Interview with Nisren Habib

Syrian Women in Exile - challenge or chance?

How does the relationship between genders change if people are forced to leave their home and traditional living conditions? Nisren Habib, who was born in Syria and has been living in Lebanon since 2013, attempts to answer this question. After completing her degree in “Women’s Studies” at Beirut Arab University, Nisren Habib is now guest researcher at the WZB as Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung scholarship holder. Antonia Zimmermann met the gender studies scholar.


How do you perceive the situation of refugees in Lebanon?

The situation there is extremely tedious, since Lebanon has not signed the refugee convention. The refugee convention is granting refugees certain protective rights. However, this is not the case in Lebanon. The legal barriers arising out of this situation hinder refugees to work and children to attend school, whilst equally impeding access to medical aid. Many refugees feel trapped in Lebanon, especially since Turkey’s visa announcement. This is the main reason for refugees to come to Europe: they wish to live a life of minimal standards.

You are the programme-manager of the organisation “SAWA for Development and Aid” which supports refugees in Lebanon. What exactly does this organisation do?

SAWA was founded in 2011, reacting to the deteriorating situation in Syria. It was an initiative of young people who wanted to be responsive to the first refugees’ basic needs. At the end of 2013, SAWA became a registered non-governmental organisation in Lebanon. Since then we’ve mainly been working on three programs: educational programs, relief programs and development programs. With the help from our volunteers from Lebanon, Syria or even Europe, we were able to hand out 4000 meals daily during Ramadan. I’ve been helping out at SAWA as a volunteer since 2013. Since 2015, I am the programme-manager and therefore supervising the three main programmes.

Is your thesis in “Women’s studies” connected to your work at SAWA?

I believe that supporting the rights of Syrian women is particularly important since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Women are usually suffering most in war times, but they also have the best abilities to find solutions and to experience some kind of empowerment through these challenging situations. In Lebanon I noticed that women often play the more proactive role – they are the ones looking for help, medical care and work. For my thesis I studied how gender roles of Syrian women changed through the new challenging situation. Therefore, I held interviews with women in refugee camps. I found out that women often took on new roles, for example through working in agriculture or through vocational education. But these roles were merely added to old, traditional roles. In some rare cases, this had a widening and empowering effect on women’s roles. More frequently, it did not improve the woman’s role in the family. And often, cases of domestic violence even increased since their husband or the brother had lost their major typical roles as a male. They were used to work, move and earn money, whereas in the new situation, they were sitting in the tents most of the time doing nothing. This situation made them more desperate, negative and violent at times.

You are staying in Germany until November. Are you building on your previous research here?

The situation for refugees here is essentially different from the situation in Lebanon. During my time at the WZB, I want to explore what kind of an impact an environment which supports women’s rights in a significant way has on the self-perception of women and their roles within the family and society. Is the new situation a chance or a challenge for them? Do they feel controlled by traditional social norms? I hope to interview many Syrian women who have been in Germany for at least one to two years.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

I would like to compare the Syrian women’s roles in Syria before 2011 with their current roles in Germany from a gender role perspective. I will try to find many answers regarding Syrian women’s work, education and personal lifes as refugees in Germany. Ideally, I hope to create a reference for integration programs for Syrian women in Germany. On the one hand, I would like to depict barriers for Syrian women which are not necessarily perceived as such by the German population. Their psychological condition, language skills but also social norms and religion can restrict them in a more significant way than we assume.  I also aim to shed a light on some of the Syrian women’s current ideas and plans to advocate for their own rights and more independence in the new community.


Antonia Zimmermann was an intern at the WZB press office. She is studying International Relations and Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.