A Change in Gender Roles: The Evolution of Gender Roles in the Context of the Syrian Conflict

Executive Summary

Women and men are affected differently by the outcomes of the war. More significantly, it’s difficult to talk about conflicts without considering the impacts to the vulnerable groups, especially women, who find themselves at the receiving end. Wars are gendered, both in outcome and causes. Women have remained influential at the grassroots in championing for peace and reconciliation after the crisis.

Their roles have pragmatically changed overtime, hence nullifying the narrative that perceives women as a group of people, with special needs. The paper utilizes the case study of Syria, to conduct an in-depth analysis of the role of women before and after the conflicts. To achieve the objective of the paper, secondary sources were reviewed to conclude. The research involved the study of the peer-reviewed journals, related case studies, reports from the government’s websites and statistical data derived from the works of the previous authors. The research concludes by affirming that women’s roles continue to change, as the female are integrated into the male-dominated tasks.


The unremitting Syrian war left the scores of emotional, physical and psychological injuries among the people. Women overwhelmingly suffered from the consequences of the conflicts, since they were perceived lesser in some roles. The war in Syria prompted people to run for safety in the neighboring countries and left the women to brace the brutality of raising the children in the refugee camps with little assistance from their husbands. Some of the challenges they underwent included: lack of enough food, sexual harassment, and improper lifestyle, among others (Baker, 2015). Despite the intervention of the United Nations to offer support, the surge of migrants into the neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Egypt,and Iraq, was considerably huge. The holocaust that had engulfed Syria impacted the female gender more negatively, which necessitated the emergence of movements to champion for their rights (Pirani, 2017).

The devastating conditions and experiences that happened during the war transpired to the emergence of a different group of women, who had different ideologies regarding their roles in the society (Cornell University, 2017). This is evidenced by their involvement in peace and reconciliation, as a way to restore sanity in the land.Framing its analysis in the context of the Syrian conflict, this report discusses the changes in women’s roles and how these changes have affected the way in which women are perceived in the society. To judge the topic from a critical perspective, the secondary resources were consulted. It involved reading the peer-reviewed articles and past studies that have explicitly covered the theme. Contrasting the ideas of various researchers assisted in understanding the problem statement in the broader scope. Furthermore, the paper will offer recommendations on how to equip the female gender with the necessary resources to adapt to the new era of post-war.


Underpinned by a post-positivist paradigm, this research utilized a secondary qualitative methodology, using a case-study approach to explore perceptions of change of women roles in Syria. Case-study allows the use of different sources of data to build a deep understanding of the research context. Along with qualitative case study approach, the process was used for achieving a contextual and detailed knowledge of the area by using different sources of information. Also, the incorporation and contrasting of diverse opinions formed a rich and thorough understanding of the perspective. As the topic and the research design is exploratory,case-study is an appropriate choice.

The research used secondary data gathered from media sources, government and industry publications related to change of women’s role in Syria. The use of multiple sources allowed for in-depth analysis and triangulation. The first stage encompassed the review of extant literature from scholarly journal articles and later, the data was analysed.

Analytical Strategy

Thematic analysis was used in this research. According to Myer (2016), thematic analysis helps to identify ideas (themes) from the data. Moreover, it can support researcher’s interpretation of issues.The analytical approach was grounded in nature, involving open coding in the first instance. The content was grouped, in an iterative process, while consulting the literature.

Issues facing Syrian Women before the War

The state of women in Syria before the war was characterized by suppression by the male gender. Viewed as instruments of performing homestead duties, they were subjected to unwelcoming conditions of perpetual segmentation from making significant decisions in the family and also in the political realm. The following paragraphs will discuss some of the issues they faced.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), including Domestic Violence

            Raistick (2014) defines gender-based violence as acts which inflict mental or physical harm, including coercion and deprivation of freedom. While many commentators, such as the University Of New York School Of Law (2016), have acknowledged that the underlying causes of SGBV are associated with structures, attitudes,and beliefs connected to an imbalance of power between genders. Gender directed violence is optimally witnessed during the time of crisis, which exposes the victims to enormous challenges.

