Hala Agha is not your average postgraduate student. She is a loving mother of two, a responsible wife, a very active Palestine refugee and an extremely committed person.
But above all she is a woman that has never stopped believing in her dreams, to the point of turning them into solid realities. Her most recent aspiration was going back to college to pursue an MA in Sociology, more than 20 years after obtaining her bachelor’s degree. And unsurprisingly, she is just about to get it done. She is graduating soon and not only with honours but with a very well-deserved award.
"As women we have to realise we are human beings, just like everybody else. We must understand we do not belong to anyone but to ourselves," confides the smiling, goal-oriented woman while explaining the drive behind her achievements. Late last year, Hala was granted a research prize by the Arab Women Organization for her project on gender and violence in Syria. "This is a very important recognition not only because it will allow me to continue my research but also because it symbolises the struggle Arab women face to let their voices be heard," affirms the honouree.
The Arab Women Organization is an intergovernmental organisation established under the umbrella of the League of Arab States and based in Egypt. It emerged from the Cairo Declaration issued by the First Arab Women Summit which convened in Cairo in November 2000. The international association came into effect in March 2003 and since then it rewards outstanding projects submitted by women throughout the region. In 2009, Hala’s research proposal, entitled "Violence against wives", was picked out from hundreds of others and honoured with a prize for its exceptional value in depicting women’s conditions in the city of Damascus and its rural areas.
"Throughout my life I have always been discriminated against for being a woman. At school, at work, in my family or in the society, everyone has tried to prevent me from doing this or that for the simple fact of my gender," explains the middle-aged social researcher. "That is the reason I have always been interested in women’s issues and in doing something to help women and improve their situation."
For three months from September 2009, Hala interviewed hundreds of married women in the greater Damascus area, belonging to all social classes and aged from 17 up to 70 years old, asking them about their lives and whether or not they have suffered gender-related violence in their households. It was not an easy task. "Being such a sensitive issue many women were reluctant to answer. In order to talk to them I had to feel what they were feeling, empathise with them, listen to them. That’s how trust is built. It was very emotional because by holding their hands I felt reflected in many of their stories."
Hala’s research, the first of its kind in Syria with the approval and support of the corresponding authorities, is part of her Master’s dissertation project. The US$ 5,000 grant she received from the Arab Women Organization was used to cover the research expenses and will eventually help her carry out her next dream: extending the research to the Palestine refugee women population in Syria, something Hala plans to materialise sometime this year. "Being Palestinian it is fundamental for me to reach out to my own people, especially the women like me," she affirms proudly.
The final outcome of the research is still to come. A lot of information needs to be processed before the official results shed light on the situation of women in Syria and their future perspectives. In the meantime one thing is clear for Hala: there is still much to be done to improve the gender bias. "In one way or another, practically all the women I talked to have suffered violence," Hala says. Because even though Syria is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and has accordingly implemented policies and legal reforms, the mentality of society has not necessarily moved in the same direction.
"It might take a very long time for things to evolve favourably, but we have to start somewhere. If we do not start now change will never arrive," concludes Hala confidently.
Text and photo by Diego Gomez-Pickering