The education sector, in its broad and comprehensive sense, carries a high sensitivity in Syria in general, and in the Euphrates and Syrian Jazeera region specifically. This is due to the ethnic and religious diversity that has turned from a blessing to be celebrated into a curse and a source of concern for the Baath regime. Syrian women are disproportionately affected by this injustice and exclusion through deliberate and calculated policies.
If education is the cornerstone of social capital development, one of the most important concerns of the Baath regime was its fear of inflated minds. Therefore, it resorted to promoting ignorance and neglecting the education of girls to keep the cycle of ignorance alive, by neglecting the first school of life, which is the mother!
Education also takes on additional importance in the Syrian Jazira region by using it as a means of the repressive regime to erase diversity, and using it as a fortification to suppress any cultural or demographic interactions with the Syrian interior or neighboring countries due to tribal relations, language and dialects intersection.
Within the previous context, the complexities of women’s education in the Syrian Jazira region before and after the Syrian revolution in 2011 arise, in addition to the social heritage burden of customs and traditions that are directly related to issues of early marriage and childbirth. The vast agricultural spaces require an increase and abundance in the number of family members to obtain cheap labor, all of this with a set of discriminatory laws that do not guarantee the rights of girls to complete their education but rather are biased towards prevailing values. Women are caught in a vise that crushes their natural right to access knowledge that enables them to access and control resources, and then to achieve independence in decision-making and destiny.
This research presents and analyzes the issue at hand, highlighting its dimensions through the following topics:
- The research problem, its importance, objectives, and methodology.
- A day in the life of a school in the eastern countryside.
- Public life in the Euphrates and Syrian Jazira region.
- Formal education in Syria during the Baath era.
- The absence of diversity in the curricula.
- Obstacles to women’s education in the Euphrates and Syrian Jazira regions.
- The absence of development plans in the Euphrates and Syrian Jazira regions.
- Conclusion and recommendations.
- References and sources.
The problem of research and its questions
The Syrian regime has always exported itself as the liberator of women and the promoter of their social, economic, and political status. It has recognized the pivotal role of education in creating a position in both private and public life, as it is the key to creating qualitative leaps in the lives of individuals and communities. It is the true indicator of the feasibility of any state’s policies, mechanisms, and means. The research focuses on uncovering the actual obstacles to women’s and girls’ education, which the regime has not seriously addressed during decades of rule. The research questions can be summarized as follows:
- Have the official education policies led to improving women’s educational status?
- Did the curriculum consider the diversity of Syrian society, including the gender perspective and the values of gender equality?
- What are the actual obstacles that hinder women’s and girls’ academic achievement in the Syrian Euphrates and Jazeera region?
The importance of research and its objectives:
Research gains its importance from the developmental role that women play in building modern democratic societies, and the impact of education in creating positive change by breaking the stereotypical roles of women in all fields, and creating new opportunities for them towards building their independent personalities away from subordination. Therefore, there is a need to form a deeper understanding of the reality of women in order to address them within the requirements of the upcoming phase, the phase of reconstruction in the context of the Syrian political solution, in an attempt to find a new and different perspective, putting the interests of Syrian women at the heart of the ongoing transition and change, taking their needs into account, and finally finding solutions and proposals that lead to a qualitative and serious societal shift. The sub-importance of the research lies in shedding light on the most marginalized and damaged areas by the regime for several decades to ensure they are not passed on to the future. The research objectives are focused on two points:
- Presenting a close picture of the reality of girls’ education in general in Syria and in the Syrian Euphrates and Jazira region in particular.
- Shedding light on some aspects that hinder girls’ learning in those areas, so that actors and policy makers can work on them.
