Behind the Legends / Naziq al-Abed

Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. 

More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Naziq al-Abed, a revolutionist from Damascus.

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Our Joan of Arc

Naziq al-Abed was a pioneer for both national independence and women’s rights.

It might be hard to imagine Damascene women in the 1920s – generally perceived as illiterate and cloaked in traditional mlaye (a short skirt and veil) – as freedom fighters. Yet many of them took up both pens and arms in the fight against foreign rule.

Naziq al-Abed, a robust woman with a round face and dark, curious eyes, was one of the most controversial women to partake in the Syrian revolutions against the Ottomans and French. Born in 1898 as the daughter of an aristocrat and an insider in the court of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, Abed traded the French dance saloons, European tours and luxurious lifestyle that her family maintained, for the battlefield. She was also a passionate feminist, often infuriating the sensibilities of Damascus’s conservative circles.

“She was not like any of her sisters,” Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin, said. “She was very liberal with a strong character. She was a true rebel.”

Burhan, an anesthesiologist in his nineties, recalled with nostalgia his visits to his cousin’s farm, where he usually found her working in the field or sitting on the floor eating with her fellow workers.

“She was a humble person who loved sports and horseback riding. She used to dress like middle-class Damascenes and avoided accessories and ornaments. She was the only woman at that time who wore trousers and boots and carried a whip,” he said.

Transition to politics
Following her student years, Abed became politically engaged. Although she originally studied agriculture, she worked as a journalist and became a vocal critic of the Ottoman and French policies in her country. In 1919, she led a women’s delegation that discussed the French mandate in Syria with the American King Crane Commission that was tasked with determining the attitudes of Syrians and Palestinians towards the settlement of their territories.

Naziq held anti-colonial views despite her family’s ties to the Ottomans. She came from a prominent Damascene family whose members held important governmental positions during the Ottoman empire. Her father, for example, was the wali (governor) of Mosul and her uncle, Ahmad Izzat, was the aide-de-camp and private advisor to Sultan Abdulhamid.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Yet, according to Burhan, her family did not mind Naziq’s political stance, even though she was exiled as a result of it in 1914 and again in 1919.

“Even though the Abed family held important positions in the Ottoman empire, they were proud of their Arab roots,” he said.

When France assumed the mandate of Syria in 1920, Naziq was the only Syrian woman to take up arms and join Youssef al-Azmah, Syria’s then-defence minister, and the military at the Battle of Maysaloun. She is also said to be the only survivor of the battle, which ended in a catastrophic defeat and in the French occupation of Syria.

Newspapers at the time hailed her as “Joan of Arc of the Arabs” and King Faisal named her an honorary general in the Syrian army. Burhan Abed proudly recounted the king’s visit to his family house, based on the story his mother used to tell.

“We served him lemonade,” he said, leafing through a thick, leather-bound book and pointing out the common ancestors between his family and Naziq’s.

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed's third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Advocate for women
Her ‘liberal’ views about women were less welcomed by her family, Burhan said. Naziq Abed removed her veil several times in public and in front of television cameras. Unlike her sisters, she was unmarried until she was in her forties and until then had lived alone in her farm in the Ghuta, a green area of Damascus fed by natural aqueducts.

“Naziq’s family were very modern and open minded compared to the mentality at that time,” Burhan said. “Even so, they did not always like her behavior. But she did not listen to them. She did what she wanted to do.”

In 1919, Naziq al-Abed established Noor al-Fayyha (Light of Damascus), the first women’s organisation in Syria. She also helped to establish many associations and organisations that advocated women’s rights in Syria and Lebanon. She financed a hospital and was the founder of the Syrian Red Star which, according to Hazim Ba’ale, director of medical services at the Syrian Red Crescent, led to the opening of a women’s branch of the international organisation in Syria in 1922.

Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Sexism in the System

Some laws that are prejudicial towards women were amended this year. But gender inequality remains entrenched in Syria’s criminal code.

photo by Carole al-Farah

A presidential decree issued at the beginning of 2011 made long-awaited changes to the country’s criminal law, which dates to 1949 and contains numerous provisions considered prejudicial towards women. But while the amendments are a step forward, local activists say they do not go far enough.

The amendments included stricter sentences for rape and honour killings. While some women’s rights advocates hailed the amendments, others argued that certain provisions – such as articles 548 and 508, which provide for lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’, and encourage rapists to marry their victims – should be dropped completely.

