Women of the Jazeera

What are the issues facing women in rural Syria? I spoke to five women in the Jazeera region about their lives, careers, hopes and fears.

Rukaya Ibrahim, 23

Jockey

Ma’adan. east of Raqqa

Photo Carole al-Farah

A group of four horsemen is lined up to greet us as we arrive at the tent of the ‘Enezah Bedouin tribe in the Syrian Desert. They gallop along the road and accompany us to the tent where we are received by the tribe elders. As the riders dismount, I realise that what I thought was a young boy with a cap and sunglasses is in fact a young woman on a beautiful pure-bred Arabian horse. Soon I am chatting with Rukaya Ibrahim, a young woman who defied local tradition to follow her dream and become the first female jockey in the Raqqa district.

“When I turned 12, I told my family that I wanted to leave school and become a jockey,” Ibrahim tells me proudly.

“What was their reaction?” I ask.

“They supported me, but you can’t imagine the reactions from our friends and relatives,” she says. “At the time it was unusual for a woman to become a jockey.”

Ibrahim explains that her brother used to have to accompany her to each race held outside Raqqa. He also attended the Bedouin jockey camps with her.

“But when I won my first national championship in an endurance race, everything changed. Now they are proud of me.”

Ibrahim has since won another national championship in endurance racing and tells me enthusiastically how she has become an idol for many women in her village.

However, when it comes to marriage, the 23-year-old seems less excited.

“Marriage and career don’t mix well,” she says. “I believe that single women have more freedom and independence. Marriage would restrict me in my career, and for me, horse riding comes first.”

Hamida al-Dahek, 29

Businesswoman

J’deen, east of Raqqa

Photo Adel Samara

After driving for half an hour through a dull grey landscape of barren fields, the village of J’deen suddenly looms up out of nowhere. Dusty breeze block houses are randomly clustered together, without really giving the sense of being a village.

I wander through the deserted streets and drop into the village shop to buy a cold drink. This is where I meet Hamida al-Dahek, a striking woman with sparkling eyes and long red braids. As we start talking I ask her how old she is and she looks at me with an air of confusion.

“I was born in 1980, so I guess I’m about 30?” she says with a hesitant smile, before adding: “I never calculate my age – counting the years won’t make me live any longer, will it?”

Dahek was just 14 when she married, after falling head over heels in love with her cousin. She was devastated when he moved to Jordan to work as a labourer, but soon came up with a plan to bring him home.

Instead of listlessly waiting for his return, she decided to take charge of the situation: she took out a loan and opened the first convenience store in her village. Soon she started generating her own income and made enough money so that her husband could return home.

“I didn’t go to school so I couldn’t take just any job,” she explains. “The store changed our life: not only did our standard of living improve, but my husband can work with me. Opening the store has made me feel independent and free.”

And what did Dahek do with the new income? She found a bride for her husband and assumed all the wedding expenses. When I ask her why, she answers cheerily: “I can’t have children and my husband is such a good man, he deserves to have children of his own.”

Not that Dahek ever considered giving up motherhood: she adopted a three-month-old baby, who is today a beautiful eight-year-old girl called Hamida.

“We all live together like a big happy family,” she says.

Khazna al-Maheeb, 60

The Bedouin granmother

Syrian Desert north of Raqqa

Photo Carole al-Farah

The further we drive into the arid desert north of Raqqa, the more excited I get about meeting Khazna al-Maheeb, a Bedouin woman who has spent most of her life roaming the Syrian Desert.

When we arrive, however, I am disappointed by the sight of the concrete house in which Maheeb receives me. Maheeb notes my dismay, but tells me that the days of sewing tents that don’t protect inhabitants from the summer heat or the cold winter nights are long gone.

“Life has become more comfortable,” she says happily. “We only camp out for weddings and other special occasions now.”

I ask if her life as a Bedouin woman has also changed, struggling to understand her heavy Bedouin accent.

“Oh yes,” she says. “When I got married no one asked me if I liked the groom; women didn’t have a choice when it came to their own marriages. The father made the match. Even today, male first cousins have first choice over their female cousins. But in the last 10 years, Bedouin women have gained the right to refuse a marriage proposal.”

