IDLIB — In September, when the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)-affiliated Idlib University announced the opening of a Faculty of Political Science and Media during the 2022-2023 academic year, Iman Hamada (a pseudonym) was struck by disappointment: Women were barred.
It was the second time in Iman’s life that she faced a similar shock. In 2013, the 27-year-old Idlib city resident’s dream of studying media at Damascus University was blocked by her father and fiance. They did not want her to travel alone to the capital to study.
Instead, she enrolled in the regime-affiliated Aleppo University’s Idlib branch, where she studied English literature for one year before opposition forces took control of the area. In 2016, she completed her education at Idlib University, which was founded by the opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG) in 2015, before the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-backed SSG became the dominant force in the opposition-held province, including the university.
Adel Hadidi, the dean of the new Faculty of Media and Politics at Idlib University, said women were not accepted because of “the lack of the necessary infrastructure to allocate a special department for women.” The SSG prohibits mixing between sexes in all programs at Idlib University, and the faculty is the only public program teaching journalism and media in HTS-controlled areas.
To study media outside of Idlib University, Iman has few options. Enrolling in one of the private universities spread across northwestern Syria costs more than she can pay. She could enroll in the SIG-affiliated Free Aleppo University’s Faculty of Media in Azaz city, but reaching the northern Aleppo countryside means “traveling 100 kilometers from where I live,” she said. “It’s a difficult choice, especially with my household obligations towards my four children.”
Iman’s story captures the reality of many women and girls who want to study journalism and media in northwestern Syria, but face both official and social obstacles. They are formally locked out of Idlib University’s media school—which is limited to men—while their families and the surrounding society may also refuse women entering the media field.
Even before Idlib University only allocated places for men at the newly opened Faculty of Political Science and Media, female students were also denied places at its Media Technical Institute. When the institute opened in 2017, 25 women enrolled, 15 of whom graduated. But starting in 2018, only men were allowed to study at the institute, a change the university did not explain. Finally, it closed altogether in 2021, after all previously enrolled students graduated.
Karima (a pseudonym), 23, was one of the prospective female students who were affected by the university’s decision to ban women’s enrollment in the technical institute in 2018. That year, she intended to choose the institute as her top choice at the university. She was turned away. It was “a heartache that only God knows about,” she told Syria Direct.
Unlike Iman, Karima’s family was “supportive of my wishes, but circumstances prevented them from being fulfilled,” she said. She studied business administration instead, and is about to graduate from Idlib University. But her “wish is still to study journalism at the university,” she added.
Discrimination against women
The Faculty of Political Science and Media was opened, Hadidi said, as part of the “university’s natural development, and to accommodate journalists who have covered the events of the Syrian revolution since it began, and who deserve to obtain an academic qualification.”
Women, however, are not accommodated by the faculty, which currently enrolls 40-50 students. Larger numbers of students are expected in the future, as “new faculties usually open with small numbers to study the budget and organize administrative matters well, not rush to take large numbers from the start,” Hadidi said.
“Delaying the admission of young women to the faculty of media is a bad decision, and needs to be reconsidered,” said Alaa Rajab Tabbab, the founder of the Faculty of Media at the SIG-affiliated Free Aleppo University. The college, located in the northern Aleppo countryside controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army (SNA), accepts men and women alike.
“If I were the one making the decision, and I had to choose between starting with teaching media to women or men, I would have put women first because of the need to empower them in this field,” Tabbab told Syria Direct. “Studying media, for young women, is imperative, and an educational, familial and social priority at the level of civilization, more than a political necessity.”
Tabbab thought it unlikely that the choice to exclude women from studying media at Idlib University was the choice of the academic administration alone, which “supports the empowerment of female students, in principle.” He cited the admission of women when the Media and Technical Institute was founded in 2017.
What is happening at the university today “is a response to ethical problems that took place at the media institute by the former administration,” he said. The change to admit only men in 2018 came after the administration was accused of corruption and harassment.
But that incident should not be a “barrier to empowering girls, although it is necessary not to be lax in considering the ethical aspect of an academic before appointing him” to a teaching or administrative role, Tabbab said.
In 2016, Free Aleppo University opened a media studies institute in the Atareb area of the western Aleppo countryside, 32 kilometers from Idlib city. After HTS monopolized its control over Idlib and nearby areas of Aleppo and Hama, the institute relocated to Azaz in 2019.
Although the administration allowed students to continue their studies at the new location, the move meant that many students who were not able to travel great distances—particularly women—could not continue.
