EPIA Seminars

The Integration and Empowerment of Assyrian Women in Europe:
Problems and Challenges
(Gothenburg, 7-9 June 2013)

The third EPIA activity The Integration and Empowerment of Assyrian Women in Europe: Problems and Challenges was held in Gothenburg (Sweden) from 7-9 June, 2013. The seminar was organized by the Assyriska Föreningen i V. Frölunda in cooperation with the other EPIA partner organizations (Inanna Foundation, Yoken-Bar-Yoken Foundation, Institut Syriaque de Belgique). Besides 10 participants from partner countries (Holland, Germany and Belgium), there were 70 participants from Sweden. The women workshop was divided into three sessions and was combined with some social events (such as a city trip). The whole event was broadcast on Assyria WebTV.

In the first session three presentations were held. After a word of welcome from Maryam G. Guttman (SE), Sonder Onder (NL) provided a brief overview of the EU Grundtvig program and the EPIA project. He underlined the importance of developing a feminist perspective to analyze the situation of Assyrian women in the European diaspora, and he outlined the workshop agenda.

In her talk Maryam G. Guttman discussed the development of the Assyrian women movement in the Swedish context. She illustrated well how Assyrian women underwent a transformation process after Assyrians settled in Sweden. The change in the position of Assyrian women is very remarkable: from being the property of men in their homeland, Assyrian women acquired a more equal position in the diaspora. Maryam gave several examples to show how Assyrian women have created their own space in public spaces and in their community's organizations.

The first session ended with a presentation from the chairman of the Assyrian Youth Federation in Sweden (AUF), Peter Butros. In his presentation Strengthening the position of women in the Assyrian society, Peter addressed the question 'Why Assyrian women still have a weak position in Assyrian society' in relation to the hegemonic establishment of some traditional discourses which define a 'good man' and a 'good woman'. Traditionally it is expected that a 'good' Assyrian woman should be a 'servant', a 'worker', and one who is 'silent', 'loyal' and 'dependent'. Positive values and capabilities are attached only to Assyrian men. Peter added that AUF has started giving specific priority to gender equality in its activities. To stimulate this, the Federation has started to award the Assyrian Woman of the Year Award and decided to develop a close collaboration with the Assyrian Women Federation and is planning the publication of a common magazine with a female editor.

The second session was devoted to the individual success stories of six invited female speakers.

