When Yasmin, a native of the Syrian town of Douma, decided at age 35 to resume the education that had been interrupted when she married at 13, her family was incredulous. Their objections were both pragmatic and rooted in traditional conceptions of gender roles. As they saw it, Yasmin’s place was at home, caring for her four children. If she craved intellectual enrichment, they suggested, she should study religious doctrine in whatever spare time she could find between cooking, cleaning, and tending to her children’s needs.
She pressed on despite their objections, promising her husband that her studies would not interfere with her duties as a wife and mother. It was 2011, the same year that Syria’s uprising, which was then largely nonviolent, erupted, with opponents of Bashar al-Assad seeking political and social reforms. Yasmin, who asked The Intercept to identify her by a pseudonym, passed her ninth grade exams on the first try and obtained her high school diploma in 2012. Now, having fled Syria because her hometown was besieged and under assault by government forces, she is a second-year college student in Gaziantep, Turkey, where she also heads the local office of a religious Syrian charity.
If not for the revolution, Yasmin told me recently, she would not have had the courage to take on such a role. “Before the revolution, I wasn’t able to speak in this way, even among my family,” she said. “I didn’t have the confidence to express the ideas I had.”
Her experience is emblematic of the tangible shift many Syrian women have experienced over the last seven years, as they’ve joined the workforce in greater numbers and found themselves having unexpectedly frank conversations about the political and cultural forces that have stymied their growth. An amalgam of factors, including displacement wrought by war, has allowed these women to renegotiate their social standing and push back against patriarchal norms.
But even amid growing acknowledgment that practices like domestic violence must be spoken about in public with an eye toward ending them, interviews with nearly two dozen Syrians in Turkey last fall indicate that there is no consensus in this socially conservative and religiously observant community about what it means to be an independent, powerful Syrian woman.
“The revolution made it possible for us to talk about rights.”
Speaking openly about “gender-based violence, equality, and women’s rights are all new to Syrians — not just to women — because we weren’t previously allowed to talk about any of these issues,” said Lubna al-Kanawati, the Turkey country manager for Women Now for Development, a Syrian organization that provides psycho-social support to women in Syria and Lebanon and funds projects that could help beneficiaries make money on their own. “The revolution made it possible for us to talk about rights. Especially in the liberated areas, it became possible to broach these issues. When you live in a state of constant violence and you’re being subjected to violations, it becomes easier.”
In the #MeToo era, Syrian women are not alone in finding new language and methods to address the age-old problems of patriarchy and sexual violence. The revolution may have made it possible for Syrian women to start talking about these issues, but the war, which has ravaged Syria for seven years and displaced half the country’s population, has also given them new urgency. As the space for these conversations has expanded, some thorny issues have emerged. What role do nonnegotiable religious dictums play, as opposed to more malleable cultural norms? What will it take for someone like Yasmin to choose to go back to school without feeling pressured by her social circle to focus on being a wife and mother instead? Who gets to set the terms of the debate — Syrian women, or the foreigners who are often funding their efforts?
“When European or American donors come in to work on women’s social development, they’re asking people to liberate themselves of their [socially conservative] traditions,” said Mohamad Ziada, who works at Basamat for Development, which runs programs for women and children in Syria and Lebanon and has an office in Istanbul.
Women’s independence means different things to different people, and Ziada highlights a key tension: Foreigners encouraging women to take control of their lives are not necessarily familiar with the Syrian social context. Syrian women, naturally, have taken advantage of the funding that has come their way. In interviews, some said they have total autonomy, while others said that a certain Western type of feminism is being imposed on their communities. Ideally, Syrian women would be leading these conversations, deciding how to exercise their new freedoms, perhaps with input from Syrian men. But with so much foreign aid pouring in to tackle women’s issues, the reality is much more complicated than that.
In pre-2011 Syria, most women, even those with college degrees, did not work outside the home. Over the last two decades, the proportion of women in the workforce peaked at nearly 20 percent in 2000 and has been at a low of about 14 percent for the last few years, according to data from the World Bank. (The worldwide average has hovered around 39 percent.) Prominent examples of women in public life include Asma al-Assad, Syria’s London-raised first lady, and Bouthaina Shaaban, a political and media adviser to the Syrian dictator.
Women, especially those in the Global South, have been a primary focus of international aid since at least the 1979 passage of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. (The United States is among a small minority of countries that have not ratified the treaty.) In 1995, the United Nations World Conference on Women adopted an “agenda for women’s empowerment,” but subsequent efforts focused largely on helping women make money without opening pathways for their political participation. From India to Afghanistan to Cambodia, in place of political mobilization, journalist Rafia Zakaria writes, came a narrow form of so-called empowerment “expressed through technical programming seeking to improve education or health with little heed to wider struggles for gender equality. This depoliticized ‘empowerment’ serves everyone except the women it is supposed to help.”