The research primarily relies on the descriptive-analytical methodology, as it is the closest to the subject environment that requires the description and analysis of facts and data. However, personal experience in the field of education sometimes leads me to lean towards the ethnographic approach in terms of shedding light on some of the issues that I have experienced, as a firsthand witness without diving into details. This is done while not neglecting the use of historical comparison due to the distance and diversity of the time periods of the contexts of the subject’s developments, within a time frame that extends from the beginning of the Ba’ath Party’s takeover of the Syrian state until the present time. Conclusions of the study can be drawn in one way or another on other rural areas of Syria, given the intersection of Syrian rural women’s problems, especially those related to education, where the unity of curricula, mechanisms, and tools, as well as the convergence of local community and cultural environments, exist.
From the Diary of a Schoolteacher in the Eastern Countryside
In 1990, I started my job as an English teacher in a village called “Hameimiyah Kabira“. It was my first year in my journey with teaching and education, which lasted for about twenty years. I went to the village with great apprehension, equivalent to my complete ignorance of that Euphrates region, which had a water canal that was like a lifeline that kept them alive. I was surprised by the school principal and his humble rural house, his silent wife who was immersed and exhausted from housework and taking care of the children, and poverty was clearly evident on their faces. During that year, four teachers from the village were with us, and there was no female teacher among them! I quickly discovered that the girls leave school early, after the sixth grade or maybe before completing it, due to household and agricultural burdens, in addition to the region’s adherence to the tradition of early marriage for girls. In the intermediate classes where I taught, the presence of girls in the classrooms was very rare, only two in the ninth grade, and three in the seventh grade. The eighth grade was completely devoid of females, while the number of male students in the three grades was about 90 students. What was noticeable was that the two girls in the ninth grade were close to each other, and I later learned that even school absences were agreed upon in advance between them. They felt estranged in that space crowded with male students, and while the boys boasted of their swimming skills in the nearby canal, the girls’ answer to my question of whether they swam or wanted to was accompanied by sadness and despair: “It is not allowed or permissible for us to swim.” The most oppressive thing was that they were forced, even more than the males, to transport the canal water for drinking, washing, and carrying it with metal sheets from the same canal that their male peers played in.
Later on, I got to know many women from the village closely, entered their homes and formed friendships. They and their children would plant and harvest corn, in addition to other tasks. However, marketing the crops and communicating with the outside world was a task monopolized by men only. On one occasion, a teacher invited us to attend his underage cousin’s wedding, who was a ninth-grade student the year before the wedding. When we hinted at her young age, the other teachers’ response was, “Either marriage at this age or spinsterhood. These are our traditions.”
As for the school building, it consisted of four rooms: three for classrooms and one for administration and teachers. There was another building attached to it that contained three more elementary classrooms. The school operated in two shifts: morning and evening. The school building had a non-functional restroom for both students and teachers, and its door remained locked with thick iron chains throughout the school year. Previous female teachers told me that it had been idle for years, and while males could relieve themselves without embarrassment in the areas surrounding the school, female students’ suffering was multiplied. Meanwhile, we were in daily contact with the women in the nearby houses, at least during the school day.
Public life in the Euphrates and Syrian Jazeera region
The rural agricultural and pastoral character predominates in the public life of the Euphrates and Syrian Jazeera region, and the discovery of oil in 1969 did not witness any development or transition to an industrial urban stage. The daily burdens of life are a heavy burden on the residents, and most of these areas still lack sewage, water, electricity, and paved roads networks, and health services are limited and scarce. Diseases and epidemics, especially among women and children, are rampant, which drives their inhabitants to endure the hardships of traveling to the capital and major cities to receive treatment.
Although the region possesses half of Syria’s water wealth, it still relies on seasonal rain-fed agriculture, due to the high costs of pumping and the absence of modern collective irrigation projects. This made the area vulnerable to seasons of drought and famine, as happened in 2021, where the successive and recurring collapses resulted in pushing the population of the Jazeera to migrate to the major Syrian cities for decades, forming what is known as “poverty belts” in its suburbs. For example, most of the residents of the (Zorava) neighborhood in Damascus are victims of drought and neglect that hit their villages, and neighboring countries were a refuge for another group of them.
“The region suffers from a clear weakness in administrative institutions and its subordination to the center, in addition to deliberate policies of neglect. This has reinforced the tribal characteristic in it towards further control over public life through a complex set of prevailing customs and values, alongside statutory laws that have not witnessed any superiority over what is customary in tribal culture.