            Before the outbreak of war in Syria, there was a predominant violation of the human rights, especially among the female gender. The jurisdictions of the land failed to succinctly protect the girls and women, who were the primary victims. The law had sidelined them, which curtailed their efforts to seek justice.

Legal obstacles and social stigma isolated the survivors of SGBV, compounding the harm that they were exposed to. Moreover, girls and women often lacked adequate protection and psychosocial support after conflicts,resulting in social isolation and stigmatization (Greenwood, 2013). Harmful social customs, such as the perceptions of ‘shame’ and ‘honor’ sometimes manifested themselves in practices that exposed females to the risk of ‘honor killing’ and extreme forms of SGBV, including beliefs that rape victims were somehow unfit for marriage (Greenwood, 2013). Also, both the non-state armed actors and government forces failed to ensure that there was justice for victims, thus impeding the desire to get their rights protected. Women’s advocates stated that rape was a serious issue, with approximately 1,300 reported cases in 2009 (University of New York School of Law, 2016). Also, the lack of clear laws, along with weak enforcement, led to the escalation and prevalence of domestic violence.

            Far and above, The Syrian penal code facilitated impunity for rape and reinforced cultural and familial pressures on girls and women to marry the rapists, which allowed the aggressors to go unpunished. Furthermore, the prevailing social and cultural norms around SGBV meant that many girls who were raped did not air their sentiments due to stereotyped fear, coined around the cultural ties (University of New York School of Law, 2016). In the same vein, the woes of women were aggravated by the fact that men were perceived as superior beings, subject to all authority. The female gender, therefore, was regarded as a figure answerable to the male. Such, social interaction in the family followed a set hierarchical format which caused fear among the women.

Child brides

            The state failed to protect the young girls, whose rights were violated through instituting early marriages. Indicative figures illustrate that in every ten marriages, one involved underage girls of 18 years (Myers, 2016).Many Syrian teenagers did not receive a full education because they left the education system before completing their studies due to forced marriage (Laub, 2017). The unresponsive government, which portrayed a dictatorial form of leadership, lacked enough measures to safeguard the rights of the young girls. The literature opines that the state was aware of the suffering of the populace, to be specific, women but failed to constitute the right measure to avert the problem (Laub, 2017).

Social norms, such as the high value placed on women’s virginity also contributed to the prevalence of early marriage and the custom of ‘bride-prices’ (Al-Natour, 2013). Parents believed that when their daughters get married, they would be provided for. Although registration of marriages was required by law, penalties were not enforced for failing to do so (UNICEF, 2014). Such practices, as highlighted by the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, have continued since the onset of conflict and have, in many cases, increased due to the impact of war.

The Roles that Women Played During the War

The incidences of the war predisposed the women to stringent conditions and had to override the cultural believes; that they were lesser in roles. They indulged in activities that were thought to be occupied by men, hence contributing to the attainment of peace and safeguarding the young people. The following paragraphs will discuss their contribution in Syria, during the conflict.

Political Activists and Community Leaders

            Following the onset of conflict in Syria, women became increasingly involved in civic and political participation in some ways, including as healers, civic leaders, activists,and diplomats.Before the war, women had been culturally and politically less active in comparison to men.The emergence of war and movement of women from Syria to other areas opened up a platform where they could take more significant part in political activism(Scurlock, 2017). One example of a prominent female activist is Suad Nofal, who staged a protest outside the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa and was later awarded the Czech Homo Homini Award (Scurlock, 2017) Some women took the opportunity to expose the challenges they faced to the whole world; Nadia Murad was one such woman, who were kidnaped and later escaped to Germany. While in Germany, she gave several speeches about the brutal conditions and events taking place in Syria and in areas where refugees who had been displaced by the conflict had settled. Due to her efforts, she won the Nobel Peace Prize and became the first Goodwill Ambassador (Scurlock, 2017).


            The Syrian war, which started in 2011, posed challenges to both men’s and women’s traditional roles in society. Women and children had to flee from their original homeland and move to neighboring countries for security. Some of the Syrian women and children went to Lebanon, while others fled to Bekaa Valley (Gatten, 2015). While in the refugee camps, women took up the mantle as providers,taking on responsibilities that had traditionally been reserved for men. They had to acquire new skills to ensure that they were able to provide for their families, although obtaining jobs in their new host countries was a significant challenge. Thus, some women were forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter (Myers, 2016). Others sold their properties,such as jewelry and personal items, to manage the economic hardships they were facing, and to ensure that their children’s basic needs were met.

