Backstage business

Syria's women entrepreneurs

More than a decade of war and economic collapse has driven Syrian women to join the labor force in unprecedented numbers. They do so not just as workers, but as the owners and managers of their own businesses, large and small. As these women navigate a daunting set of obstacles, they simultaneously confront conservative social norms and build new networks of solidarity. Yet this far-reaching process is barely visible: Syrian women must tread carefully if they are to meet their society’s many challenges.

Syria’s paid workforce is traditionally dominated by men. Those women who do work outside the home have long been channeled toward specific roles in the public sector, such as teaching. However, since 2011, the death, disappearances, displacement, and economic disaster wrought by Syria’s conflict have forced many more women to shift from managing household resources to generating them. One of these women described how being displaced by fighting led her to start a handicraft business:

My husband got injured and couldn’t work. We lost everything when we left Raqqa. Our financial situation deteriorated, and I needed to support my family financially. It motivated me to embark on a venture of my own.

Her story is echoed by women across the country, who have responded to their situations by creating a huge variety of businesses. Some sell home-made food or soap, or coordinate networks of weavers producing traditional rugs. Some run pharmacies, sport centers, kindergartens, beauty salons. Others have set up online English classes, driving schools, cafés, farms, and dairies.

These new businesswomen hail from different backgrounds. Some are still students, others over sixty. They are single, married with children, widowed, and divorced. They may hold several degrees or remain illiterate. They live in Damascus and Tabqa, were displaced from rural Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, and moved from coastal villages to the port city of Tartous. Yet all this diversity conceals some intriguing common traits among Syria’s many female entrepreneurs.

Filling gaps

As a general rule, Syrian women have gone into business out of necessity. This is not a new phenomenon. One widow from the northeastern city of Tabqa, now in her sixties, started her dairy business decades ago, after her husband died of a heart attack: “My four children were still young, and the allowance I received after the death of my husband just wasn’t enough to feed us all.” Prior to the war, some women from wealthier backgrounds were able to launch their own ventures, but they were the exception, not the norm. Syria remained a patriarchal society, in which men were ultimately responsible for providing for the family.

Syria’s conflict has fundamentally challenged that structure. For a start, it continues to decimate the male workforce. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that men accounted for 80% of all conflict-related deaths in the country from 2011 to 2023. Male breadwinners have been forced to remain at home to avoid military conscription, or have lost their jobs because of the economic breakdown or displacement. Salaries plunged due to the sharp devaluation of the lira—which went from 50 liras to the dollar prior to the war to over 12,600 in December 2023, according to official rates—throwing household budgets into disarray. New sources of income became indispensable.

Faced with social restrictions on joining the paid workforce, many women started independent businesses, often capitalizing on their existing skills. Some, even from the educated upper classes, could draw on traditional skills such as crafts, cooking, weaving, or soap making. While they were new to the challenges of running a business, they already knew how to prepare jam and pickles, turn milk into cheese, sew garments, weave carpets, care for chickens, decorate cakes, and so on. Such skills could be more marketable than formal education: “I have a dual university degree in computer science and translation, but it was hard to find a job,” said an internally displaced woman who resettled in the coastal city of Latakia. “So I turned to making soap and essential oils instead.”

Women raise capital through a practice known as jamiat

As well as tapping existing skills, many women have made use of whatever assets are available in their immediate environment—whether as a means of production or as start-up capital. One widow in Tabqa sold her late husband’s shop inventory as a way of raising money for her own café. Many women have sold the gold jewelry they received as dowries for similar reasons, while women from more affluent backgrounds have used their family inheritance. In rural settings, owning a cow might be the start of a cheese-making business.

Women entrepreneurs also mobilize social and family networks, with varying goals: They may seek donations of equipment, make advance sales to friends in order to purchase raw materials, or request grants and loans from their husbands or other relatives. Another way of raising start-up capital is through a practice known as jamiat, in which a group agrees to pool their money through contributions into a communal pot every month. The total is then paid out to an individual member on a rotating basis; she might use it to launch a business, pay for a son to get married, or cover medical bills.