Critics also note that other prejudicial provisions in the criminal code remain unchanged. For example, article 489 permits marital rape and article 473 imposes longer sentences on women than on men who have sex outside of marriage. A woman who has sex outside of marriage can be sentenced to three months to two years in jail while a man who commits the same ‘crime’ can be imprisoned for between one month and one year.

Licence to kill
One of the most controversial articles in Syria’s criminal law is article number 548, which provides lighter sentences for unplanned ‘honour killings’ – murder by male family members of female relatives for the latter’s alleged impropriety – than it does for other non-premeditated murders.

The amended article raises the sentence for men who “by chance catch their wife or female relative in the act of having sex with a man and inadvertently kills one or both of them” to five to seven years of imprisonment instead of the previous two-year sentence. For other non-premeditated murders, the regular sentence is 15 to 20 years of hard labour. In some cases, however, the sentence amounts to a life sentence of hard labour.

Bassam al-Kadi, director of the women’s rights group Syrian Women’s Observatory, said amending the honour killing law is not enough.

“The main problem with article 548 is not that the sentence is lenient. Rather, it is that the state is giving men a licence to kill female citizens under the excuse of honour,” Kadi said. “This article cannot be amended. It should be dropped.”

Kadi also argues that the amendment is insignificant because this article only applies to 1 percent of the honour killings that occur in Syria.

“Men rarely catch their wives or female relatives in the act of cheating,” he explained.

Articles number 191, 192, 240 and 242 were not amended. They refer generally to aggravated assaults and murders committed with ‘honourable intentions’ and, according to Kinda al-Shammat, a professor at the University of Damascus’s faculty of law, pertain to 90 percent of ‘honour killings’ most of which are believed to be premeditated. While the regular sentence for pre-meditated murders according to article 535 is execution, men convicted of murder under these codes can go to prison for a meagre three months.

“Even if the ‘honour killings’ article 548 was dropped altogether, these articles can still be used to give murderers a reduced sentence,” Shammat said.

Rewarding rapists
Another amended provision of the law lambasted by critics is article 508, which reduces the sentence of rapists who agree to marry their victims.

Rapists in Syria are sentenced to a minimum of nine years of hard labour and a maximum of 21 years if the victim is younger than 15. However, article 508 of the old criminal law states that the sentence is suspended if the rapist marries his victim and does not divorce her within five years. The sentence was raised to two years for men who marry their victims.

The law is designed to encourage rapists to marry their victims to protect the women from being murdered for ‘honour’ by male relatives.

“Unfortunately, raped women are not considered a victim by our society. They are blamed for triggering the incident and are in some cases even killed by their families to restore the family’s honour,” Shammat said. This leaves some women with two alternatives – to marry their rapists or die.

“No woman would willingly accept to marry a man who raped her,” Kadi added. “This law not only gives rapists a reduced sentence, but also offers them their victim as a present.”

Instead of forcing the victim to marry her rapist, Shammat said a better solution would be to open shelters for victims of rape who are being threatened by their families. These women should also have access to free counselling, she added.

Marital assault
Other articles in the current criminal law in desperate need of amendment remain. One such article states that a man can be convicted of rape if he forces “any woman other than his wife” to have sex – in effect sanctioning rape within marriage.

Statistics on the frequency of marital rape in Syria are hard to determine, however. Kadi, who through his work meets many rape victims, estimated that 70 percent of married Syrian women have been raped by their husbands.

“All my female acquaintances have been raped at least once by their husbands,” Kadi said. “With the lack of sexual education in Syria, many women are raised to believe that having sex with their husband is a duty rather than a source of pleasure. This makes marital rape acceptable for them.”

Wives’ reluctance to talk about their sex life publicly makes combating marital rape difficult, he added.

Even though Kadi calls for the amendment of this and other articles that restrict the rights of women, he said he believes that changing the law alone is not enough to prevent marital rape. Instead, family counselling centres must be opened, sexual education should be introduced in Syrian schools and policemen must be trained on how to deal with marital rape cases.

A nod to civil society
While activists say the amendments are far from sufficient, Shammat remains optimistic. She said the changes signal that the Syrian government has started to seriously address women’s rights.

“Activists have been calling for amending the law since the seventies. However, it’s only in the last seven years that tangible changes have been made,” she said.

