Portraits of Syrian women

 
Portraits of Syrian women
«It all depends on the woman and her convictions»

Amina the revolutionary
Amina was born in 1920 in a working class quarter of Damascus. At the age of 17, she joined the Syrian Communist party and met a fellow comrade who proposed she become his partner in the struggle. She accepted. They were married the same day and they announced the news to their respective families.
The next day he departed alone for Beirut on a secret mission and left Amina with his parents, whom she did not know. Her father in law, a carpenter, hardly able to keep his own numerous family alive and a religious dignitary who was not exactly happy with having a communist son, found himself with a daughter-in-law who did not wear the veil, did not pray and who in addition was obliged to go out at night to distribute party leaflets around Damascus. He initially tolerated her presence to please his son but ended up by loving her. Respecting her profound convictions and her difficult way of life, he didn’t hesitate to help her in her nocturnal missions and to jump over terraces to hide forbidden publications when the police made an unexpected raid.

In 1949, Amina went to China to represent Syrian Communist women in the First World Congress for Women of Asia, alongside important figures like Vaillant Couturier.

Amina the teacher
Amina also attended teachers’ training college and became a school teacher and director of an experimental school. Inspired by Montessori, John Dewey and Makarenko, she introduced the principles of modern education, based on individual freedom and respect for others, into the teaching programmes. Learning that is fun encourages spontaneity in a child, awakens their curiosity and their responsibility towards society. In fact, Amina’s pupils, girls from 6 to 11 years old are involved in journalism, carry out surveys in different neighbourhoods, organise round table discussions with experts in environmental problems, health, town planning etc.

Amina and social struggle
This professional life requires great dedication but does not stop Amina from spending much of her time looking at public matters. She is a founder member of the Association for the Protection of Mothers and Children. Together with her lawyer husband, who defends the rights of women, she transforms their home into a refuge for those trying to escape from a despotic father or a violent husband. There are some that remain for months…They are welcomed as if it was their own home.

Amina the woman
Amina is also a joyful person with a fondness for pleasure. Despite constant tiredness and work, she manages to find time to go to the swimming pool or the cinema, and to invite friends to lively suppers that she prepares herself with much love and artistry. During 50 years of married life, based on understanding and mutual respect, Amina has given her daughters an image of a woman both gentle and strong and at the same time independent and devoted to her family.

When her children reached marriageable age all three of them got married for love, without the white dress and without sumptuous receptions. This greatly pleased Amina and her husband, who saw their principles realised in this decision different from the norm: “My daughters are not goods to be looked over!”, she said to the mothers who asked for a meeting to choose a wife for their sons.
Amina also has written two books relating the experiences of her life with great sincerity. The success has been enormous.

Hela, or attachment to tradition
Hela, Amina’s granddaughter, is 23 years old. She has finished her dentistry studies and is specialising at a university in Beirut.
Despite a very open education and a mixed schooling, Hela believes in the virtues of a traditional marriage. She has her own reasons that contradict those of her mother and grandmother. “I don’t want to find myself in a new family without the consent of my husband’s parents” she says. Traditional marriage, with conditions laid down beforehand, allows a marriage to start from a rational choice that a love match doesn’t always allow. Getting to know her future husband in a family circle is like getting to know him in a circle of friends or at university, but for the former the woman is certain to be in a position of power, as men today do not respect women that much who go out with them before marriage. It is a question of dignity, and does not rule out love, that can come afterwards and is the basis of a successful marriage. Hela finds that the many visits that the young man pays to the family before the decision to get engaged permits the young woman to scrutinise him objectively and question her own heart at the same time. “When you are in love, you do not see the faults that you discover later on, and that, in most cases, is the cause of the failure of a marriage”.

Marriage, a rational choice
Hela finds that these traditions also allow the young woman to judge the young man and to agree to marry him or not. “And if the young man finds that the young woman is not pretty enough or does not conform to his criteria of choice, does that not humiliate her?” To this question Hela replies that this is exactly what can happen when a girl falls in love with a man who does not love her; or when two young people are in love to begin with and then one day the man decides to leave his girlfriend for another woman. There is always a risk somewhere in their decision to marry. It is better therefore to minimise the risks of failure by making a rational choice. Marrying for love starts with a passion that paralyses judgement, whereas traditional marriage starts with reason and love comes afterwards.

Prince Charming
Hela would like to wear a white dress at her wedding that is unforgettable. Her future husband therefore must be well off, with an apartment and a car. She cannot ask for the traditional dowry, written into the marriage contract as an indemnity payable to the woman in the case of divorce; but she would like to receive a marriage gift in jewellery. It is essential for her image in society.
“And if you fall in love with a man that is broke? Broke, no, she says, but if I find him wonderful and he is not able to fulfil all the conditions, I would be ready to make concessions. She also demands that the man in her life be honest, generous, good looking, with a certain inner elegance in his way of speaking and behaving. It is important that he is admired by others. This would make her proud.

