Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Monday, 18 January 2010

Syria's division of the sexes

Women in Syria enjoy a measure of freedom unlike women in many other Arab countries. But as Lina Sinjab explains from Damascus, tradition and religion still have a huge influence on some of their lives.

Damascus street scene
Damascus is more liberal than the rest of the country

Damascus is getting trendier these day. As Syria opens up, western-style cafes and restaurants are mushrooming.

Men and women gather together, sipping coffee and smoking and in the evenings, bars are filled with liberal-minded Damascenes gathering over a bottle of wine or Arak, the local aniseed-flavoured spirit.

Nights out may start with a lively debate about politics and end up on the dance floor.

But as common as such scenes are these days in the capital, in much of the country they are not the norm.

Women in most parts of Syria still live lives dictated by tradition, religion, and family.

You have to look very carefully to uncover their stories, because they are so often hidden away in this rigid society.

Shiny dresses

Some women's lives, I think, are like Damascene houses, buildings that may look obscure and dull from the outside, but inside the wooden doors, there are beautiful courtyards with brimming fountains.

In the outskirts of Damascus, 21-year-old Zainab is getting married.

She did not meet her husband in a bar or a restaurant. In fact, she did not meet him at all before they were engaged.

Like many weddings, hers was arranged by her parents.

She is used to doing what she is told. Zainab is a schoolteacher. She works a full day and then takes on another job when she gets home, cooking and cleaning for the family.

The sharp division of the sexes here extends to the wedding party itself. I saw this for myself at Zainab's celebration. As I entered the hall, it was filled with women, their hands and heads uncovered.

The bride sat in her white dress at the centre of the stage. Around her all the young girls, in long shiny dresses, danced to music. They clearly envied the bride and hoped, one day, to be in her place.

It looked like fun, and yet there was a traditional purpose to the festivities. The smiles and shimmies of the women were intended to impress the mothers of potential future husbands.

For girls like Zainab, it is quite normal to do things their family's way - any other way seems quite impossible

I looked around me, astonished at how blatant this was. The rows of chairs were filled with older women.

Their eyes scanned the stage and their hands covered their mouths as they whispered to each other, discussing the young women as if they were goods in a shop window.

"That's the daughter of Abu Mahmoud, the neighbourhood shopkeeper," one old lady said.

"The family is reputable and they are devoted Muslims. I am sure my son will be happy to have her."

Headscarves on

Surprisingly, in patriarchal societies like Syria, it is often mothers who reinforce discrimination against women.

They tell their daughters, "You cannot do that, you are a girl!" or "You have to respect your brother, he is the man. What your brother says goes!"

For girls like Zainab, it is quite normal to do things their family's way. Any other way seems quite impossible.

Then the groom arrived. All of the women covered up. Headscarves went on and the dancing stopped.

Syrian woman praying in the Omayyad mosque in Damascus
Older women play an important role in continuing traditional values

Damascus is one liberal bubble in Syria, but even here women feel the traditional barriers around them.

Almost every woman, once she steps out of her house, exposes herself to some degree of harassment.

Whether covered or uncovered, women here are used to hearing foul language and sexual suggestions from frustrated teenagers, sometimes even from older men.

Wandering hands

They are also used to seeing men look hungrily at them as they walk by in the street.

Sometimes the men brush against them, touching parts of their body. This is strictly forbidden of course, but these incidents are rarely reported.

In a modern cafe in Damascus, Hiba and Laila, both in their mid-30s, sip tea after a long working day.

Map of Syria

Dressed in jeans and tight trendy tops, with modern hairstyles, they chat, swapping details of their busy lives.

They are typical of Syria's urban middle classes. Successful working women, the main bread-winners for their families, they are strong, and they speak up for themselves.

Still, they feel that society is not ready for women like them.

"Men are scared of going out with an independent strong woman," Laila told me. "They want a woman who won't argue."

Heba, a lawyer, laughed ruefully while lighting her cigarette, and told me how women are treated in her profession.

"As Islam reckons we are worth only half a man," she told me, "two women are required to witness a legal document which one man, by himself, could sign."

"Anyway some people still prefer a male lawyer to a female one," she says. "They see men as more credible."

Things are changing in Syria, and there are a handful of activists who are fighting for more equal treatment of women.

But if discrimination still affects even people like Heba and Laila, it is clear change will be slow to come.

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