Women’s tough bargain
The struggles of Syrian women are not new, yet they are changing fast: The past decade of conflict has unsettled social norms and upturned gender dynamics. The stories of women in and around Damascus capture sudden shifts that extend countrywide: In the aftermath of war, they shoulder much of the burden of holding together a broken economy and a tattered social fabric. This task is heavy enough on its own, even without the deep-rooted forms of discrimination and exploitation that have long weighed women down—and continue to do so. For all that, some women have found ways to convert this predicament into unprecedented levels of autonomy and authority, which they aim to consolidate as Syria approaches a new and uncertain future.
The new public
“My town’s vegetable market is exclusively staffed by women,” said an activist in an eastern suburb of Damascus. While women have always been part of her town’s labor force, they have lately assumed a larger and more diverse role than ever before: “They do everything: They handle the sales, they sort fresh vegetables from spoiled ones, they even go to the wholesalers to buy and transport heavy vegetable crates. That was always a man’s role.”
In recent years, the brutal hollowing out of Syria’s male population has made workplaces and public spaces ever more female. “Government offices are full of female civil servants now,” remarked a researcher. She half-joked about how this has put her at a disadvantage: “When we have paperwork to do, they always treat my husband better than me—I guess because they’re flirting.” A civil servant at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor described the same phenomenon, in numbers:
A government department once posted 80 job openings, and got 3,500 applicants—of whom only 60 were men. On another occasion, I visited a school in downtown Damascus where I saw 40 female teachers next to two men. Of those, one was 50 years old [meaning above the age of conscription] and the other was his family’s only son [and thus exempted from conscription altogether].
While such anecdotes provide a glimpse of the transformation underway, the full scale of this change defies precise quantification. In a 2022 report, the World Bank estimated that Syria’s female labor force participation doubled since 2011, from 13 to 26 percent. The real figure may be higher still, given the prevalence of informal labor and the difficulty of obtaining precise statistics. This transformation is about more than sheer volume; it is also about which women enter the labor force, and what jobs they do. “In the past, married women in my hometown mostly didn’t work,” reflected a mother and widow from Darayya, a rebellious suburb of Damascus that was leveled by Syrian artillery. “This changed when we lost our husbands, fled our homes, and had to support ourselves.”
As a result, women now assume positions that would have been unusual or taboo in the past. In another suburb of Damascus, a woman tested out an approach that is at once entrepreneurial, uncomfortable, and sad: Having set up a shoe-shining operation on a public sidewalk, she struggled to gain business from male passersby—and thus posted a sign urging them not to be shy about having their shoes cleaned by a woman. The civil servant shared his own surprise at just how dramatic this change has been: “Women are doing every job you could imagine, from selling cigarettes on the street to heading private banks. I visited a factory that had eight warehouses, of which six were managed by women. There were women carrying heavy boxes, fixing machinery—I couldn’t believe it.”
As their labor helps keep the economy in motion, women have also started running businesses, administering NGOs, and stepping into positions of community leadership. In some areas, residents note that more women are taking the reins in “building committees”: volunteer groups that coordinate the management of apartment blocks, for example by gathering fees for shared expenses. While some take on such roles out of necessity, others do so out of boredom, ambition, or a desire to find small yet constructive ways of shaping an otherwise stifling environment. An NGO worker in the Damascus suburb of Dummar described how such factors can gradually lead women into public roles: “My mother-in-law runs her building’s committee. It’s a lot of work, but I can see why she wants to take control of solving some of the problems around her—especially since most of her friends have left the country.”
Syria’s 2020 parliamentary elections likewise saw more women claiming positions of local authority. Granted, the results themselves look like a step backward: The number of women elected actually decreased, from 32 in 2016 to 27 in 2020. But given the rigged nature of Syrian elections, the more interesting story relates to the profiles of the roughly 200 women who ran for seats: Historically, female representation was restricted to a handful of figureheads associated with the ruling party. By contrast, some activists note that this latest poll brought a rise in more independent candidates with bonafide leadership roles in their community. A policeman in his thirties described how this played out within his family:
My sister is a strong, well-respected school principal. She and her husband are both public figures in their community, but they felt that she has a stronger reputation as a leader. So they agreed that she should be the one to run for parliament. She ultimately lost, but I still think that she did better than he would have.
The home front
This spectacular reordering of Syria’s public sphere is underpinned by a quieter, but no less profound, transformation unfolding in private: in the home, in personal and familial relationships. Women from all walks of life are quick to note how society’s shifting gender roles have rattled deep-rooted cultural norms. The result has been greater authority and autonomy when it comes to where they travel, what they wear, how they spend their money, and whom they date.