Shammat was referring to seven years ago, when the Syrian government announced that part of its 10th Five-Year Plan would be to work to combat violence against women. At that time, it established the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs as the first public organisation to work on women’s rights issues. In 2008, the commission organised the first official conference about honour killings and called for dropping article 548, among others. It also played an important role in the campaign to freeze a personal status draft law – leaked to the public in 2009 – which restricted women’s rights in numerous ways and critics say would have reversed years of hard-fought advances.

There are only two shelters for Syrian women who are abused by their husbands or family members. Shammat, who works at both shelters, said the increased media and government attention on women’s rights has encouraged more women to speak up and visit the facilities during the last five years.

Kadi agrees. “Though they have little effects on the ground, the amendments are symbolically important,” he said.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Marriages of Convenience

Some Gulf men use a moral and religious loophole to exploit both Syrian women and their children. 
Caricature by Ala Rustom
Caricature by Ala Rustom

Many men from the Gulf travel to Syria during the summer. While here, a few pay dowries to the families of young women in exchange for brief marriages. These so-called ‘summer marriages’, in which the partners live together temporarily, provide none of the legal rights associated with marriage, such as inheritance and alimony, making vulnerable both the women involved and their resulting children.The lack of legal rights stems from the way the marriages are arranged. Although they are primarily a Muslim phenomenon, most Muslims consider marriage contracts with expiry dates to be invalid and immoral, so they are agreed upon privately between a man and a woman’s family. Official documents are either forged or never filed. As Syria’s personal status law is based on Islamic sharia, temporary marriages cannot be registered in court.

This has a nasty consequence for children of the unions. Since the aim of them is sexual pleasure rather than starting a family, the ‘husbands’ rarely recognise any child as their own. Under Syrian law, Syrian mothers cannot pass on their nationality, leaving the children of summer marriages stateless.

Few Islamic leaders acknowledge these unions, according to Younes al-Khatib, a sheikh at a mosque in the village of Saasaa, south of Damascus. Despite this, these marriages are common. There are no accurate estimates of how many summer marriages occur in Syria, although it is believed to have the highest rate in the region. Likewise, the specific nationalities of the men involved remain unknown.

Summer marriages are a well-established practice in Syria. Gulf men started marrying young women from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq in the 1970s, according to Bassam al-Kadi, the founder of Syrian Women’s Observatory, a prominent women’s rights group. He believes the number of summer marriages in Syria has grown in recent years, due to the country’s economic crisis.

“Some families think of summer marriages as an opportunity to provide their daughter with a financially-stable future in return for a few months of marriage,” Kadi said.

These marriages are organised through a khattabe, or matchmaker, who links suitors to families that would like their daughters to marry Gulf men. Once the amount of money to be paid as dowry is agreed upon, the couple marries with the consent of a sheikh willing to give religious approval and receives an unofficial marriage contract.

Sex trade

Activists in Syria believe the marriages are an unrecognised crime. The short period of the marriage and the expensive dowry make these arrangements a form of sex trade, Kadi said.

He argued that summer marriages also violate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as, in most cases, men in their forties and upward marry young teenagers under the age of 18.

“I wouldn’t call this marriage, it is sex trade,” Kadi said. “I have never heard of a Gulf man who married a nurse or an engineer. I have never even heard of one who married a 27-year-old woman. They are mostly old men marrying teenagers.”

In many cases parents agree to the arrangement without the bride’s consent, which also violates international human rights standards. Further, the young women often do not know the marriages are temporary, said Daad Mousa, a Damascus-based attorney and women’s rights activist who is often consulted by families on issues resulting from summer marriages. In some rare cases, parents are also unaware.

Stigma is another consequence of the practice. Women who have been involved in summer marriages often become ostracised by a disapproving society. Unable to marry traditionally, they can find themselves with no option but to become long-term sex workers, cast into repeated, temporary marriages to Gulf men, Kadi said.

“If the parents are ready to sacrifice their daughter for as little as SYP 50,000 (USD 1,087) why wouldn’t they do it again after she gets divorced?” he asked.

Abandoned children
Summer marriages have other long-term negative effects. Since such marriages are usually not legally registered, fathers do not have to pass their nationality to their offspring. That means that children born out of summer marriages who are not acknowledged by their father remain without citizenship.

The only way to grant the child citizenship is to sue the father for paternity and demand a blood test. If the man’s DNA matches the child’s, the mother can force her husband to legally register the marriage and the child can obtain the father’s nationality. However, few Syrian women have access to the documents to prove their marriage, preventing them from initiating such proceedings – which can be long and costly when they do occur.

