Women in Syria
Syrian woman on Ellis Island in 1926. Phothograph by Lewis Wickes Hine.
General Statistics
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)31 (2019)[1]
Women in parliament13% (2015)[2]
Women over 25 with secondary education40% (2019)
Women in labour force18.9% (2021)[3]
Gender Inequality Index[4]
Value0.477 (2021)
Rank119th out of 191
Global Gender Gap Index[5]
Value0.568 (2021)
Rank152nd out of 156

Women in Syria constitute 49.9% of Syria's population. According to World Bank data from 2021, there are around 10.6 million women in Syria.[6] As important members of the Syrian community, they are active participants in social, economic and political factions of society. However, Syrian women and girls still experience challenges, especially since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, in the areas of legal rights, suitable healthcare and challenges precipitated by wartime violence.

History

There is an agreement amongst scholars that the earlier, Mesopotamian era of women were afforded greater personal liberties prior to the rise of the Akkid Empire in the areas of northern Syria.[7] It was in the years following this that the status of women evolved into a more subordinated class against their male counterparts.

In the 20th century, a movement for women's rights developed in Syria, made up largely of upper-class, educated women.[8] In 1919, Naziq al-Abid founded Noor al-Fayha (Light of Damascus), the city's first women's organization, alongside an affiliated publication of the same name. She was made an honorary general of the Syrian Army after fighting in the Battle of Maysaloun, and in 1922, she founded the Syrian Red Crescent.[9] In 1928, Lebanese-Syrian feminist Nazira Zain al-Din, one of the first people to critically reinterpret the Quran from a feminist perspective, published a book condemning the practice of veiling or hijab, arguing that Islam requires women to be treated equally with men.[10] In 1930, the First Eastern Women's Congress was hosted in Damascus by the Syrian-Lebanese Women's Union.

In 1963, the Ba'ath Party took power in Syria, and pledged full equality between women and men as well as full workforce participation for women.[11]

The year 2011 marked the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, which saw many civilians fall victim to attacks targeting hospitals, schools, and infrastructure. Extremist rebel groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, have enforced strict policies restricting the freedoms of women in territories they control.[12]

Feminist and female rights movements

The Syrian feminist movement essentially began towards the end of the 1800s, during the time period in which modern Lebanon and Syria were occupied by the Ottoman Empire. It was during the time of Arabic Nahba, or awakening, in which what some women began to pioneer movements in the interests of their rights and liberties.[13] Women like Maryana Marrash in the 1870's called for the liberation of women in public forums like newspapers, as well as contributing to journals with her articles and poems.

The movement continued into the years up to the Syrian coup d'état in 1963. Regimes like Assad's, Jadid's and Bashar's sought to either ban or contain the feminist movements, which arguably slowed their progression.[14]

In 1967, Syrian women formed a quasi-governmental organization called the General Union of Syrian Women (GUSW), a coalition of women's welfare societies, educational associations, and voluntary councils intended to achieve equal opportunity for women in Syria.[11]

After the outbreak of civil war, some Syrian women have joined all-female brigade units in the Syrian Arab Army,[15] the Democratic Union Party,[16] and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,[17] taking on roles such as snipers, frontline units, or police.

Legal rights and engagement

While Syria has developed some fairly secular features during independence in the second half of the 20th century, personal status law is still based on Sharia[18] and applied by Sharia Courts.[19] Syria has a dual legal system which includes both secular and religious courts.[20] Marriage contracts are between the groom and the bride's father, and Syrian law does not recognize the concept of marital rape.[21]

When discussing the acquisition and signification of citizenship in Syria, the obtaining of Syrian citizenship did not automatically enable women to gain full access to every right, one of the most notable ones being within the realm of family law.[1] Syrian family law thus has a large impact on the legal rights of women. Public law states that all Syrian citizens are equal. However, family law has judicial primacy in defining women's personal status. In certain cases, family law can invalidate constitutional law.[22] Although there were efforts to secularize the legal system of most Arab states in the 1920s, family law is still heavily influenced by religion and has an impact on the private domain in cases such as marriage, divorce, and child custody.[23]

In 2002, Syria signed the CEDAW but set reservations related to family law.[24] One of the most impactful developments in personal and family law in regards to the inheritance of wealth and land as a Syrian woman manifested in the set of decrees and laws issued between 2012 and 2018:

Many of these overlapped with the Assad regimes agenda to combat dissent against the regime, and to institutionalise conformity. They provided a legal cover for the exploitation of private citizen property, and made it incredibly difficult for widows, divorcées or wives and family members of the kidnapped to claim ownership over property and inheritance.[25]

