These days, coffee shops in Suwayda city are full of young women smoking water pipes—once a social taboo. Women are filling the ranks of the wait staff at local restaurants. At least one school in the Druze-majority province’s countryside is staffed almost entirely by female teachers.
The increasingly public role of women in this conservative society in Syria’s south is relatively new.
“Six years ago, this phenomenon was non-existent,” says Dalia Masoud, 27, a sociology researcher living in Suwayda city.
Masoud is a master’s candidate in sociology at Damascus University. As part of her graduate work, she spent the past four years traversing regime-held Suwayda city and its countryside, where she interviewed 100 different families about their attitudes toward gender and marriage.
Her most surprising discovery? “A general consensus among young people against the old notion of family, which is to ‘get married, have 10 or 11 kids, then figure everything out later.’”
A bridal shop in Suwayda city on Sept. 24. Photo by Noura al-Basha for Syria Direct.
Young people in Suwayda are more educated than ever before, says Masoud. But sparse job opportunities mean few can afford marriage and children.
Young men in particular blame their aversion to marriage on yet another, more urgent reason. For fighting-age men evading mandatory military service with the Syrian Arab Army, a visit to the local government office for marriage registration could result in arrest or forced conscription.
Suwayda’s young men are streaming out of the province—and the country, says Masoud, unwilling to fight in the war and unwilling to remain at home.
Left behind are towns and villages across Suwayda with a decidedly more female face. More than 63 percent of Suwayda province’s residents are now women and girls, by Masoud’s estimate. “Young women are now taking on jobs that were once primarily for men,” she tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Basha in Suwayda province.
“Women have started to take the place of men.”
Q: First off, can you explain exactly what is driving so many young men in Suwayda away from home?
Throughout the study, the most notable issues I encountered were a lack of job opportunities and a desire to avoid mandatory military service.
[Ed.: Two-year military service is required of all Syrian men aged 18–42. Exemptions for family circumstances or illness excuse some, while deferments for university students are also available. Legally registering a marriage in a local government court or office could leave a draft evader vulnerable to arrest or conscription.]
I found that eight out of 10 young men surveyed wanted to leave [their hometowns]. This ratio is high for a society like that of Suwayda, where social mores are firmly tied to the family and ancestral homeland.
I’ll give you an example of one man from my study—let’s call him Wael. One of Wael’s two brothers was killed [while fighting for the regime] in battles between the regime and the opposition in Aleppo. His other brother has been living abroad in Venezuela for the past 15 years, leaving Wael as the sole remaining provider for his family.
Though Wael was engaged, he faced pressure from his fiancée’s family because they weren’t sure he’d be able to support both his family and a wife. This was in addition to the [financial] pressure he already faced from his own family as the sole breadwinner. So he gave up on the idea of marriage and broke off the engagement—he couldn’t even legally register the marriage to begin with, due to his avoidance of mandatory military service.
Wael ended up travelling in secret to Lebanon and then moved to the Netherlands. His story is a very typical example of most of the cases that I’ve recorded these past three years.
Q: Tell me more about your study. When exactly did you begin to notice that young men were leaving Suwayda province en masse?
Today we see a province that is more than 63 percent female. But we in Suwayda refuse the idea of polygamy [as a solution to an imbalance in the ratio of women to men].
So in August 2016, after more than five years of war, I conducted a study [examining] the percentage of young men emigrating from Suwayda. Of the 100 families included in the study, 90 had one or more family members who left Syria. A total of 70 responded that the young men in their families emigrated because of the war, and to avoid mandatory military service. Some of those who left were as young as 17 years old.
I remember one woman in Suwayda city who told me: “Seeing my sons leave me behind is better than watching them die in this war. I have no other choice.” All four of her sons left Syria, and now live in the Gulf and Europe.
Bridal gowns on display in Suwayda city on Sept. 24. Photo by Noura al-Basha for Syria Direct.
Q: What about the young women left behind in Suwayda? Can they and their partners even afford to get married, assuming the fiancé doesn’t end up emigrating?
The cost of weddings has increased lately—now, a wedding party costs around SP1 million [approx. $2,000]. A bridal gown is SP50,000 [approx. $97], not to mention all the other details of the wedding, like the hotel [venue], which normally goes for more than SP200,000 [approx. $388].
These [high prices] were among the responses I got from young men when I asked them why they were avoiding marriage.
What made me saddest was going to the home of a family in rural eastern Suwayda province. The father was the sole provider for the family, despite his only source of income being retirement checks.
One of his sons was a university graduate who studied economics, but couldn’t find any work and now works in an apple orchard. The other son was a teacher who had to abandon his job to evade mandatory military service.
Both sons refused to consider marriage because of their economic woes. When I asked their father for his opinion on this, he surprised me: “Sweetheart, this country is no longer able to carry its children. It was my dream to celebrate [my sons’ weddings], but as you see now, their sole concern is just to earn each day’s bread.”
[I also found] a general consensus among young people against the old notion of family, which is to “get married, have 10 or 11 kids, then figure everything out later.”
Q: So with your expertise in sociology, what can you tell me about the immediate social impacts you’re seeing from the lack of young men? What kinds of issues (or positive impacts, if there are any) are we really looking at here?
There are a few more social freedoms. For example, it’s become common to see young women smoking water pipes at restaurants and cafes. This phenomenon didn’t exist six years ago.
The biggest impact [of having fewer young men] is that young women are now taking on jobs, including waiting tables at restaurants, that were once primarily for men.
I visited one village’s middle school and was surprised to find that the entire teaching staff were women, with the exception of four male teachers who were all 45 years old or older.
So yes, we can say that women have started to take the place of men, in the absence of young men in Suwayda.
Bridal shops in Suwayda city on Sept. 24. Photo by Noura al-Basha for Syria Direct.
Just to be clear, however, we aren’t talking about entire villages empty of men. Rather, we are seeing villages where the number of men over age 50 is higher than the number of young men due to emigration.
Women with jobs have also started helping their fiancés financially, by setting up the home and buying furniture and other necessities. This also did not exist before the war.
Women have started to give up on some of the conditions of the mahr [money or possessions given to the bride by the groom in an Islamic marriage]. Many young women are lowering the mahr price, or are simply accepting only an engagement ring as a way to lower the financial pressures on the young man.
Of course, women in Suwayda are well educated—around 45 percent of them have a degree from a university or other institution. That being said, women here still dream about their chance to wear a white dress. They dream of a home and a family.
Q: What about the longer-term impacts?
The most important issue we see in societies that have a low marriage rate is a decreased birth rate—and in Suwayda, the birth rate is already low. How can we have a new generation if there aren’t any births, and if the population in general is already growing older?
And recently, there has also been a rise in the murder rate in Suwayda, as well as a general sense of chaos and recklessness. Most of this is caused by the psychological pressures incurred by a lack of financial and physical security, and young people’s inability to get married and start families.
Original reporting by Noura al-Basha. This interview is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.