“I am not the same, and I will never go back to what I was. I now know my worth and my place, and I will never allow anyone to insult or assault me,” says Fatima, a 30-year-old Syrian mother who fled eastern Ghouta last year with her five children, before the area came under siege. She rebelled against her controlling husband and family, asking for a divorce as the situation deteriorated.
“Like many other women, I had to go out and find work. Although I get very tired trying to provide for my family, my husband still mistreats me and always doubts me. Every time I turn to my family, they side with him because ‘women are lacking in wisdom and in religion,’” she says, quoting a well-known hadith (saying) of the Prophet Mohammed.
[![Aleppo, Syria – 03/13]]Challenging conventions, Fatima, who looks older than her years, began working as a housekeeper, cleaning stairwells in the Mashrou Dummar area in western Damascus.
As men got dragged into fighting, wives, daughters and grandmothers across Syria became breadwinners, long a distinction reserved for husbands and fathers. Women who had never worked before found themselves cleaning houses, selling clothes, preparing homemade goods or working at sewing workshops located in shelters.
Many of these women left school at an early age, as dictated by longstanding tradition and custom. But the new reality created by the war has led to some changes in the perception of working women. Once marginalized, these women are reinventing themselves and Syria’s entrenched patriarchal system is, in many communities, losing its footing.
Shadia, 25, lives with her mother, sister and sister-in-law, along with the latter’s two children, at a shelter in the Mazzeh area of Damascus. When the family fled their home in Beit Sahem, Shadia and her sister found work at a used clothes shop downtown.
“Even though I excelled in my studies, my older brother – who’s been the head of the household since my father died – refused to allow me to continue my education,” she says. “He forced me and my sister to quit school in seventh grade, saying a woman is destined for marriage and there is no need for her to go to school or university. He said it would tempt her into ill behavior.”
However, this was before Shadia’s brother joined the Free Syrian Army, then became an outlaw. He is on the run and the family has heard no news of him. So the three women started working to provide for their family.
“I don’t know how my brother will feel once he knows we are working,” Shadia says, “but I know we did the right thing. Working is better than begging from relatives or strangers.” Challenging another custom, she is not keen on marriage, and convinced men are the same: they all boss their women around.
Mohammad, a 42-year-old sociologist, is a resident at the same shelter. He said that “even though some groups have tried to provide work opportunities for the women in the shelter, either at sewing stations or by preparing homemade goods, it is difficult to sell these products given Syria’s bad economy. However, support for these workshops must continue to help women against being taken advantage of due to their poverty.”
According to Mohammed, the number of working women is noticeably on the rise. He says it has had a positive effect on their self-esteem and that “they have experienced independence and some personal freedom after joining the workforce.”
Rania, 21, is one of them. Her father died two years ago, and now she is in her third year of journalism school in Damascus. She says her conservative father could barely stomach the fact that his daughter was to attend a university.
“After his death, and despite my sadness, I was able to follow my own path, to work and travel, to self-improve and fulfill my potential,” she says. “This would have been impossible in his presence. He would have prevented me from doing so for many reasons: his conservative views, his fear that I would be mistreated and his protection of the family reputation.
“I’m sorry to say that my father’s death had a positive impact on my life. I’m ashamed to say it, but it’s true.”
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.