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Joumana Seif: My dream is 'to help build a democratic Syria'

January 2, 2023

Syrian human rights activist Joumana Seif has dedicated her life to gender equality and the recognition of sexual violence as a crime against humanity. For this, she will receive the Anne Klein Women's Award 2023.

The Syrian activist Joumana Seif speaks at a conference in Geneva in 2017
Joumana Seif fights for the recognition of sexual violence in armed conflicts as crimes against humanityImage: Salvatore Di Nolfi/KEYSTONE/picture alliance/dpa

Joumana Seif is a good listener. The 52-year-old Syrian lawyer and women's rights activist doesn't fidget, her eyes focus patiently and it is easy to understand why women are able to open up to her. 

"I've always fought for women's rights," Seif told DW in Berlin. Even back in the 1990s, when she worked at her family's successful Adidas franchise in Damascus, she was already focusing on staff welfare and supporting women in their positions. 

However, those days now seem like a lifetime ago.

In 1994, her father, Riad Seif, spurred by the huge success he was having with his business, entered the political stage as independent member of the Syrian parliament. But his criticism of the corrupt elite and calls for economic reforms weren't received well by then-President Hafez Assad.

'It was a very difficult time for us'

Riad Seif and his family started to be increasingly in the focus of the security forces. In addition, production materials for his factory were withheld, and eventually the company had to be sold.

"I understood that I needed to know more about the law, to be able to defend my father and to join the fight for human rights in Syria," said Seif. With the support of her mother, who helped with her three young children, Seif started studying law at Beirut Arab University in 2003.

By the time of her graduation in 2007, Seif had long become politically engaged herself. After the Syrian strongman Hafez Assad died in June 2000, she joined her father's regular "Damascus Spring" meetings with other members of the political opposition in his living room in Damascus. Shortly after, the group founded the National Dialogue Forum, an initiative for political change and freedom in Syria.

Joumana Seif, with her youngest daugther and her father, Riad Seif, joined a  demonstration in Berlin.
Joumana Seif, here with her youngest daughter and her father at a 2015 demonstration in Berlin, continues to be politically activeImage: Privat

However, the initiative was soon without a leader: In September 2001, after Riad Seif had called for an end of the monopoly of the new President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath Party, he was sentenced to prison.

Joumana Seif became his sole connection to the opposition. "It was a very difficult time for us," she said. "We were almost isolated, under pressure from the security branches and scared that they would take us to prison as well," she said, adding that she "wouldn't be able to repeat this kind of life." 

However, along with the increasing crackdown against dissidents by the new president, her father became more and more recognized on the international stage. In 2003, Joumana Seif traveled to the German city of Weimar to receive the Human Rights Award on his behalf.

But upon her return, their life in Syria didn't get any easier. 

"In March 2007, I was arrested at a demonstration with many of my friends. They pushed us onto a truck and scared us by accelerating and braking hard," she said, adding that "they eventually released us with the warning that next time we will go to prison." Those words carried two meanings: the threat of being behind bars for years or forever, and that of sexual violence. 

Syria torture trial in Germany

Leaving home for Berlin

Despite the growing number of people who were going missing in Syria's infamous prisons, including her uncle, cousin and younger brother, Eyad, it took two attempts on her father's life and the outbreak of the Syrian revolution that led to the civil war for Joumana Seif to decide it was time to leave her home country.

Together with her three children and her parents, she went to Egypt in September 2012.

Riad Seif, who suffered from prostate cancer and needed medical help, applied for a German visa. "I thought we'd stay in Cairo until my father returns from Germany, and will then see if we can return to Syria," she said. 

However, the situation in Egypt changed in 2013. Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by the then-minister of defense, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who became president himself the following year.

"The rising sentiment against Syrians made it difficult for us to stay," she said. Since the civil war against the opposition was raging in Syria, she decided to follow her father to Germany, and the family left for Berlin in September 2013. 

Fighting for human rights from Germany

By then, Joumana Seif was even more determined to fight for human rights and to help Syrian women. She co-founded the Syrian Women's Network in 2013, the Syrian Feminist Lobby in 2014 and the Syrian Women's Political Movement in 2017. 

That year, when she joined the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights as a research fellow, Seif also started advocating for the recognition of sexual and gender-based violence as crimes against humanity. Her focus area: Syria. 

In the run-up to the Al-Khatib trial, the world's first legal proceeding investigating the horrors of Syria's torture chambers, which took place at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany between 2020 and 2022, she spoke to hundreds of male and female survivors of torture and sexual violence. "It is a lot of pain to bear when women open up; it follows me into my dreams," she said.

Women hold posters and photographs during a demonstration outside the courthouse where former Syrian intelligence officer Anwar Raslan stands on trial in Koblenz
The Al-Khatib trial in Germany featured the testimonies of hundreds of male and female survivors of torture and sexual violenceImage: Bernd Lauter/Getty Images/AFP

But the personal testimonies weren't the only remarkable part of the trial for Joumana Seif. Her father was questioned on day 26 as a witness, as he was the person who had helped the main defendant, Anwar Raslan, get a visa for Germany in 2014. Riad Seif had believed Raslan when he said he feared for his life after joining the opposition in 2012. However, Raslan was not able to prove that he was indeed an opposition supporter, and the trial ended with his being given a  life sentence for murder, rape and sexual assault committed at the notorious Al-Khatib prison.

For Joumana Seif, however, this trial was a stepping stone on the way to justice in Syria. "The meaning of my life is to help build a democratic Syria that offers the same rights to men and women and a life in dignity," she told DW.

"Only then will the struggle will be over." 

In March 2023, Joumana Seif will receive the Anne Klein Women's Award from Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation on behalf of global activists against sexualized violence in armed conflicts

Edited by: Timothy Jones

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.