For some, this shift feels like a form of empowerment, even emancipation, to be cherished and protected. A displaced woman from the conservative Damascus suburb of Kafr Batna put this sentiment in jarring terms: “War is beautiful. There’s a positive side to it.” She and her family suffered immensely during the conflict, having fled their home and settled in a neighboring area where they struggled to make ends meet. Yet she also managed to forge a silver lining from that hardship—leveraging the mix of economic pressure and new, less conservative surroundings to claim space she had been denied in the past: “Back home, my relatives forced me to cover my face outside the house. I was only allowed to go out on errands accompanied by my mother-in-law. After we were displaced, I started to go buy things for myself, and took the decision to stop covering my face.”
Others are more conflicted, or outright resentful of the heavy burdens they have little choice but to bear. Especially for female breadwinners, increased responsibility can feel more like a straitjacket than a liberation, stirring nostalgia for the days when men would typically take care of their families’ needs. “We women used to live in luxury,” said an underclass widow from the Damascus suburbs, sitting in the back of the pickup truck in which she catches a ride home from a women’s center where she attends vocational trainings. “All our necessities were provided for us. Now we have only ourselves.”
Today, survival often means working several jobs under arduous, exploitative conditions. Many still come up short, and are forced into painful decisions: what meals to skip, when to pull kids out of school and put them to work, whether to marry off young daughters in order to shed the economic burden of feeding them. Child marriage, indeed, is widely reported to be on the rise: In 2019, an official with Syria’s Ministry of Justice publicly claimed that the rate of underage marriage in Damascus and its suburbs had more than quadrupled since 2011. In some cases, such choices are driven not just by economic pressure but also by fears for young girls’ security: “My 16-year-old daughter and I live surrounded by soldiers and drunks,” worried a displaced woman. “I want to get her married as soon as possible, so that I don’t have to worry about her safety.”
Even as women strive to manage new levels of responsibility, they also contend with old, familiar problems, from repressive social codes to domestic abuse. Sexual exploitation has grown more pervasive than ever, fueled by a mix of economic desperation and fraying social fabric. “More women are selling sex online in order to cover their needs,” said an instructor who delivers trainings to women. “They’ll send nude photos to men, who then transfer them phone credit or rent money. A lot of those men are in other Arab countries, and exploit the fact that Syrian women have been left alone.” Such anecdotes abound, also offline: Male professors solicit sex from female students in exchange for high marks; managers barter jobs for sexual favors; bureaucrats and security officials promise to facilitate procedures for women who sleep with them.
These predatory practices hint at broader transformations in how society relates to sex. As traditional social codes have broken down, certain constraints on bodily autonomy have eroded with them. Publicly, the media and advertisement industry display female sexuality ever more liberally, enabling models and social media influencers to make a living by marketing their femininity. Behind closed doors, growing numbers of women—particularly in middle-class, secular, urban circles—have experimented with casual romantic relationships, defying old taboos around pre-marital sex.
As women have chipped away at barriers to commencing relationships, they have simultaneously claimed greater autonomy in ending them—including in communities where divorce once carried a heavy stigma. A young pharmacist explained that she feels no regrets about having divorced her husband shortly after giving birth to their first child: “We had a fight, and I left in a taxi. He chased me in his car, shouting at me to get out of the taxi. I decided right then that I would be better off raising my child alone.”
Of course, these transformations also have profound effects on Syrian men. Some have embraced the shift, whether out of an earnest belief in equality or a more pragmatic recognition that they must adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, they may now accept that survival requires their wives, sisters, or daughters to take up jobs in settings that would once have been off-limits, or to adapt their dress to blend into new surroundings. Echoing the woman from Kafr Batna who chose to remove her face veil, another young woman who moved from the religious town of Douma to the less conservative Dummar explained: “It was the men in my family who asked me to stop covering my face, in order not to stick out.” Yet this same dynamic—in which men often wield substantial influence over how far, and how fast, the women in their lives move toward autonomy—captures just how much work remains to be done.
Progress is slowed, moreover, by the fact that not all men are so amenable to change. Others are more conflicted about seeing the women in their lives assume growing independence and responsibility: whether out of conservative social beliefs or anxiety at shifting power dynamics within formerly male-dominated households. “The men in our lives hate that we go out every day and interact with other men,” said the displaced woman from Kafr Batna, who sometimes fought with her husband when he demanded she refrain from working or attending vocational trainings. “Many women end up lying to their husbands to be able to do what they want.”
It remains to be seen how this tug-of-war plays out in the years to come. While some men will seek to roll back the space women have carved out, others will further adapt to Syria’s new gender balance—and indeed be molded by it. Perhaps most intriguingly, unprecedented numbers of Syrian boys are being raised by single mothers in communities where women are in charge. Although it’s too early to say what this will mean, this generation seems sure to grow up with a very different view of women than its forebears.
