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.
See more from Culture / Society here