Maheeb also proudly says that Bedouin men and women have now obtained a right to education, though it is not an equal right. Bedouin men can complete high school and even get a higher education, while women still only study until the sixth grade.

“I didn’t study at all,” Maheeb says, explaining that the conservative nature of Bedouin society means women are not allowed to mix with men outside the tribe and that girls therefore cannot study under male teachers in the public school system.

At the same time she feels girls do not really need to have a higher education.

“These days we marry our daughters off at the age of 15 or 20,” she says. “After that they are responsible for the household: sewing, cooking and milking the sheep. You don’t need a diploma for that.”

But not all of the changes Maheeb has witnessed are positive. Ironically, while women jockeys come from all over Syria to participate in the Bedouin horse training camps, Bedouin women, who were famous for their horse riding skills in the past, are not allowed to ride in public anymore.

When I ask Maheeb’s son, a 30-year-old who trains non-Bedouin female jockeys and supports their participation in the sport, why Bedouin women are excluded, he answers firmly: “We are conservative. Our women are not allowed to ride anymore.”

As I leave the house, Maheeb accompanies me to the car and points to the only thing that hasn’t changed in her life: the dark tattoos that dot her kind wrinkled face.

“These are the only things that I actually wanted to change,” she says laughing.

Aisha Ruman, late 30s

Farmer’s wife

A village in the Euphrates region

Photo Carole al-Farah

The midday sun beats down on the women in the fields as they lay down their hoes and take a break from their 12-hour workday. Aisha Ruman, a stocky, rough-featured woman in her late 30s, proudly introduces me to her six-month-old son, the youngest of her four children.

“He was born here in the field,” she says with a grin as she rolls a cigarette and lights up. “My waters broke while I was weeding so the women working in the field helped me give birth.”

Two days later, Ruman was back at work in the fields.

“Our life is about work, it doesn’t matter if we are sick, hungry or pregnant – we always work, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. This is how it will be until the day we die.”

After taking a drag of her cigarette, Ruman tells me she left school at the age of 11 to help her parents work in the field, build mud houses and fetch water from the Euphrates River, five kilometres down the road.

Her story is similar to that of any of the women who are sitting with us, except that Ruman also has a polygamist, aggressive husband.

“It all started when my husband got married to his second wife,” she explains. “We don’t get along and every time we have an argument he can’t resolve he hits us both. It’s rare for men in our village to beat their wives – I guess I’m the exception,” she adds, laughing darkly.

Ruman says her husband doesn’t work anymore, adding that in her village the women work “night and day” to make ends meet. I ask why she doesn’t leave her husband if she’s doing all the work anyway.

“I would if I could,” she says. “But he’s the one who sells the crops so he has the money. Besides, in our village, only widows live alone. This is our life and we have to accept it.”

Ruman turns to her friends and continues chatting, laughing heartily as if she has no care in the world.

Rukaya Ibrahim, 23

Graduate

Raqqa

It’s around 9pm and Thawra Street, Raqqa’s trendiest shopping area, is buzzing: shoppers check out the latest fashion in the elaborately designed shop windows, young women gather at cafés to catch the latest local gossip, while a group of young men head for the corner snack bar to grab a sandwich.

Nuha al-Mustafa has just finished her shopping when I introduce myself and ask her what it is like to be a young woman in Raqqa today.

“It’s just like living in Damascus,” she says. “Women no longer want to be housewives. We choose to go to university and have a career. I want to work as a teacher. I’ve just finished a teacher training and I’ve already applied for several vacancies.”

Mustafa, fashionably dressed in tight-fitting jeans and a colourful headscarf, tells me that although society in Raqqa is still conservative, it is opening up. Young men and women go out together and early marriages have decreased; the majority of women marry between the age of 23 and 25, she says.

But when it comes to polygamy, Mustafa says things haven’t changed all that much.

“Fifty percent of men in Raqqa are polygamists,” she says disapprovingly. “The only thing that has changed is that women don’t accept it anymore and once their husband remarries, many of them file for divorce.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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