Change in the balance
Of course, Syrian women themselves will have much to say about how this new phase unfolds. As they chart a tentative path forward, some are finding ways to consolidate the small but meaningful gains they have made. The woman from Kafr Batna returned to her hometown and went from a low-paid job doing needlework to a more stable, better paid one in a community center. The woman from Darayya, who lost her husband and struggled to support her children, likewise moved up into a managerial role with an NGO—while making time, against all odds, to enroll in a bachelor’s program at Damascus University.
Most trajectories, though, are less linear, as women seek to balance whom they used to be with whom they have become—and what others may wish them to be moving forward. A university student in her twenties, who spent five formative years displaced in the capital, described how patriarchal traditions still constrain the space available in her conservative home village in the Damascus countryside:
In the city I always went out in tight shirts and makeup, but when I do that here our neighbors talk badly about us. So I’ve gone back to wearing long blouses and no cosmetics. My sister is more stubborn, and has kept dressing the way she used to. My parents aren’t happy about it. We’re gaining a reputation as being too liberal to be married.
These individual struggles are bound up with a more collective process of reflection on women’s place in society. A decade ago, discussions of women’s rights and gender equality in Syria were confined to elite circles of feminist activists, whose leftist politics generally failed to connect with a broader cross-section of society. Today, such conversations are increasingly diverse, public, and mainstream. When, for example, a young Syrian woman was beaten to death by her husband on New Year’s Eve, it sparked discussions on domestic violence in disparate corners of the country—from conservative suburbs of Damascus to women’s prison wards.
These shifts reflect, in part, the sustained efforts of an increasingly robust cohort of Syrian feminists—both within the country and throughout its extensive diaspora. As #MeToo caught on globally, Syrian activists based in Europe garnered tens of thousands of followers discussing women’s rights on Facebook and TikTok. They tackled such taboos as gender-based violence and sexual autonomy, and shared legal tips for refugee women struggling with domestic abuse in a new and unfamiliar environment. Activists back home seized on this global momentum and developed tactics of their own: They hosted in-person and virtual discussions, campaigned to raise awareness on sexual harassment, and established NGOs that extended legal and psychological support to survivors of abuse. They also forged links across borders, helping coordinate transnational advocacy campaigns that denounced violence against women in the Arab world.
As Syrian women shore up their progress, some have tapped Western-funded aid interventions purporting to empower them. This industry has faced ample criticism, not least from women who participate in it. “Sustainable livelihoods” programs, for example, rarely seem to generate sustainable livelihoods, in a labor market with precious few jobs that pay a viable wage. What is more, these same projects—many of which focus on sewing and handicrafts—arguably reinforce stereotypes regarding what kind of work women should pursue. The NGO manager from Darayya concurred: “I’m tired of how many times my organization has filmed me and shared my story to raise funds for needlework trainings.”
Indeed, even this sector’s critics sometimes turn it to their advantage. Some success stories are straightforward: The woman from Darayya is a relatively uncommon example of someone who began as a trainee and moved up into a stable position that allows her to pay the bills. Others are more roundabout: If an underclass woman fails to translate her knitting classes into a job per se, she might nonetheless find more creative ways to make use of it, whether by selling her yarn to buy food, or simply by using the training center as a space to relax, connect with other women, and discuss shared problems. “Our sessions are particularly important for older women who don’t have many opportunities to go out and meet people,” said an instructor in a handicrafts workshop. Thus, even when empowerment programs fall short of their grandiose framing, women may nonetheless take from them bits and pieces of the resources they need to keep going.
As women of all backgrounds forge ahead, their greatest and most enduring strength may lie not in the careers they embark on, the salaries they earn, nor even the freedoms they seize—all of which could erode as Syria lurches forward in unpredictable ways. A more certain asset, and one over which women themselves wield much control, is the quiet revolution unfolding in how they talk to, learn from, and support one another. In workplaces, community spaces, and online, Syrian women have never been so connected to one another—and with potential allies elsewhere in the Arab world and beyond.
The women leading this change are the first to acknowledge how much work remains to be done. They remain fragmented along the same lines that split society more broadly: between those inside and outside Syria, rich and poor, young and old, secular and devout. Yet this pluralism is also a source of strength: a natural feature of an expanding movement, in which division and disagreement may just as easily fuel progress as hamper it. It is also part and parcel of women assuming their true place in a complex and fragmented society, whose uncertain future they are already shaping.
15 August 2022
Illustration credit: "The funeral of a butterfly" by Azza Abo Rebieh, gratefully used with permission of the artist.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union and Germany. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Synaps, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union and Germany.