In 2021, the university launched a Faculty of Media, which is also open to all students living in areas controlled by the SNA or HTS. In theory, it is an alternative option to Idlib University, especially for female students denied studying media in Idlib. But “the high costs of traveling between Idlib and Azaz” have stood in the way, Yasmine Armoush told Syria Direct.
Like other women locked out of a formal journalism education who spoke to Syria Direct, Yasmine, 28, instead turned to trainings organized by media and training organizations in Idlib to acquire the skills she needs.
Whatever the reasons behind Idlib University’s media training institutions being closed to women, it is “a misogynistic decision,” Yasmine said.
Some of Idlib’s private universities used to teach media as well, but have either moved to the northern Aleppo countryside or closed their doors permanently. These include al-Nahda University (formerly International Rescue), which opened a media institute in the city of Maarat al-Numan in 2018, but moved to Azaz at the start of 2020 after the Syrian regime took control of the city.
The private Oxford Scientific University also opened a media department, in the south Idlib town of Harem, in 2017. The university claimed to be officially recognized by Yemen, but shut its doors in 2019 when it came out that these claims were false.
First society, then the authorities
When high school test results—which determine placement at universities in Syria—were released last year, Masa (a pseudonym), 18, was “overjoyed to learn about the opening of the media faculty in Idlib.” But even before she learned it was for men only, her family “categorically refused me registering in the media department,” she told Syria Direct.
Her family refused out of “fear of what society and relatives would think,” she said. “I made my peace and went to the Faculty of Education at Idlib University.” She is still “attached to the love of media and photography,” which she plans to pursue as a hobby only.
Masa’s story is similar to that of Reem, who currently studies medicine at Idlib University. It was “my family’s desire, while mine is to study media,” she told Syria Direct. “I haven’t acclimated to medicine, because I don’t feel a connection to it.”
Reem wanted to study media “since the ninth grade,” but studied medicine in response to her family’s opinion. Relatives told her “the media has no future,” she said.
Lama Rageh, a member of the Syrian Female Journalists Network, said one reason families refuse for their daughters to study media or practice journalism is “the Syrian regime perpetuating a [negative] stereotype of female journalists during its period of rule, through media institutions controlled by the Baath Party.” Many families were “afraid of their involvement in the media, because it would draw them into the political sphere, and [lead them to] take on the principles of the Arab Socialist Baath Party.”
Rageh gave her own experience as an example. After studying media, when she graduated from university in 2008 “the official media refused to hire any female journalist if her father or brother wasn’t a member of the regional[party] leadership or in the 4th Division.” The regime sought “political or military loyalties from her, or from one of the members of her family, and this was one reason families feared for their daughters.”
Since 2011, the Syrian revolution broke these taboos, as “many women journalists have proven their worth and started working in various fields, without offering loyalties,” she said. Journalists “have been able to break the stereotype the Syrian regime enshrined during its rule.”
Alternatives that are no substitute
With women locked out of formal academic programs, journalism training programs are seeing notable demand from women in northwestern Syria, according to Roula Abdulrazzaq, the director of a program that trains and empowers women in visual journalism through the Equity and Empowerment organization.
Abdurazzaq is currently overseeing the training of 50 female journalists, half of whom are beginners and half of whom are advanced. Her organization previously oversaw the training of 75 women in previous projects during 2021 and 2022.
Trainings provided by civil society organizations help “refine the skills of the media participants, but they don’t replace a university education,” Abdulrazzaq said. As informal education, trainings cannot be relied upon if the participant wishes to continue her studies or look for work.
In addition, organizations cannot offer fundamental solutions given the presence of the de facto authorities in Idlib, “because we cannot influence them,” Rageh said. Organizations’ efforts are limited to “emergency solutions, which include protecting working journalists and ensuring their safety.” This is in addition to “raising the level of gender discourse, by targeting male and female journalists in gender-sensitive journalism workshops…which can most reduce the gap.”
Tabbab, from Free Aleppo University, emphasized the need to “evaluate Syrian families and decision makers’ view of the priority of media and its necessity for women at the social and educational levels,” as “women’s absence in this field has disastrous effects on the community and family.”
For her part, Iman Hamada has not given up in the face of restrictions that deprived her of studying media in Idlib. She has worked to develop her journalism skills on her own, producing press reports for media institutions. But she is still waiting for an opportunity to “obtain a university degree in media, the specialization I love.”
This report was produced as part of the project “Against Discrimination,” with the support of Free Press Unlimited (FPU). Syria Direct is solely responsible for its contents, which do not necessarily reflect the views of FPU.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.