The Promising Young Women of Syria

Ten years ago, war shattered the hopes of many Syrians. But none have suffered quite like the women

The Promising Young Women of Syria
Syrian refugees arrive at the Oncupinar crossing gate, close to the town of Kilis, south central Turkey, in order to cross to Syria for the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday[2017]/Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Ten years ago, Laila was in her second year at Damascus University, studying sociology. Her life before that turning point of Syrian history was a period of “beautiful well-being,” a young student enjoying life, attending classes during the day, and going out with friends later. Her dreams at the time were like any other middle-class student. She had ambitions for her education and career and was looking forward to exploring the world. Marriage and a family didn’t yet feature in her plans; it would happen at some point in the future, she thought.

Laila could never finish her degree. First, the violence stopped her from getting to classes. The regime fired shells on the road between her house in Dummar, a suburb of Damascus, and the university, and the risk of kidnapping was high. And then came financial obstacles. When she started her studies, the thought of not finishing was as inconceivable as the war that soon engulfed her life, in which she says, “Every day brings a crisis worse than the day before.”

The reality of the conflict was forcefully brought home to her in November 2012, when her brother was arrested and taken away by the security services and his computer confiscated. He has not been heard from since. It turned out a neighbor had told the mukhabarat that he was working with the opposition, and to this day the family doesn’t know if this was true. It certainly had the intended effect on family and friends, who have kept their distance from the revolution in the hope that one day they will see him again.

According to recent figures, 83% of Syrians now live below the poverty line — that is, four in five people are hungry, unable to meet their basic needs. This puts Syria at the top of the global index of poverty. It has 10% more people living in poverty compared to Zimbabwe, the country that is second on a list of 172. As with the numbers of dead, tortured, injured, and exiled, it is difficult to comprehend the numbers from this decade of conflict. But stories of the reality are not hard to find, even outside the areas of direct violence.

Laila has two jobs. She spends 8 hours at her government position for a salary of $15 per month, before working another 8 hours at a private internet marketing company, which bolsters her take-home pay to $60 per month. Even with this punishing workload, she says: “I can’t afford my basic costs. I can’t even buy the cheapest clothes to replace ones that are falling apart.” Her income barely meets the cost of food, which is exorbitant, thanks to a crashing currency, sanctions, lower productivity from a decade of war in agricultural areas, and illegal exports by a corrupt few. Laila’s family, living on two pensions plus the combined salaries of two daughters, can afford meat just once a month. “Life has been stripped to the basics,” Laila says, “for everyone.”

It’s not just the drudgery of 16-hour workdays that Laila resents but the fact that the jobs themselves are routine, mundane administrative posts with no future. There is no room for career development or training. There is no hope of promotion, given the corruption, which was endemic in Syria even before the conflict but now is worse. Her boss doesn’t even have a middle school education, yet he was placed above her because of who he knows. She tells me of friends who could only succeed in their education by paying their professors.

A younger cousin has been blocked in exactly the same way. Her father worked in television, and from a very young age she wanted to be a film or television director. She was in ninth grade when the revolution started, an important year because the results of the exams determine which high school students attend. She lived in Muadamiya, a suburb of Damascus that experienced heavy bombing, but she still managed to do well and felt her dreams were still possible. She graduated from university and studied at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts for two years. But of course, there was little she could do with it all. There are no positions in Syria outside government channels, and these positions are filled by the well-connected. There is no chance, this far into the war, of scholarships or jobs abroad.

And as with such circumstances throughout history, women are using their bodies in exchange for life’s necessities, or, with the right man, even some luxuries

Given the acute deprivation of so many, the extreme commodification of life is not surprising. Bartering is the norm, says Laila, for anything from medical supplies to a pair of shoes. And as with such circumstances throughout history, women are using their bodies in exchange for life’s necessities, or, with the right man, even some luxuries such as clothes or toiletries. “Friends with benefits” is how Laila describes these transactions. On the other side of these relationships are men who lack the money to get married and sustain a family, so are looking for no-strings-attached liaisons, Laila claims. “Most of the young men at the moment have limited thoughts: sex, food, sleep. With no hope of work, they can’t build a family, so they look for free sex, with no feelings. I can’t build a relationship like this.”

And, of course, the country has fewer young men. Many have died fighting, others have disappeared into President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons, and if a family can only afford to pay a smuggler for one person to reach Europe, they will choose a son over a daughter, deeming them more likely to succeed and less vulnerable to exploitation and violence along the way. This has edged Syrians into breaking social conventions, such as marriage between sects, as Laila’s older sister Yasmine (already married) manages to laugh about, poking fun at Syrian society. “It takes a war, a bloody conflict like this, for the sects to mix, which is in a way good.” She has many stories of forbidden relationships among her friends that didn’t work out because of such taboos. This isn’t to say that inter-sect marriages didn’t happen, “but it’s the advantage of the man, he can marry whoever he wants.”

