Mother endures harassment working in construction to support her family

When Nadia arrived for her first day of work, she was met with stares, murmurs and laughter by her co-workers.

The 40-year-old Outer Damascus mother works in construction, a traditionally male-dominated field. Her husband, once the family’s sole breadwinner, can no longer work because of a spinal injury. He does not leave the house, fearing that he will be stopped at a checkpoint and drafted into the army reserves.

With no other options, Nadia entered the workforce two years ago.

“I’m not a hero. I was faced with an ultimatum,” Nadia, a mother of four, tells Syria Direct’s Reham Toujan.

Friends and neighbors judge her harshly, Nadia says. Her job of moving sand and gravel is an attack on the traditional moral fabric of the community, people tell her. Meanwhile, she is harassed by the men at work.

“They would try to provoke me by saying things like ‘do you think you’re going to change the world?’ or ‘you won’t last long’ or ‘do you think you’re a man?’ These words hit me like bullets.”

Nadia did not provide photos and asked that details about her place of employment or residence not be published in order to protect her identity. 

Q: When did you begin working in this field? What pushed you to work in construction?

I’ve worked in this field for about two years. I found the job through a friend who also works in construction.

Making a living is extremely expensive, and wartime conditions have made it more difficult. My husband is 46 years old, and he is unable to work because he has a slipped disk in his spine. He won’t leave the house because of the security situation, fearing that he will be pulled into the army reserves. I have four children with needs and expenses that I have to cover. I’m always thinking about my children and their futures. They shouldn’t want for anything.

This pressing need for money pushed me to start working, moving sand and gravel. I didn’t have any other options. I’m not a hero. I was faced with an ultimatum.

Q: Could you talk about the social stigma regarding women working in physical labor jobs that are almost exclusively done by men?

Society can be merciless. Their words are razor sharp. People look at women working in a field like this as if it goes against traditional customs, as though it were immoral for a woman to do a man’s job. People look at me like I’ve committed some crime against the community.

My parents, neighbors and friends have reproached me. They say I’m crazy for doing this work. My family is the exception. They support me and give me strength in the face of society. I’ve thrown all traditions and customs out the window. I don’t care what people say, however they justify it. My family is more important than what anyone else believes.

Q: Why do you stay in this job despite the difficulties you face as a woman working in construction? What did you do before? Does this work provide you with an adequate salary to meet your needs?

I had never worked before. My husband had provided everything my children and I needed. We were comfortable, thank God.

It never crossed my mind that I might work in construction. It’s a profession geared toward men. When I decided to enter the workforce, I started out in agriculture. However, farm work is seasonal, and the pay was low—about SP500 [$0.90] each day. The work only provided a fraction of what I needed.

Then, I worked as a domestic helper, and I got paid around SP1000 [$1.85] each day, but the work wasn’t stable. I would only work two days a week. Transportation is expensive, and [the commute] was tough as the road had many checkpoints, so it would take me three hours each way. I would get home very late, and, despite all this, I couldn’t meet my family’s needs.

After that, I decided to work in construction, despite the difficulty of the work. It meets a portion of my need, thank God. Of course, this job doesn’t cover all of my costs, but it supports me. We work for long hours for low wages. I work from 7am to 4pm for a salary of SP1500 [$2.75] to SP2000 [$3.70] per day depending on the job. We can’t object or demand a raise. If anyone says a word, they’ll send us packing. My son Zaid, who is 15 years old, left his studies in order to help me with expenses. He now works for a poultry salesman.

Q: Could you talk to us about what your first day on the job was like?

I’ll never forget my first day. I was nervous and scared. It was a bold step to work in this field. I was thinking about whether or not I’d succeed. Would I be able to keep on doing this work? How would I get along with the people around me? What would they say? It reached the point where I thought about turning around and going back home, but I needed to do this.

I struggled a lot the first day and I got tired very quickly. My back hurt from moving the gravel. The young guys who were on the construction site looked at me strangely all day. They laughed at me and whispered. It became a challenge for me. I would prove myself to them and keep working until I was completely exhausted.

Q: What did your husband do previously? What are his thought about your current line of work?

He used to work as a cement finisher, but he was injured on the job and couldn’t keep working. There was no option but to work in his place, especially considering that our children are young. It was difficult at first. He was opposed to me working, but the situation was bigger than both of us. It was a necessity. He had no choice but to let me work.

Q: Do you feel that your job has affected your family life? 

Honestly, it’s had a major impact on my family. I would return home completely exhausted, unable to move, so I neglected my household duties. But my family sees how tired I am, heading out every morning, so they don’t complain about the lack of attention they get. I try as hard as I can to balance my work with my responsibility to my children. I work and I tire myself for them.

Q: Have you faced any harassment while on the job?

If a woman works in a male-dominated field that requires physical strength, she’s made into a joke. I’ve faced harassment at my job from some men. They would try to provoke me by saying things like ‘do you think you’re going to change the world,’ ‘you won’t last long’ and ‘do you think you’re a man?’ These words hit me like bullets. I wanted to cry and scream in their faces. They don’t think about people’s needs, what circumstances pushed me to work.

Despite the harassment, there were those few who encouraged me to work. The greatest thing to hear is ‘you’re a strong woman.’ It fills me with the strength to take on all these difficulties.

Reham Toujan

Reham is originally from Outer Damascus. She moved to Jordan because of the war. She joined Syria direct because she wants to write about human rights.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.