From a human rights defender to a women's rights activist


Syrian lawyer Joumana Seif is the 2023 Anne Klein Women's Laureate. She strives for the political participation of women and the recognition of gender-based violence as a crime against humanity as well as its punishment. Kristin Helberg describes her journey from Damascus to Berlin.

It was twenty years ago that Joumana Seif received a previous award in Germany - the Human Rights Award of the City of Weimar. It was awarded in 2003 to her father Riad Seif, one of Syria's most prominent opposition figures, who was imprisoned at the time. Joumana received the award on his behalf. For years, Joumana was his window to the world, his spokesperson, liaising between him and other dissidents who were secretly active in Damascus. That phase in her life shaped her personality; it politicized and toughened her, but the path to becoming a women's rights activist she paved on her own. She realized later on how early it had begun.

Joumana Seif is petite, friendly and determined, indefatigable in her commitment, though calm in her demeanor. Whether a political comrade-in-arms needs help or her daughter needs someone to watch over her dog - , everyone can count on Joumana. She only feels satisfied when she has successfully achieved a task, - says the Syrian lawyer in her apartment in Berlin, which explains why she is always looking for new challenges.

Establishing women’s organizations and supporting female witnesses in Germany

In 2012 - one year after the start of the Syrian revolution - Joumana Seif left her hometown Damascus. In 2013, she and several others founded the Syrian Women's Network, followed by the Syrian Feminist Lobby in 2014 and the Syrian Women's Political Movement in 2017. She serves as chair of The Day After: Supporting Democratic Transition in Syria and is a member of the Civil Society Support Rooms, which aims to ensure that civil society has a say in the negotiations in Geneva. She also supports the Policy Coordination Group, which addresses the fate of the tens of thousands of Syrian disappeared and detained persons. Joumana Seif seems to be everywhere, but the focus of her work is clear: she seeks women's political participation, their education and empowerment as active citizens and the recognition of sexual and gender-based violence as crimes against humanity.

Since 2017, the lawyer has been working with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin, where she advocates for the legal prosecution of crimes committed in Syria under international law. She gained more prominence in Germany in light of the Al-Khatib trial, the world's first trial for state torture in Syria, which took place at the Koblenz Higher Regional Court between 2020 and 2022. For years, Joumana accompanied Syrian female and male survivors who testified in court –regarding the torture and sexual violence they endured in the Al Khatib Branch in Damascus of the Syrian Intelligence, which contributed to the sentencing of the main defendant Anwar Raslan to life in prison. A milestone for Syria and international criminal law.

The 52-year-old has makes Arabic coffee and asks if she can smoke her e-cigarettes - I can't help but think of her father, who used to smoke so heavily during his interviews in Damascus that his face eventually faded behind a cloud of white smoke. Joumana Seif pushes her glasses over her sweeping dark blond hair; her voice is hoarse and rough. She ignores the many silent incoming text messages on her cell phone.

Democratic change means getting women involved

In the past, she saw little point in fighting for women's rights in a country like Syria, the activist admits; after all, under Assad’s rule, everyone was oppressed - men and women alike. "Why should I only fight for women's rights when the most basic human rights of all Syrians are being disregarded?" she asks.

Her attitude changed starting in 2011, when the Arab revolutions and her experiences with the Syrian opposition turned her into a feminist, Seif says, recalling a key experience in an elevator. In late 2012, Syria's leading opposition figures in exile met in Qatar to expand the Syrian National Council, and among the 30 elected representatives was not a single woman. When Joumana Seif met some of these men in the elevator, she addressed this: "They answered me that our time will come later," Seif says, still having to shake her head at so much ignorance. She realized back then how urgently Syrian women need to be involved in all political processes, all the more so in exile, where the fear of the Assad regime does not prevent the work for change. Those who make use of the freedom and security available in the diaspora to demand for democratic change cannot put women off until later.

Joumana Seif knows the feeling of fear well, ever since her childhood and youth. Her youngest uncle was detained by the Assad regime soldiers and has since been disappeared, while her oldest cousin was also detained and released a broken man, after enduring 13 years of torture in Tadmur and Saydnaya prisons. When she was a child, she opened the front door of her grandmother's house one day, only to discover an informant standing outside eavesdropping on the family. "This regime has total control over society," Seif says.

She learnt social responsibility in the family business

Her father worked his way up from the son of a carpenter to a successful textile manufacturer in Damascus' conservative Midan district. Joumana therefore grew up - in a well off family on one hand, while on the other she gains an early insight into the difficult lives of ordinary people in her father's company. She made friends with the children of the workers, and would visit the families on the weekends, together with her father and two brother, to whom Riad Seif was committed. "Our father taught us not to belittle anyone," says Joumana. Her awareness of social injustice and the injustice against women developed during that time.

After graduating from high school, Joumana began studying French literature, but soon realized that her place is in the family business. Her father insisted that she first goes through all the departments herself. "He said that if I wanted to understand the workers' concerns, I had to work like them," Joumana recalls.  Thus, she sewed fabrics daily, and did not go to the factory in the morning with her father in his car, but took the bus with her female colleagues.

