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‘Today Heba, tomorrow us’: Feminist activist’s hanging casts long shadow

The hanging of Syrian feminist and activist Heba Haj Aref after a long series of threats has cast a long shadow over women activists across northwestern Syria, highlighting the dangers and lack of support they face.

2 March 2024

ALEPPO — “I want to say what I know about Heba, but I don’t want to be next.” Days after feminist and activist Heba Haj Aref was found hanged at her home in northwestern Syria, her friend and colleague Alaa al-Ahmad (a pseudonym) would only speak anonymously. 

Haj Aref, who was 32 years old when she died on the night of February 26, knew she was in danger long before her death. Whenever “she spoke in a safe space, at a meeting with civil society organizations, bodies and groups she belonged to,” she mentioned “receiving death and kidnapping threats,” al-Ahmad recalled. “Those bodies did not provide enough protection.” 

Local authorities declared Haj Aref’s death a suicide on Monday without conducting an autopsy. Friends, colleagues and one family member dismissed this possibility in conversations with Syria Direct in recent days. They believe she was murdered after at least a year of threats, including from a powerful armed faction accused of assassination in the past. 

Haj Aref’s suspected murder has cast a long shadow over women activists across northwestern Syria, one not likely to be dispelled by local authorities’ insistence that she died by suicide. The circumstances of her death, and the threats and pressure she faced long before it, highlight not only the dangers women activists face but also how few options they have to turn to for support. 

Heba’s story

On February 27, the Syrian Women’s Network announced Haj Aref’s death. She was found hanging from a noose at her home in Bazaa, a town just outside al-Bab, a city in the northern Aleppo countryside controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). Fear began to spread among the feminist community in northern Syria, many of whom feared there would be future targets, al-Ahmad said. 

The Syrian Women’s Political Movement also issued a statement condemning Haj Aref’s killing, and wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that it came “after she was subjected to constant death threats from the de facto armed forces.” The group called on the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and its opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG) to “fully bear responsibility for this despicable crime, as they are the parties responsible for protecting those under their control in northwest Syria.” 

Haj Aref lived in Bazaa with her husband and two children, six-year-old Maria and three-year-old Muhammad. At the time of her death, she worked as the principal of the al-Ikhwa Elementary School there, affiliated with the Turkish New Step Educational Association for Culture and Solidarity. She held a law degree from Aleppo University, and was a member of multiple political and women’s organizations, including the Syrian Women’s Network, Women’s Support and Empowerment Unit, Syrian Women’s Political Movement and the Syrian National Democratic Alliance Party. 

She was active in raising awareness, empowering and supporting women “in a region known for its extreme conservatism and predetermined roles for women, derived from social views that their role is limited to working inside the home and serving the family,” al-Ahmad said. 

Haj Aref was previously a member of the Bazaa Local Council, but resigned one year ago. She was under pressure “because she belongs to a family with some members who support the Assad regime,” one of her colleagues, who worked with her on public affairs, told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity.

“During one demonstration that took place near the local council a year ago, one of the demonstrators called Heba a shabiha [pro-regime thug],” al-Ahmad recalled. “She responded, and said ‘you’re the shabih.’” From that day forward, “threats against her came constantly.” 

Other members of the local council also pressured Haj Aref “to force her to leave her job at the council, for no clear reason. She resigned to avoid evil and danger,” her colleague said. “The danger didn’t end.” 

“The last time Heba spoke about the threats was a week before the crime. She revealed to those close to her that she received new threats, but did not give details of them,” her colleague added. “She said she intended to move.”

On multiple occasions, Haj Aref identified the source of the threats she received as the Ankara-backed SNA’s Hamza Division (known locally as al-Hamzat), the same source said. The Hamza Division has been accused of committing many violations in parts of the northern Aleppo countryside where it is present. In October 2022, it was implicated in the assassination of media activist Muhammad Abdul Latif (known as Abu Ghannoum) and his pregnant wife, sparking significant SNA infighting at the time. 

Read more: ‘Accountability, or fall’: Syrian National Army’s Hamza Division under fire after assassination of opposition activist in northern Aleppo

In response, an anonymous source from the Hamza Division denied the faction had any connection to the crime. He claimed to Syria Direct that she was killed as “the result of clan issues.” 

The SIG-affiliated al-Bab Security Directorate said in an initial statement on February 28 that its forces had arrested suspects during an initial investigation into Haj Aref’s death. It said they had no connection to any military faction, sparking angry reactions.  

