Different factors of change have and will have an impact on the dominance of patriarchy in the lives of some Syrian women and communities. Such factors experienced by some Syrians over the past four years include displacement, education and work.
We have written and read a lot about the extreme losses associated with displacement, education and work for Syrians in recent years. Half the population of Syria – 10 million people – have been ripped apart and lost their livelihoods due to displacement, the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. Syrian children have lost their youth and potential due to a lack of education and hundreds of thousands are now out of the formal education system. Syrian families now live in extreme poverty due to a lack of opportunities for fairly paid work.
Opportunity in times of destruction
We can however, within the context of the same three factors of change, witness opportunities that may impact the lives and attitudes of Syrian women and, in the long term, perhaps chip away at the patriarchal foundations on which Syria’s society, law and economy have been based.
Displacement, harsh as it is, has exposed Syrian women to other cultures and societies – some in other parts of the country, some in host refugee countries. Women, for the most part, did not move freely within Syria. People did not congregate freely, with large gatherings being monitored and often declared illegal. As such, the exposure women have had – interacting with each other in new Syrian towns, interacting with foreigners in host communities – has provided opportunities for exchanges of experiences and thoughts and expands horizons, both literally and figuratively.
Opportunities to consume media, which had previously been censored and mostly state-run, and to engage in dialogue or train together have expanded the skillsets of many Syrian women. Their awareness of a multitude of issues and the different opinions held about those issues has been heightened, through various activist and professional media outlets shining a spotlight on issues that matter to Syrian women – including child marriage, custody, political participation, and rights in the workplace.
With many men at war or unemployed, many Syrian women have become entrepreneurial and breadwinners, often encouraged by civil society initiatives. They have discovered in themselves abilities and strength they did not know they had. And they have been rewarded based on hard work, not corruption or favoritism. They have worked in fields across the board – from catering and embroidery to medical assistance and media.
In considering the relationship between enforced factors of change and developments in female empowerment among Syrian women, I am motivated first and foremost by a desire to contribute to securing the gains Syrian women have made. The situation in Syria is bleak, but we can seize the opportunity to identify and nurture the gains made by women during this time of transition when the norms of society made way for some advancement.
You may not yet see these gains in legislation or governance yet, but if we don’t hold on to them and nurture them now, before the warmongering men draw up a plan that disregards and discards women, then we will return to the sidelines embittered, having tasted empowerment only to have it ripped from our hands.
I am Syrian, but I do not reflect the Syrian women I speak of because I grew up in Europe. I have therefore been speaking to Syrian women in order to gather their thoughts and experiences.
The one per cent
This paper focuses on the experiences of four journalists I spoke with. They are Zeina Erhaim and Razan Ghazawi, both bloggers and researchers, Hiba Ezzideen, a journalist and campaigner, and radio program host Lobna Shikhe Ali.
These women are part of the one percent. The small but significant minority of Syrian women whose gains we must nurture and replicate in order to entrench their ability and desire to ensure women’s empowerment continues no matter what the future holds for Syria.
A war was waged, and within that war, many women found their voice and opportunities to become equal citizens in a country with no rights. As we work towards the development of a rights-based country, the voices of women must remain loud.
Working in media promotes a sense of ownership and empowerment, so it’s no surprise that these women, these journalists, also engaged heavily in women’s empowerment initiatives.
Shikhe Ali spent the two years presenting a researched radio program in Arabic that details and discusses all international conventions and Syrian laws that affect the lives and rights of women. Erhaim launched a blog publishing stories written by the women she has trained, providing both an outlet for expression and a source of income, which she says stops the men from complaining about their wives’ activities. Ezzideen worked with women from neighboring towns in Syria on constitutional reform. As I run an NGO, I consider research to be directly related to needs assessment. The result of analyses of research should ideally be able to inform program development. I therefore categorize findings based on potential programmatic themes and concepts we can design initiatives around so we can create a multiplier effect and get more women on the train to empowerment.
Through these and other interviews, a number of themes and factors have been identified that can inform effective program development. They include a sense of purpose, parental support, camaraderie and role models.
I enjoyed all of them growing up in London, but that last one – role models – was an interesting one for me to look into. I couldn’t recall any female role models whom I looked up to growing up (my mother excluded). The truth is however that there were so many I didn’t need to consciously identify one. At the age of twelve my aspiration was to be president of an Arab country. I had no doubts I could achieve it, and I realize now that growing up in the UK with a female prime minister – Margaret Thatcher – must have directly impacted my sense of confidence and empowerment.
In this paper however, I expand on the first two factors – sense of purpose and parental support – and draw from the experience of Erhaim, Ghazawi, Ezzideen and Shikhe Ali, none of whom it should be noted practiced as professional journalists prior to the conflict.
Within the conflict, and through the conflict, they found their voice and gave voice to others. For them, and for Syrian women, the conflict has been a double revolution – a change of regime, and a change of women’s role in society.
