Women in Syria

Women’s Fashions – The Big Cover Up:
The first thing that you notice when you enter Syria is the separation between men and women. Or perhaps it’s the way in which the women are dressed. In the northern town of Aleppo, for example, the majority of women are dressed in the black chador. Some keep their face exposed, with a black veil to cover their hair; others cover their face completely with a 360-degree veil, which is draped over their head. Those with the 360-degree veil complete the outfit with black gloves, black socks, and black shoes. When standing only at an arm’s distance away, I tried to look to see if I could see their eyes through the veil. I saw nothing. Just a black emptiness. The eyes have been described as the windows to the soul, and when you can’t see a person’s eyes, you wonder what is hiding beneath the black exterior. You wonder what they are thinking. They looked, as Guy de Maupassant once wrote, “like death out for a walk.” It was an appropriate description, and its effect was disconcerting and rather spooky.

I watched as groups of these black spooks moved through the streets and through the markets, and couldn’t help but wonder how they could see. Could they make out the distinct outline of objects in front of them, and what about the color? It seemed impossible that they could have peripheral vision – I imagined they could only see whatever was directly in front of them. I could grow accustomed to the black-clad figures, as long as their face was open, but once the face was hidden, it was a different story. I could never get used to that. It was something of a shock. I had not expected that in Syria.

Young girls generally start to wear a headscarf around the age of 10. They start to wear a robe that covers their shape between the ages of 8 and 15. It generally coincides with puberty; 12 or 13 is normal. We were at a restaurant one evening with Abdul-Hamid, and I looked up to see a woman at the table across from us wearing a 360-degree veil. It made me wonder how a woman dressed in such a way could eat out in public. I didn’t actually see her eating, but Abdul explained that there was an opening in the robe at about chest level that the woman would hold away from her body with one hand and use a fork or spoon to bring food up to her mouth with the other gloved hand. It was all done underneath the protective layers of the dress so that no person could see the lips or any part of the face.

Once outside of Aleppo and in the small villages of the desert, the dress code changed. The women and young girls wore long skirts and blouses or long dresses, but they were colorful and pretty and individual. Black was out; color was in. They covered their hair with patterned scarves, but not their faces. When they smiled, you could see their white teeth. When they spoke to you, you could see their dark eyes. It was a welcome change, and it put me at ease.

It is possible to see women in Syria with headscarves, but those women are not Muslim. In the Christian quarter of Aleppo, for example, the women wear pants or jeans or knee-length skirts and tank tops. Their clothing stores offer the same styles that we find in the West. The stores in the Muslim quarters sell racks upon racks of only black dresses – looking exactly the same except for a possible variation in sequins.

Separation between Men and Women:
As for the separation between men and women, it applied to every segment of society. It starts at school, when at a young age the boys and girls are sent to separate schools. It continues as children grow up and keep strictly segregated company. There is no question of boys and girls being friends. When they marry, the wedding is not a mixed party. There is one party for the bride and her female relatives and friends and one party for the groom and his male relatives. The party starts around 11:00 PM and continues until about 2 or 3:00 AM, when the groom and either his father or brother come to the women’s party to collect the bride. The groom stays for about half an hour, kisses the bride, then the party ends. None of the other men and women mix. The male relatives of the bride are not even invited to the wedding; the groom’s party is only for the groom’s relatives. Even the father and brothers are left out!

Before realizing this, I made the very naive comment that it was a shame that the bride’s male friends were not invited to the wedding. It was a shocking thing to say. It was, of course, completely unthinkable, unimaginable. It was impossible, even. Of course a woman didn’t have male friends, and of course a man didn’t have female friends. When our Syrian friends found out that Stephane and I have mixed friends, they were shocked. They had been taught that it was impossible for men and women to have platonic relationships. It was obviously a new idea for them, and they seemed unable to understand it. We did see a few girls and boys together, but that was in the Christian quarter of Aleppo. In fact, it is to the Christian quarter that some Muslim men and women go in order to keep a relationship between a boyfriend and girlfriend secret.

Even the world of work is separate. Some women work outside of the house, in jobs that are not male-specific. But it is generally expected that the women stay home with the children while the men are the breadwinners. It is impossible that the roles would be reversed, unless a woman’s husband dies and she must work, but even then, other male family members would most likely help out so that a woman would not have to work outside the home.

Some workplaces are only for men and are off-limits to women. For example, bike shops. The cycling world (and the sports world more generally) is strictly reserved for men. Women don’t bike in Syria, so there is no need for women to enter a bike shop.

Just like men work outside the home, it is the women who work inside the home. There is a strict segregation between their responsibilities. The home is the woman’s domain, and the men have no responsibilities in the home, aside from the pleasures of eating, sleeping, and watching TV. It was quite eye opening to watch Abdul-Hamid, who played host to us when his mother was out of town. He was completely helpless, down to the smallest thing. He seemed confused when he tried to put leftovers of our take-out meal in the fridge and couldn’t find room immediately. And yet the fridge was nearly empty. But he had never had to put anything in the fridge before; his mother had always done it for him, and once he got married, his wife would do it. He seemed infinitely relieved when I took over. He had no clue how the washing machine worked. And if his meal needed re-heating, he called his mother, who would come to do it for him.