Engagement

In 2017, Women made up 30% of the judicial corps in Syria, which is an increase of almost double from before the revolution, in which only 15% of the judicial corps were women.[26] Because of the conflict, and a subsequent loss of male figures to the conflict, women have, in some cases, stepped into positions of authority. As of February 2021, the third and most recent cohort studying at the Higher Institute of Judicial Studies was mostly women, with 28 out of 49 trainees.[27]

Education

The early schooling in Syria starts at six years old and ends at the age of eighteen. In Syrian universities, women and men attend the same classes. Between 1970 and the late 1990s, the female population in schools dramatically increased, largely due to the Ba’ath Parties initiative to combat illiteracy, promote loyalty and to stimulate development.[28]

This increase included the early school years, along with the upper-level schools such as universities and higher education. Although the number of women has increased, there are still ninety five women to every one hundred men. Although many women start going to school, the dropout rate for women is much higher than for men. Prior to the conflict, Syria’s education system was far more developed. After reaching the fifth year of the conflict, an estimated 50% of all school-age children were no longer attending school.[29]

According to data from the World Bank, 46.8% of girls and 39.8% of boys complete lower secondary school in the Syrian Arab Republic as of 2022. The gap in completion rate is larger than the gap of the Middle East and North Africa aggregate.[30]

According to the Human Rights Watch, The GCPEA uncovered reports that suggested at least 650 cases of educational facilities either being attacked or exploited for military purposes.[31]

The literacy rate for women is 74.2 percent and 91 percent for men. The rate of females over 25 with secondary education is 29.0 percent.[32]

Politics

In Syria, women were first allowed to vote and received universal suffrage in 1953.[33] In the 1950s, Thuraya Al-Hafez ran for Parliament, but was not elected. By 1971, women held four out of the 173 seats.[34]

Historically, there are cases of women contributing to societal and political change within Syria. During the Arab spring, for example, women protested for change and in spite of arrests continued to take action, despite being socially oppresed by their male counterparts.[35] During the height of the conflict period, women’s rights and liberties became increasingly difficult to protect, and it became a goal of peace negotiations to establish a legal framework that would contribute to the protection of the rights of women.[36]

In October of 2000, the passage of U.N. SCR 1325 was passed, and became a turning point for the issue of Women, Peace and Security.[37]Adopted after the Security Council issued a presidential statement on International Women’s Day in March, it was acknowledged that there was a strong relationship between gender equality and peace building enterprises. A 2002 report on Women, Peace and Security also recommended implementing greater measures in including women in the process of peace negotiations.[38]

Women have not overtly engaged with direct governmental contact and influence, but instead interact more with the informal negotiation process through non-governmental organisations and intergovernmental institutions.[39]

The CFR Women’s Power Index states that since 1946, there have been 0 female heads of state, and that Syria’s political parity score is ranked as 177th in the world.[40] The current president of Syria is a male. There are also two vice presidents (including female vice president Najah al-Attar since 2006), a prime minister and a cabinet. As of 2012, in the national parliament men held 88% of the seats while women held 12%.[41] The Syrian Parliament was previously led by female Speaker Hadiya Khalaf Abbas, the first woman to have held that position.[42]

President Assad's political and media adviser is Bouthaina Shaaban. Shaaban served as the first Minister of Expatriates for the Syrian Arab Republic, between 2003 and 2008,[43] and she has been described as the Syrian government's face to the outside world.[44]

Of the civil society representatives among the 150 members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which was assembled in 2019 by the Syria Envoy of the United Nations, Syrian women account for around 30%.[45] Several renowned Syrian women, such as academic Bassma Kodmani, Sabah Hallak of the Syrian Women's League, the law professor Amal Yazji or the judge Iman Shahoud, sit on the committee's influential 'Small' or Drafting Body.[46]

Role in the economy and the military

Following the French occupation in 1946, Syria gained independence after two decades of revolutions and independence movements, in which women played an important role.[47] After the institution of the Ba’ath party in the 1963, universal socio-political policies were adopted which saw significant improvements in the country’s development indices like health and education, but also in public sanitation, water, energy and infrastructure.[48]

In 1989 the Syrian government passed a law requiring factories and public institutions to provide on-site childcare.[11]

However, women's involvement in the workforce is low; according to World Bank, in the Syrian Arab Republic, the labor force participation rate among females is 14.1%, and among males its 63.6% as of 2023.[49]This being said, they play an important role in the public sector when it comes to health and education roles.[50] Furthermore, vulnerable employment for females has improved since 1991, according to the World Bank. Workers in vulnerable employment are reportedly less likely to engage in formal working arrangements, and are more susceptible to the consequences of economic shock. Amongst women, vulnerable employment is 8.3%, and 40.4% amongst men as of 2022.[30] For women, this average is lower than the Middle East and North Africa.[30]