Sense of purpose
Hiba Ezzideen had wanted to leave Syria before the revolution. Since she was a child in fact. But the revolution changed that. “During the revolution I felt connected to Syria. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t die when Nusra shot at me, but something did. I could understand dying at the hands of the regime, the enemy, but that day, I had to reevaluate everything,” she says, recalling the day she decided to leave Syria.
She arrived in Gazientep in southern Turkey the next morning. Despite having to leave Syria, her sense of purpose has not faded. While the regime remains an enemy, so too do the fundamentalists who seek to subdue her. “We are now fighting patriarchy and religious fundamentalists whose first fight is against women,” says Ezzideen. She fights by training women in Syria and running advocacy campaigns online to highlight the abuses suffered by women in the country.
Razan Ghazawi was born to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father in the US and spent the first 10 years of her life in Saudi Arabia. She doesn’t identify herself as Syrian or Arab, but rather, eschewing labels, she regards herself as “of the region”. The revolution, she says, changed that for a while. “The one thing that made me feel I belong to Syria was the revolution. It was extraordinary. The revolution made me feel that I can be part of it and belong now. I felt a kinship then. I know it’s romanticizing, but I felt that I could change my future and reality by being part of it. I was scared, but it was worth it.”
Middle class, educated, and with a foreign nationality, Ghazawi had many options, but her sense of purpose kept her in Syria. She was arrested many times and in 2013 went to the small town of Kafranbel that was not under the control of regime forces. You may know it for its creative weekly slogans in Arabic and English broadcast across the globe. Ghazawi worked there alone isolated from her friends and family on a program of psychosocial support for children. She left to Turkey a year after arriving in Kafranbel, the sense of loneliness too palpable to bear any longer.
Zaina Erhaim continues to live and work in Syria. With fluent English and a Masters degree, she gained a job with the BBC in London early on during the conflict. Then she left it and went back to Syria. “I would hate war reporting, if it wasn’t my own country, but it’s best to live the fear you’re reporting. Media is my tool, it is what I am, but women are my passion, and I can best reach the women from inside. The women I am working with, I am their only chance.”
It is difficult to understand what it is that enabled three young beautiful educated employable women to live under daily threat of war for over a year. Their sense of purpose was stronger than any fear that could stop them, and was often strengthened by camaraderie. As such, programs that bring people together and work towards a singular and common goal are more successful and sustainable than programs with disparate small teams and a multitude of objectives.
Lobna Shikhe Ali grew up in Nabak, a conservative town half way between Damascus and Homs. Her uncles were schoolteachers who didn’t allow their daughters to go to university. Her own father however, and despite not having attended university himself, allowed his daughters to, even though it meant leaving the family home and living with a group of girls in Damascus.
“I don’t have any brothers, I think that was definitely part of reason we were encouraged to pursue our education, because my father wanted to ensure we could take care of ourselves. He was also more social, more traveled, than my uncles,” explains Shikhe Ali.
After two of her friends were arrested, she moved to Cairo to continue her studies, but had to leave in the summer of 2013, soon after arriving. She went to stay with her father in Saudi Arabia, but her desire to return to Damascus was met with his acceptance and she returned.
Back in Damascus continuing her studies, she presented a radio program about women’s rights and feels very positive about the future of women in Syria. “Most homes are now run by women. The great strength that came out of Syrian women during the revolution was amazing. If you taste something great, you won’t lose it. Even the uneducated discovered things very important in them and a great strength. They won’t loose what they discovered,” says Shikhe Ali with optimism.
Ezzideen had also left her conservative hometown in Idleb province to live with other women in Aleppo and Raqqa where she was an instructor at the cities’ universities.
Only the second girl from her village to go to university, by the time Ezzideen left Idleb, she had divorced her husband of one month. “My parents simply told me that I had to take responsibility for my decisions. My struggle was with my society not my parents. When I started demanding women’s rights, some people started to ruin my reputation using the fact that I was divorced to sully it and suggest I was a loose woman. Society sees woman moving forward and they want to beat her down. I didn’t care.”
Erhaim’s mother was her champion when it came to leaving Idleb to study journalism at Damascus University. “My mother struggled with bad mouthing. But after the revolution, when I started writing about Idleb, those who mocked me started appreciating my work and calling me with information and stories. Instead of being ashamed they were proud.”
Even Erhaim’s maternal aunt was against her niece leaving Idleb to study, worried it would prevent her from finding a suitable husband. Now, dependent on her niece, Erhaim’s aunt is happy for the strength and empowerment she gained.
There is no doubt that struggling against the conservative norms of society is much more difficult, if not impossible, without the support of one’s parents. It is therefore essential to reinforce to parents of young children the importance of women’s contributions to the survival of Syrian families and society during the war. When they see how valuable, vital and equally capable women are of supporting themselves and their families if given the opportunity, parents may begin to offer at least the same if not more opportunities for education and growth to their daughters as they do to their sons.
The conclusion is straightforward. There is opportunity in every disaster, and many Syrian women have embraced that, through both a shift in attitudes and financial empowerment.
We must now embrace them, and support them so they may replicate individual successes but also move beyond the individual and begin working from the perspective of an unbreakable national agenda.
This article was adapted from a presentation given by the author at the Women in War conference, Beirut