A different choice
Her conception of family life is contrary to that of her mother and her grandmother. They choose to be active women who dedicate themselves entirely to their careers, whereas for her it is essential that a woman works, but without it taking up all her time. She would like to be able to look after her family properly, “to have a warm home is a success just that of a professional life”, she says. For her the ideal family life is both balanced and shared, where the husband does not find himself marginalised by the strong personality of his wife. She finds in her mother and grandmother admirable models, but it is not her ideal. Her choices are different.

An inclination towards spirituality
Hela is very attached to religion. Faced with the materialistic spirit of her grandmother and the lack of faith of her mother, she counters this with a spiritual belief demonstrated in the application of all the religious precepts. For a few weeks now she has decided to wear the Islamic scarf, in spite of the bitter opposition of her parents.
This choice is very much in harmony with the conservative vision of Hela. Her attachment to religion forms part of a generalised phenomenon that most of all affects girls of the well off middle class. A social reaction? A conflict between generations? An act of protest against the West and its values imposed by force in the era of globalisation? An answer is not easy to find.

Nawal: Religion as social norm
Nawal, the cleaner that has worked for Hela’s family for many years, has a different attitude towards the same matters. She is 30 years old. She is a believer, she observes the rule of fasting during the month of Ramadan, she wears the traditional veil out of respect for the social norms of her community, but she does not pray. “I don’t have time, she says. I work all day to clean homes and when I go back I have to look after my own. But I feel guilty, above all about my son of 7 who asks me questions. He wants me to be like the mothers of his friends at school”. Her son goes to the mosque for prayers on Friday, but her husband is not very attached to practising religion as a reaction against his own very religious parents.

Married for love
Nawal comes from a working class background. Her parents, refugees from occupied Golan, place a lot of importance on social norms. She married her husband following a love story that went on for many years. He was the brother of her friend at school and they were able to meet in the orchard or on the pretext of revising their lessons. The parents of the young man wanted to marry him to his cousin. When he insisted on marrying Nawal, they refused to help the young couple financially.
Nawal did not want to insert the dowry condition into their marriage contract, but her parents insisted on this women’s right imposed by the Koran. They gave a sum of 50000 LS to be paid in the case of divorce (the equivalent of 1000 $). On the other hand, she sold her marriage jewellery to help her husband furnish their apartment. On his side, he did not delay in buying her other jewellery when he was able to save up the amount from his job.
For her, a woman does not need to defend her rights. She has a very good social status. She is liberated and it is up to her to make her husband respect her. She knows cases where the husband beats his wife, but she knows others where the wife gives it back to him just as much.

A shared life
Nawal had to interrupt her studies after gaining her school leaving certificate, in order to work and help her husband. However she does not regret it, as she finds that this shared responsibility makes them closer. They continue to love each other and get on well together. They have managed to normalise relations with their respective families. She does not regret her choice and finds love before marriage is an indispensable choice.
She does not want to have another child because she prefers to be able to provide her son with all that he needs to succeed in life.
Portraits of Syrian women
Marie Claude-Vaillant Couturier
In 1949, Amina went to China to represent Syrian Communist women in the First World Congress for Women of Asia, alongside important figures like Vaillant Couturier.

Amina the teacher
Amina also attended teachers’ training college and became a school teacher and director of an experimental school. Inspired by Montessori, John Dewey and Makarenko, she introduced the principles of modern education, based on individual freedom and respect for others, into the teaching programmes. Learning that is fun encourages spontaneity in a child, awakens their curiosity and their responsibility towards society. In fact, Amina’s pupils, girls from 6 to 11 years old are involved in journalism, carry out surveys in different neighbourhoods, organise round table discussions with experts in environmental problems, health, town planning etc.

Amina and social struggle
This professional life requires great dedication but does not stop Amina from spending much of her time looking at public matters. She is a founder member of the Association for the Protection of Mothers and Children. Together with her lawyer husband, who defends the rights of women, she transforms their home into a refuge for those trying to escape from a despotic father or a violent husband. There are some that remain for months…They are welcomed as if it was their own home.

Amina the woman
Amina is also a joyful person with a fondness for pleasure.Despite constant tiredness and work, she manages to find time to go to the swimming pool or the cinema, and to invite friends to lively suppers that she prepares herself with much love and artistry.
Portraits of Syrian women
Amina dans la défilée
During 50 years of married life, based on understanding and mutual respect, Amina has given her daughters an image of a woman both gentle and strong and at the same time independent and devoted to her family.

When her children reached marriageable age all three of them got married for love, without the white dress and without sumptuous receptions. This greatly pleased Amina and her husband, who saw their principles realised in this decision different from the norm: “My daughters are not goods to be looked over!”, she said to the mothers who asked for a meeting to choose a wife for their sons.
Amina also has written two books relating the experiences of her life with great sincerity. The success has been enormous.

