigma at the time. Political activists faced societal pressures, collective punishments that reached to their families and friends, as well as travel and work bans. Not to say that things are any different in regime-controlled areas. The police state still holds a tight grip on political life. In contrast, Syrians living in diaspora have broken away from this past and there are many political parties, groups and organizations, which is the result of a real yearning to be involved in politics.”
About the challenges facing women, in politics in particular, Nibal says, “One obstacle is the general weakness in democratic practice in political work. Other factors relate to the male-dominated mentality in public life, which still casts doubt over women’s ability to do political work. The political ‘quota’ system, which is a temporary and necessary form of positive discrimination, is viewed as a violation of democracy.”
Nibal joined the ranks of the SWPM because she believes in its aims and principles, and in its ability to fill a gap in the Syrian political scene. Amid an overwhelming marginalization of women in opposition circles, it was necessary to create a political body that supported women’s role in the solution, and stood in the face of all forms of authoritarianism and violence. She adds, “I joined because of my utter belief in the importance of a female-led political body that represents women’s hopes. The gender gap can only be bridged by a strong female presence in the writing of Syria’s future.”
“I am convinced the SWPM with its members, who are active both inside Syria and abroad, is capable of reaching the decision-making circles. The presence of women tips the scales in favor of reaching and implementing a peace agreement. Women would have a great positive impact on the negotiation process by pressing for a just political solution in accordance with UN resolutions, especially Resolution 1325. The SWPM also continues to hold its national consultation sessions across Syria and in countries of the Syrian diaspora. These sessions help define the key issues and demands of the Syrian people in general, and Syrian women in particular, so that they can be included in the political settlement. They also set clear-cut and effective strategies for gendering the political process and for the inclusion of women in public decision making, starting from ensuring female presence in the negotiations and up to adopting a constitution that guarantees women’s rights. Of course, all of this depends on transitional justice which paves the way for a country ruled by law, equal citizenship and sustainable peace.”
On the other hand, Nibal admits the presence of some obstacles stopping the SWPM from performing at maximum capacity or limit its ability to achieve its goals. “Despite the advance in means of communication, the issue of diaspora remains one of the most difficult issues. The regime and other de-facto rulers are an obstacle to the movement’s activity. There is also the low number of women at the negotiating table and in the constitutional committee, which increases our fear of exclusion from the official consultations. We need also to work on our representation in the comprehensive committees after the political settlement agreement, because this representation can help us press for our rights and for the implementation of our political vision as women.”
Coming to the topic of the multiple crises in the Syrian political scene, we asked Nibal, “where are we today in relation to the founding principles of the Revolution, and how can we correct the political compass of Syrian women and men in revolutionary work?” She answered, “After a whole decade, it is really a bleak scene. We have interference from regional and international powers, internationalization in the Security Council, the military presence of five foreign armies who are sharing areas of influence in Syria, in addition to being inundated with identity conflicts, the fragmentation of the collective Syrian identity, which should have been our common ground, the increase in economic sanctions against the regime, as a means of pressure for its involvement in the political process. The burden on civilians is rising. The situation is becoming more complex and the solution in Syria has turned into an unimportant issue, while foreign powers are vying for influence as Syria turns into a bargaining chip. Thus, there is little hope for the Syrian people to reach a just political solution, which meets the early demands of our peaceful movement. There are other factors and challenges that contributed to this situation such as the commitment of political forces to foreign agendas at the expense of the suffering of Syrian people who are being starved, displaced and detained. The situation was made worse by the emergence of the forces of counterrevolution, and by the international community’s pretext of combatting terrorism. As a result, the UN Security Council was incapacitated, and the UN General Assembly became too weak to carry out its decisions. The Syrians were given a difficult choice between the regime and the extremists, and were denied access to the decision-making process. However, the efforts of the Syrian women and men to resist did not stop.”
“Our struggle is for the rights of women, all women, even those who do not share our views. We also want to spread awareness about the importance of these rights. This can only be achieved by drafting a constitution that is gender-sensitive, a constitution that cannot be undermined by bylaws, and cannot be interpreted in a manner that goes against its original aims.”
Talking about positive experiences she has had during the last ten years, Nibal says, “Early on in the Revolution, I had the chance to work with a group of young men and women. They had a great understanding of their rights and the true meaning of revolution, which should not simply change one authoritarian regime for another. I noticed how the young women were free from the control of male hegemony when they planned their demonstrations and sit-ins. They also disregarded the idea of male supervision over women, which many men believe to be their right.”
About the experience of her detention, Nibal says, “It was the most difficult experience in that period. While I may have left prison with an exhausted body and a tormented memory, this experience still pushes me on to continue working for a country of equal citizenship which improves the lives of all its citizens.”
For Nibal, Syria of the future is “a country of institutions, democracy and freedoms. I see it as a secular state providing equality for all its ethnic, national and religious components. But this is not going to happen, and no sponsor state is going to do it on our behalf, unless we find a mechanism for intra-Syrian dialog. We need to find the middle ground in all the controversial issues. No political solution can be reached without agreeing on a fair solution to the Kurdish question. Separating state and religion is the main guarantee for our rights as Syrians. We need also to agree on the form of secularism to adopt while defining the basics of decentralization. The system of government must be based on an all-encompassing approach that benefits everyone. The so-called ‘majority’ should not monopolize the formation of the Syrian project. The constitution is the safety net for all this, where international conventions and agreements are given priority over local laws as a protective mechanism.”
Addressing the women of Syria, Nibal says, “Our struggle is for the rights of women, all women, even those who do not share our views. We also want to spread awareness about the importance of these rights. This can only be achieved by drafting a constitution that is gender-sensitive, a constitution that cannot be undermined by bylaws, and cannot be interpreted in a manner that goes against its original aims. Gender equality is for all the marginalized groups, not just women.”