The region is characterized by its richness and coexistence of its ethnic and religious components, despite tensions that occur from time to time. However, the interplay and intermingling of cultures largely preserve the cohesion of the local fabric. But the regime employed this diversity to serve its discriminatory policies, and its security institutions sometimes increased the intensity of cross-border conflicts to impose its control and governance over the region by catching and manipulating the threads of the game, by seducing some tribal leaders and local leaders and controlling them, and hitting them with some intelligence tricks aimed at more dominance and power, as happened in Qamishli in 2004.”
Formal Education in Syria during the Ba’ath Era
Since the Ba’ath party rose to power in Syria in 1963, it quickly realized the importance of exerting control over the educational institution. It is no coincidence that two of the founding fathers of the Ba’ath, Zakie Al-Arsouzi and Michel Afleq, both had an educational background and had promoted their party activities within schools in the late 1940s and 1950s. After Hafez Al-Assad’s coup and his rise to power in 1970, a systematic process of indoctrination in the educational system began, with the importation of experiences from totalitarian countries aimed at taming and indoctrinating the society’s children from a young age. The official educational institution was characterized primarily by the Ba’ath ideology and military clothing. The Talae Al-Baath organization was established in 1974 with a direct directive from Hafez Al-Assad, followed by the Youth of the Revolution and the Student Union. All of these organizations associated with education had one role, which was to promote the Ba’ath ideology and approach in society. They all held regular training activities or “camps,” with the term “camp” being not arbitrary but rather an expression of the ideological belief that aimed at militarizing the state and society. The education system lost its civil character and became the primary means of passing the regime’s policies after the army. This was evident from the uniform military dress code, morning slogans praising the Ba’ath and its leader, strict disciplinary measures, and the introduction of military education classes known as “Al-Futuwwa.”
The harsh military punishments, such as crawling on the ground, shaving of hair, and other forms of physical and psychological violence, in addition to weapons training and live ammunition firing, have reached their peak in the mid-1980s through the airborne and lightning military parachute courses. Those who undergo these courses are given additional marks that enable them to outperform their peers as a bribe.
It is not surprising that more than a thousand schools have turned into security centers and prisons with the beginnings of peaceful protests, where all kinds of torture and liquidation were practiced as a result of these policies adopted in the educational institution structure of the regime as one of its main tools for taming and domestication with the aim of controlling the process of upbringing and education in its political sense. This is one of the most important and complex processes of enslavement that the Syrian people have been subjected to for five decades, where the task entrusted to this institution is still to eradicate critical and argumentative thinking and replace it with indoctrination and submission without any objection.
In order to maintain party control over education, the regime followed strict security measures in selecting teaching staff, and tried its best to neutralize and prevent non-Baathists from assuming leadership roles. The security plan attached to the directorates of education in the provinces directly oversaw appointments, transfers, and the separation of those deemed to pose a threat to state security, according to the evaluation of those agencies. In the city of Aleppo, for example, the code name used among appointed or transferred teachers to the region of Ain al-Arab/Kobani was “exile,” and the name of the eastern countryside filled teaching staff with panic and disappointment due to the difficulties they would face there, such as weak infrastructure and tribal relationships that, if conflicting with the teacher’s tendencies, would lead to undesirable outcomes. As a result, the allocation of these areas and other provinces in the Jazeera, such as Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor, were often viewed as punishment by the Ministry/Directorates of Education, or as a means of indoctrination at the beginning of employment, to the point of assigning teachers as deputies “without specialized training or a high school diploma.” The regime’s policies did not contribute to identifying real needs and developing local competencies to fill these positions, or to creating sustainability in the education sector without interruption. What is surprising is that applicants for teaching jobs were not interviewed to assess their skills and experiences in the profession, as the security investigation was sufficient for acceptance or rejection, since the goal of the educational process was to maintain the regime and its continuity, and to enforce obedience and loyalty.