Owing to scant finances, women foster their own circular economy. This often means creatively reusing, repairing, recycling, and refurbishing the things around them. One woman from a coastal village started producing vinegar thanks to surplus apples from family and friends. Another woman decided to decorate her café in Old Damascus by using objects from her family home rather than hiring a decorator. Faced with financial pressures, another entrepreneur sold objects she made out of discarded glass, transforming “useless items into something useful.”

This tireless capacity for reinventing the world around them has led to a spectacular array of such initiatives. They are all the more impressive given the towering social challenges these women must face in the process.

Navigating society

On top of negotiating their way through a broken economy, Syrian women face a string of disadvantages specific to them: a frequent lack of formal training and access to external capital, as well as a hostile business environment made all the more difficult because they are female.

Because of their education and upbringing, many Syrian businesswomen lack skills in project administration, finance, or marketing. Some have developed budget management skills in the context of household finances, but this doesn’t automatically translate into building profitable businesses. The manager of a coffee shop recalled that she struggled, in the early months, to separate her personal and business accounts. Similarly, the owner of a catering venture said: “I wish I had learned math, economic feasibility, and how to calculate profits. I suddenly need these skills, but don’t have them.”

These skill gaps are acutely felt in a business environment racked by multiple crises. War fragmented supply chains and disrupted imports. Syria’s infrastructure is in tatters, including the transportation and electricity essential to doing business. The currency is depreciating faster than prices and wages can adjust. As such, customers struggle to pay for basic necessities such as food staples and fuel, let alone discretionary goods.

Moreover, some of the fixes available to men as they navigate the war-damaged economy remain elusive to most women. The young owner of a beauty parlor in rural Damascus complained that the municipality shut down her private generator, yet turned a blind eye to three others running illegally in her district:

I believe that my neighbors didn’t complain about the other generators because they didn’t want to have problems with their owners, who are men. They found it easy to target me. Even the mayor was surprised when I reached out to fix the issue: He was puzzled as to why people would complain about me and not the others.

Female entrepreneurs also struggle to access capital, due in part to gender dynamics. Restrictive and male-centric inheritance laws mean women rarely own real estate, and therefore cannot put up collateral for bank loans. Those who are able, in theory, to access credit often recoil at the prospect of being in debt, viewing it as a financial and moral burden too heavy to add to their existing mental load. One artisan working with fabric scraps was haunted daily by her loan, even though she had taken it out not from a bank but from a well-meaning foundation. The anticipation of such stress deters many women from taking the leap.

Debt is a burden that adds to women's existing mental load

Alternatives to banks, such as charities or individual initiatives in the diaspora, have their own drawbacks. Information about them can be difficult to find, and their priorities shift. Social constraints can prevent women from scouting out opportunities, whether on social media or in person. The owner of a sewing project in Homs said: “I heard there were associations supporting small women-owned projects, but I couldn’t reach any of them. I can’t travel to the capital to find out more.”

Poor access to capital has dire consequences for many businesses. It prevents their development, delays investments, and increases costs. It leaves business owners unable to build inventories or buy property, exposing them to fluctuating prices and rent hikes. The owner of a chicken coop in rural Raqqa complained about not having the cash to replace her diesel generator—which burns through much of her revenue—with a solar system. Another entrepreneur shuttered her beauty parlor after less than a year of work, as she felt unable to invest in further supplies:

As the lira devalued, I couldn’t spend on the house and my children while also sustaining my salon. I was afraid to buy inventory that might never bring me money. I had some make-up already, so I decided to focus only on that and sell it all before it expired.

