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Syria's 'era of women': War leaves streets empty of men

After seven years of conflict, women heavily outnumber men in Syria, bringing sadness and opportunity to those who remain
Images of Syrians killed in war plaster a wall in Damascus. (MEE/Maher al-Mounes)

DAMASCUS - On the streets here in the capital, in the shops and universities, there is a lingering question without an easy answer: where are the men?

Before the seven-year-old war in Syria, it was uncommon to see women driving taxis or serving drinks in coffee shops, jobs that had traditionally been filled by men.

But these days, women like 40-year-old taxi driver Jamila Ashkar are increasingly behind the wheel and the capital’s café counters, filling the university halls and working Syria’s fields.

The reasons are many – millions of men have fled the country to escape fighting or to fulfil dreams of living abroad. Others – on all sides of the conflict - remained to perish in battle, some choosing to fight, others left with no choice.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria's war, the vast majority of them male.

For years many Damascene men rarely left their homes, fearful of the near-daily rebel bombardment targeting residential neighbourhoods in Damascus.

A cemetery in Damascus. The vast majority of those killed in Syria's war are men. (MEE/Maher al-Mounes)

Now that threat has subsided, since the capital’s suburbs returned to the government’s hands.

Yet many others still hide away in their homes in an attempt to avoid being conscripted into the army and sent to the front lines.

New roles

Once almost equally proportioned before the war, there is now one man for every seven women, according to the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, a non-governmental organisation concerned with population matters.

Official figures give a slightly different picture. According to Tishreen, a state-owned newspaper, if male fighters and emigrants are not counted, 65 percent of Syrians are now female compared to 35 percent who are male.

There is no shame in working, the shame comes with every word of begging

- Jamila Ashkar, taxi driver

As Ashkar drives around the city wearing a black cap over her hijab, passengers are amused when they see her behind the wheel. But as she puts it, her job is not as strange as the war.

“My husband was killed during the war,” she tells Middle East Eye. “I lost my house, I have children and I have to provide food and drink for them. So I decided to work using my husband’s taxi.”

A street in Old Damascus. (MEE/Maher al-Mounes)

On the job, she has been forced to toughen up to shut down male taxi drivers before they even try to harass or mock her.

Her determination to provide for her three kids, she says, is stronger than the few strange looks of those not used to seeing a woman doing what is perceived to be a man’s job in Syria.

“There is no shame in working, the shame comes with every word of begging,” she says.

Ashkar refuses to have her photo taken - not because she is ashamed, but because she doesn’t want to be seen as a strange phenomenon.

A town without men

In the small countryside town of Sheikh Badr in the coastal province of Tartous, a couple of hours north of the capital, photos of men killed in the war plaster almost every wall.

There are also snapshots of soldiers who have gone missing, with words such "May God return him safe" written underneath.

Every day, as Alia goes to the field to tend olive trees, she sees the images of her old friends hanging on the walls. Now only her female friends remain.

"I am afraid that I will stay alone forever, there are no men left in our city. Who will I marry?” asks the 23-year-old university student.

I am afraid that I will stay alone forever, there are no men left in our city, who will I marry?

- Alia, student

Early in the war, when the rebels were riding high, many residents of towns across the country that remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad feared that the fighters would reach their villages and wreak havoc on them.

As a consequence, many of these townspeople decided to join the government forces to fight, while others were forced to enlist as they were unable to pay their way out of military service.  

The situation was not any better in the areas controlled by Syrian opposition forces: as the war drew on, fighting was no longer an ideological cause, but a necessary job in order to make a living.

Alia and many of her female friends in Sheikh Badr are afraid they will remain single.

Now they have all taken up roles traditionally reserved for men, she says her friendship group all feel as if they are men now themselves.

A crowd of mostly women watch the World Cup in a Damascus park. (MEE/Maher al-Mounes)

The war has wearied Syria’s people.

Alia wears a large straw hat and her face seems tired. She says she has not plucked her eyebrows for a long time.

"Why do I take care of myself, and for whom do I put on makeup for? No one looks at me.”

Alia looks up at the images of Tartous’ dead youth.

“Only pictures look at me, but they do not feel me,” she says.

'Years of females only'

One, two, three, not more. A few male youths surrounded by girls. Welcome to Damascus University.

“It is the years of females only, it is the era of women. Not only at work, but also in study,” Mirella Ahmad, a 27-year-old student, tells MEE.

Statistics provided by the University of Damascus show that in every college or faculty, with the exception of the faculty of medicine, female students now outnumber their male colleagues.

Ahmad inspects her fingers, then those of her friend next to her. She is looking for a ring, the sign of engagement or marriage.

“All the fingers are bare, none are wearing rings and there are no men holding them,” Ahmad says.

A lecture in Damascus University. Women now make up the majority of students. (MEE/Maher al-Mounes)

On the brighter side, some Syrian women say the situation has offered them a chance to prove their strength and abilities, and that they are matches to their male peers.

Catherine is one of those women. For five years she has worked as a photographer, taking pictures for a global news agency.

The war is not all bad. There are positive points. It has given way to me and many women to come to the surface

- Catherine, journalist

Journalism is another profession that in the past has been dominated by men.

Yet Catherine, who wishes to be identified only by her first name, is one of a number of women who have found freedom and independence in reporting on the war.

She says she likes to dress like her male colleagues, and be accompanied by pro-Syrian government forces as she visits the frontlines. "It's my chance to be in my right place," she tells MEE.

"The war is not all bad. There are positive points. It has given me and many women a way to come to the surface.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.