  • Janet Barabraham (DE) is a human rights activist and has been working at the Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker (Society for Threatened Peoples) for more than 20 years. She has also been involved in other civil society organizations (such as 'Solidarity Group for Turabdin', and in the 'Council of Eastern Churches'). Janet elaborated on her activities in different NGOs and underlined the importance of women in general participating in NGOs. Active membership in German NGOs, according to Janet has given her the opportunity to become a female activist. At the end of her speech, Mrs Abraham encouraged all participants to get more involved in civil societal activities in their host societies.
  • Nahrin Malki (NL) is an artist and painter who studied at ARtez Art Academy (Enschede). Since then she has had several exhibitions in different countries. Her last exhibition was held in Poznan, Poland within the context of a project celebrating the historical and cultural relations between Poland and the Netherlands. Nahrin talked about how she had decided to become a painter and the way how her family and friends perceived her decision. She revealed what a tough and demanding task it is to perform art and as well as be both woman and mother at the same time. She underlined the importance of family support, particularly for mother-artists.
  • Joyce Chamoun (NL) is a well-known actress who has taken major roles in several Dutch TV series, movies, and theater plays. Joyce was born and raised in the Netherlands. She graduated from the Theater Academy and did her MA in London. From personal experience Joyce stated that becoming an artist or choosing to do something unusual needs first of all self-confidence and then a particular ambition in order to achieve this goal. She gave an example from her own life, namely that in the beginning her family and relatives were against her choice. But she did not give up. All these negative reflections that she faced made her more persistent in achieving her goal. Joyce said education is essential if women are to acquire higher positions in society. Furthermore, Joyce stressed that she has combined her cultural asset with her profession as an artist.
  • Rakhel Chukri (SE) is a well-known journalist working as chief editor of the cultural section of the Swedish daily Sydsvenskan which is printed in an edition of 300,000. As culture editors are mainly men her appointment as chief editor attracted the attention of different groups. Rakhel defines herself as 'feminist'. She explained what kind of difficulties she faced during her career. When she started her job as chief editor she worked more than 70 hours per week in order to become successful. She received some negative reactions from her extended family because she lived as a single woman and not in the same city as did her family. The questions she often hears are: 'Why are you still single? Why do you stay in Malmö? Come back to Jönköping!' She also faced judgemental comments such as 'You have become like Swedes' or 'Her style is not like the Assyrian way of life'. But Rakhel is a strong woman and loves her family and people. She upheld the importance of education for the further emancipation of women. Moreover, she discussed the discrimination of women in the family context pointing out that Assyrian boys do whatever they want and are mostly tolerated, but girls are not allowed the same freedom. Rakhel ended her speech by asking parents to trust their daughters.
  • Shennay Gergeo Shamoun (SE) emigrated to Sweden as a four year old child. She holds a PhD degree in psychology and is at present working at the Royal Technology University (KTH) as a researcher in patient safety. Shennay attributes her success to hearing her mother's constant complaint: 'Oo, I wanted to be a man!' At an early stage she was therefore self-confident about her own individual identity and her expectations in life. Importantly, Shennay also pointed out that without education women can only enjoy the role of 'housewife'. She emphasized that in order to achieve a good position in society, a woman should have clear goals in life and be ambitious about attaining these goals. She also stressed that it is essential to receive support from the family and society at large.
  • Sonya Aho (SE) is a journalist working at the Swedish Ombudsman for Discrimination. As a witness to this transformation process Sonya gave examples of the changing role of women in Assyrian society. She recalled her mother's reaction when she heard that her daughter wanted to become a journalist and go to the UK for her studies.

In the third session, we had two open discussion themes in which the audience had the opportunity to structure the discussions. In the first theme, we focused on the situation of Assyrian women in the family context, in the Assyrian community and in broader society. Here we aimed to problematize the situation of Assyrian women and to identify gender inequalities and other problems they encountered. Participants mentioned complex problems pertaining to gender-structures in which women are obliged to adopt the traditional role of a woman (i.e. traditional woman role). Many female participants shared their individual experiences. For example, a female participant who is close to her forties, said she decided to study at university after having three kids despite the objection of from her family which made her more persistent in her choice. She said that as a woman she came to understand the meaning of education quite late. Furthermore, she stated that to seek education forced her husband to give more time to their kids which is essentially 'good' for the transformation of the traditional role of the father. Another critical point raised was one related to the hegemony of taken-for-granted women roles and lack of feminist criticism in the Assyrian community. Participants also stated that among younger generations who have grown up in European societies, gender equality has become a more central value. They do not differ so much from their native peers with regard to norms and values.

The second discussion theme was about the situation of Assyrian women in organizational life (secular and religious organizations) and aimed to map out the structural discrimination faced by women in these organizations which are predominantly run by Assyrian men. Many participants have been involved in different types of community organizations and they commonly pointed out the subordinated position of Assyrian women in the public space. Furthermore, they criticized the traditional roles given to women, such as organizing activities for children and women or serving the men in the organizations yet all the time being excluded from decision-making processes regarding key topics. Participants also mentioned that their male co-workers in organizations undermined the authority of women and show women as 'incapable' of doing organizational work, or being involved (in politics etc. At the end, all participants came to an understanding that Assyrian women should struggle more to develop greater space for the involvement and influence of women in these organizations.

The results of the anonymous evaluation session revealed that the women workshop fulfilled the expectations of the participants. Many participants suggested the need of organizing similar events in the future.

Inanna Foundation

Click here for the pictures of the workshop.
See Assyria TV to watch the workshop in two episodes.
See Hujada Magazine for the workshop report written in Swedish by Maryam Garis Guttman
See AINA Magazine for an article written about the workshop by A.Mesih Barabraham
See here for the workshop programme.

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication (communication) reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.