How the War Defined Gender Roles

            The war created a change in the social dynamics and structure of Syrian society as both men and women were forced to redefine the most important aspects of their identities. Many took on roles and responsibilities that had been traditionally perceived as ‘masculine’ and gained increasing duties as decision-makers and bread-winners (El-Masri, Harvey, & Garwood, 2013).  Problems such as xenophobia, hostility,and discrimination were experienced by many Syrians who left for other countries which further compounded the challenges posed to traditional conceptions of masculinity and power distributions (El-Masri, Harvey, & Garwood, 2013).  Women stepped into the role of protecting their families and became activists and leaders; fighting for the protection of rights despite the continued threat of sexual and physical violence(El-Masri, Harvey, & Garwood, 2013). Indicative data shows that about 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are children and women.The female gender had to take up the role of household heads and income generatorsfor them to survive in their host countries (Dutta & Velez, 2014). Increasingly, women have become involved in humanitarian activities and attempt tore-initiate the peace process (Haddad, 2014).

How the War is Reshaping the Role of Women in the Syrian Society

            The experience of approximately five years of displacement and war has changed numerous aspects of the lives of millions of Syrian citizens, in particular, women and children. The circumstances of war forced women to take up additional responsibilities and roles to provide for their families’ basic needs (Buecher & Aniyamuzaala, 2016).

            As men went to the battlefield, women became key players in the society and took more significant roles in NGO works, leadership positions in the refugee camps and communities, media, documenting human rights abusers, and disseminating the information about what they faced to the world (Curry, 2016). Women’s role in peacekeeping missions was viewed vital because of their ability to influence long-lasting peace keeping deals. Research done by Buecher and Aniyamuzaala (2016) opines that women headed approximately 12 -17 % of households. Through the leadership in their families, they acquired skills which helped them to get involved in the peacekeeping missions and become better political activists.

 Additionally, the opportunities which were available in the host countries made women develop skills which would help them even after the war. For instance, some women obtained work in community-based organizations as teachers and nurses. Also, in some cases, there was a demand for rescue teams, para-medical staff, and first aid practitioners (Buecher & Aniyamuzaala, 2016). Women also started to engage in small-scale income generating activities to compensate for the absence of the traditional breadwinners in the family units. Due to the new roles that women held, they needed to acquire more education, acceptance, safety and rights in the host countries (Buecher & Aniyamuzaala, 2016). Despite the challenges exposed by the external operating environment, the female gender-engaged full intellectual potential, to restore peace and provide the necessary needs both to the children, and the men at war. This goes along with the Maslow’s theory, which upholds that human beings feel secure when all their needs are satisfied. With the quest to look for this kind of security, women had to continually strive for new ventures.

Women’s Economic Participation

            Before the crisis engulfed the state of Syria, the primary economic activities revolved around agriculture, oil production, tourism,and industrialization. Many workers in Syria were employed in service sectors which included transport, financial services, the public sector, and tourism. Research carried out by Buecher and Aniyamuzaala (2016) showed that approximately 80% of the workforce earned their living from the agricultural sector. Among the population, 22% constituted of women, who actively contributed to the economic development. The conflicts led to a significant loss of jobs in the agricultural sector.Consequently, rural-urban migration led to an influx of people in urban areas, making it difficult for people to get access to jobs (Buecher & Aniyamuzaala, 2016). Women, in this case, were excluded from the opportunities because of strong competition from men, both foreign and Syrian.

            Unemployment of Syrian women in Lebanon was estimated at 68%, while in Jordan it was 83.3%(Errighi & Griesse, 2015). Additionally, the gender pay gap between men and women was substantial, with women earning 40% less. According to the research conducted by Errighi & Griesse (2015), it indicated that women indulged in menial works such as construction jobs, to substitute the roles of men. Furthermore,children had to join the labor force because their parents could not afford schools fees. Research carried out showed that 8% of children aged 10-14 years were actively involved in manual work, and the figures continue to rise(Errighi & Griesse, 2015).