The regime has always boasted about the free education at all three levels – elementary, middle, and high school, and even university, and counted it as a credit and achievement of its Corrective Movement. However, it is not a natural right of citizenship and a duty of the state towards its citizens. In 1986, Law 35 was issued, obligating elementary education, and in 2002, Law 32 was imposed, obligating education for both elementary and middle school, and combining the two stages under the name of “basic education”. In exchange for this massive measure, the regime did not build enough schools to accommodate the large number of students who must continue their education until the end of the second cycle of basic education. Instead, overcrowding and reducing the number of high schools were the most common measures, leading to a decline in the quality of education to unprecedented levels, without considering the differences and objective conditions between different Syrian regions, or taking into account the state’s need for vocational education (vocational schools), where many students, especially males, were forced to move from basic education to compulsory military service or joining the labor market without any qualification. Meanwhile, customs such as early marriage did not allow girls to join secondary education, let alone agricultural work, which required a significant increase in the number of dropouts from education annually.
The regime did not make a great effort to address the phenomenon of school dropouts, and administrative corruption worsened its spread and disrupted laws. Traditions were left free to control the fate of children, and females had the largest share of the dropout phenomenon in the Euphrates and Jazeera regions. While four Syrian cities, Sweida, Daraa, Quneitra, and Tartous, celebrated in 2010 as provinces free of illiteracy for the age group of 15 to 45, provinces like Al-Hasakah, Raqqa, Aleppo, and Deir ez-Zor suffered from a high dropout rate for elementary and intermediate school students.
In fact, this significant disparity was the result of long neglect of the Syrian Euphrates and Jazeera regions and was not susceptible to camouflage. The dropout rate in both elementary and intermediate stages reached 22% in some northern and eastern provinces, especially among females. The three eastern provinces topped the list of the highest illiteracy and dropout rates. It is enough to know that the first university established in Deir ez-Zor province was in 2006, followed by branches in Raqqa and Al-Hasakah. The time gap between the discovery of oil in the region and the establishment of the first university was about four decades, which created a significant knowledge gap in academic achievement between these provinces and the rest of the Syrian cities, especially among females who, due to traditions and customs, were not allowed to move easily to major cities to complete their education as young men did. This hindered the economic and social development of those areas indefinitely.
It is clear that the absence of vocational education in the primary stage has left many girls victims of dropout and early marriage. However, it should be noted that the women’s secondary education promoted by the regime has nothing to do with feminism as a philosophical approach aimed at gender equality. Rather, it is an extension of the social roles assigned to women and expected of them because they are female, and this is cemented by the educational curricula that teach cooking, sewing, embroidery, knitting, and some other nurturing roles such as child-rearing. Rola Al-Rifai and Wadha Sultan from the third grade of high school told SANA’s representative that they had fulfilled their dream of joining this school, which worked on developing their skills and talents in various handicraft professions that women are interested in. This leads us to the true view of the regime’s institutions towards women and exposes the falsehood of its claims to improve their situation. If there was a serious intention to work towards gender equality, men could also have joined those professions, which are undoubtedly necessary, given that many men practice them, but for pay. However, in the case of girls, the requirement is to feminize these professions and attach them to them as a voluntary duty that they provide for free within the family only, and few graduates of those schools pursue paid professions.
On the other hand, during its five decades, the regime was unable to impose free and compulsory education for kindergarten, despite the importance of this stage in building personality. Only middle and upper-class families could afford its financial burdens, as it is still owned by the private sector. The curricula are still not standardized, and they follow the orientations and inclinations of the kindergarten owner, while the usual security supervision has focused on affirming and consolidating loyalty to the authority. The task was entrusted to the Women’s Union through its branches in the provinces to take on this role, while the efficiency of the staff was not a priority. The basic criterion is obedience to the owner’s (director’s) directives and accepting the low pay for teachers.
