In our series to mark World Refugee Day, Al-Fanar Media has interviewed Rahaf Aldoughli, a Syrian academic in Britain whose televised views on the Syrian regime’s policies have seen her banned from her home country.
Aldoughli is currently working as a lecturer in Middle Eastern and North African studies at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.
In her studies she seeks a rational reading of the war that has torn Syria apart since 2011 and to deal realistically with the new life for her and millions of Syrians in countries of asylum.
Aldoughli, who moved to Britain in 2011 when the conflict erupted, thinks that rationality means “employing emotion to produce research that refutes the stereotypes on Syria, which view Syrians as divided sectarian or religious groups.”
Her difficulties started three months after arriving in Britain, when the Syrian government cut the financial scholarship for her postgraduate studies and the Syrian embassy in London shut its doors.
Aldloughli faced that crisis in 2012 by getting a scholarship from Lancaster University to continue her studies. She then obtained a research fellowship from the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, in the United States, which enabled her to conduct research on peace and justice in Syria.
“Rahaf Aldoughli has transformed her daily ordeal of war and displacement into research that raises fundamental questions about Syria’s political future and monitors the changes in her country through academic research.”Amalendu Misra Professor of International Politics at Lancaster University, UK.
Realising the limited options available to her “as an immigrant from a conflict state, and the impossibility of returning to Syria”, Aldoughli believed that only through perseverance could she progress in her new life in exile.
One of her doctorate colleagues, Amalendu Misra, a professor of international politics at Lancaster University, believes that the main factor that helped Aldoughli overcome her difficulties is “her hard work and intense focus since the beginning of her doctoral research.”
Misra told Al-Fanar Media that “Rahaf Aldoughli has transformed her daily ordeal of war and displacement into research that raises fundamental questions about Syria’s political future and monitors the changes in her country through academic research.”
An Exchange Student and Refugee
Aldoughli changed from being a doctoral student on a government scholarship to a refugee after she criticised the policies of the Syrian regime in research writings and television interviews. She says she is now banned from her home country, “after being included on the wanted list due to criticism of the regime’s policies abroad.”
Her life would be threatened if she returned to Syria.
In the United Kingdom, Aldoughli said colleagues who treated her “as a researcher from a conflict zone” marginalised her humanity, canceled her research and academic status, and stripped her of her position as a specialised academic. “These stereotypes that my colleagues impose on me at research conferences and university make me upset.”
To confront the research community’s preconceived ideas, Aldoughli produced “in-depth research on the Syrian issue based on accurate knowledge of my country from inside Syria, and the various events and transformations experienced by the community, while adhering to the standards of scientific arbitration.”
She said this knowledge had two sides. “It helps me break this stereotype and puts me in touch with my country to unload my feelings towards it and the places and people I miss.”
“I still believe that research is my means of communication between me and Syria, and the most important tool to express my emotions and feelings, and affirm my identity.”Rahaf Aldoughli A Syrian scholar at Lancaster University, in the U.K.
Aldoughli’s academic career started with a bachelor’s degree in arts and humanities from Damascus University in 2008. In her Ph.D. studies at Lancaster University, she chose to do her thesis on the topic “Interrogating the Construction of Gendered Identity in Syrian Nationalist Narrative”. She examined the writings of three Syrian Baathist thinkers to see whether nationalism had contributed to the marginalisation of Syrian women. Lancaster University awarded her Ph.D. for this research five years ago.
Her areas of research expertise include studies on Syrian women, the relationship between tyranny and religion, sectarianism, and nationalism.
A New Generation of Female Syrian Scholars
Salam Kawakibi, Paris director of Qatar’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, told Al-Fanar Media that Aldoughli was one of a new generation of Syrian scholars who moved to Europe after 2011 and whose choice of studies was shaped by the Syrian war.
Kawakibi, who has lived in France for decades, worked as a researcher at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France.
A member of the old generation of Syrian researchers and now a teacher of development and migration at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University, Kawakibi said many of this new generation had benefited from scholarships enabling Syrian students to complete their postgraduate studies at major European universities.
He believes that the outbreak of the revolution motivated most of them to focus on the Syrian situation in their theses, employing modern Western methodology to conduct research which has benefited from freedom of information legislation.
Aldoughli said her research focuses on the link between the rise of nation-states in the Middle East and the perpetuation of militarism, despotism and fundamentalism. She sees militarism in the Arab world not only as an institution used by the state, but also as an ideology that perpetuates masculinity and gender bias.
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Her first book in English, “Constructing the Nation: Masculinism and Gender Bias in Syrian Nationalism”, is due to be published by Britain’s Manchester University Press next month.
Aldoughli is currently working on a new research project on sectarianism in Syria and how it is used as a tool by western researchers. She said her research was her way of communicating with Syria. “It expresses my emotions and feelings, and affirms my identity as well.”