The economic participation of women in Syria reflected what happened during World War II in the United States of America. For instance, women carried out businesses by providing basic foodstuffs (Hudocsk, Sherman, & Williamson, 2016). They participated in hardscrabble entrepreneurship to ensure that they provided for their families.Goldin (2003) asserts that the proportion of women involved in male-dominated fields increased from 5% to 60%.

Effects of War on Syrian Women’s Roles

Economic Effects

            Women’s involvement in economic activities grew during the Syrian conflict. Before, the women performed the house chores, and a few involved themselves in income generating activities. In refugee camps, women did not have any option but expand their economic activities to feed their families. The informal nature of daily life opened a platform where they developed a host of cottage enterprises. For instance, they sold goods which were of high demand in the camps such as vegetables and fruits (Hudock, Sherman, & Williamson, 2016). Others sold humanitarian aid while some began catering activities (Hudock, Sherman, & Williamson, 2016).

            Although women were expected to provide for their families, they did not enjoy access to institutionalized economic activities.Hudock, Sherman, and Williamson (2016) state that women were more likely than men to access vulnerable and low-paid jobs. Additionally, women did not have fundamental rights and social protection in their places of work. One of the inhibiting factors of women’s empowerment was the fact that their jobs were concentrated in the informal sector. During the war, women felt that they needed to fight for their rights and acquire better positions within the economic sector. Through the events of the war, women learned that they had hidden abilities, and they could work and be productive in various areas just like men (Shalaby & Marnicio, 2015). Social and cultural norms which played a paramount role in dictating women’s everyday conduct were not held in high esteem like before, and the events of the conflict prompted them to learn that they were able to perform other income-generating activities.

Social Effects

Women living in the refugee camps risked everything to ensure that they were able to find safety for themselves and their children. Although women were running from their original homeland to find a better place, they continued to face numerous challenges which changed their perceptions and expectations, and many started to fight for their rights within the changing social dynamic. There are three major social effects that women experienced that will be discussed below: sexual violence, poor health, and insecurity.

             Young Syrian refugee girls experienced a double marginalization because of their gender and their age. In most of the host countries, they were guided by Islamic laws, which forbid sexual relations before marriage (Samari, 2017). However, in the camp settings, prostitution, rape, and early marriages were rampant. The culture of early marriages continued even when women had moved from Syria and settled in other areas as refugees; this was due to the belief that girls could only be secure within marriage. Girls’parents feared that their children would be harassed in schools and they, therefore, sometimes resorted to arranging early marriages. For instance, in places such as Lebanon, Syrian refugees gave their daughters for marriage because they felt that would help in preventing sexual violence and breaking the cycle of poverty; Haju (2016) asserts that the refugee families had limited access to resources and the only way to ensure that their girls obtained basic needs was to allow early relationship.Additionally, marriage helped girls to acquire Lebanese citizenship and leave the refugee settlements and camps (Haju, 2016).  Also, the engagement was used as a strategy to obtain entry visas in neighboring countries. Thus, most parents only looked at the benefits that they would receive instantly when their young girls got married.

When they arrived in the poorly resourced refugee camps, both women and children experienced difficulties in obtaining access to health facilities. Children were often affected by the war through direct attacks. In the fields, both children and women suffered changes in diseases patterns including both communicable to non-communicable illnesses (Devakumar, Birch, Rubenstein, David Osrin, & Wells, 2015). Additionally, malnutrition was an issue of concern in the refugee camps. One research study carried out showed that in host countries such as Jordan there was a high prevalence of anemia(Devakumar, Birch, Rubenstein, David Osrin, & Wells, 2015). The outbreak of diseases such as measles and polio made the condition in the camps worse.

Insecurity in the refugee camps was one of the major issues of concern,and many women were not able to leave their homes without the escort of male relatives because of issues such as child trafficking and rape (Osman, 2016). The incidences contributed to the awakening of thinking among the women. Far from perceiving themselves as instruments to rely on others for security, a realization of the need to secure them was borne. Osman (2016) contends that the safety of the female gender could not have been realized, in an environment of violence and tension.In 2017, approximately 46 Syrian women came together to form the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy,aiming at establishing a peace process that would ensure an immediate stop to the fighting, the release of political detainees, and the increased active participation of women in all levels of decision making (ICR to P, 2015).