Women are not conscripted in the military, but may serve voluntarily. The female militias of Syria are trained to fight for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. A video was found dating back to the 1980s with female soldiers showing their pride and protectiveness toward Assad's father.[51] "Because women are rarely involved in the armed side of the revolution, they are much less likely to get stopped, searched, or hassled at government checkpoints. This has proved crucial in distributing humanitarian aid throughout Syria."[52]

However, the case of violence against women is often used as tool of political and social repression, geared to intimidate and manipulate communities. There are cases of forced recruitment into militias, kidnapping, rape, torture, forced detention and the denial of fair trials that put women at great risk of exploitation.[53]

Women's health

In 2020, the World Bank estimated the life expectancy of Syrian women as 76 years, in comparison to 69 years for men. This number has increased significantly since the mid 2010s.[54] The number of women that survive to the age of 65 has also increased: from 73% in 2014 to 84% in 2020.[55] The adolescent fertility rate has decreased since 2015. 39 in every 1000 girls between the ages of 15 and 20 gave birth in 2020. This was lower than previous years and lower than the average rate in the same income group.[56]

Two Syrian women wait to collect a prescription at a health clinic in Lebanons Bekaa Valley

Despite the improvement of these numbers, there is still a high need for action to lessen the suffering of women and girls as a result of the ongoing crisis in Syria. The United Nations Population Fund stated in 2022 that 7.3 million women and girls need life-saving sexual and reproductive health care due to hostile circumstances, drought, economic collapse, and displacement. An example is maternal care, because the number of women that die during pregnancy and childbirth is on the rise and higher in Syria than in neighboring countries.[57] It is reported that an estimated 450,000 women do not have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare as of June 2024.[2] Data from the World Bank offers the figures that 39 of every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 gave birth in the Syrian Arab Republic in 2021.[58]

In addition to low access to healthcare services, the Covid-19 pandemic regulations saw staff and patients alike being mistreated and underfuned, and women reported about severe financial limitations and acute concerns about financial and supply insecurity.[59]

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in women

Following the outbreak of acute conflict in Syria, cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in women in the Syrian community, both within the country and in refugee populations, have resulted in correspondence to violence and health insecurity that they faced. War and displacement act as significant catalysts for PTSD, as well as the crimes committed against women such as rape, torture and imprisonment. Women are particularly vulnerable to the psychological consequences of war and can often find themselves deprioritized and undersupported, especially when there is limited healthcare access and funding.[60]

Impact of the conflict on Syria's women

Since the conflict erupted in 2011, women in Syria, namely in conflict zones, have been facing violence, sexual assault, forced displacement, detention, domestic violence, child marriage and other violations of their rights.[61][62] The OCHR reported in June of 2023 that female headed households are twice as likely to report a complete inability to meet basic needs in comparison to male-headed households.[3] Furthermore, discriminatory legal practices that existed before the conflict have been exacerbated. Access to housing and property has become even more complex, especially for those widowed or whose husbands have been kidapped or gone missing.

During the years of conflict, insecurity and the economic collapse significantly increased the vulnerability of women and girls.[63] In addition, many girls were left without schooling or access to healthcare services.[63][64] In 2015, the United Nations gathered evidence of systematic sexual assault of women and girls by combatants in Syria, and this was escalated by the Islamic State (ISIL) and other terrorist organizations.[64][65]

Sexual abuse has been recognized as the dominant form of violence experienced by women and girls in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict. This often occurred within their own homes or in detention, alongside other forms of assault such as torture, abduction and at times even murder. This was frequently carried out in the presence of a male relative. [66]

Impact of the conflict on Yezidi women

The Syrian conflict has had a devastating impact on Syria's Yezidi people. The Yezidi community, a religious minority group, has faced brutality and persecution at the hands of the extremist group ISIS, which considers them as 'unbelievers'. Since the groups occupation of the region inhabited by the Yezidis in Northern Syria, thousands of Yezidis have been kidnapped, killed and raped. As a result, many surviving Yezidis fled Syria, leaving behind a divided and heavily traumatized community. [67]

During their occupation of the areas inhabited by the Yezidis, Yezidi men were executed on the spot and thousands of women and girls were captured and kidnapped and detained in ISIL holding sites in Syria. Some of these girls were just 6 years old. [68] They were forced to live in abhorrent conditions and subjected to severe forms of SGBV, like rape, forced marriages, trafficking, body inspections and forced sexual slavery. Yazidi women and girls were sold at slave markets to ISIL fighters and their families and forced to work as sex slaves, subjected to daily torture, beating and rape. There were also cases of forced marriage between fighters and Yazidi girls, who would also become sex slaves.[69]