Lack of Diversity in Educational Curricula
As a confirmation of using education for the benefit of the Syrian regime’s domination and control over society, and linking everything related to that with the Ba’ath Party and its close and trusted associates in power, a unified version of the obedient and conformist citizen was imposed. To understand the societal gap between the reality of diversity in the Syrian fabric and the one-color enforced by the regime through the use of school curricula, we will explore two examples of these curricula: the first chapter of the student book for the second grade of primary school, and the national education for the ninth grade, to illustrate the real picture without much effort in theoretical description.
The denial of diversity is evident from the title of the book, “Arabic is My Language.” Without a doubt, Arabic is one of the Syrian languages, the language of official institutions, and the language of the majority of Syrians who must learn it as a common language. However, it is not necessarily the language of every Syrian child. Such a title implies that it is the only language present, while other local Syrian languages of other components are absent. There is a political goal and message summarized in choosing that title instead of “the Arabic language,” implying that all Syrian students are Arabs only. The real goal here is not an excessive respect for the Arabic language by the regime’s institutions but rather to impose it as one of the tools for producing the conformist citizen of one color.
Since our discussion pertains to the Euphrates region and the Syrian Jazeera, rich in ethnic and religious diversity, a large portion of the children in that area, wherever diversity is present, will find themselves estranged from the curriculum. This is the first introduction to the separation from reality and the stripping of human skins and giving them the identity of the monolithic and centralized system by force. “Society does not impose only its culture through its economic system, social structure, and distribution of power and prestige, but every individual is subject to a process of education and enlightenment aimed at preserving the existing system by means of customs, traditions, and values.”
The book is not devoid of many contradictions between appearance and content. The irony is that the cover image features a girl/student, but the language used is strictly gender-neutral, addressing both genders. The monolithic polar language starts from the introduction, which states: “I have addressed what a second-grade student should learn.. Interacting with his/her environment and expressing his/her feelings in a proper manner.” The discourse is entirely masculine, contrary to the image the cover wants to present of the system. Some may not see a problem in using a reminder language for both genders, but the issue of inclusive language cannot be ignored, especially with a language like Arabic, which is considered one of the most inflected languages. When feminine sentences are absent from the examples, it is an implicit message, whether intentional or not, that the “owner” of the book is a male child, not a female one.
For example, as stated in one of the examples: “I swim, you swim, he swims”, the sentence was not feminized despite the necessity to do so, because feminizing it would change the sentence! It is surprising that ten of the fourteen authors of the book are women, where male authors make up only 28.5%, but it is clear that gender experience criteria were not present in the selection of female authors for the task. The education system is still in its early stages, with femininity and attachment to the caretaker role being considered primarily a woman’s task according to societal norms.
In fact, we cannot expect to bridge the gender gap between sexes unless educational policies change. Considering gender sensitivity is not contingent on the number of women who participated in curriculum development, but rather on their actual experience in the field and their commitment to emphasizing equality and non-discrimination between sexes in the curriculum. All of this is contingent on having experience as a prerequisite.
The 84-page book is filled with many discriminatory stereotypes against girls. In some of the pictures that brought children together on the basketball court, there were no girls. The family consisting of a mother, father, two brothers, and a sister has defined roles within specific societal templates. The mother teaches the oldest boy, the youngest boy plays with blocks, and the girl plays with dolls, a bed, and a table. The father is in his own corner of the house, away from their noise, browsing his personal computer. The book ignores the participatory principle within the same family in the picture that will intervene in shaping the child’s imagination and emotions.
The boy and the girl each play alone with predetermined toys for their future roles, the boy’s toys are for building, while the girl’s toys are for the caretaker role, and the father in his corner is like the school principal!
The image represents a reflection of reality, but here comes the importance of the question, should the curriculum remain a reflection of an unjust reality, and then what is the role of education and learning in change?!