Women’s Rights in Post-War Syria

One of the apparent scenarios that were widely witnessed after the war included massive testimonies of the adverse violation of the fundamental human rights. Due to the unstable condition that the Syrian government was in, little was done to protect the vulnerable groups. The case was heightened by the surging number of refugees in the neighboring nations, which increased the chances of sexual harassment, lack of education among the young girls, and improper healthcare (Muscati, 2014). The international community has also stepped in to help women fight for their rights and aspire the achievement of a stable government in the future. Two major areas that have continually been transformed since the crisis are in the economic roles and domestic responsibilities. Through the movements and activisms, the female gender has employed avid measures, to mitigate abstraction of their rights bestowed by the jurisdictions of the law.

            Institutions such as Human Rights Watch have conducted investigations in areas such as Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to identify human rights abuses, especially for women and girls.They have employed concerted efforts to champion for the respects of women’s rights, and also campaigning of upholding the moral ethics in the society. Activists and international institutions are pushing women to become empowered and to have equal access to representation and education, aiming towards the targets of the UN’s sustainable development goals(Shackle, 2017). Women have come to the forefront of society by starting their independent radio stations, and web magazines such as Sayeret Souriya, Nasaem Radio, Radio Souriyat, and Jasmin Syria (Eidmouni, 2016). All the web-based platforms either operate outside or inside Syria and focus on highlighting the daily women struggles. When women are mentioned in the radio stations and magazines, they are portrayed as sisters, mothers, and wives of male fighters and male political prisoners (Eidmouni, 2016). The aim of this type of publicity is to show that women are not only limited to homestead chores, but they can also take part in building the nation in other areas.

 Additionally, women launched community initiatives such as Women Now for development to provide new skills and training. The principal aim of the actions was to encourage women to fight for their rights. They have continued to acquire education which puts them in a better position to fight for their rights.  Also, women started to play an increased role in decision making because some of them became community leaders after their husbands left for war (Eidmouni, 2016). Regarding the part of women in post-war Syria, lessons can be taken from other regions. The United Nations has expressed concerns regarding the ongoing impact of SGBV even after the end of the conflict, for example in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (United Nations, 2017). The impacts of SGBV can be addressed by providing appropriate care to women through emotional and psychological support. Other means of addressing the impact of SGBV in post-war Syria might include transitional justice mechanisms, which aims to deal with an aggressor who violates the rights of the women.

Successful Stories of Women getting Rights Post-War

The world war two inflicted a lot of challenges among the people, especially women. The case was not only witnessed in Syria but predominantly affected many sections of the world. The problems with the female gender seemed to resemble every nation because the cases of sexual harassment and violation of the basic human rights existed. The incidences affected both the career of the individuals as well as their family coexistence. Some of the survivors of the crisis have detailed their stories, and how they were impacted by the incidences. Aleda Lutz was a flight nurse who tremendously assisted in the evacuation of soldiers who were wounded in the war. Based in Michigan, she was recognized for logging for many hours, in the quest to offer first aid. She narrates how the scary exposure to the dying people affected her emotional strength negatively. After the war, Lutz informs that she has been able to recover from the aftermath of scenes she observed. Through the support of the trained psychologists, Lutz was able to resume her duties and at this time with more experience than before. Lyudmila was a Russian sniper, who was wounded by a mortar while on the mission. After the war, she was taken to Canada and U.S, as a public relation to drum for peace and also given the roles of sniper trainer.  According to her assertion, it helped her to heal mentally by relating with the people that she guided. Furthermore, she narrates how the University education assisted her in transforming the so perceived challenges, into a history. Additionally, Eileen Nearne was a British spy who was kidnaped and tortured by the Nazis. After the release, she lived a quiet life with the sister but underwent constant psychological therapies, which improved her condition. She was able to talk of the ordeal which subsequently relieved her.