Saudi Arabia, however, rejects citizenship for children born out of wedlock, the country’s ambassador to Syria Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Aifan told Syria Today. The United Arab Emirates embassy in Damascus declined to respond to Syria Today’s requests for further information.

There are no official statistics on the overall number of children that come from summer marriages in Syria, but Mousa estimates the figure is at least 200,000. Ambassador Aifan admitted last summer in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Shams that 400 cases have been identified in Syria, and that many more remain.

“The cases mentioned by Gulf embassies are only the ones that actually have written proof of their marriage,” Mousa clarified. “There are many mothers without evidence who are not counted in the figures.”

Possible ways for mothers to register their children’s nationality entail stigma. Without a valid marriage contract, the mother must give up her parental rights and register her offspring as an abandoned child.

“In this case mothers can still arrange to keep their children with them,” Mousa said. “However, the social stigma facing abandoned children in Syria keeps them from doing so.”

Stricter laws required
While summer marriages have been occurring for decades, little has been done in Syria to prevent them. This stems from the government’s reticence to interfere in the private sphere of the family.

“The government can’t prevent people from getting married,” Kadi said.

It can, however, raise the legal age of marriage. Article 16 of Syria’s current personal status law permits girls to marry at the age of 17 and boys at 18; though Article 18 stipulates that under “judicial discretion” if they have reached puberty and have permission from their guardians, girls age13 and boys age 15 may also marry.

“Why are girls aged 13 considered grown up enough to get married but not mature enough to vote?” Kadi asked, referring to the legal voting age, which is 18.

Civil rights activists advocate imposing stricter penalties on unofficial marriages as another form of deterrence. Currently, a couple and a sheikh who officiate an unlicenced marriage outside the courts are liable to pay a meagre fine of SYP 250 (USD 5.43), Mousa said.

She believed a stiffer penalty is needed.

Although a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Syria has not responded to several campaigns organised by Syrian civil rights organisations calling for Syrian women to have the right to pass on their nationality.

“This is a Syrian problem not a Gulf one,” Kadi said. “Syrian women should have the right to give their nationality to their children.”


  This article was published in Syria Today magazine

Review of Pink Saris By Kim Longinotto UK/India

Red might be the colour associated with revolt around the world, but in India it’s pink. Kim Longinotto follows the “Pink Gang”, a group of women who wear pink saris as a symbol of their revolt against their society. At least that’s how they introduce themselves at the beginning. But you soon find out that they are victims of domestic violence, rape and social exclusion rather than revolutionary figures.

With nowhere to go, they gather at the house of Sampat Pal. Loud and aggressive, Pal has made reconciling these women with their families, husbands and lovers her mission. She goes as far as threatening families and quarrelling with the police to set the women’s lives right, although it doesn’t always work. Not only does she fail to help the women, but she also risks her own marriage.

I don’t like where you are going! You want to be famous so be…. I like to be as small as an ant”, her angry husband murmurs while threatening to leave her. Pal does enjoy playing the role of the “messiah of women”, and constantly reminds the violated women (and the viewers) that they have no one else but her, to the extent that you are no longer able to appreciate her work.

Shot with a hand-held camera, the film moves from one violated woman’s story to another without allowing us enough intimacy to sympathize with them. As a result, the film seems more like a series of reportages wherein people are numbers rather than real humans. The intensive use of text to give background information about the women distances you even more from them. All that remains in your mind are their pink saris.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin

Can you drive a car? هل تستطيعين القيادة؟

During the women and cinema workshop at Dox Box film fest, we had several seminars dealing with gender issues. In one of these seminars one of my colleagues told us that it’s only when driving that she feels free! Because while driving, she is the one who leads her way, she decides when to stop the car, when to start it and where to go! Her statement made me really think to what extent do we, Arab women, have control over our lives? (My second thought was, MY GOD, I can’t even drive a car!)

Till death set us apart!

“A woman only leaves her house twice, first to her husbands’ home and then to her grave.”
It’s a saying I often heard as a child from neighbors and I can’t help wondering how did it develop? It can’t be derived from religion because not only was the first wife of Prophet Mohammad a very successful and rich merchant, she was also his advisor. It must be the outcome of the patriarchal mindset of Syrian society.

