For Syrian Eyes Only: On Syrian Male-Female Dynamics

The following is the text of a speech delivered at the Woman’s Session of the 2015 Road Forward Conference in Washington DC. It’s a hard topic to talk about frankly in public, but knowing the stories of women being told in private I feel the price of silence is too much. 

One woman, who I believe did not understand my speech, told me she walked out of the room during my talk because I sounded like “someone from Fox News.” So here is the deal. This blog post is for Syrian Eyes Only. Anyone from Fox News or anyone who is non-Syrian cannot use my words to further their own agenda without specific written permission from me.


10 minutes is not enough time to cover the variety of women’s experience organizing for Syria. 10 minutes is not enough time to tease apart the social and economic factors that intersect to weigh down women more than men in Syrian circles. 10 minutes is not enough time to explore a detailed alternate vision of how we can make our community more inclusive.

But in the amount of time that it takes to jog a mile, 10 minutes, I will attempt to do all three. And I’m going to tell you right now that I will fail to give the nuance that all three of these topics deserve, and not everyone who needs to hear this message is even in this room. But this conversation needs to be pushed forward and amplified. Consider the next ten minutes a mere warm up for the marathon of work we have ahead of us.

First, I want to be absolutely clear about one thing: women are active participants in the Syrian revolution. They are first responders in Aleppo. They are doctors in underground field hospitals in Homs. They are directors of award winning NGOs in Lebanon. They are intellectual writers. They are artists of every medium. They are high profile advocates. They are the anonymous activists risking their lives to protest in the Revolution.

The points I will discuss today have more to do with male-female dynamics within the Syrian community, that have come from my experience working as a Syrian American organizer in Houston and from my connection with Syrian women around the world.

The truth is, there is a gender divide in our community. Literally. Many of us, myself included, grew up socializing with other Syrians in gender segregated settings, and gender segregation still persists today in many Syrian settings. While this is not the norm for all Syrian socializing, it is certainly a significant experience in our collective memory. The idea of strict gender roles is strongly reinforced in nearly all Syrian socializing and it is these gender roles that are particularly harmful during times of revolution. Men are the economic breadwinners while women are the family nurturers. Women may pursue a career, but only if her number 1 priority, nurturing the family, is maintained. Men may travel far to pursue their careers, but it is better to stay close to home if you’re a woman. There is significant social pressure for women to marry young while at the same time there is social pressure for men to succeed in their careers.

I want to take a second to address the common perception that our gender roles are rooted in biology and are a biological fact.; the truth is gender roles have absolutely no basis in biology. Womanhood and Manhood in Syria and elsewhere is a diverse experience. There is nothing biologically inherent about men that makes them better suited for paid public work or anything biologically inherent about women that makes them better suited to stay away from public life. After a woman bears children, there is nothing in the childbearing process that affects her intellectual capabilities. The only thing that prevents women with children from working is child support at the workplace. Gender roles narrate the type of work we are expected to perform, and our Syrian gender narrative props up the Syrian patriarchy.

I cannot stress enough the detrimental effect of the gender role narrative. Time and time again, through out history and in different cases outside of Syria, we see economic disenfranchisement as the precursor for negative perceptions to emerge towards a group. The most obvious example of this for Syrians is the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon and elsewhere, where disenfranchised Syrians are seen as lesser than and as a nuissance to the locals. Recognizing this relationship between paid work status and negative perceptions, we can then understand how the history of strict gender roles promotes limited perceptions within Syrian society towards Syrian women. In other words, because women are discouraged from actively and aggressively seeking their full career potential, we don’t consider women to be serious players in public life. Whether we like it or not, the paid “work” and the prestige that comes with it, shapes our perceptions of that individual. Taking care of a family is not idleness, it is absolutely work, however it is not paid. There is no money exchange. Unfortunately, money is how we assign value to people. Our social forces work to sequester women outside of the financial market.

Harmful attitudes towards women include:

  1. “women are just stay at home moms who can do all our volunteer work”
  2. “they are just pretty faces and don’t have substanstive ideas to offer”
  3. “they can be talked to in a way “to put them in their place””
  4. “women are inherently lustful objects”
  5. “women are submissive and beneath men, and if a woman outperforms a man that is somehow shameful to the man”
  6. “women are too emotional and not critical thinkers”

Just last night at our dinner, a male Syrian political leader was heard talking down on women showing up to work with painted nails and lipstick, expecting to be taken seriously.

