Job roles are still heavily gender-defined in Syria. Growing numbers of Syrian women are, however, blazing their own trails in their working lives, inspiring others in the process.
Azza Attoura, 34, is a world champion in kick-boxing and Thai boxing with seven international awards under her belt.
“Societies used to be matriarchal 4,000 years ago and women would fight in wars alongside men. Therefore, I don’t see why today a woman shouldn’t take on a traditionally masculine job if she can be successful at it.
“When I first started kickboxing 14 years ago, I was the only woman in Syria to become involved in this type of sport. Nevertheless, the other male kick-boxers accepted me into their training circles. This turned out to be of great benefit to me when I began to compete internationally as I was used to training with men who were physically much stronger. Today, there are 30 women active in this sport in Syria.
“Despite the fact I’ve won three international championships and I’m number 16 in the world for combat sports, I still can’t make a living as a sportswoman in Syria. I even have to save money just to participate in competitions abroad because the Sports Union doesn’t cover my expenses. Unfortunately, sports men and women find little support in Syria.”
Rana Ghassani, 19, is a bartender.
“I’ve been working as a bartender for half a year. It’s fun, although all eyes are on me. Syrians are not used to seeing a barwoman. Most customers come to me instead of going to my male colleagues, even though I’m still a beginner and there are some cocktails I can’t mix. Others order a glass of water just to watch me work.
“My parents accepted the fact that I took this job because I only work three times a week. I didn’t tell my relatives or neighbours though because some people still have a negative perception of discos and bars. I’m sure this will change with time.
“Still, you can’t make a living as a barmaid in Syria; there’s no drinking culture here and even discos are still a novelty. While people give tips to waiters in restaurants, only foreigners give tips to bartenders. It’s a job to do while you’re young and willing to work long hours for low pay so you can go out with your friends, but it isn’t a profession.
“Even so, I encourage women to become bartenders or to pursue any other profession. We only live once and society, relatives and even family shouldn’t stop us from becoming who we are. I believe it is the new generation’s responsibility to break the stereotypes of women here.”
Soaad Bashir, 28, is a security guard at Damascus’ Cham City Centre shopping mall.
“My family was very supportive of my decision to become a security guard. I’ve always believed that women can carry out the same jobs as men and just as well, unless a huge amount of physical strength is required.
“Although there are only a handful of female security guards in Syria, I don’t feel discriminated against in a profession dominated by males. I work with three other women at the mall and there are several waiting for a vacancy to open up. I think there are probably a number of women who would love to try their hand at this job, but they lack the courage to take the first step. Therefore, I really encourage women to follow this type of career because it boosts your self-confidence and empowers you to deal with many challenges in life.
“I get a buzz from jobs that require strength and give you responsibility. For a while, I even considered becoming a police woman or joining the army. I’ve been a security guard for two months and I can’t see myself quitting this job anytime soon. I’m earning enough money and most importantly, I really love it.”
Sandrella al-Khoury, 22, is a professional dancer in Damascus’ Ramad Dance Group.
“Although my family always supported my ambitions to become a professional dancer, many relatives and friends used to frown upon the idea, even refusing to attend my shows. Once I started climbing the ladder of success, these same people began boasting to others about my solo performances on stage and telling me how proud they were of my achievements.
“Many people in society still don’t take dancing seriously as a profession, viewing it only as a leisure activity. They don’t realise the hard work that goes into preparing a flawless show and I’m often likened to being a belly dancer in a night club. Gradually, such misconceptions are fading as dance becomes accepted as a legitimate art form.
“My salary at Ramad Dance is barely enough to cover my transportation costs. It is next to impossible to make a living solely from dancing in Syria, especially in private dance companies that don’t receive government funding or have their own studios and stage. I’ve been dancing for seven years now and despite the low wages, I have no intention of giving it up. Dancing gives me confidence and the freedom to be whoever I want.”
This article was publisehd in Syria Today magazine.