Not anymore…

This saying is no longer true in most parts of Syria and the Arab World, mainly because of economical reasons as one salary is no longer enough to put food on the table and therefore women became an important workforce. Nevertheless, we can still find the traces of it in the everyday life of women in Syria whose lives are still controlled by these two houses “her parent’s house” and “her husband’s” but never her own!

A Syrian woman still needs the permission of one of her male family members to get married in court, she still needs a Syrian husband to give the Syrian nationality to her kids and it’s socially still unacceptable for her to live independently in any house other than her parents’ or husband’s house.

This is why workshops on gender and sidebars like “voices of women” are important events. They are the tools to raise awareness concerning women’s rights and help women get a better knowledge of themselves, their own agency and autonomy. So women don’t back up, changing the mindset of a whole society is not easy, but just look how many women are driving cars in the Arab world.


لقد شاركنا في العديد من حلقات البحث في موضوع الجندر (النوع الاجتماعي) خلال ورشة “المرأة و السينما” التي نظمتها “أيام سينما الواقع”. في إحدى هذه الجلسات أخبرتنا زميلة لنا أنها لا تشعر بالحرية إلا أثناء قيادتها للسيارة لأنها من يقرر الطريق الذي تريد أن تسلكه و المكان الذي تريد الذهاب إليه. هي وحدها من تدير محرك سيارتها و هي من توقفه! لقد دفعني تعليقها إلى التساؤل إلى أي مدى نستطيع كنساء عربيات التحكم بحياتنا؟ (الفكرة الثانية التي خطرت في بالي هي “يا إلهي، إنني حتى لا أعرف قيادة سيارة!”)

إلى أن يفرقنا الموت!

“المرأة لا تغادر منزلها إلا مرتين، مرة إلى منزل زوجها و مرة إلى القبر”
لقد سمعت عدة مرات خلال طفولتي الجيران يرددون هذا المثل و لا يسعني إلا التساؤل كيف تشكل هذا المثل؟ هو بالتأكيد ليس مأخوذاً عن الدين فقد كانت زوجة الرسول الأولى، إضافة إلى عملها كتاجرة ناجحة و غنية، مستشارة للرسول الذي كثيراً ما كان يأخذ برأيها! لابد و أن هذا المثل هو نتيجة للعقلية البطرياركية التي تسود المجتمع السوري.

ليس بعد الآن…

هذا المثل لم يعد صحيحاً في أغلب مناطق سوريا و العالم العربي، و يعود ذلك بشكل أساسي للمتغيرات الإقتصادية إذ لم تعد العائلة السورية، بشكل عام، قادرة على العيش على راتب واحد مما دفع المرأة نحو سوق العمل. على الرغم من ذلك فإن آثار هذه العقلية ما تزال ملموسة في الكثير من تفاصيل الحياة اليومية للمرأة السورية التي مازالت حياتها تحت سيطرة هذين المنزلين، منزل الأهل و الزوج و ليس منزلها الخاص.

إن المرأة السورية لازالت بحاجة لموافقة ولي أمرها لإتمام عقد زواجها، و لا زالت بحاجة لزوج سوري لإعطاء الجنسية السورية لأطفالها، و مازال استقلالها في منزل غير منزل والديها أو زوجها مرفوضاً اجتماعياً.

انطلاقاً من ذلك فإن عقد ورشات عمل حول موضوع الجندر و تظاهرات كتظاهرة “صوت المرأة” هو أمر بالغ الأهمية للتوعية بحقوق المرأة و خاصة حقها في تمثيل نفسها و أن تكون صاحبة القرار في أمورها الشخصية. لذلك أيها النساء لا تتراجعن، تغيير عقلية مجتمع كامل ليس بالأمر السهل، لكن فقط انظرن كم من النساء يقدن السيارات!

نشرت هذه المادة في”وجهة نظر” النشرة اليومية الصادرة عن مهرجان سينما الواقع للأفلام الوثائقية. لتحميل كامل النشرة أنقر هنا 

Cold Comfort

A government decision to deny divorced women, orphans and unmarried men a special allowance for heating oil has caused uproar in Syria’s civil society movement and among women’s rights activists.

Photo Fadi al-Hamwi

When the Ministry of Local Administration announced last November that it would distribute a SYP 10,000 (USD 217) allowance for heating oil to the population, many Syrians breathed a sigh of relief. In February, however, this collective sigh turned into a gasp of horror when Minister for Local Administration Tamer al-Hijeh announced that the allowance would not apply to single or divorced women, widows, bachelors and orphans.