It should be noted that the practice of gender segregation creates sexual tension between men and women, thereby adding to the latter’s perception as a primarily sexual being. Sexual tension and frustration within a society is linked to domestic and gender based violence. Everybody in this room is aware of the rape epidemic primarily affecting Syrian women. Alma Abdurahman, who was a battalion leader in the FSA, is one of the few women to speak publicly on the rape epidemic in Syria, describing horrific sexual abuse and the subsequent difficulty that survivors have reintegrating into society. Women who are rape survivors in Syria have to worry about getting surgery to restore their virginity. We should work to create a society that accepts sexual trauma victims and gives them space to  heal.

During this time of revolution where all our Syrian economy, politics, and social fabric is in a state of flux, our culture of gender segregation and gender roles has not changed fast enough in response to the challenges of war and makes it difficult for women to emerge as leaders in the Syrian revolution, whether here in the diaspora or in Syria. Women who have been socialized within gender segregated spaces are cut off from approaching potential investors (who are usually men) to invest money in their entrepreneurial projects. Women whose husbands have died in the war face difficulty transitioning to into the work force. Women displaced in refugee camps face domestic violence from men, and there are no institutions in place to prevent this. Women who work in international politics and humanitarian relief find themselves working in an “3mo” culture, alongside men who perceive themselves of a higher authority than women.

Many Syrian activists and thinkers have created alternate social spaces that disregard traditional gender roles, and there we see women lead as often as men. The most famous example of this are the Douma4, where Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem worked together at the Violations Documentation Center outside of Dimashq to document human rights abuses and distribute humanitarian relief. They were kidnapped in December 2013 and have been missing since.

The enforcement of gender roles is in large part why when we look at who has emerged in leadership, the numbers are heavily skewed toward men. This effect is compounded by our culture of honor, which means the opinion of the community at large matters when breaking social norms. Men generally welcome the idea of working alongside women, but often create obstacles for their own female relatives in pursuing social and economic power. Or just as often, men will feel uncomfortable working alongside a woman as an equal because there is a common perception of women as tempting sexual objects. Other stories show men occupying paid positions while women do the free volunteer work under him. There is pressure on men to maintain social status quo due to the honor culture. Women are also apart of reinforcing these standards to uphold the honor system. These stories could fill an entire catalog of the Syrian experience.

So what to do? I have two suggestions.

First, it’s clear that in order to support Syrian women we have to support their economic empowerment. This means supporting women’s development projects like the ones spearheaded by Mouna Hashem and Lina Sergie and Reem Alhaswani

through Watan USA and Karam Foundation and Basma and Zeitouna, respectively. These projects employ women in Reyhanli Turkey, Aleppo Syria, and Shatila Lebanon to sell their artisan goods, providing them with a living.

Also, its clear that our institutions need to create more jobs. Relying on volunteers because they are “stay at home moms” or “young unmarried women” is not acceptable. There is a story where a male board member quit because he said he deserved a salary, and pointed to our female board member to pick up the slack because she’s a “stay at home mom”. Never mind that this woman was holding down a job and caring for a new born baby – she apparently has all the time in the world to take on two board positions.

Furthermore, the jobs we create need to be family friendly, allowing either the mother or the father to take on the job. We have a community of talented men and women, and its in our best interest to create institutions that accommodate both in the work force.

This means, of course, that we have to actually invest money in building up our intuitions. An investment in good institutions is an investment in ourselves.

Second, what should happen to our individual dynamics? First, Men must recognize the Syrian patriarchy and take opportunities to work with, hire, or promote women. If there are unhealthy dynamics, then open and receptive communication can and has worked. For example, at a conference dominated by men, the women were cut off from speaking. This was pointed out to the male organizer, and he issued a sincere public apology. These types of open and receptive communication channels create an inclusive environment, build trust, and will continue to push us forward. Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “For Syrian Eyes Only: On Syrian Male-Female Dynamics

  1. Dear Shiyam,
    Knowing fully well that this piece was for Syrians only, I (non-syrian) read it. And I must tell you,belonging to a patriarchal society myself, the condition is quite similar and it feels great to see women around raising their voice on issues that affect us. A lot of the points that you brought about holds true to most patriarchal societies, that breed misogynistic ideologies and parochial thinking.
    Development in any country is development of the world. All my good wishes go out to Syria.
    Cheers to a world with equality and peace.
    Hoping that the change in thinking would spread to other countries that have seen the oppression of women for too long!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Sarah,

      Definitely. What I described isn’t exclusive to Syrians at all. I’m glad you found an intersection of truth in it for yourself 🙂

      Peace & Love.

      Liked by 2 people

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