Syrian Women: From the Kitchen to the Workforce

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Article Summary
As a result of changing circumstances, female Syrian refugees are finding themselves with more responsibilities and shifting roles, yet it is too soon to determine whether these changes will last.

While women are considered to be victims of war, they are not only victims. Reducing them to abused and oppressed bodies controlled by men — both in Syria and in countries where they are displaced — is very simplistic and stereotypical.

There is no doubt that exploitation exists, but the problem lies in marginalizing the role of women in their experiences of displacement. In light of the husband’s absence or inability to work, women are struggling to meet the daily needs of their families. Thus, they assume nontraditional roles and start working to provide for their families.

This has produced a sense of “independence” among some women, sometimes affecting the balance of power within the family. These changes sometimes lead to violent reactions on the part of the husbands, who find their “privileges” threatened or going down the drain, thus moving the “war” from the fighting axes into displaced families.

Due to the circumstances of her displacement, Umm Jihad went from being a housewife to the provider for a family of six children. While she had always wanted to free herself of the authority and injustice of her husband while living in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, she didn’t ask for a divorce until she reached the Shatila camp [in Beirut], where she fled with her ​​family.

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Umm Jihad is always smiling. She sits on the ground and tells the story of their displacement with a bit of humor that does not hide her deep sorrow: “Ever since we arrived to Shatila, my husband does nothing.” Umm Jihad cooks, cleans, takes care of the children, provides for the house and looks for aid. “I swear to you, I do everything. All he does is sleep, give orders and ask questions. He’s good for nothing.”

Umm Jihad’s 15-year-old son was wounded by shrapnel that lodged in his head in the Yarmouk refugee camp. She found herself looking for an association that would cover the cost of the surgery, without the help of her husband. Sipping her coffee, she continues, “I was walking under the sun, moving from one region to another. I did not have enough money to pay for transportation. He [her husband] was not concerned at all!”

Umm Jihad found a job in an association that had opened an embroidery workshop in the Shatila camp, with the aim of providing a modest income for displaced female Syrians. “They offered me a job and I started going to the workshop on a regular basis. The organization started paying my rent — which was $300 [a month]. There is no way he could go to associations asking for assistance. I am the one who has to go. He is too arrogant to go,” she mockingly said while laughing.

She started to work both inside and outside the house and was no longer able to withstand the pressures of her husband and his increased violence. “I assume all the responsibilities, yet he wanted me to be at his service all the time. He started dominating us more than ever. This is why I asked for a divorce. Now I am mentally very comfortable, despite my physical fatigue,” Umm Jihad said, as she tried to explain the hostility and domination of her husband with her simple words, to compensate for the feeling of “masculinity loss.”

Umm Jihad’s younger son, 14, left school to work. She was forced to accept this. Her three daughters also work for low wages, to share the burden faced by the family. She said that her daughter’s husband wouldn’t let her go to her family’s house alone; he used to accompany her wherever she goes. “In Syria, it was inappropriate for a girl to work or move around alone, now things are different.”

Umm Jihad has taken advantage of the circumstances of displacement to impose a new reality that she has always wanted for herself. Her experience does not seem exceptional among refugees, although shifting traditional roles does not always lead to women claiming rights within the family. This was confirmed by a study published by Oxfam and the ABAAD-Resource Centre for Gender Equality titled “Shifting Sands: Changing gender roles among refugees in Lebanon.” 

Changing traditional gender roles among male and female refugees has led to additional pressure in many cases. Many refugee men are experiencing feelings of powerlessness because they are unable to provide for and protect their families, while many refugee women no longer have access to the resources and services that enable them to do housework.

“Lower self-esteem among refugee men has, in some cases, led to a negative expression of masculinity. Some participants told how violence toward women and children has increased, as men abuse their power within the household,” the report noted. This probably pushed Umm Jihad to ask for divorce, although other experiences were not that positive.  