“Last year the ministry gave a similar allowance to all Syrians and Palestinian refugees residing in Syria,” Sadik Abu Watfe, an assistant to the minister of Local Administration, said. “This year, however, the allowance will only be allocated to those in need.”

The needy, according to Abu Watfe, are Syrians and Palestinian refugees who live permanently in the country and do not have a financial stake in more than one car, a residential or commercial piece of real estate or agricultural land. They also have to own a family book, which is a certificate delivered to every Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian groom when he gets married, in which his wife and later his children are registered. Women are never issued with a family book, except if their husband dies, although not all widows have one.

“Why is the right to the heating allowance associated with the family book?” Da’ad Mousa, a Syrian lawyer and activist, said. “This means that a whole segment of society has no right to heating in winter. Furthermore, second, third and fourth wives who live in separate houses don’t get an allowance because while the husband may have four wives, he is only issued with one family book.”

In short, unless a woman has a husband or her husband’s family book, she is not eligible for a heating allowance. Furthermore, according to the minister’s instructions, even divorced women who are in the possession of their father’s family book are not eligible for the allowance because only the head of the family registered in the family book (or his wife if he has passed away or is ill) can apply for the allowance. Syrian women married to foreigners are also ruled out because their husbands do not receive the all-important document.

The minister’s announcement has caused uproar within the country’s civil society movement, with local press describing the move as “a punishment to women” that is “against the Syrian constitution”. The Syrian Communist Party also vehemently denounced the decision, saying it was a form of discrimination against women, not just because of the link being made between the right to a heating allowance and the family book, but also because women cannot even obtain a family book.

“We have always demanded and we still demand that a woman’s right to independence in all matters be acknowledged, especially with regards to civil and personal status law,” an editorial published on February 24 in the Syrian Communist Party newspaper Al-Nour stated. “This includes giving women a family book in case their parents die, they don’t get married, are divorced or widowed. This would release them from their complete dependence on their families, husbands, ex-husbands or late husbands.”

No way out

Despite the public outcry, Mousa says little can be done to change the situation.

“This is a government allowance,” she said. “No legal procedure can force the ministry to extend it to women as well.” It is a reality that is hard to accept for women like Kamar Habasheye, 50, who has been divorced for three years. With no diploma in hand and in fragile health, finding a job is no easy task. Since her three daughters got married, Habasheye lives alone, surviving off a monthly income of SYP 2,000 (USD 43) that she receives from an Islamic charity. She tries to supplement this meagre amount by taking on the occasional cleaning job, which earns her another SYP 1,500 (USD 32) a month.

“I simply can’t make ends meet,” Habasheye said. “Every week I have to spend a few days at my parents’ house and another couple of days at my brother’s place so as not to starve. I desperately need this allowance. The winters are getting colder every year and I have no idea what to do.”

Habasheye is one of many women hoping for a change in this year’s heating allowance distribution scheme. However, according to Abu Watfe, the funds allocated to the heating allowances have already been distributed, making it pointless to change the eligibility criteria.

“We’ve already distributed the majority of the allowances, covering eighty-five percent of Syrian families,” Abu Watfe said, adding that the ministry could make an exception in extreme cases. “While they are not eligible for the heating allowance, women who are extremely hard up could come to the ministry and ask for help,” he said.“We might investigate their case.



In February, the Ministry for Local Administration announced that the heating allowance, provided under Law No. 29 of November 19, 2009, does not apply to:

• A divorced woman whose father, mother, brothers and sisters are married. The allowance will only be allocated to the head of the family registered in the family book, or his wife in case he has passed away or is ill.

• A divorced woman who has lost her parents and does not have a family book.

• Underage children who do not have their late parents’ family book.

• A widow who does not have a family book, even if she lives in Syria permanently.

• A bachelor whose parents passed away and who does not have a family book, or whose family book is in the possession of his stepmother.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

A Woman’s Touch (Businesswomen in Syria)

Little by little, women are taking up leadership roles in Syrian family firms.


Photos Carole al-Farah

Back in the 1980s, when Sonia Khandji Cachecho was still a little girl, she loved to sneak into her father’s office and watch him work. A few years later Cachecho was managing the office when her father was away on business trips. Taking on a leading role in the family company was not welcomed by all, however, and some older Damascene traders were even unwilling to do business with her.