The book is limited to representing a one-sided environment, which is the environment of the city with its wide and crowded streets and the lifestyle of the urban family, without any clear indication of the lifestyle of the rural family, as if Syria is not primarily an agricultural country! And in an effort by the authors to present an idealized image of reality, even if it is far from it, they borrowed an image of a European children’s playground, which reveals the extent of the falsehood that those in official institutions try to export. At the same time that the entire environment of rural Syria was ignored, three orphaned images were included – one for the Euphrates Dam, the second for Lake Assad, and the third for the Bedouin of Syria. The exercise was limited to oral expression only, without mentioning even one sentence about that environment. But the authors did not neglect to include an image of the two lions, father and son, as usual in all Syrian school books, as an ideological ritual to confirm the children’s identity with the dictatorship’s fatherhood “symbol of the nation”
The previous sample highlights the sharp contrast between content and reality in Syrian curricula, and the brainwashing that children may experience from an early age, which can later become a heavy burden, especially for children from rural areas who may have only seen the city on television. The curriculum contains a hidden message to detach from their invisible rural environment, which can be seen as an invitation to escape to the city if the opportunity arises. When they are overwhelmed by ambition, they will have to migrate to the visible and recognized place (the city).
As for the sample of the curriculum regarding the concept of nation and nationalism, until recently it was summarized in the subject of “national socialist education,” which was entirely devoted to teaching the ideology and approach of the Baath Party as the leader of the state and society according to Article 8 of the 1973 Constitution. Recently, the regime preempted the idea of change and created new curricula that claimed to adopt the values of citizenship in the culturally diverse Syrian society. The model that will be relied upon in the subsequent analysis is the ninth-grade curriculum for the subject of nationalism.
The materials of the book quickly reveal that the eye through which the student is supposed to see those values is the eye of the regime, where its statements are presented as certain texts within striking frameworks as a summary of learning. “We have gone beyond the idea of coexistence to full integration among Syrians… No more coexistence, but rather integration and homogeneity,” that statement is taken from the hate speech delivered by Bashar al-Assad against his opponents and supporters, disregarding the losses that affected Syrian social capital during the years of conflict that followed the revolution against his regime. While the curriculum promotes the idea of cultural richness and diversity in Syrian society, the paradox comes on the same page: “Cultural diversity is one of the most prominent characteristics of the Arab Syrian society… Cultural diversity in Syrian society is a source of richness and civilizational interaction,” and it becomes clear that the authors of the curriculum are keen not to mention the components that make up Syrian society and omit them in the book’s text. At the same time, the method used is to fear the student from knowing the full facts and to be satisfied with deficient information and confiscate the community’s eligibility through students and prevent them from gaining critical and analytical vision. The curriculum also seeks to implicitly criminalize freedom by promoting stability as the opposite of chaos and conflict, “the more stable the society, the more it can harness its available potential to achieve development and produce factors of its development, while in cases of conflict, the society directs all its potential and energies to settle the conflict in its favor and maintain its survival.” The meaning of the society, to understand the phrase accurately, is (the regime), as it is the one that directed all its energies to war against its people, and in other words, in the same context, it is stated: “The worst stability is better than any conflict.
This suggestion to the student is a rejection of the change that is considered the main goal of the entire educational process. As for the Syrian identity, although gender equality is present in the textbook, linguistically, the value of equality was not considered. The language remained as it is in textbooks, masculine in form, in one of the few images in the book. Contrary to the values of diversity presented in the curriculum, diversity was completely absent, and the image represented only the urban class, with men in ties, two in number, and unveiled women of the same number. Here, the absence of diversity cannot be justified by forgetfulness, as the authors of the book are a group of “experts,” and they are assumed to be Syrians, and familiar with the Syrian national fabric.
As for the analysis of the reasons for not surpassing sub-identities, it is stated as follows: “Ignorance, backwardness, and bigotry among some members of society contribute to a state of inability to overcome narrow sub-identities (sectarian, regional, tribal, clan, …” The curriculum tries to leapfrog the reasons for ignorance, backwardness, and bigotry, which the state and authority bear primary responsibility for if they exist, to stigmatize groups of Syrians for not transcending their sub-identities. It is noteworthy that the “diversity” promoted by the textbook itself later becomes accused of backwardness, bigotry, and ignorance.
