AMMAN – It’s 1 a.m. and Dalia is driving home after a long day of work. The passing cars illuminate the otherwise dark road but do little to comfort her.
“We didn’t carry weapons, but we will still carry the pain of war until we die,” Dalia tells Syria Direct, speaking to the suffering that Syria’s women inherited from the now eight-year-long war.
Dalia, 30-years-old, has worked in a wedding hall in Latakia since her husband disappeared in 2014, trying to secure the cost of living for her three children and elderly mother.
“When you and your children are threatened with [eviction], you’ll accept the work that’s available, whether or not it’s bad,” she says. “Work is practically non-existent.”
Dalia’s situation is not unique; thousands of women have been made to assume the role of provider after the death of a husband, father or brother.
“I had never worked in my entire life,” Dalia says. “All of a sudden I was forced to face my [new situation] and earn a living in the worst of circumstances.”
“Outside the house, I face difficulty after difficulty. When I come home, I usually cry and that makes me feel better.”
Latakia has been a historical stronghold for the regime and maintains strategic importance for the Syrian government as for the main port on the Mediterranean Sea, and also hosts a Russian military base.
However, despite the heavy military and security presence, the governorate suffers from an influx of arms, a high crime rate and poor security conditions, creating an additional hindrance to women living there.
Dalia has faced harassment and theft on her daily commute home. She recounts an incident which almost “destroyed her life,” when she was accosted by three men in Syrian military uniforms on her way home. They attempted to abuse her and stole her bag, only fleeing when bystanders heard her screaming.
Since then, Dalia has lived in the grip of terror and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Still, in her current living situation, she has no choice but to go to work and risk harassment, or worse.
“I’m the most scared when I see men in security uniforms. There’s always a crime taking place, but what can I do!? … I haven’t found any other jobs. Most of the businesses, as well as aid centers, exploit the circumstances women find themselves in, in different ways.”
Abject poverty and desperation for work leaves women, especially widows, vulnerable to exploitation and exposed to both sexual and financial harassment.
“The psychological damage caused by the war has exceeded the physical damage,” Maysa Mohammad, a social worker who provides psychological support to IDP’s, tells Syria Direct. “The fear, shocks, unexpected losses, and sexual and physical violence that women have been subjected to has put them into a state of depression which has the potential to end in suicide or serious despair.”
A woman’s voice barely breaks through the din of men hawking their wares in the vegetable market of Latakia— “potatoes … potatoes!”
Um Mohammad, in her fifties, sells vegetables from a wooden wheelbarrow every morning in the city’s souq. She makes her rounds before finally catching her breath in the same spot that her son, Mohammad, used to sit before he was drafted to the army and, later, killed in combat.
More and more, women in Latakia are performing work that is considered “inappropriate” for women or does not fit their educational qualifications or physical characteristics. Women are working in bakeries, restaurants, gas stations, as well as behind the steering wheel of buses and trucks.
“I see the shock and surprise in people’s eyes, but I also see sympathy, as they know my situation,” Um Mohammad said.
Noor, a 22-year-old literature major at Tishreen University, tells Syria Direct that “It was not a common sight to see a woman working in [these] careers before the war; however, I’m not shocked anymore when I get in a taxi and see a woman driving. Just the opposite; I feel safer.”
Abu Alaa, the owner of a brick-making factory on the outskirts of the city, employs two women in his factory. “One of [the two women] loads the bricks onto the truck, while the other drives the truck. I feel bad for them because this work is hard for women … I know them well; their situations are difficult. Because of them, I have to hear annoying [comments] and gossip, as their work [is seen as] socially shameful. But I sympathize with them.”
While the Syrian government is providing women with work opportunities, society is slow to accept women in these roles.
Samer Haddad, the director of Public Transportation Company (PTC) in Damascus, announced recently that the company is willing to accept women as bus drivers. After an agreement with the local Ministry of Transportation, hiring women drivers has started.
Though men traditionally worked as drivers, employers like (PTC) are starting to look towards women due to the shortage of manpower, as many men have left Syria or were killed during the war.
“Women [in Syria] live in a stressful, complex social situation due to the war,” Maysa Mohammad explains. “Women have to choose between either providing for the family and ensuring there is work [available], or not breaking social norms.”
“There is a form of gradual social acceptance for these new professions that women are working in, but it’s not widespread. And this [acceptance] is due to the recognition of the changes and dreadful circumstances imposed on women by the war.”
Um Mohammad tells Syria Direct: “No matter what you do, people won’t respect you. [However,] despite being exposed to continuous harassment, working is still better than begging.”
The city of women
As soon as the new male employee left the room in the Latakia municipal office-building, Rahaf Jaber told her colleagues, “We have a groom!” causing them all to burst into laughter. They joked about the new employee until the end of the day.
“There are not many male employees working in government offices these days,” she says. “Nor are there many young men in universities or other places … It’s rare to find young men.”
“In my office, there are five [female employees]; each one of them is either a wife or a sister to a martyr or a missing [person],” Jaber says, pointing to the huge number of young men that the city has lost.
Since the outbreak of protests in March 2011, Latakia city has been one of the most important strongholds for the Syrian government, acting as a reservoir of soldiers for its protracted war against opposition factions. As a result, there has been a huge exodus of young men from Latakia, many of whom were killed or went missing.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calculated that more than 124 thousand soldiers with the Syrian army and allied militias, half of them being Syrian citizens, have been killed between the beginning of the war and March 2018.
According to a study published in May 2017 by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies, 82 percent of the deaths in the Syrian war were men, the majority of which were of working-age. In addition, 1.2 million men were disabled or injured as a result of the war, making it difficult for them to return to the labor force.
The study also mentioned that in addition to those men killed in combat, many emigrated from Syria, which has pushed up the average marriage age in the country and the number of single women.
Jaber currently lives alone in her family home, after her father died and her two brothers emigrated to Germany to avoid the draft. “I hoped to have kids,” she says. “But it looks like I’m going to die alone in this house.”
“My situation is the same as many other [women in Syria] … We live in a city where there are no more men.”