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Syrian women: Forgotten before, during, and after the war

Syrian women: Forgotten before, during, and after the war

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إقرأ باللغة العربية:

السوريات، خاسرات قبل الحرب وخلالها وبعدها

A fifty-four-year-old woman like me cannot ignore the daily instances of male and female dominance that permeate my life. These influences affect my clothing, my outings, my interactions with my surrounding environment, and most importantly, my work, which is my only source of income.

A simple comparison between the situation in Syria before 2011 to that in 2024 shows little difference in the conditions women face. I disagree with and challenge anyone who claims that the war is the root cause of our struggles, reminding them that we women in Syria never lived in a utopia before the war, to mourn its loss now. We have never been free from societal hostility, harsh criticism, or the discomfort our presence causes when it doesn’t conform to societal norms and standards. The illusion of women’s participation and progress toward equality remains a bitter lie.

Let's revisit some of the experiences we've lived through, before and after the war, to dispel the myth that any progress women achieved was significant and would have led to better conditions if not for the war.

Simply put, before the war and before transportation became a special kind of hell, I experienced gender biases even in my village, located 12 kilometers from Sweida. One day, I left my home at two in the afternoon to go to a work meeting. Without my own car, I relied on public transport. As I stepped out, a little girl, accompanied by her mother, greeted me and asked bluntly, “People are coming back from their jobs, and you’re just leaving now?”

This seemingly harmless question, posed by a child, took me by surprise. I knew the young girl had said it out of innocence, but to this day, I don't know how, despite my astonishment, I managed to stay calm and simply smile instead of responding.

However, this incident raised a series of questions and observations, and made me realize that there are people who monitor my comings and goings, and track my movements, even though I never had trouble with my family regarding my freedom to move around and go out.

Every time I remember the question, I reject the notion of liberation that we delude ourselves with. I’m sure that what we lacked was the necessary attention to the questions, inquiries, and scrutiny of our surroundings regarding a woman's movements, whether she went out alone for work or any other reason.

The war added an additional reality to what was already there; it didn't create anything new in this regard. The surveillance of women has always existed and continues to do so. The only difference is the method and justifications.

A woman alone faces the risk of surveillance

Back then, I wasn't surprised by my journalist friend's story. After graduating, she had to live in Jaramana and started her journalism career, which sometimes required her to return home late at night in a company car (the car of the media outlet she worked for), a taxi with colleagues, or whatever means available. She often expressed frustration over her landlord's deliberate habit of standing on the balcony to watch her return, as if to say, "I saw you, who you came with, and when”. This behavior, along with an argument with a neighbor in the same context, eventually forced her to move back to the university dorms, living there illegally rather than under the control of her landlord's extremist ideas and the neighbors in that area.

Reflecting on our conversation now, I admire her composure in confronting her neighbors and eventually escaping their scrutiny, essentially opting to avoid trouble. This is a choice many women make, as confronting the issue often leads to a "headache" and even more problems—a choice time has proven to me to be wrong and even fatal at times.

Strangely, this year, thirteen years later, I found myself in the same situation as my friend. When I needed temporary accommodation on the outskirts of Sweida for a short period of time, the neighbors behaved similarly, with attitudes not much different from what my friend had experienced so many years ago. It felt as if time had stood still, with women's movements being monitored, scrutinized and controlled in a more blatant and direct manner, with a slight difference in the justifications: under the guise of "the situation is unsafe" and the need to monitor any tenant as a precaution against potential dangers.

Therefore, the war only added another layer to the existing reality. It did not create anything new in this regard. The surveillance of women has always existed and continues to do so. The only difference lies with the method and justifications. The reasons now have just become more pronounced in the eyes of the observer—neighbors, residents of the neighborhood or village. But the difference for me now is that my confrontation was firm and rejecting; I didn't just ignore it. Saying, “It's none of your business” made those around me incapable of at least interfering, and I wish I could go back in time and throw that line at the girl and her mother in my neighborhood.

Traveling as a woman alone is risky

Today, one of my female colleagues reminded me that before the war, she wouldn’t have hesitated to come home late. In response, I laugh to keep my frustration at bay and remind her that the sense of safety was indeed different back then. The streets were safe, with no significant security incidents like violence, kidnappings or thefts, or what we are experiencing today, especially in the villages of Sweida. But also, to be fair, I also reminded her that as women, we did not have the option of returning after the last bus to the village at 8 pm, nor the luxury of taking a taxi after that time, as a single working woman or female student who had to come back late. Not out of fear of danger or for our safety, but to avoid the sharp tongues of society and criticism from brothers and those closest to us and our homes.

