Writer: Valerie Wu is a writer from Presentation High School in San Jose, California who hopes to be an Emerging Conflicts researcher and writer.
They sit there on the cover, looking despondent. Usually, these women have children with them as a classic example of motherhood: a demonstration of feminine vulnerability even in the loss of hope.
Yet, Syrian refugee women play an unexpected--but pivotal--role in the collective movement against gender roles. About a year ago, the media platform Aljazeera conducted a study which found that three-quarters of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon were women and children. While the victimization of women is only perpetuated during times of war, Syrian refugee women are actively taking on what were once traditionally male roles, especially since more humanitarian work is needed in the aftermath of the country’s conflict.
Amira Hassan al-Bdroun, a refugee woman in Lebanon, now works at a gas station. Typically considered “man's work,” Bdroun has begun to understand just what women are capable of. She said, “When you practice this kind of job, you have the feeling that you are empowered. When I left Syria, I was so scared about how I would live alone, sleep alone in the garage at night with my kids; now I don’t care. I can work and walk around and I don’t worry.”
Despite the fact that pre-existing social constructs still remain, the introduction of NGO
programmes (specifically in refugee camps), have a part to play in the rise of feminism as well.
The power dynamic in refugee camps is often flipped due to the different needs. Women become the breadwinners. For the patriarchal, conservative societies these Syrian women come from, this comes as quite a shock.
Badia, a current woman in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, has a husband who is currently unemployed--a vast contrast to their previous life in Syria. She told the Middle East Eye, “I’m paying for everything. I’m trying to be supportive, but I can’t even believe the situation myself. I’ve become the breadwinner. I didn’t think this would happen.”
With the influx of new opportunities, many women are taking leaps that they would not have if the situation was different. Some are setting up small businesses and becoming entrepreneurs. Others are taking up jobs that are in contrast with the former “housewife” persona. The new tools made available to them are encouraging economic integration and eliminating gender barriers.
The absence of male dominance can be attributed to the separation families go through during the refugee crisis. While some find safety in Europe, others are directly killed in the conflict. Women’s roles have been increasingly amplified in the refugee camps. These new developments are much like the ones seen after World Wars One and Two, when women were able to enter the workforce more openly and gain more freedom. In countries where financial livelihoods are desperately needed, women have proven to be key in negotiating a productive balance between economic potential and gender.
In Jordan, many of the women are, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “widowed, divorced, and abandoned.” These refugees are forced to provide for their families, which means getting a job and becoming the provider: a sharp transition from the domestic roles of the past.
However, the entrance of women into the workplace does not come without backlash and
resentment. Increasing levels of sexual harassment, abuse, and unpaid work have become even
more prevalent within refugee communities, only further exemplifying the need for protection
And that’s exactly what some organizations tend to do. Raising awareness about resisting against gender roles is the main mission of new training programs, such as These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading (TIGER), which aims to teach adolescent refugee girls basic skills, as well as how to get ready to work. Students are empowered to form their own identities and develop confidence in their abilities. From a young age, these refugee girls are being taught to take on crucial roles in the cultural shifts that are taking place.
Becoming the face of the family is a significant change in recent years, and only marks yet
another step in demolishing the cultural norms of the past. For these Syrian women, however, it’s only the beginning.