Damascus sociology graduate turns to waitressing to support family


January 19, 2017

In Damascus, with young men away at war, more women are entering the workforce to support their families.

Some women, such as Leila Shaabih, 28, have opted to work in male-dominated fields such as cafes and restaurants.

The backlash is palpable. The Sharia Court in Damascus has received multiple cases of husbands filing for divorce because of wives deciding to work. Even the chief justice of sharia law weighed in: “It is not befitting for women in Syrian society to work in coffee shops and restaurants,” Syrian state media agency Al-Watan quoted Chief Sharia Justice Mahmood Maraawi as saying on January 8.

When Leila started working as a waitress in a middle-class Damascus neighborhood three months ago, she received backlash from girlfriends who stopped talking to her, and relatives who said her work reflected badly on her family name, she tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.

In her work, Leila says she faces criticism. She hears customers murmur “poor thing” or ask one another, “Why is she working here?”

The sociology graduate, who earns SP30,000 ($140) a month, is the sole provider for her family of five. Her father is retired, her mother stays at home and her two university-aged brothers, who do not work, are prolonging their studies to avoid military service.

“If I did have a chance to speak with the customers, I would tell them that every person lives her own life, and they have no right to interfere with mine.”

Q: Why did you decide to work at a restaurant, especially considering the fact that you’re a university graduate who studied sociology?

There are many reasons, but the most important is money. Right now, I’m the only provider in my family of five. I do have two university-aged brothers, but they don’t work because of their studies. Also, they’re prolonging their studies because they don’t want to graduate. Once they do, they’ll have to serve in the military. So they’re failing on purpose, so they can avoid service.

Also, things are very expensive in Damascus. Every member of a household needs to work just so a family can afford basic items.

 Woman selling bread in Tilyani, Damascus. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.

Q: How do Damascenes view women who work in restaurants, cafes or other, traditionally male-dominated professions?

Our society is very critical of women who work in restaurants, cafes, markets or take evening shifts.

But people have started to accept this, because they know what’s happening in Damascus. It’s expensive and women need to work, especially considering the shortage of men. Many men have left or are serving in the army.

There are some women who run small businesses from home. They cut and prepare vegetables, package sweets or sew clothing.

Q: How do friends and relatives react when they find out where you work? How do customers treat you?

People say a lot. Customers, relatives and even friends have commented.

Sometimes relatives talk with my father about my work and tell him that it doesn’t reflect well on the family name. I’ve also lost a lot of my girlfriends.

I get a lot of comments at work; I always hear customers at the restaurant say things like, “Why is she working here?” or “ Poor thing.”

There’s a lot of talk about married couples divorcing over the wife’s work.  We heard about this from Mahmood al-Maraawi, the chief sharia judge.

[Ed.: On January 8, Al-Watan published an article with comments from the chief sharia justice in Damascus about women working in cafes and restaurants. The judge said that the court had received several cases of husbands filing for divorce because they disapproved of their wives’ work.]

Q: How do you feel when you hear customers’ comments in the restaurant? If you had the chance to respond to them, what would you say?

At the beginning I would get upset by their comments, not just those of the customers, but also remarks from my friends and relatives. But now, I don’t pay them any attention. They no longer affect me.

But if I did have a chance to speak with the customers, I would tell them that every person lives her own life, and they have no right to interfere with mine.

I’m only at this job so I can earn money. Right now things are very difficult, financially speaking. Transportation, heat, food, clothing, etc. are expensive. And no matter how much money you make, things always cost more.  Prices continue to go up.

But at the end of the day, I work in a public place. There is nothing sketchy or shameful about my work. I’m not afraid of anyone and I don’t care what they say.

Q: You’re a university graduate. Why don’t you apply for government jobs?

Right now, women have many more work opportunities than men, because of the requirement that men must have finished mandatory military service. But government positions are limited to families of regime officials, shabiha members or National Defense fighters.

And it’s hard to find a private-sector jobs because they have very specific requirements. You need to know English and be competent in certain computer programs. Many Syrians don’t have these skills. 

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