Yezidi Refugees

While a few women were able to escape their kidnappers and reunite with their families, numerous others remain missing, leaving their families uncertain about their fate and whether they are still alive. ISIS's operations of mass kidnapping and human trafficking resulted in an estimated 7000 women being victimized and over 3000 women are still missing. [70]

Another assault on Yezidi custom manifested through these rapes, in that Yazidi women and men cannot marry someone who does no belong to their group, and the child resulting from any Yezidi union must have two Yazidi parents. Women who bore children as a result of rape and sex-slavery could not easily integrate those children into their community.[71]

A noteably high number of Yezidi refugees also reportedly suffer from PTSD, with a higher porportion of these sufferers being women.[72]

Crime against women

Honor killings

Honor killings take place in Syria in situations where women are deemed to have brought shame to the family, affecting the family's 'reputation' in the community. Some estimates suggest that more than 200 honor killings occur every year in Syria.[73]

These killings are carried out as a means of restoring the family's honor. The concept of these honor killings is deeply rooted in traditional and patriarchal norms. These norms include the assertion that men, as heads of the family unit, have an ownership over the women in their households. This ownership translates into the monopoly men have over material and social resources, and the subsequent responsibility they have over financial security. This is expected to be returned by the woman in the form of fidelity and domestic service. The principle of honor in a woman can extend beyond her sexual behaviour to loud speech, extroverted or outgoing behaviour, appearing in public places and even single or divorced family status.[74]

Should a female family member betray such tenants, a retaliation like honor killing is sometimes seen to take place.[75] These killings can take shape in different forms including murder, severe psychological and physical abuse and mutilation. Usually these killings or punishments are committed by male family members. It is believed that they have the authority to reinstall the family's honor. Reports have revealed that women in Syria who come from low-income households are more likely to be exposed to honor killings. [76]

Usually the victims of these honor killings include women who engage in adultery, premarital sex (or relationships), seek a divorce or refuse a forced marriage. Sometimes it also happens to women who have become victims of sexual assault. [77] Men can also become victims of honor killings, but this is less prevelant. [78]

Since 2019 until November 2022, there have been over 14 reported deaths in areas controlled by the Syrian government under this banner of honor.[79] Although the article on 'honour crimes' has been abolished, there are still articles granting men mitigating circumstances such as 'honour motives' under Article 192 of the penal code. In addition to this, Syrian law and jurisprudence deal with the hymen as a "measure of crime seriousness."[80]

Forced and child marriage

The conflict in Syria has led to an increase in child marriages. The harsh living conditions, the insecurity, and the fear of rape, have led families to force their daughters into early marriages.[81] [82] As a result of early marriage, many girls in Syria are forbidden from completing their studies because when a girl is married she is only expected to be a good wife and a good mother as well.

Data from Girls not Brides offers the figures that 13% of Syrian girls are married before the age of 18, and 2% are married before their 15th birthday. Furthermore, the most recent available data shows that child marriage was most prevelant in Daraa (where 26% of women aged 20-49 were married before the age of 18), rural Damascus (25%) and Quneitra (23%).[83]Girls not Brides also states that in 2020, a Patterned Women Committee official, under the Sara Organization for Combatting Violence against Women found that in al-Hasaka province there were 36 reported cases of child marriage in 2020.[83]

Child marriage can influence physical and mental health badly. Physical damage can be related to child bearing specially for women under 18 years old and the possibility for not being able to give birth later in life, and in extreme cases it can lead to death. Psychological factors can be defined as difficulties in interacting with the husband or not having enough awareness about marriage life and its responsibilities.[84]

Domestic violence

A study covering the low-income women in Aleppo, an area where domestic abuse is more likely due to the tribal nature of the area, shows that physical abuse (battering at least 3 times in the last year) was found in 23% of the investigated women in 2003, 26% amongst married women. Regular abuse (battering at least once weekly) was found in 3.3% of married women, with no regular abused reported by non-married women. The prevalence of physical abuse amongst country residents was 44.3% compared to 18.8% amongst city residents. In most cases (87.4%) the abuse was inflicted by the husband, and in 9.5% of cases, the abuse was inflicted by more than one person. Correlates of physical abuse were women's education, religion, age, marital status, economic status, mental distress, smoking and residence.[85]

Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava

Further information: Rojava, Jineology, and Kongreya Star

With the Syrian Civil War, the Kurdish populated area in Northern Syria has gained de facto autonomy as the Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava, with the leading political actor being the progressive Democratic Union Party (PYD). Kurdish women have several armed and non-armed organizations in Rojava, and enhancing women's rights is a major focus of the political and societal agenda. Kurdish female fighters in the Women's Protection Units (YPJ) played a key role during the Siege of Kobani and in rescuing Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, and their achievements have attracted international attention as a rare example of strong female achievement in a region in which women are heavily repressed.[86][87][88][89]

The civil laws of Syria are valid in Rojava, as far as they do not conflict with the Constitution of Rojava. One notable example for amendment is personal status law, in Syria still Sharia-based,[18][19] where Rojava introduced civil law and proclaims absolute equality of women under the law and a ban on forced marriage as well as polygamy was introduced,[90] while underage marriage was outlawed as well.[91] For the first time in Syrian history, civil marriage is being allowed and promoted, a significant move towards a secular open society and intermarriage between people of different religious backgrounds.[92]

The legal efforts to reduce cases of underage marriage, polygamy and honor killings are underpinned by comprehensive public awareness campaigns.[93] In every town and village, a women's house is established. These are community centers run by women, providing services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of harm. These services include counseling, family mediation, legal support, and coordinating safe houses for women and children.[94] Classes on economic independence and social empowerment programs are also held at women's houses.[95]

All administrative organs in Rojava are required to have male and female co-chairs, and forty percent of the members of any governing body in Rojava must be female.[96] An estimated 25 percent of the Asayish police force of the Rojava cantons are women, and joining the Asayish is described in international media as a huge act of personal and societal liberation from an extremely patriarchical background, for ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Arab women alike.[97]

The PYD's political agenda of "trying to break the honor-based religious and tribal rules that confine women" is controversial in conservative quarters of society.[91]

Women in art and culture

Syria's Radical Dabka

The Dabka has long been tied to the political visions of Syrian state. It is a highly stylized dance practiced throughout Syria and areas of Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Whilst its provenance is difficult to trace, many associate it with pre-Islamic village life circular line dancing.

The myth is that villagers would prepare for weddings by making mud bricks for the roofs of new households, and the process by which this was achieved was through dozens of people tramping on the soil and thick mid, accompanied by sung poetry, a mijwiz reed instrument and tabl drum. The transformation of this dance into a political agent took place during the mass demonstrations of 2011-12, against the Assad regime, in which people were similarly energized by the music and dance. Through musical and visual elements of the Dabka, protesters appealed to the cultural identity of the people with anti-war ballads from contemporary artists. An important part of this dance was maintained in the sense of unity and joy that it provided.[98]

The importance of women here is identified in what the woman represents within the nation of Syria from a gendered persepctive. When depicted on stage dancing she became a symbol of joy and prosperity, fostering an idea of national unity within the Syrian homeland as a symbol of the union between modernity and tradition, new life and old.[98]

Women in artistic movements

The history of Syrian art is peppered with feminist influences and female voices, starting as early as the late 17th century during which the work of Armenian artists in Aleppo like Hilda Kassis Ajamian, Maral Haira Bidian and Anahid Shahinian went on to contribute to the artistic movements in the 1920s.[99] Women's visual enterprises appeared more accutely in the 1940s, with the first installation exhibition in Damascus on the 15th of August 1947, including works from Catherine Massarra, Ramzia Zanbarki and Muti'a Shura, who displayed oil works.[99]

Female photography and sculpting was also considered an important social event following the exhibitions of the 1950's and 60's. Artist Leila Nseir, who graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1963 said to interviewer Monzer Masri that she "refused the labels a 'male artist' and a 'female artist'."[99] There was an uptick in women empowering themselves through art and visual mediums, and redefining the traditional definition of femininity within public discourse.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the number of Syrian female artists increased, many of which emigrated or moved abroad, especially following the Hama Massacre of 1982.[99] Some scholars denounce the classification of some female work as "feminist", arguing instead that these works have been essentialised as such following later movements from other parts of the world.[99] This considered, the path women took to achieve a voice in the realm of artistic production and distribution was undeniably a symbol of female power.

Street murals in Idlib

Syrian female artists in Syria's northwestern Idlib province have been creating murals on the blank walls within their communities, using them as a way to communicate messages or images since before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Artist Yafa Diab said she had been painting birds, roses and nature until the outbreak of the war, after which she began to paint the concerns of the conflict, as did many other artists. Her painting, the Eye of the Revolution, became an example of the revolutionary stories of war, loss and perserverance that began to be displayed all across the province.[100]

The global language of art, as female artist Al-Hamedh told Syria Direct, became "a weapon and a tool [she] used to express [her] emotion."[100]

Notable women

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