Syrian Women At Risk Of Losing New Economic Power To Tradition

The war in Syria has transformed the place women hold in the workforce, providing opportunities previously reserved for men.

Syrian refugees weaving baskets in Lebanon
Syrian refugees weaving baskets in Lebanon
Daniel Hilton

BEIRUT — The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on women. But it's also transformed their role in the workforce, inadvertently opening the door to previously male-dominated employment sectors. As a result, women are becoming increasingly influential in the public sphere and in shaping the country's future.

This positive — albeit slow — shift for women has come, however, at a devastating price. After seven years of conflict, many of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed, injured, forced to flee the country or else left to join in the fighting, significantly decreasing the number of working-age men. The result is that women are now the decision-makers and breadwinners in almost one in three households.

"The thing is, no one feels that it's a particularly great thing that women gain power and opportunity because men are missing and dying, so it's a very complicated step forward," Bonnie Morris, a gender studies scholar who teaches courses on women and war, tells Syria Deeply. "But it often reveals, to many people's surprise, how competent women have been all along, given the opportunity to develop their talents."

Barriers to entry

On paper, women should have had equality with men since Syria adopted its civil and commercial codes in 1949, granting women the right to control their own assets, own property and manage their own businesses. But others laws limit these freedoms. The penal code, for example, permits husbands to forbid their wives from working outside the home.

In 1973, Syria adopted its current constitution, stipulating that women should have equality with men and that obstacles to their advancement be removed. Article 45 guarantees women "all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effective in political, social, economic and cultural life."

Culturally, however, women's roles and responsibilities continued to be largely confined to the home, where they face societal barriers that have blocked them from several sectors of employment or the opportunity to work in general. In May 2017, the Jordan-based organization Bareeq Education and Development carried out a survey of Syrian women over the age of 18 inside and outside the country. Of the 1,006 respondents, 81% said that, "the social norms in Syria truly impede women's success."

Seven years of war have chipped away at some of these barriers. By 2015, between 12% and 17% of households in Syria were female-headed. And that ratio has risen from 4.4% in 2009 to 22.4% this year, according to a report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Before the war, in 2010, women made up 22% of the formal labor force. Since 2011 that number has dropped, but formal labor opportunities have decreased for both men and women and the latter are now more likely to be found earning through informal and small-scale work. The female employment rate in 2015 was 14%.

In some sectors, women make up the overwhelming majority of the workforce. In certain areas of Syria, for example, 90% of the agricultural workforce is female. Necessity has also forced them into roles that were unthinkable before the conflict. Mariah Saadeh, a former independent MP who has campaigned for women's rights in Syria, says there are factories in Damascus almost totally populated by women.

"The traditional role of women is changing because of the war," she says. "They work in restaurants, in services. They go to factories. They do agriculture. They make the handmade things. They are the base today for the future."

Opportunity and equality

The conflict has also allowed women to break into the civil society, media and government sectors, something that was consistently prevented prior to the war. The Syrian Network of Female Journalists reports that in emerging media — outlets set up after the war broke out in 2011 — women make up 54% of the radio workforce and hold 35% of the print media jobs.

And yet, as the conflict evolved over the years and more hard-line groups took control in opposition-held areas, women's participation in public life in some places has become more difficult. For female journalists, for example, barriers to information and opportunities have left many working on their laptops rather than covering the front line and being more involved in the coverage, according to Syrian Network of Female Journalists co-founder Milia Eidmouni.

Female journalists face another problem as well, one that is familiar to women in many lines of work: pay and advancement discrimination. Despite women finding themselves able to work where once they might not have, opportunity does not mean equality. Only 4% of senior journalists in the Syrian emerging media are female. "From our experience and the feedback we got from members, all of them are saying that men and women don't get paid equally," Eidmouni says.

Overall, income in female-led households "tends to be below that of male-headed households," according to the March 2016 report titled "Women, Work & War," published by the relief agency CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). In the southern province of Deraa, for instance, monthly income for female-headed households is between 15% and 32% lower than it is for male-headed households.

"No going back"

As the conflict continues, more and more women are building skills and taking on employment. Some learn on the job, while others develop their skills under NGO or United Nations programs. The U.N. Development Program, for instance, supports female-headed households through workshops, vocational training and emergency employment opportunities in areas of women's expertise. In 2016 alone, the organization provided job opportunities for 6,103 women heading households, the UNDP reports.

The question for Syria moving forward — once the war comes to a close — is whether the place women hold in society has changed forever.

Still, cultural barriers and social stigma are far from being completely eradicated. Many Syrian women are highly educated, but due to the war, "adolescent girls have had their education interrupted … and been forced as a result of dire economic conditions to assume livelihoods-related responsibilities early," the CARE report reads. Consequently, the majority continue to take up what is considered "gender appropriate" work such as teaching, health care or craftwork.

"If women are the less educated ones in the family they often are stuck in menial positions that are not necessarily empowering," Morris says. "For women who are better educated, there's often the need to take a job that they might feel is beneath them, and then there's a lot of bitterness about that."

The question for Syria moving forward — once the war comes to a close — is whether the place women hold in society has changed forever. A report by Bareeq suggests that 88.36% of Syrian women believe the fight for women's rights is a legitimate right, while 96% believe a woman's role is both at home and at work.

Morris, nevertheless, warns that as Syrians return to their country and reconstruction begins to take place, the desire to recreate a state of normalcy could lead to a conservative backlash where traditional roles are encouraged. Other champions of women's rights in Syria are hopeful that women's increasing participation in Syria will increase and become permanent.

"I believe there's no turning back," Eidmouni says. "But we need to work to make it happen for everyone."

For now, with millions of refugees outside Syria reluctant to return because of the ongoing conflict and the country's uncertain economic future, the new status of women is still a work in progress. "I think if there's a percentage of men who do not accept women working," says Saadeh. "But if they don't accept women working, they will pay the price, because women today do everything … If they stop working that will create a lot of trouble."

*Alessandria Masi contributed to this article.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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