By 2011, when Syrians began fleeing to neighboring countries following the Assad regime’s bloody crackdown on protesters, the global humanitarian response was ready to focus primarily on the needs of women and children. In many ways, this made sense: Men were being killed, imprisoned, or forcibly disappeared at much higher rates than women, leaving wives and mothers to shoulder the responsibility of caring for families. But the international response metastasized into an entire industry focused on women’s empowerment, which the U.N. defines as dealing with women’s sense of self-worth, their right to make their own choices, their right to access resources and opportunities, their right to be able to control their own lives, and their ability to influence social change.
In Turkey, the women’s empowerment industry is booming.
In Turkey, which hosts at least 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the women’s empowerment industry is booming. Its participants include everyone from U.N.-affiliated and other Western-backed agencies, to conservative Muslim charities, to grassroots initiatives started and funded by Syrians themselves. There’s the U.N.’s “protection” sector, which deals with gender-based violence, as well as initiatives focused on economic self-sufficiency through vocational training; political strength through leadership training; and intellectual development through forums, at which social topics, like the societal role of Syrian women, and political ones, like democracy in a post-Assad state, are discussed. The meshing of economic tools with political ones is important because, as some critics have pointed out, women’s economic development programs have historically been most successful when they also take into account the protection of human rights.
Arab donors have focused on providing humanitarian aid, while Western donors have narrowed in on social issues, said Kinda al-Hawasli, an Istanbul-based researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, an organization that issues reports and hosts discussions about a variety of social and political topics. Some organizations, like Yasmin’s, are doing both.
These organizations are responding to needs that have evolved organically from Syria’s 2011 revolt, which, as several women told me, was against not only Assad, but everything bad in Syrian society.
“There was a radical change in the role of women: The traditional role of women has changed from being a homemaker to someone who brings money into the home,” said al-Kanawati, whose organization, Women Now, offers vocational training and has funded projects like one to install solar panels in eastern Ghouta, a region outside Damascus that was under government siege and experienced frequent power outages. “This showed society at large that this group that previously operated behind the scenes before the revolution is capable of working. This is how it became possible for us to say that a woman who works also has a role in decision-making and that she has rights of her own.”
The circumstances of Syrian women in Turkey are quite different from those of their counterparts in Jordan or Lebanon, where they do not face the challenge of learning a new language. On the flipside, Turkey is the only country that has created pathways to citizenship for certain classes of Syrian refugees, giving these women more stability than they’d find elsewhere.
Women specifically stand to benefit from life in Turkey, said Zahra al-Omar, a lawyer from Aleppo who has lived in Gaziantep since early 2013. Back in Syria, she said, domestic violence was taken for granted as part of many marital relationships. Personal status laws, which are rooted in religious doctrine; the nationality law, which bars women from passing citizenship on to their children; and criminal laws all “prevent the equal enjoyment of rights by men and women,” according to a 2013 dissertation on Syria’s family laws. What’s more, there’s a commonly held view that social customs often override statutory law, leaving many of those who fall victim to spousal abuse feeling that they have few social or legal protections. In Turkey, the pressures of displacement have increased the incidences of domestic violence among Syrians, al-Omar and others told me. But Syrian women are slowly starting to push back, al-Omar said. There are laws in place to punish abusers and protect survivors, and in several instances, Syrian women told me, Turks have called the police when they suspect that abuse is taking place inside homes of their Syrian neighbors.
“For those living in cities, there exists Turkish law to protect women, so long as they have the bravery to speak up,” said al-Omar, whose blue eyes were accentuated by the blue hijab she wore to our meeting in one of Gaziantep’s lush parks. Syrian nongovernmental organizations should be raising awareness among women about their protections under Turkish law and the existence of battered women’s shelters, she said. Indeed, 73 percent of Syrian women and girls in Turkey don’t know where to go if they experience sexual violence or harassment, according to a June 2018 U.N. Women report.
But shelters, like many other social services for Syrians in Turkey, are scarce, said Nada al-Fawwal, who runs a developmental center for Syrian women and children in Istanbul called Together We Grow. Though the U.N. runs a number of “safe spaces” for women and girls throughout Turkey, civil society groups and U.N. organizations, including those with offices in Turkey, mostly provide services inside refugee camps or across the border in Syria itself, where the war has made women more susceptible to sexual violence. According to a report by the Turkey-based Syrian Dialogue Center, most groups offer only in-kind assistance, and very few work toward the intellectual and social growth of Syrian women. A recent Turkish government crackdown on NGOs has made it more difficult for Syrian organizations to operate inside Turkey.