Her female cousin has broken this norm. “She’s 26 and just recently got engaged to this 43-year-old guy. Her parents are Sunni, not extreme, but being engaged to an Alawite was kind of a surprise.” Her father wasn’t overjoyed at the news, so she had to fight her corner. “Her argument was, ‘I’m getting older all the time, and no Sunni man is coming to propose to me.’ That’s what forced her dad to agree to this engagement.” The lack of men with money — indeed the lack of men, period — is forcing women to breach social barriers in search of marriage.

But for other women it’s not so easy. Dina is an Alawite, from a prominent regime-supporting family. She was living in Damascus and working full time when she started dating a Sunni she met at work. When she told her father, he threw her out of the house, telling her he’d rather kill her than see her marry a Sunni. Instead of risking death (such honor killings are still widespread in Syria), Dina left her boyfriend and fled the country, building a new life for herself. But that’s a privilege unavailable to most Syrians. Dina had inherited a second nationality from her mother, which allowed her to move without going through the asylum process or traveling as a refugee.

This is what many young Syrians long for. “You can describe my life as on hold. Like a prisoner, everything in it has been stopped until I can travel,” says Laila, who sees all her dreams — whether in work, education, or love — as only possible outside the country. I ask Laila which country she would like to rebuild her life in. “I think Canada is the best,” she replies, quickly following up with, “But any country where there is no corruption or bribes.” Her friend Nadia wants the same but is no longer sure she can even enjoy what she wants. “My hopes are still the same — I always wanted to travel the world, see new monuments, taste new food, talk to new people, live with God’s nature — but I’m not the same person, now I might cry at everything I see because my heart is no longer in one piece.”

Both have lost friends who have managed to leave the country (current estimates of Syrian refugees are nudging 6.1 million), and both struggle to build friendships or relationships with men. Laila explains, “Distrust of anyone in these times has become prevalent.” This is understandable given the neighbor’s role in her brother’s arrest. And as with her experience with men: “Interests and ‘friends with benefits’ have also become the norm. Most friendships have become superficial.”

With men dead, disappeared, or in exile, women are taking over family businesses and working in any job they can find to keep food on the table.

Laila’s sister Yasmine used to work at a European embassy in Damascus before diplomacy, too, became a casualty of war and the embassies disappeared along with so much else. She sees history repeating itself. “I used to see lines of Iraqi men trying to get abroad, whether to avoid national service or get their families somewhere safer.” Families sent the men abroad before anyone else, which changed society fundamentally. “Women were left to fend for themselves and for the families; they had to go to work and began to fill all the roles in society.” This is a result of many if not all wars, and Syria is no exception. With men dead, disappeared, or in exile, women are taking over family businesses and working in any job they can find to keep food on the table. “Soon we will see bus drivers, taxi drivers, mechanics, even builders,” Yasmine predicts.

It is indeed history repeating itself, and not just the long and violent Iraqi conflict. Women have often found opportunities in the labor markets during wars, and just as routinely found themselves trapped by its conditions. Grinding poverty keeps Laila and others stuck in a relentless work week. The corruption, worsened by the desperation of so many, keeps her life in stasis, with no hope of change no matter what she does. This is true for both men and women, but women are further confined by social conventions that only grow more claustrophobic in times of war. And so, they, too, want to leave. “There is no good future in Syria as long as we live in this corruption,” Laila says. “The situation is going from bad to worse, and there is no chance for it to improve for ordinary people, ever.”

I am close to this family; I have stayed in their house in the suburbs of Damascus; I have taken my visiting family to Friday lunch with them. The sisters therefore always speak freely to me. But even Laila’s language betrays the pervasive fear. She speaks of “the crisis” rather than the revolution, a word neither used by those still inside the country nor by supporters of the Assad regime. And answers to my questions from women I do not know are very different, reflecting the deep anxiety of living in a country where al-Assad has proved he will go to any lengths, take any action, to retain his control. When I ask about the future, their answers are careful, guarded: “I hope the situation becomes peaceful,” or “I’d like things to return to how they were.” But even in these safer answers, the lack of future is clear, though Laila puts it most forcefully: “All our dreams have been shattered,” she said. “We live day to day, with nothing to look forward to. It’s all so gloomy and sad.” All hope in their own futures has faded, along with the aims of the revolution itself.

All names have been changed.

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