“In the eighties, women were largely marginalised in the world of business and only the sons took over the family business,” Cachecho said. “My father, however, never discriminated between me and my brothers. He believed in a woman’s ability and encouraged me to continue my studies and work in the family business.”

Cachecho, backed unconditionally by her father, persevered in the family hair care and cosmetics business, eventually taking over the reins. Today, she also sits on the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and serves as president of the chamber’s businesswomen’s committee.

“Those business people who once frowned upon my work have changed their attitude,” she said. “I have even become an example they now ask their daughters to follow.”

Growing numbers of Syrian women are entering the world of business. Yasmina Azhari, deputy director of Maersk Line shipping services, said women have not only forced their way into leadership positions in many family businesses, but also in many employment fields traditionally dominated by men.

“The quality and quantity of women-led businesses has developed a lot during the past 10 years,” Azhari, who also set up the NGO Modernising and Activating Women’s Role in Economic Development (MAWRED) which helps female entrepreneurs launch business ventures, said.

Mariam Massouh, general manager of Massouh Trading Company, is part of a new breed of Syrian women who are now taking up senior leadership positions within their family company.

“Many people find it weird that I’m working in my family’s aluminium company,” she said. “They often tell me that aluminium is not feminine enough for women. But whether it is a small cosmetics shop or an aluminium company, at the end of the day business is business.”

Conservative social attitudes

It is not only in large family companies where women are playing a greater role. Leila Zayyat always wanted to become a fashion designer, going so far as to enroll in the Syrian branch of the ESMOD fashion institute. The sudden death of her father in 2004, however, forced Zayyat to switch careers and take over her father’s small snack shop in the Damascus suburb of Qassa. Her younger sister has also followed her into the small business. While it was not all that long ago that a young woman working as a food vendor would have been unimaginable, today the Zayyat sisters easily go about their work, supported by their customers and neighbouring business owners.

“People always hurry to help us because we are women,” Zayyat said.

Despite her success, Zayyat doubts her business would have been possible if she was living in a more conservative part of the country. Indeed, social attitudes loom as the biggest hurdle for women in business, family or otherwise.

“The law doesn’t discriminate between men and women in business, it is society that often hampers women when entering the world of business,” Azhari said. “I was encouraged in my business by the Lattakia Chamber of Commerce because they wanted to create an image of Lattakia as a civilised and open-minded governorate, but this is not the case everywhere in Syria.”

While supported by her local community, Zayyat believes her work reduces her marriage prospects. “Not all men will accept that their wife runs a snack bar,” she said.

Even if they do, creating a balance between family and business, though not impossible, is difficult to achieve. When she had children, Cachecho decided to put her career on hold.

“These days it is not that hard for women who do not want to stop working to continue because today women have servants to take care of the house while they are away,” Cachecho, who recently returned to the boardroom after a 12-year break, said. “But I didn’t want my children to grow up without me being there for them. If I wasn’t working in a family business, however, it would have been impossible for me to quit for 12 years and then come back.”

Leila Zayyat is running a snacks shop

Women and the law

While Syrian law does not discriminate between men and women in business – Article 45 of the Syrian constitution “guarantees women all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effectively in political, social, cultural, and economic life” – a number of legal issues confront women working in family businesses.

Inheritance is a case in point, with inheritance laws making it more difficult for women to take over a business.

Inheritance laws fall under the Personal Status Code which makes women legal dependents of their fathers or husbands. These laws are also based on religious laws. For Muslim women, this means they only inherit half of what their brothers do in accordance with Islamic teaching.

According to Cachecho, however, this problem can be solved by converting family businesses into joint-stock companies. “This solves a lot of problems for the next generations within the family and for women in particular,” she said.

The fact that children take their father’s family name, rather than their mother’s, also makes it more difficult for women to maintain their family business across generations.

“Children carry their father’s name and therefore they often establish their own family business rather than continuing the mother’s family business,” Cachecho said.

According to Cachecho, only 9 percent of Syrian companies are registered in a woman’s name. Of this total, only 15 percent are family-run firms.

Despite these obstacles, Cachecho remains optimistic for the country’s businesswomen.

“There are a lot of opportunities for women to start their own business with a small budget,” she said. “Women from different social classes are now starting their own companies. While family businesses led by women are limited in number, our hope is that many of the new businesses created by women independent from their families will develop into women-led family businesses in the future.”

This article was published in Syria Todaymagazine.