Syrian women make advances in the face of war

Syrian women make advances in the face of war

Pictured here is the Syrian cartoonist Amani Al-Ali, who has broken barriers in a profession dominated in her country (and region) by men.

(Emad Al Basiri)

Amani Al-Ali started working as a political cartoonist in 2016. Initially, she faced significant backlash, including from her family, who rejected her chosen line of work, as well as from her community at large. “A cartoonist contacted me and told me that I was entering a man’s field, and that there was no place for women,” she recalls. Undeterred, she continued her journey to prove to herself and other women that there is a place for them in every profession. Her cartoons have since gained international recognition and have been exhibited in the UK, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

With time and persistence, she was able to convince her community of the importance of her role. “Everyone ultimately accepted me, especially because I shed a light on the suffering of the Syrian people, my people. I was able to work with local Arab and even foreign newspapers. At the time I was the only cartoonist in the region,” she says. “I am proud of myself and I believe that what I’m doing is normal. For me, it’s not about success, it’s about duty. It’s my duty as a woman is to try to keep fighting and striving so that we women can continue to be at the forefront,” she continues.

Al-Ali is one of many Syrian women whose lives have been upended by the war. They have had to adapt to new jobs and tasks and have broken down stereotypes in doing so. Many have placed their personal safety at risk in order to participate in civil protection work and medical and emergency care for victims of Russian and Syrian bombings, which often target the places where they live. Many have been motivated to start their own projects and contribute to rebuilding efforts.

High-risk activities

The attacks that take place in Syria do not discriminate between men, women and children. According to a UN report published in June 2022, more than 306,000 civilians have died as a result of the ongoing war. As Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, put it: “The conflict-related casualty figures in this report are not simply a set of abstract numbers, but represent individual human beings.”

Eman Abdul Ghani lost her husband during the shelling of Damascus by Syrian regime forces. She was then displaced from her town to Al-Bab in Aleppo province, where she found herself the sole breadwinner for her four children. Faced with little choice, she decided to get her driving license and go to work as a taxi driver in Al-Bab, Azaz and the cities of Idlib, Sarmada and Dana. Her taxi is for women only.

“I have faced harassment and suffered a great deal, all for the sake of my family and children,” says Abdul Ghani. Some women in the area where she works have found added comfort having her as a driver.

“In Syria, all of us are victims and we all have to work to help each other,” says Hiba Al-Mawas, 25. Displaced from Hama province, Al-Mawas works as a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) in north-west Syria. She lives with her children and father in one of the area’s camps, having been displaced twice in a row by Syrian regime forces and Russia. In late 2012, after bombs started falling on residential areas in different parts of Syria and the situation deteriorated rapidly, Al-Mawas was forced to suspend her studies.

“I received training and joined the women’s White Helmet teams, who provide first aid to war victims and work with families and women in practical security exercises,” she says. “We bring joy to families and provide psychological support to children, who are the most affected by the war.”

The young mother of three works alongside numerous other women in the country’s most dangerous areas and faces hardships on a daily basis. “As a mother and a volunteer, there are many challenges I face in my work, especially because of the attacks, which never cease.” Attacks affect both public facilities and their operational centres, in both cities and villages, and do not pause for rescue work.

“I say goodbye to my children and my father every morning. I may not return because of an attack at the centre or on the road,” she continues. Since the beginning of the conflict, women in Syria have been fighting a real battle as never before, both to preserve their society and to save lives.

With medical and health services lacking, the spread of diseases and epidemics (such as cholera and persistent Covid-19) also poses a significant risk. Al-Mawas works to address such crises on the front lines, which makes her even more vulnerable to infection. “I try as much as possible to use protective measures to prevent being infected and passing it on to my family,” she explains.

During her years of work in the Civil Defence, Al-Mawas has overcome many challenges and managed to balance her work and home life. White Helmet volunteers participate in search and rescue operations in certain areas to save civilians. “I am proud that my family loves my work and always supports me,” she says.

Civic and feminist projects

According to UN statistics, 90 per cent of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line, with the local currency plummeting and the exchange rate to the US dollar increasingly unfavourable: last March, US$1 was equivalent to 4,500 Syrian pounds according to official exchange rates. This has a direct impact on families, as the cost of living is rising and incomes are not keeping pace.

Many women have responded by launching their own businesses to support their families. Ruba Muhammad’s restaurant is one of them. Originally from Aleppo and displaced to the city of Jarabulus, Muhammad, 40, lost her husband in the Russian campaign in her home city and is now the breadwinner for her six children.

Muhammad’s restaurant began as a simple kitchen without any great pretensions. Today, it has grown in popularity and is known for serving traditional Aleppo dishes: mansaf, kebab, kabsa and mahshi, among others. “The business has helped me to support my family, raise my children and send them to school,” she explains.

Muhammad employs about 25 female workers, including both young orphans as well as widowed women who are the breadwinners of their families. Her goal is to expand her business and increase the number of workers to 50, which, she explains, could help more vulnerable families living in extreme poverty, especially displaced widows.

“Women need economic empowerment and stable job opportunities, particularly because many of them have become the breadwinners of their families” due to the loss of the head of the household, explains Nevin Al-Houtari, a social expert who serves as chairperson of the board of the NGO Women Support Unit.

The NGO supports women’s rights in Syria and seeks to empower women politically, economically, socially and culturally. It operates in the provinces north and east of Aleppo and has sub-committees and centres in seven Syrian cities: Azaz, Afrin, Marea, al-Bab, Bazaa, Qabasin and Jarabulus.

As Al-Houtari explains, the activities her organisation carries out vary according to the needs of the diverse group of women they serve. Ranging in age from 18 to 50 years old, these women come from both displaced and local populations, and have a wide range of experiences and educational backgrounds.

The organisation counts over 1,500 women as members, in addition to elected women’s committees in other regions. “We have launched programmes for training, empowerment, networking, etc., through which we seek to enable women to actively participate in decision-making. With the Tamkeen programme, we seek to provide a practical atmosphere that helps learning by doing,” says Al-Houtari.

The chairwoman of the organisation’s board confirms that most of the women residing in the northern regions of Syria face the same problems and challenges, namely security conditions, which prevent them from accessing certain locations.

But as Al-Houtari stresses, “the role that women play and their presence in political and civil bodies is crucial, and they are right to highlight this”. For her, the Syrian revolution and the war have opened new horizons for all Syrian men and women. As she explains, work in the civilian sector was not available in this way before 2011, especially the qualitative participation of women in important and influential sectors of society. “The reality is that it still takes work and a long struggle. Everything that the Syrian people have been through has given them a lot of experience,” she concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson

This story is a collaboration between Baynana – the first refugee-led media outlet publishing in Spanish and Arabic – and Equal Times.