Hela, or attachment to tradition
Hela, Amina’s granddaughter, is 23 years old. She has finished her dentistry studies and is specialising at a university in Beirut.
Despite a very open education and a mixed schooling, Hela believes in the virtues of a traditional marriage. She has her own reasons that contradict those of her mother and grandmother. “I don’t want to find myself in a new family without the consent of my husband’s parents” she says. Traditional marriage, with conditions laid down beforehand, allows a marriage to start from a rational choice that a love match doesn’t always allow. Getting to know her future husband in a family circle is like getting to know him in a circle of friends or at university, but for the former the woman is certain to be in a position of power, as men today do not respect women that much who go out with them before marriage. It is a question of dignity, and does not rule out love, that can come afterwards and is the basis of a successful marriage. Hela finds that the many visits that the young man pays to the family before the decision to get engaged permits the young woman to scrutinise him objectively and question her own heart at the same time. “When you are in love, you do not see the faults that you discover later on, and that, in most cases, is the cause of the failure of a marriage”.

Hela, or attachment to tradition
Hela finds that these traditions also allow the young woman to judge the young man and to agree to marry him or not. “And if the young man finds that the young woman is not pretty enough or does not conform to his criteria of choice, does that not humiliate her?” To this question Hela replies that this is exactly what can happen when a girl falls in love with a man who does not love her; or when two young people are in love to begin with and then one day the man decides to leave his girlfriend for another woman. There is always a risk somewhere in their decision to marry. It is better therefore to minimise the risks of failure by making a rational choice. Marrying for love starts with a passion that paralyses judgement, whereas traditional marriage starts with reason and love comes afterwards.

Prince Charming
Hela would like to wear a white dress at her wedding that is unforgettable. Her future husband therefore must be well off, with an apartment and a car. She cannot ask for the traditional dowry, written into the marriage contract as an indemnity payable to the woman in the case of divorce; but she would like to receive a marriage gift in jewellery. It is essential for her image in society.
“And if you fall in love with a man that is broke? Broke, no, she says, but if I find him wonderful and he is not able to fulfil all the conditions, I would be ready to make concessions. She also demands that the man in her life be honest, generous, good looking, with a certain inner elegance in his way of speaking and behaving. It is important that he is admired by others. This would make her proud.

A different choice
Her conception of family life is contrary to that of her mother and her grandmother. They choose to be active women who dedicate themselves entirely to their careers, whereas for her it is essential that a woman works, but without it taking up all her time. She would like to be able to look after her family properly, “to have a warm home is a success just that of a professional life”, she says. For her the ideal family life is both balanced and shared, where the husband does not find himself marginalised by the strong personality of his wife. She finds in her mother and grandmother admirable models, but it is not her ideal. Her choices are different.

An inclination towards spirituality
Hela is very attached to religion. Faced with the materialistic spirit of her grandmother and the lack of faith of her mother, she counters this with a spiritual belief demonstrated in the application of all the religious precepts. For a few weeks now she has decided to wear the Islamic scarf, in spite of the bitter opposition of her parents.
This choice is very much in harmony with the conservative vision of Hela. Her attachment to religion forms part of a generalised phenomenon that most of all affects girls of the well off middle class. A social reaction? A conflict between generations? An act of protest against the West and its values imposed by force in the era of globalisation? An answer is not easy to find.

Nawal: Religion as social norm
Nawal, the cleaner that has worked for Hela’s family for many years, has a different attitude towards the same matters. She is 30 years old. She is a believer, she observes the rule of fasting during the month of Ramadan, she wears the traditional veil out of respect for the social norms of her community, but she does not pray. “I don’t have time, she says. I work all day to clean homes and when I go back I have to look after my own. But I feel guilty, above all about my son of 7 who asks me questions. He wants me to be like the mothers of his friends at school”. Her son goes to the mosque for prayers on Friday, but her husband is not very attached to practising religion as a reaction against his own very religious parents.

Married for love
Nawal comes from a working class background. Her parents, refugees from occupied Golan, place a lot of importance on social norms. She married her husband following a love story that went on for many years. He was the brother of her friend at school and they were able to meet in the orchard or on the pretext of revising their lessons. The parents of the young man wanted to marry him to his cousin. When he insisted on marrying Nawal, they refused to help the young couple financially.
Nawal did not want to insert the dowry condition into their marriage contract, but her parents insisted on this women’s right imposed by the Koran. They gave a sum of 50000 LS to be paid in the case of divorce (the equivalent of 1000 $). On the other hand, she sold her marriage jewellery to help her husband furnish their apartment. On his side, he did not delay in buying her other jewellery when he was able to save up the amount from his job.
For her, a woman does not need to defend her rights. She has a very good social status. She is liberated and it is up to her to make her husband respect her. She knows cases where the husband beats his wife, but she knows others where the wife gives it back to him just as much.

A shared life
Nawal had to interrupt her studies after gaining her school leaving certificate, in order to work and help her husband. However she does not regret it, as she finds that this shared responsibility makes them closer. They continue to love each other and get on well together. They have managed to normalise relations with their respective families. She does not regret her choice and finds love before marriage is an indispensable choice.
She does not want to have another child because she prefers to be able to provide her son with all that he needs to succeed in life. Hanan Kassab-Hassan

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