BEIRUT – The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on women. It has also shifted their role in the workforce, inadvertently opening the door to previously male-dominated employment sectors. Consequently, women are becoming increasingly influential in the public sphere and in shaping Syria’s future.
“The traditional role of women is changing because of the war,” Mariah Saadeh, a former independent MP who has campaigned for women’s rights in Syria, tells Syria Deeply.
“Women’s responsibility is in the family, and they dominate the majority of the work in the place of men.”
This positive – if slow – shift for women has come 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 joined 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, told Syria Deeply.
“But it often reveals, to many people’s surprise, how competent women have been all along, given the leeway to develop their talents.”
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. However, some 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, erecting societal barriers that have blocked them from several sectors of employment or the opportunity to work in general.
In May 2017, the Jordan-based Bareeq Education and Development non-profit carried out a survey of Syrian women over the age of 18 inside and outside the country. Of the 1,006 respondents, 81 percent 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 percent of households in Syria were female-headed. And that ratio has risen from 4.4 percent in 2009 to 22.4 percent this year, according to a report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Before the war, in 2010 women made up 22 percent 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 percent.
In some sectors, women make up the overwhelming majority of a workforce. In some areas of Syria 90 percent of the agricultural workforce is female.
Necessity has also forced them into roles that were unthinkable before the conflict. Saadeh says there are factories in Damascus almost totally populated by women.
“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,” Saadeh said.
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.
Advocacy groups and NGOs pushing for women’s rights have existed in Syria since 1949. Despite the government’s widespread crackdown on organizations that did not “agree with with all government policies” several, including the Syrian Women’s League, continued their work. But “their members still faced the threat of arrest and detention,” according to a 2005 report by Catherine Bellafronto, a specialist in business development in the Middle East and North Africa.
At the same time, many women did not “have access to, or are not comfortable using the media, professional associations, or NGOs as forums for expressing their opinions,” according to the report.
According to the Syrian Network of Female Journalists, women make up 54 percent of the radio workforce in emerging media – outlets set up after the war broke out in 2011 – and 35 percent in print.
However, as the conflict changed 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.
“Access to information and access to jobs or opportunities have decreased for female journalists, and now a number of them are working behind their laptops instead of covering the front line and being more involved in the coverage,” Milia Eidmouni, co-founder of the Syrian Network of Female Journalists, tells Syria Deeply.
Female journalists also come across a problem common in many lines of work: Despite women finding themselves able to work where once they might not have, opportunity does not mean equality. Only 4 percent of senior journalists in the Syrian emerging media are female.
“From our experience and the feedback we got from [Syrian Network of Female Journalists] members, all of them are saying that men and women don’t get paid equally, but they are facing the same issues and risks,” Eidmouni says.
The increase in autonomy and responsibility of women has not been accompanied by equal opportunity. Income in female-led households “tends to be below that of male-headed households,” according to the March 2016 research assessment “Women, Work & War” published by CARE. In the southern province of Deraa, for instance, female-headed households’ monthly income is 15-32 percent lower than those headed by men.
As the conflict continues, more and more women are building skills and taking on employment. Some learn on the job, while others developing 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. According to the UNDP, in 2016 alone the organization provided job opportunities for 6,103 women heading households.
Yet the cultural barriers and social stigma are far from being completely eradicated. Many Syrian women are highly educated, but due to war “adolescent girls have had their education interrupted … and been forced as a result of dire economic conditions to assume livelihoods-related responsibilities early,” says the CARE report. Consequently, the majority continue to take up work that is deemed “appropriate” for their gender, 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 a necessity 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 women’s place in society has changed forever. According to a report by Bareeq, 88.36 percent of Syrian women believe the fight for women’s rights is a legitimate right, while 96 percent believe a woman’s role is both at home and at work.
However, Morris 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.
However, many 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 to what was before,” 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 in the workplace could outlive the war and the inevitable return of normalcy for men that an end to violence might bring.
“I think if there’s a percentage of men who does not accept women working, they cannot do anything. If they don’t accept women working, then they will pay the price, because women today do everything … If they stop working that will create a lot of trouble,” Saadeh says.
“Today, the woman is stronger and more responsible, and these seven years of war have proved that women can do anything.”
Alessandria Masi contributed to this article.