I then reminded her of a woman from my village who once stayed late shopping, not in search of a dress for Eid or some makeup, but because her son had asked for a shawarma sandwich from "Qanawat," a place quite a distance from the market considering the time left before the last bus to the village. Under her son's insistence, she had to practically run to the restaurant to fulfill his request. She then had to hurry back to catch the last bus at 8 pm. She missed it by ten minutes. Coincidentally, my father and I were passing by, and she reluctantly got into our car, requesting to be dropped off before reaching her neighborhood in fear of her neighbors. This is no different from what women experience when they agree to be subject to surveillance and accept the intrusion into their restricted private lives.

My colleague at work, who is over fifty-five and had married off her daughter last year, now has to travel between Sweida and her village accompanied by her thirteen-year-old son. This is solely to justify taking a taxi if she has to help her daughter care for her grandchild after 8 pm, without facing societal criticism. Thus, the fear and monster of being watched remain, along with the words, "Who did she come back with? Who was with her?" The simple truth is that she, like many others, has not earned society's trust. She hasn't enjoyed the dream of being overlooked by society or having them refrain from interfering in her affairs. Despite all the circumstances and the suffering of the war and what preceded it, women remain under scrutiny, and men are monitored too, but in a silent way because they are men. Moreover, you would usually find those who flatter them and turn a blind eye to their wrongdoing, saying, "It’s none of our business." However, when it comes to women, there is complete freedom to criticize and offer unsolicited advice, whether the woman wants to hear it or not.

The women crushed by the war were not in perfect social and mental health before it. The war only added to the existing problems, solidifying behaviors and attitudes that demand justice while ignoring women. It rejects equality and panders to men at the expense of women, even in the smallest and simplest details.

Getting paid is another story

Although Syria is one of the countries with salary and wage parity between men and women, the reality of receiving salaries through ATMs reveals a common detail both before and after the war. Everyone is familiar with the suffering of employees, both men and women, standing for long hours in separate long lines, waiting to get cash from a limited number of ATM machines. Their use was intended to transition into a more civilized state, though the reality differs in many ways made for male dominance and authority, where it has become almost the norm that one woman gets to use the ATM only after every two men. I tried to find the source of this rule and could find no justification except for male dominance. If an ATM breaks down while being used by a group of women, they are unlikely to find any sympathy from the men—even though they are also employees—or offers to join their line and would not allow women in even if they follow the custom of "one woman after two men.”

What's strange is that women often avoid asking. When they ask politely, they find some suppressing their requests. And the women are forced to either leave or wait until the machine is repaired, which usually requires several hours at the very least.

Who imposed this tradition, if it can be called that, and how did it become entrenched? How did it go from an unacceptable behavior to a rule or norm? And why do women accept this equation that positions them as the weaker link?

I say to my colleague, "Since private banks started paying salaries, I no longer stand in that line, even if I have to withdraw my salary in several installments. Isn’t it enough that this patriarchal dominance has led to being humiliated just to receive a few thousand that does not compensate for the humiliation of standing in line and having to conform to a backward mentality?"

Once, my female colleague was standing in line several years ago. As she was about to insert her card, she was struck by a man who then forcefully pushed her away from the ATM, like an enraged bull. She stood there in shock, unable to respond, despite having enough physical strength to retaliate. Her shock and the bystanders' inability to offer support left her paralyzed for hours, unable to decide whether to leave or confront the man who had hit her without hesitating. When she went to file a report, I was the only one who accompanied her to testify about what I saw. The bystanders evaded giving statements, even though he had pushed her to the ground and she hurt her leg in front of them, not to mention the panic she experienced for several days.

The women crushed by the war were not in perfect mental and social health before it. The war only added to what was already there, to the existing problems, entrenching behaviors, attitudes, traditions, and customs that call for justice while ignoring women. They reject equality and pander to men at the expense of women, even in the smallest and simplest of details, magnified by society's acceptance and women’s choice to remain silent and not respond. This silence, whether due to weakness or a belief instilled since childhood that male authority and dominance is invincible, leads many women to choose not to confront, which is a danger in and of itself.

* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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