Women’s Participation in Male-Dominated Fields

The precepts of any community are based on the strengths of the family. However, the destabilization of the robust tranquility existing in the community can result in disturbing experiences. The conflict in Syria is a good illustration of the magnitude in which the crisis could exchange the optimal roles of women to that of men. The state of insecurity necessitated males to go out of their territories to fight against the enemy. Subsequently, the women and children were left in devastating conditions, only to survive under the donations of the United Nations. In this regard, the females had to step forward, and enhance the health of the children, protect them from assaulters and sometimes look for food, which was scarce by then(Malm, 2015).

            On the other hand, some women felt that the Syrian war opened a platform where they could learn professional jobs. For instance, those who were professionally trained continued to work as teachers and others as nurses.Others began to work in factories and performed jobs which had previously been carried out by men. Taking up the male-dominated roles made women feel more empowered. Some men had a negative perception of women taking up the male roles while others had a positive attitude. For instance, Broun,one of the refugees from Syria, stated that men would always laugh at her when they saw her working at a gas station (Peterson, 2016). United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 highlighted the pivotal role that women can play in securing sustainable peace which reaffirmed the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building and peacekeeping.

Steps to Improve the Role of Female Gender

Step 1: Deal with Barriers

            Education is a fundamental right and a tool which women can use to make their lives better. In host countries such as Lebanon, Syrian refugees have the right to receive compulsory primary and secondary education without any form of discrimination. The government in Lebanon has come up with some strategies to ensure that more children attend school. One of the strategies that they have followed is the Reaching All Children with Education policy. The system helped them to increase the number of children in public schools (Human Rights Watch, 2016). However, regardless of the efforts that have been seen so far, many Syrian children have not yet joined learning institutions. Most of them cannot afford school-related costs such as school supplies and transportation. Some parents rely on young ones to work rather than attending school.

            The other significant barrier is the additional enrollment requirements which are imposed by the school directors, corporal punishment, children being taught in unfamiliar languages such as French and English, and harassment and bullying from other students. Most girls with disabilities do not get the support that they need to join schools. In Lebanon, there were approximately 200,000 places available in public schools (Human Rights Watch, 2016), but remained unfilled due to limiting factors. Furthermore, preventing rape cases among the young girls would significantly motivate them to adopt new strategies in perceiving live. It would encourage them to employ mammoth efforts in education and other sectors of economic development. This would be achieved through a partnership with the parents and other players in the government sectors.

Step 2: Provide Basic Needs

            Host countries such as Lebanon need more international financial support to be able to respond effectively to the basic needs of Syrian refugees so that they can concentrate on education. They need the finances to expand and rehabilitate public schools, subsidize school transport, hire more teachers, and provide facilities for the disabled. Also, there is an expectation on public schools to change their policies that currently limit children’s to access education(Human Rights Watch, 2016). In this regard, the negated girl child should be exposed to a right system of education to further equip them with the skills to maneuver in life. The system of education in Syria has raised the international concerns, probing different governments to intervene in restoring peace. The research conducted by Okonjo-Iwela & Qasimin (2017) shows that the country lags behind regarding female educations, which mitigates the chances of economic growth.

Step 3: Introducing Rights that Support Women’s Leadership

            Women must be empowered and encouraged so that they can fulfill their dreams in the community. Through leadership and continuously providing for their families, women learned that they could make a difference in society using their newly acquired skills, and they have been increasingly involved in peacebuilding initiatives with organizations such as the United Nations. Therefore, apart from introducing education which will help girls to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to create a peaceful future, there is an additional requirement to submit rights which will empower them (Teschendorff, 2015).


            The war in Syria has opened up a platform where feminism has been able to take root. When the men left to go to the battlefield as discussed above, women took up what had traditionally been conceived as male roles. Women were expected to provide for their families and make decisions.The scope of their responsibilities surpassed the traditional boundaries of the domestic sphere as women began to work outside of the home, for example in factories, to provide for their families. Moreover, they actively got involved in peacekeeping process, and as gender roles started to evolve, they began to enjoy greater prominence in related fields such as political activism. Currently, the female gender is continually excelling in various avenues and finding authority that had been lost due to cultural stereotyping. However, the society at large should embrace the impacts that women are making in the country. They have become instrumental in lying substantial measures in peacekeeping, economic development and heightening the social interaction. The war has initiated a transformational process, but this process must be continued to strengthen opportunities for women and girls in post-war Syria.