Besides money, entrepreneurs also need to build good business relationships. Here, too, social norms limit women’s options. Men find it easier to develop personal connections to clients, suppliers, and civil servants, and thus to procure spare parts, deliver goods, smuggle equipment, and overcome administrative roadblocks. Many women face constraints on interacting with strangers, so cannot cultivate such networks themselves. They must therefore rely on their fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons as intermediaries. A middle-aged businesswoman from Zabadani, near the Syrian-Lebanese border, started her own food processing workshop two years ago, for which her husband acts as the frontman:

He collects the milk twice a day and takes it to Damascus. It’s very hard for a woman to go to the market and deal with traders, so my husband does that. At first, it was hard to convince other women that a woman could run a business with the full backing of her husband and sons. But our entire female team works indoors, so there are no social problems. Even the mosque sheikh praised our work and urged other men to support our initiative.

Even when they find such solutions, women entrepreneurs face threats. A creator of online learning materials, who lives in the southern city of Deraa, regularly faces harassment from male clients who pose as students but actually want to seduce her. The Syrian economy is also deeply corrupt and dominated by armed factions and predatory state agencies, which present distinct risks. Wives of officials may expect free manicures from their beautician, and have their husbands send inspectors to fine them for trivial legal breaches if they don’t comply.

One solution is to limit exposure

Despite the obvious drawbacks, one solution is to limit exposure. The owner of an all-women workshop described her effort to prevent the first lady from encroaching on her business, as she is known to do with women-led initiatives: “We hide just out of sight. We haven’t posted anything on our Facebook page for a couple of years. It gives the impression that we don’t exist anymore.”

Many women default to similarly discreet ways of doing business, sometimes out of social necessity. Businesswomen are expected to work first and foremost as the main caregivers in their families, catering for children, the elderly, and the disabled. A trader in second-hand clothes explained that she works from home, not a shop, because she must tend full-time to her husband with cancer.

Finally, social constraints define the fields in which women can run a business at all. These fields are often those traditionally associated with women, such as care work, beauty, food processing, and home decoration. The owner of a pharmacy in rural Damascus explained that she chose this area of study, rather than medicine, to limit her interactions with men. Even when businesswomen are visible, many assume roles that end up reinforcing gender norms and stereotypes.

Building communities

In the face of such obstacles, Syrian businesswomen often resort to life-saving forms of solidarity. When they lack certain skills, many seek it from others around them: established predecessors, experienced relatives, or online tutorials. Continual learning and sharing thus play an important part in their professional endeavors. A woman who set up a shop selling home-made detergent said:

For a long time, I learned though YouTube and produced small samples at home. I received training from someone who had a cleaning product laboratory, and another person who had their own store taught me some skills essential for the project’s success.

Many women thus underscore the sense of community involved as they draw on assistance from family, friends, and broader networks. They receive guidance in digital marketing from a younger sister or a cousin who has settled abroad. Their husband or brother champions their project among relatives. Friends become their first customers. Their landlord accepts to delay rent payments until their first sales. Neighbors take care of their children after school. Members of Syria’s expansive diaspora in the Americas or Europe send the funds or equipment they need. Things aren’t always rosy, but female entrepreneurship ultimately thrives through cooperation.

Such support is indispensable, not least because women usually can’t devote themselves entirely to their ventures. As part of conforming to traditional expectations, they often have to juggle endless, unpaid household chores along with their business commitments. The pharmacist from rural Damascus explained how the two can blend: “I used to prepare meals in the pharmacy and teach my children during work hours. It was a way to balance my work and family responsibilities.”

Small gestures hardly challenge gender roles

There are exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule. Some women report working long hours on their businesses to the exclusion of all else. “Running the gym I founded takes up my whole day, from 8am until 10pm, but I am happy that I can provide good service to my customers,” said a resident of rural Damascus, in her sixties, who has invested in solar panels and generators to provide service around the clock. In rare cases, husbands and other men assume responsibilities that are traditionally delegated to women, such as feeding children or providing emotional care.

