Q&A: Nof Nasser-Eddin, Co-founder and Co-director of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration

Nearly a decade into Syria’s war, returning home remains dangerous for refugees: there is the risk of arrest, disappearance and ongoing conflict.

But issues of gender, and how they intersect with property rights, have long been left out of the discussion, says Dr. Nof Nasser-Eddin, Co-founder and Co-director of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration.

Nasser-Eddin co-authored a wide-ranging report published last month by SAWA for Development and Aid and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, on Syrian refugee women in Lebanon, and the factors complicating a potential return home to Syria. One key finding: women’s comparatively limited access to property rights, such as title deeds for homes and farmland in Syria, are playing into their decisions to remain in Lebanon, despite oftentimes difficult living conditions there.

As women build new lives for themselves in Lebanon years after fleeing home, can a lack of property rights back home keep them from returning? Though such issues are far from the only factors at play, they are still important in many women’s decision-making, says Nasser-Eddin.

"If they don’t have anything to go back to, why would they go back?"

It seemed clear from the report that many of the women interviewed did not have a clear understanding of their own property rights and how those rights--or lack thereof--might impact a theoretical return home to Syria. Can you talk more about what exactly is missing here?

Under systems of patriarchy, some women don’t get access to property rights because of issues of inheritance. They also cannot access information about this: they don’t know whether they can go back to Syria and claim their land or not, or whether they can come back [to Lebanon]. So there is a misunderstanding, or misconception, among women.

Second, because some women don’t actually claim their inheritance for certain reasons, including culture, traditions and class. Working class women or women coming from impoverished places [sometimes] think it isn’t within their rights to claim their inheritance capital.  So they don’t have access to information [about this]. Data also showed marital status can be a determinant whether women would ask for their inheritance or not. Women who are not married or who do not have kids are much more likely to pass it on to their brothers who have families and fathers.

And when looking at patriarchal societies, [oftentimes] these issues are considered men’s issues, or part of the ‘public’ sphere, whereas women are part of the ‘private’ sphere.

More research has to be done on this. But from the data available, I thought that this is really important to pick up on because the whole issue of return is not as straightforward. [It isn’t simply a question of] whether women want to go back [to Syria] or stay. There are issues hindering women from going back, and there are some issues which push them to stay in Lebanon.

And some of these property documents are with the state system itself, which women might not have access to. In addition, most of these houses are not in their own names--they are in the names of their husbands, or their fathers or brothers. So they aren’t accessible.

Even in the best of situations, what options are available to returning women, such as widows, for example, who want to prove their family’s ownership of properties registered under male family members’ names?

I’m not really sure about this to be honest. But remember that Lebanon is a very racist state. So a lot of these women who have residency permits [in Lebanon] think that if they go to Syria, they cannot then return to Lebanon. From my conversations with other people who work on these issues, some women don’t know that they can come back [to Lebanon], even if they do go to Syria. This kind of information is really missing. Hosting states and governments do not give information to refugees and I believe that this is on purpose, they do not give information about their rights- this lack of information is a form of control and power that states exercise on refugees.

I cannot directly answer your question but proving [ownership] within the state is very difficult because of patriarchy, because of the state system and how they treat women. When we think about the situation of refugees, and of women, we cannot think about just one structure of oppression. We must think about multiple structures of oppression--class, patriarchy, state systems--which put a lot of pressure on women over the decision of whether to stay in Lebanon. The issue is not straightforward. Things are connected, and you cannot separate the systems from each other.

It seems many of the women interviewed come originally from areas of Syria that are now under government control. How much of their potential inability to return home is tied to issues of property rights vs. other factors at play in government-held areas, such as various re-zoning measures that may threaten their homes?

Intersectionality is important when we look at these issues. We cannot say that one issue is more important than the other. That is what I was trying to say in the report: there isn’t a definite answer.

I will give an example: a woman who comes from a middle-class or upper middle-class family in Syria--usually those [individual] women are much richer than women coming from working-class families. Maybe, in her mind, going back to Syria makes more sense because she already has capital. So, class is an issue that factors into this.

There is an intersection between class and gender. Women coming from upper middle-class families may have some properties in their names. So, the idea of return is much more feasible than for working-class families.

So, I don’t have a definite answer here. We cannot think about this in only one way, or in a binary sense.

And you must remember that a lot of these homes are now occupied. They are taken by the state or occupied by internally displaced people. A lot of families returned and told their relatives who stayed in Lebanon that their homes are not theirs anymore, because they have been occupied by internally displaced people. The whole demography has changed.

We cannot only think about [gender-related] traditions, families--no, it is also about the state system [itself]. We must think about how legalities within the state have also had an influence. I am sure that a lot of men also cannot go back to their properties.

There is a whole structure of oppression that influences these issues, so we must always connect the dots to each other and think about how gender dynamics and patriarchy do not operate in vacuum and are influenced by other structures.

You mentioned in the report that lack of access to family inheritances was one major factor deterring women from considering a return back to Syria. Can you explain more about why exactly that is?

One of the main reasons that many women do not want to return [to Syria] is their economic independence--if they are working and or economically active, if they have jobs. A lot of refugee women who fled Syria and now reside in Lebanon or Turkey or Jordan, they were able to become economically active. A lot of these women do not want to go back, because when they go back, they lose their employment and/or their economic activities.

So, when women are economically empowered, let us say, they like this new change. They are independent. If they lose that, and if they do not have anything to go back to, why would they go back? We must think about whether they have any material resources to go back to, to support themselves.

One of the things that I mentioned in the report is that many men wanted to go back to Syria because they do not have jobs. The women were resisting that because they were working. Material resources are among the reasons that women want to stay in Lebanon. So, if they do not have any inheritance back home, why would they want to go back?

That is how gender dynamics differ. When families flee their countries, women are the ones who are usually more able to find work and be engaged in income generating activities. Men are staying at home, and they are also often seen as more of a [social] threat to the country where they reside. Women can manoeuvre those systems more easily. So, there’s a shift in the power dynamics and gender dynamics. Women find themselves responsible for the households, they find themselves as the providers. So of course, they do not want to lose that power, in a way.

More research needs to be done. When I received the data, I picked up on this issue because I found it important. But it was not a theme that was focused on in the questions. Thinking about property rights, capital and women is important.