A ‘Timid’ Opening for Women’s Work in Areas Under Opposition Control

Customs and traditions continue to govern the possibilities for women who wish to enter specialized fields and leadership and decision-making positions, Enab Baladi writes

Despite the spread of a large number of civil society organizations dedicated to supporting the role of women and bolstering their participation and position in society in opposition areas, women's role in the Syrian workplace has not registered a notable advance, but has actually seen a relative decline.

The matter can bee attributed to the “conservative” thought prevalent in many of these areas as well as the decline of opportunities and a need for specific professions through which women can provide for families.

While most female doctors and teachers continue their work, a wide segment of educated and specialist women in various fields (lawyers, engineers, economists, and applied sciences) have lost the possibility of working in their field, with most of them turning to other professions or studies.

Between difficult and forbidden

The fatigue suffered by Dr. Ekram Habboush speaks for itself in intermittent and quick words, and a black line under her eyes paints the features of her city, which had just seen freedom when it paid the price with the lives of its children, their bodies and their unending concerns. While the small movement on the ECG screen gives another incentive to continue working, bearing on her shoulders responsibilities which do not cease at the end of the day and whch she does not think can be done to the fullest.

Enab Baladi met with Habboush in her small clinic in Idleb city. “We are responsible for lives. There is no room for error in our work, and this increases the pressure on us,” says the doctor. Despite being a recent graduate, a wife and a mother to a number of children, she finds herself facing a professional duty she must meet.

While most women in Idleb city, where a relatively conservative society prevails, prefer to turn to a female doctor for exams and check-ups, there are only four female doctors, including Habboush, still practicing their work under conditions of bombardment and displacement, and a society which, if it does not reject women working entirely, does not want women to be absent from the home for long periods.

Syrian society in the opposition-controlled areas is taking its practical needs from women and depriving them of their interests and ambitions. There are still a proportion of female workers in the medical field practicing their professions (doctors, pharmacists, nurses), while most engineers and graduates of specialized branches (such as economics, medical sciences, and engineering) have turned to study, as indicated by Idleb's director of health, Dr. Munzer al-Khalil, who said that women comprise 30 percent of workers in the health sector, which is many times greater than the proportion of women’s participation in other professional sectors.

“Social pragmatism” opens the doors for women in one sector closes them in another, and it does not seem, in the view of Habboush and other women who have decided to practice their professions, an issue worth stopping for, despite it being an additional burden. Habboush believes her motive for resisting the desire to stop any work lies only in her love of the experience and her belief in the need of providing her service.

Elsewhere, engineer Hala al-Shami was finally able to reach the projects and planning section in one of the local councils in the Eastern Ghouta after she was forced to work for about four years teaching female students. She refused to abandon her dream of becoming an engineer and heed to the “confused looks of men” who question “what is a woman doing here?”

Shami believes that because she is a woman working in a male-dominated workplace, she is required to have a strong personality to face the repeated rejection she faces “just because she is a woman,” making the idea of work itself arduous.

No sooner had women left a male-dominated system at the end of the last century than men returned to monopolize fields once again after the Syrian revolution. “God favored women who were working and not working,” said Habboush with a long sigh.

Increasing role for women or restricting it?

Data from the Citizens for Syria group indicate that more than 25 percent of working organizations target women as a “vulnerable” class of society, and therefore most of those working for the organization are women as well, because they are more able to enter into private social life and mix with other women and children.

In other organizations, opportunities for women are parallel alongside men despite their absence from contributing in leadership roles, which men occupy 88 percent of, according to research published by the I Am She organization in March 2016.

With the focus on women’s work in the liberated areas, numerous groups, including the Rakeen organization for women and children in the city of Idleb, told Enab Baladi that most women working in the areas under opposition control have found employment mostly in aid groups and organizations, as well in other positions like teaching and nursing.

These areas have seen an absence of Syrian women in specialized work like medicine, engineering, information fields, accounting, and other specialties and official positions.

Constraints still govern

The notable absence for a women’s role in political life is seen in the areas under opposition control, according to the head of the Idleb city council, Ismail Andani, speaking to Enab Baladi, adding that they were also absent from specialized professions such as medicine, accounting and engineering.

He added: “There is a shortcoming from both parties, from the women and from the official agencies,” continuing, “We need specialist women to work, we need doctors, engineers and teachers, but there are certain religious and moral constraints and arrangements for that.”

Andani said that the city council had opened space for women to participate in elections for the council formations, which were held in January, but that women were completely reluctant to run and vote, and were not encouraged to enter political life.

In this context, after the elections Idleb city council introduced a new department to promote the role of women under the name “Women’s Support Office,” with the aim for them to be represented in the departments and institutions under the authority of the city council, according to Andani.

Despite a “timid” opening for women’s work in the liberated areas, the customs and traditions still govern the possibility of entering more specialized fields and attaining leadership and decision-making positions.

This is what Nada Sameea said, from the Glimmer of Hope group concerned with women’s affairs in Idleb, saying that women in the liberated areas “need to work in all fields but within the prevailing customs and traditions and under Sharia and moral constraints.”

“Civilized women” in the eyes of the regime government

In an attempt to send a civilized picture about the places it controls, the Syrian government has opened new prospects for women’s work, portraying them in various roles in social and political life by appointing Hadiya Khalaf Abbas as first female speaker of parliament in Syria’s history.

The security conditions have contributed in bringing women into new work which had been limited to men, such as working in restaurants and as vendors and specialized administrative and official professions.

Along with that, the work of a large number of women in the regime areas has been focused on the profession of education, where the results of a competition selecting classroom teachers from students at the faculty of education showed a notable superiority of women and a movement to the field of teaching, as Damascus' share of female graduates from the faculty of education in the classroom teacher department was 89 percent, with the share in Homs being 85 percent, according to Higher Education Ministry data.

Exceptions highlighted the “timid” role of women

The liberated areas are not devoid of prominent leadership roles for Syrian women, which are seen clearly in the local council of the city of Douma with the appointment of Bayan Reehan as president of the women’s office, the first initiative of its type compared with local councils in other areas.

Speaking to Enab Baladi, Reehan said that women’s work in liberated areas had not regressed but was confined to specific fields, such as the education, the medical sector and NGOs, with a complete absence of an effective role in political life.

She added that women’s work in the Damascus Ghouta was “limited to the field of teaching,” and continued that, “even graduates of the college of economics and trade are working as teachers in school.”

Reehan attributed the reason for the absence of women from political life to the absence of their qualifications in this field and the fact that they do not dare to break the rules which limit their work in official positions.

The role of Syrian women has not been hidden in the field of media after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution as the names of a number of female journalists in liberated areas have become prominent and in demand, according to Sawsan al-Saeed, a member of the administration council in the Glimmer of Hope group.

“There are many female journalists who have entered the field of media more than males because they are better able to enter into the hidden parts of social life,” Saeed said.

The Syrian Civil Defense team has also seen the participation of women in the field of nursing and ambulance services, with the number of volunteers in the liberated areas about 200 out of an original 3,000 volunteers, that is, 6.6 percent of total volunteers.

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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