Her main focus was on the welfare of the employees, so she established a separate department for their social support and further skill development. She encouraged women to take on more responsibilities and to receive further training, and helped set up a company kindergarten. Joumana also organized excursions, theater performances and sports activities. In 1993, Riad Seif obtained the license from Adidas, and so the company grew, and his 1,200 employees appreciated the entrepreneur for his new ideas and social commitment.

A year later, Riad Seif benefited from his success and popularity to enter parliament as an independent member, calling for economic reforms and criticizing the corruption of the ruling elite. In doing so, he made enemies, and 1994 became a dangerous turning point in the life of the Seif family. From then on, the confrontation with the Assad regime dominated their daily lives, and because Riad, the father, could neither be bought nor intimidated, the regime resorted to more harsh methods, and painful times began for Joumana.

Assad's regime destroys the Seif family's life work

In 1996, her younger brother Eyad did not return from a trip to Latakia, and the 21-year-old disappeared without a trace. It was a shock for Joumana, who felt responsible for him after the early separation of his parents, and who had looked after his schoolwork as a teenager and had been there for him. All investigations and inquiries came to nothing, and Eyad's body was never found. For the family, it was clear that the secret service was behind his disappearance - it was a message to her father, Joumana also believes. "When someone dies, you can grieve for them. But living for years with the hope that he will come back destroys you from the inside." Countless Syrian mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters suffer from this uncertainty to this day, as some 130,000 people are considered missing in Syria.

In the years that followed, Assad's regime also destroyed the Seif family's business. False accusations, horrendous back taxes and related export bans forced Riad Seif to gradually sell the company, and by the year 2000, he was bankrupt. Joumana witnessed her father's harassment and economic decline firsthand, and she stayed in the company until the last day, perceiving its sale as a bitter humiliation.

When Hafiz al-Assad died in the summer of 2000 and his son Bashar succeeded him, this raised some hopes. The young ophthalmologist with the cosmopolitan wife at his side, who grew up in England, could open up the encrusted socialist one-party system and initiate political reforms. Private dialogue forums were springing up all over the country, where intellectuals and interested citizens discussed the country's future. The so-called Damascus Spring was dawning. Riad Seif also invited people to his house for lectures. Joumana followed the debates in the kitchen, as it was so crowded; right next to her, intelligence service informers crowding around. The meetings grew larger, the criticism more direct, the political demands more concrete, prompting the regime to ban the forums. The regime pulled the ripcord and has the forums banned.

She becomes the voice of her father, a political prisoner

At the time, Joumana says, her father received an offer from the president. If he stopped his political activities, he could help modernize the country and would be compensated for his losses. Her father came to her and asked her opinion, the activist recalls. "I said being compensated is our right, but to acknowledge their red lines and putting on an act is not acceptable." Her father was happy with her reaction, Joumana recounts, saying she was the only one who encouraged him to continue, even though she was very afraid for him.

In 2001, Riad Seif was arrested with other leading figures of the Damascus Spring, and by 2011 he had spent a total of eight years behind bars. Joumana was no longer the right arm of a respected businessman and courageous MP, but found herself on the fringes of society as the daughter of a political prisoner. "They threatened the whole family," she says, "their goal was to isolate my father." Joumana decided to fight, to be his voice, to not let the connection between him and the world outside prison be severed. She became part of the opposition, which operated underground in Syria, arranged meetings, and kept the contact with human rights delegations on his behalf - and represented him at the award ceremony in Weimar in 2003.

At the same time, Joumana Seif began studying law. Her three children were two, eight and 14 years old at the time, but she wanted to move forward. "To be able to defend my father and fight effectively for human rights, I needed to know the law better," she says. Looking back, this was the beginning of her own political career, as she began to establish relationships, develop new positions, set other substantive priorities - the defender of human rights became a champion for women's rights.

Joumana Seif is a woman who builds bridges

Today, Joumana Seif is convinced that without women at the negotiating table, there will be no democratic transformation in her homeland. Therefore, Syrian women should not only engage in civil society, but also demand political participation. "The regime is finished, people in Assad-controlled areas are fed up, but fear paralyzes them," Joumana explains. Syria is a country full of mafias and militias and neither Russia nor Iran can change that, she says. That is why the pressure will continue to grow.

This makes it all the more important to unite the people, a task that women accomplish better than men, reckons Joumana Seif. The women's networks she co-founded organized meetings with activists and politicians from all over Syria, she explains. "They have different backgrounds, come from all regions of the country, represent different positions, but we discuss openly and honestly." There is currently more willingness to engage in dialogue among women than among men, the lawyer observes. Syrian women are better able to put themselves in each other's shoes and acknowledge their suffering, Joumana says. "They see the human aspect and put the interests of the general public at the center of their work, rather than their own advantage." As a result, surprising political statements emerge, the activist points out. This exchange - including between people inside Syria and those in exile - is fundamental, she says, given the disruption of Syrian society.

However, differences not only exist between political camps, denominations and ethnic groups; there are also conflicts between generations. Joumana knows this from her own family. She regularly discusses it with her father, who was finally allowed to leave for medical treatment to Germany in 2012 after years of illness and now also lives in Berlin. She also debates with her daughters, both of whom are minoring in gender studies in addition to their majors. "For some I'm too feminist, for others not enough," laughs the 52-year-old. She seems to be the right person then to build bridges between the men of the opposition she met in the elevator and a new generation of women activists who will contribute to shaping Syria’s future.