Limited and temporary effect

Since she fled to al-Rehab district in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Amal (a pseudonym) has worked in an embroidery workshop in the Shatila camp. Her husband complained that she was making the daily commute alone, although they need extra money. While he works at a construction site, Amal’s income is important to provide for her four children.

Amal’s husband ran out of patience a few days ago. He stood in front of her as she was opening the door to go to work and firmly said, “That’s enough! I don't want you to go to work anymore.”  She grabbed her children by the hand and replied with unprecedented courage, “It is not up to you to decide,” and continued on her way.

Amal was surprised at herself. She grew up in the Idlib countryside, got married young and was forced to marry her brother-in-law after her husband died. She agreed to the marriage to safeguard her honor and provide for her children.

Amal has not reconsidered “gender roles.” While she believes that her role does not go beyond the threshold of the house, she justifies her behavior by being “under the pressure of necessity” to fulfill the needs of her family. It pains her to think about her first husband while she is in his brother’s bed. “There are a lot of things that torment me, and I cannot talk about them,” she said in a faint voice, with her daughter resting on her lap, while she was knitting.

For her part, Maya (a pseudonym) no longer cares about her husband’s complaints and daily insults. She wears a headscarf and goes to work as a nanny for an association that aids refugees. “Take care of the kids, I’m going to work,” she said hastily, before leaving.

She nervously replied to As-Safir’s questions. “He doesn’t do anything, whether at home or outside. He sleeps all day long and all he does is nag,” she said. She glances at her cup of coffee, as she considers her words: “He may be depressed. His brother was killed as a martyr in Syria. But I can’t take this anymore.”

It hurts her to see that her and her husband lost their mutual respect for one another, which was weak to begin with. “In Syria, he used to spend his time with women. I knew it, but at least he was working and taking care of his family. Today, he doesn’t do anything,” Maya said. Today, she provides for her family and her six young children. She added, “All of them left school, unfortunately. My 15-year-old son works as a butcher at night to help me.”

She is bearing a double burden at a time when she needs all the help she can get. Every time she returns from work she finds a disaster waiting for her. She added, “I find my husband leaving the children hungry, alone in the street and in dirty clothes.”

Her husband controls her salary and decides how to spend it. “How much did you make this month?” is the question he repeats each time she returns from work. He feels no shame when he violates her privacy by searching through her purse, her closet and her pockets to make sure that her hard work remains under his control.

The majority of displaced women do not have control over their income. Maya’s case — despite being difficult — is not unique. The Oxfam study indicates that despite some shifts in traditional gender roles, “men have largely maintained control over household incomes and decision-making.”

The agencies concerned with displaced persons contribute to the consecration of men’s control over resources. The report expressed concern at the fact that “single or widowed women sometimes do not receive aid because they are not attached to male-headed households.” Thus, while men’s control over resources used to be limited to income and property in times of peace, it goes beyond that in times of war to the monopolization of relief aid.

Go back to the kitchen

People can lose their lives and hopes to war; yet out of tragedies and displacement also come opportunities. Women may acquire more power within their households due to financial independence. However, this power is not automatically conferred; rather, it mainly depends on the woman’s awareness and ability to reclaim her rights.

Previous displacement experiences in Arab and African countries for example have proved that the acquisition of rights is limited and related to specific circumstances. Here, the expression “go back to the kitchen” — that is, return to your housework — seems to be repeated in the scenario of similar displacement experiences and even in those of national liberation struggles and popular uprisings.

While this does not preclude lasting change, the shift of traditional roles does not in itself change the traditions and values governing the relations between the sexes. Women may bear additional responsibilities without acquiring more power. The shifting of roles may occur in line with traditional values​​ — that is, without necessarily reassessing the prevailing concepts of masculinity and femininity.

Displacement shifts gender roles. As a result of this displacement, will we witness fundamental or superficial change in the values governing the relationship between the sexes? It is still too early to answer that question. The expectations that displacement experiences will open the door to women's empowerment and increased independence must be re-examined.

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