On March 4, the directorate released a second statement detailing the conclusions of its investigation. It declared “the cause of death was suicide” and denied “the occurrence of a criminal offense.” It said no autopsy was conducted based on the refusal of Haj Aref’s maternal uncle, and that all arrested suspects have been released.

As news of Haj Aref’s death spread last week, suspicions arose that she had died by suicide. But one of her relatives told Syria Direct before the al-Bab Security Directorate issued its conclusions that “the initial information from the forensics report indicates the victim was strangled before she was hanged, confirming that claims of suicide are false.” 

The Syrian Women’s Political Movement has called for a “comprehensive independent international investigation” into Haj Aref’s death. 

Implications for the feminist community

Haj Aref’s reported killing has cast a shadow over activists in SNA-controlled northwestern Syria. Many activists Syria Direct spoke to felt Hiba’s death was a threat to them as well. They have tried not to openly discuss it, or made only brief statements to the media. 

These fears are deepened by a sense that there is little support for women in danger. “The pressure on Heba brought her many times to the stage of collapse and intense crying,” al-Ahmad recalled. Haj Aref asked for advocacy from the bodies she belonged to or worked with, but “the support consisted of listening to her and supporting her decisions to stay away from the sources of danger,” she added. This type of support, without intervention from authorities in the region, can do little to reduce the dangers activists like her face. 

Syria Direct contacted three women’s organizations to learn more about their mechanisms for protecting their members if they are threatened. All asked that their organization not be identified out of the fear of endangering their members. They said the support they provide is limited to advocacy and lobbying, and that they do not have emergency plans or protection mechanisms in place. 

One organization said that, in the wake of Haj Aref’s death, it has started to think about what parties it can reach out to “to develop an effective protection policy, and then review all those we have communicated with regarding similar threats.” 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), has documented at least 268 cases in the past four years of women being assaulted and intimidated by all parties to the conflict in northeastern and northwestern Syria “over their activism and their instrumental roles in the provision of various humanitarian, political, media and other services, and in women-oriented roles.”

These violations have “had a heavy physical and psychological toll on women, driving many of them to leave their areas, stop their work, limit their activism, or flee and travel to other areas,” SNHR wrote in a statement it released after Haj Aref’s reported killing. 

“Heba, and many women activists before her whose stories have not been revealed to the public, are the victims of ideas and agendas that do not accept and do not believe in women’s role in decision-making,” one feminist activist in northern Aleppo told Syria Direct, asking not to be identified out of fear for her life. 

Since Heba’s killing, the activist has been living in “a state of chaos,” she said, facing questions such as: “Do we have enough protection as activists or workers in women-related fields? If we receive a threat, who can we turn to?”

Despite “the fear that Heba’s murder has instilled in us, it drew our attention to the need to join hands at times like these and send a public message to limit these crimes and enact deterrent laws for everyone who tries to demean the role of women or their work,” she said. 

Haj Aref’s suspected murder came at a time when “women have climbed out of the tunnel of marginalization imposed by society, and have become active in public affairs, working, expressing their opinion and defending their rights,” activist Islam Tadfi (a pseudonym) told Syria Direct. In Haj Aref’s death, she sees “a message to silence women, and remove them again from the public sphere.” 

As a political empowerment activist, Tadfi has received many threats. “I distanced myself from this field despite my passion for it. Recently, I was thinking about returning to activism, but Heba’s killing brought back the fear I struggled to overcome,” she said. “Killing Heba in the middle of her home sends a clear message to silence women and keep them away from any activism.”

Writing in a private WhatsApp group following Haj Aref’s death, one human rights activist said she feared the “Bazaa crime” would lead to “a significant decline in the representation of women in leadership positions, especially political leadership.” Another responded: “It is a clear message of the restriction of women’s work, and the dominance of patriarchal society.” 

Attacks on women working in the public sphere push families to “marginalize their daughters and prevent them from participating in public life,” Rahaf Awad, a journalist in the Aleppo countryside, told Syria Direct. “This marginalization is spontaneous, and not intentional, out of the fear that they will become victims of physical or psychological abuse, especially in the absence of a deterrent.” 

“Impunity for Heba’s killer means the threat will affect many women activists,” she added. “Today Heba, tomorrow us.” 

“Heba was a flame of activism. She loved life. Hours before the news of the crime spread, she shared a scientific article with one of the organizations she worked with. She was hoping to use it while facilitating a dialogue session for a group of women,” one of her colleagues said. Not long after, the flame went out. 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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