But these small gestures hardly challenge the roles that women are expected to fulfill. A beauty salon owner noted her gratitude that her husband would prepare food for their kids when she works late—reflecting the fact that this remains, by default, the mother’s role:

Even when I return home late or when I am behind on the housework, my husband doesn’t complain. Sometimes, I come from work and find that he has prepared light food and eaten with the children. And the first thing he says when I return is: “Ah you are back! Welcome, and God bless you.”

A less tangible aspect of the community spirit at work in female entrepreneurship is the recognition of collective benefits, which features frequently in entrepreneurs’ narratives. “We believe in pooling resources, to invest in larger quantities of raw materials, save more, and produce higher-quality products. This collaborative approach creates shared benefits for everyone,” proclaimed a woman from a modest coastal family who runs a small decoration business.

Many instinctively frame their success as a collective rather than an individual journey: drawing satisfaction from building a community and having a positive impact beyond their immediate family needs. This might entail looking out for other women, providing them with work opportunities, or helping out their workers—for example by paying their domestic generator bills. They adjust to their customers’ circumstances, too. The owner of a home-based preserves business in Tabqa said she allows the clients she knows to pay in installments: “I was employed myself, and I know that most salaries are not enough to buy two kilos of cheese and a kilo of makdous [stuffed and pickled baby eggplants] all in one go.”

Such rootedness also shapes these entrepreneurs’ business ideas, which typically reflect a lived understanding of their community’s needs. One woman in her late 20s started producing sweets that cater to customers who are diabetic like herself—an obvious yet overlooked gap in the market. Gender constraints can likewise create opportunities that women are best placed to seize. The owner of a women-only café in Raqqa noted: “We needed our own space to enjoy each other’s company and take care of ourselves. Such places shouldn’t only be available to men.”

Another way women entrepreneurs give back to the community is by sharing knowledge. Family transmission is key: Women learn from their mothers, older siblings, aunts, or distant cousins, and many are eager to pass their skills and experience down to the next generation. In some instances, this occurs within closed communities: For example, the owner of a sewing workshop in the capital only accepts apprentices who belong to “very good, well-known, conservative, religious Damascene families.” Others make a point of teaching their craft beyond their own circles, honoring the tradition of spreading know-how as a way of supporting others. One entrepreneur working in recycling described her efforts: “I started teaching a group of teenagers how to recycle items they have at home. I am even developing a curriculum to guide them.”

* * *

Syria’s female-led businesses will hardly show an impact on conventional economic metrics. They are unlikely, for example, to shore up the country’s crumbling GDP or ramp up its exports. But they are transformative at the grassroots level, alleviating hardships and slowly mending communities destroyed by years of conflict. In fact, many women entrepreneurs come from the families most affected by the war, precisely because of the dire circumstances they face. This makes their endeavors all the more impressive and precious, in communities that desperately need some form of recovery.

Various obstacles still constrain the rise of these enterprising women. Few can hope to roll back, let alone abandon, their traditional roles—assuming they even want to. According to the International Labour Organization, only 17% of Syrian women have entered the formal workforce in 2022 —an indication of just how ingrained these gender norms still are. Society is far from shifting its expectations: Peer pressure, male harassment, and other forms of coercion persist, which in turn puts a ceiling on women’s business opportunities.

None of this is unique to Syria. Whether it flaunts traditional or liberal credentials, pressuring women to stay home and raise children or be ruthless enough to compete with domineering men in the workplace, each society has its own ways of limiting female aspirations. Syrian women are indeed not unique in facing such constraints, and their everyday achievements form part of a much larger struggle.

29 January 2024

This essay was penned collectively by Synaps' team

Grateful illustration credits: © Yafa Shanneik, The Cousins, Germany, 2018.

The illustration was created as part of a research project. This research is part of the ongoing British Academy-funded project (SDP2n100227): “Negotiating Relationships and Redefining Traditions: Syrian and Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan”

Related content