Men and women are also segregated socially in the home. At Ali’s house, I was taken into the kitchen to meet his wife, but Stephane was not asked to meet her. She made the dinner, but didn’t join us to eat. At Nour’s house, it was the same way. We stayed at his house for close to ten hours, and during that time, I was introduced to everyone in his family. Stephane was not introduced to either his mother or sister. The women were absent for the dinner, and afterwards I joined them in the family room while Stephane stayed on the balcony with Nour’s friends. When Stephane got up to come into the house, there was a big commotion to close the doors quickly so that he didn’t accidentally catch a glimpse of any of the women. I thought it quite a shame because it was one of the nicest families we had met, and Stephane wasn’t even able to meet half the family.

Males that are not relatives are not only prohibited from seeing women in person, but they may not even look at photos of unveiled Muslim women. As Abdul-Hamid showed us photos of his family, the photos of his mother or sisters without scarves were strictly reserved for me; Stephane could not look. It was very serious.

Dating, Marriage, and Children:
Most girls marry young and have as many babies as possible. It is not uncommon to be married by the age of 16 (which means, of course, that the girls don’t finish school). Muslims in Syria do not practice birth control – in fact, it is not even available in Muslim pharmacies and is often unheard of. This means, of course, that the girls start having children at a very young age. It is not uncommon for women in villages to have as many as 20 children. We stayed with several such families. The average number of children per family is about 15. Of course, some men have more than one wife, meaning that the families can be enormous. Imagine a dozen children with one wife and a dozen with another!

Muslim men are allowed by their religion to have up to four wives, but are supposed to treat each one equally and are supposed to have the means to support each one. Under Syrian law, polygamy is forbidden, but it is still widely practiced. The men simply marry one wife legally, and take a second one illegally. The second one has nothing to prove that she is married, should the need ever arise. The men who have more than one wife are very proud of this fact.

Talk in Syrian families seems often to revolve around children. Not practicing birth control themselves and perhaps never even having heard of it, they all seem surprised that Stephane and I have been married for three years and don’t have any children. “Babies are good,” they keep saying. “Why don’t you have any children?” It’s important in Syria to become pregnant soon after you get married. At it’s important also to have at least one boy. A mother is known forever afterwards by the name of her eldest son. For example, “Ali’s mother” or “Ahmed’s mother.” Understandably, most women in Syria are very large, hardly surprising as they as veritable baby factories.

In terms of meeting prospective partners, it seems to be not at all easy. Dating is prohibited, and if it does happen, it happens secretly. Our friend, M—, for example, has had a secret girlfriend for five years, which neither family knows about. If he gets to see her for one hour per week, it’s considered a good week. Sometimes they may go for long periods without seeing each other at all. They may meet at a friend’s house or other such place, but never in public. If someone that they knew saw them together, they would almost surely tell the girl’s parents, and then there would be big problems. So it’s been a secret for five years, and they wish to get married, but must wait until M— has enough money to buy a house for his himself and his bride, plus 4000 USD, which is the average dowry that a man must give a woman whom he wishes to marry. This is given in gold, and the woman keeps it for herself. She keeps it in case they were ever to get divorced, for example.

Their big problem, aside from the monetary issue, is that the girl’s father brings home suitors for her to meet, and she keeps saying no. The parents don’t understand how she is 24 and still says “no” to men who are handsome and rich. They’re starting to wonder why, and in the meantime, M— has to hope that she will wait for him to have enough money.

The large majority of couples meet through their families. The parents see young people – at a wedding, for example – and inquire about their character and their families. For example, a girl’s brother or father will go to a man’s workplace and ask his co-workers if the man is a good man, if he is a hard worker, etc. If he checks out, the man comes to the girl’s house and is served coffee while the entire family sits around listening to their conversation. It is very awkward. In some families, they may get to spend some time alone together to talk, and the man may ask the girl to take off her scarf so that he can see her hair. It depends upon the family.

The girl serves coffee, and if the man likes her and wants to see her again, he will accept the coffee. If not, he will refuse it. In some families, the girl also has a choice to refuse or accept a man. In other families, she has no choice. If a man comes to see her again, their “engagement” may last anywhere from one week to one year and may be broken off at any time.

Because couples usually meet through their families, they often marry their cousins. In this case, they usually take medication to prevent birth defects in their children.

Female Tourists:
As a tourist, I seemed to be under a different set of rules. I could mix with either the men or the women, and was invited into a man’s workplace on more than one occasion. I was asked if I wanted to smoke with the men, but such a privilege would be absolutely forbidden to Muslim women. Some men approached me to talk; others avoided all direct contact. I followed their cue.

Some men respect female tourists; others do not. Arab men have a reputation for harassing foreign women. I have not spoken to a single woman (and I’ve spoken to a lot) who does not have some story about some incident while traveling in an Arab country. Women are supposed to lower their gaze, but men feel they have the right to stare at you all they want, to touch you when your husband turns his back, to spy on you in hotel rooms, to make rude comments, to whistle and wink at you and make annoying non-stop smooching noises in your direction, to tell you they love you, to put their arm around you in the street. Usually it’s not very serious, but it’s annoying and tiresome nonetheless, and always there. It’s even worse when you consider how they cover up their own women and hide them away, and God forbid if you disrespect one of their sisters or mothers, but it’s perfectly okay for them to disrespect you. Of course, it’s a generalization, but happens often enough and is enough of a nuisance that all guidebooks and all women travelers talk about it.