Women Now, for example, one of few organizations that has provided gender-based violence programming for Syrian women in Turkey, used to run programs in Gaziantep, but is now at a bureaucratic standstill, awaiting approval for a Turkish partner organization to be able to continue its work inside the country.
In early 2017, Women Now partnered with the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a Syrian relief organization, for gender-based violence trainings for nearly 60 women in Gaziantep, al-Kanawati said. “Gender-based violence” is a U.N. buzz phrase that was relatively alien to the Syrian lexicon eight years ago, and al-Kanawati, whose organization receives funding from American and Canadian donors, said Women Now is conscious of talking about it in a way that reflects their understanding of cultural norms. (The U.N. Populations Fund is working with Syrian organizations in Gaziantep to develop resources for NGOs working on gender-based violence that specifically considers Syrian cultural norms, according to an NGO staffer involved in the process.)
“When it comes to international human rights, we try to talk about them in a way that is suitable in the environment,” she said. “We talk about women’s rights in Islam because that helps people accept it.”
“We talk about women’s rights in Islam because that helps people accept it.”
Though the overwhelming majority of Women Now’s staff is female, they also work with men to help spread their message, for example by asking an imam to give a Friday sermon on what Islam says about the treatment of women. But even within an Islamic framework, there are disagreements on how to frame the conversation about women’s rights.
In the Syrian community, the pursuit of justice for women is appropriate, while the pursuit of equality between men and women is less so, Ziada told me when I met with the Basamat staff at their office, where men and women interacted comfortably. Some organizations that obtain funding to work on women’s issues may encourage women to leave their spouses or to complain to the police about any conflict, large or small, he said, echoing a relatively common perception among Syrians. Police intervention in a domestic dispute, even a major one, is uncommon in Syrian society, he noted, which is why it’s important for this type of work to be adapted to social norms.
Because Basamat tries to respect these cultural norms and because its staff is ideologically similar to its beneficiaries, who come from rural Aleppo and Damascus, Ziada said, the organization gained a reputation in Lebanon, where he used to work, for being illiberal. “We got this reputation because we never worked on projects that directly equated men and women,” he said.
Yasmin, the woman who went back to school at 35 and who wears a niqab — a face-covering veil with a slit for the eyes — said that talking about helping Syrian women with terms like “women’s empowerment” is an unwelcome imposition, removed from what she views as Islamic ideals.
“We have ignorance in our society, but we need to make women more aware of their rights in a correct way,” she said. “Women are going to start thinking that freedom means to go out whenever she wants to and to dress however she wants to, whereas Islam should be the foundation from which we move forward.”
I met Yasmin at the Gaziantep office of the organization she works for, which offers religious programming and humanitarian aid inside Syria, as well as to Syrians living in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. She started working for the group in Douma, teaching and organizing religious classes. When she left for Turkey in December 2016, they asked her to run their Gaziantep women’s office, which operates out of a three-story former apartment building that has been turned into offices and classrooms for religious instruction, as well as a sewing room and hair salon, where women are taught marketable skills. (Yasmin asked The Intercept not to identify her organization to avoid drawing undue attention from the Turkish government.)
The organization is more socially and religiously conservative than most, and it goes to great lengths to ensure gender segregation. As Yasmin stood up to show me around the building, she doubled back to grab the niqab that hung on the back of her office door. She had remembered that there was a man in the building.
“Our hijab and our religiosity don’t prevent us from participating in whatever we want to participate in.”
We walked down the hall to a classroom, where Yasmin tapped lightly on the door. A male instructor sat at the front, and a dozen or so women occupied desks against the walls. Two tall roll-up banners stood in front of the instructor’s desk, separating him from his female students. The instructor was a sheikh, or religious leader, and one of the few men allowed to enter the building, Yasmin told me, but even he does not have direct contact with the women he teaches.
There was a time when Yasmin would not have felt comfortable working alongside a man who was not her blood relative, but her thinking has evolved over the last seven years. “I have no problem speaking to a manager or a sheikh or any other man, as long as there’s a purpose,” she told me.
“The revolution opened a lot of opportunities up for me,” she said. “For example, I wear niqab. We [as a culture] had a perception that a woman who wears niqab has to stay at home. Well, I want to go out in my niqab! I want to walk on the moon while wearing hijab.”
When she attends meetings with other NGOs in Gaziantep, Yasmin said, she is the only woman who covers her face. But staying true to her religious convictions, even amid her newfound insistence on her role as a working woman, is exactly what she aims to do.
“When I left Syria, my goals changed. I wanted to show other societies that we as Syrian women have a lot to offer,” she said. “Our hijab and our religiosity don’t prevent us from participating in whatever we want to participate in.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a media fellowship through the initiative on Religion and the Global Framing of Gender Violence, a project of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.