While in the last third of the book, the book directs the student towards the aspect of resistance and Arabism, followed immediately by forms of human rights violations committed by the Zionist enemy, without leaving any room for the students to conclude that these rights are universal and that the duty to combat violations includes any part of the world, including Syria! The book includes a box for some parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asking students to identify the violations committed by the Zionist occupation against our people in Palestine, “Work to criminalize the Zionist occupation by putting the appropriate article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for each crime committed”, so the curriculum claims to build critical thinking, but it does not trust the ability of the future generation’s minds to choose a cause themselves and identify the violations that have occurred against them. It is as if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is only specified for the resistance group and one issue, in an attempt to cancel analytical critical thinking in identifying and dismantling issues. Among the seven articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights placed in a colored rectangle, the Syrian regime violated all of them without exception: deprivation of nationality, forced displacement, torture, arbitrary detention, and more. However, the curriculum directs the student’s mind towards a single external direction that necessarily commits all of these violations.
Through these two models, one can form a preliminary understanding of the curriculum adopted by the system, and recruit selected expertise to design it according to the principle of loyalty to the ideological agendas of the system, to formulate the sustainability of indoctrinating the future. Where the indoctrination approach is followed, “the task of banking education is to reduce the creative ability of students or to eliminate it completely in order to serve the purposes of the oppressors who do not want the world to become exposed to these people and become a subject of change.” Therefore, the indoctrination, which in one of its aspects is a barrier to change, was not established in vain, but for reasons of inhibiting creativity and restraining learners from free critical thinking. Between form and content and reality, there is a great divide that is difficult to bridge, and educational policies have largely focused on maintaining dominance and avoiding the cycle of change.
Obstacles to women’s education in the Euphrates and Jazeera region of Syria
The objective circumstances related to women’s learning are similar in different countries in the region and almost reach the point of conformity in rural areas. These differences decrease in big cities with broad economic relations. Before delving into the obstacles and difficulties faced by women’s learning in the Euphrates and Jazeera region of Syria, it is necessary to point out what distinguishes these difficulties from other Syrian regions, which can be summarized in three points:
- The nature of social relations within cities in the Euphrates and Jazeera region is not very different from the surrounding countryside, unlike the Syrian west countryside where the differences are more significant between rural and urban areas.
- The economic basis in the Jazeera region of Syria depends on agriculture and grazing, while in other rural areas, agriculture intersects with industrial and commercial activities due to their proximity and easy access to major cities.
- The distance of the Jazeera region of Syria from the capital and other major cities made it administratively and service-wise neglected, which affected education specifically, creating a knowledge and cultural gap regarding its Syrian environment.
To facilitate the research process into the obstacles to women’s education in the Jazeera region of Syria, we will divide these difficulties into three main axes. The first represents what is fixed, established, and dedicated through non-material heritage, customs, and traditions. The second axis is related to circles of violence based on gender against women.
- Intangible Cultural Heritage: According to the UNESCO Convention of 2003, it is defined as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage… Only intangible cultural heritage which is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development, can be considered for inclusion.” This heritage produces the mental tools that generate local culture and prevailing values, those that are handed down as an alternative to knowledge in the face of weak educational and legal institutions.
The distinctive aspect of intangible heritage is that it entirely assumes the role of regulator and arbitrator in managing public life in most countries suffering from underdevelopment and illiteracy, and strongly influences the formulation of statutory laws that are often rejected and hinder the wheels of change. It also contributes to shaping the characteristics that distinguish one people from another, creating local differences and defining what is known as sub-identities with a particular local character. The more solid the overlaps and commonalities of intangible heritage are within a given country, the more its societies are distinguished by strength and cohesion. It is important to note that such strength does not necessarily take a positive turn all the time, in terms of a unifying national identity, but can also take a negative and hostile direction, especially towards the different neighboring cultures, which may result in isolationism, inwardness, and rejection of the outside world. The essence of the danger of this heritage and its impact on the status of women in general lies in its role in perpetuating and reinforcing discrimination against women in the name of intangible heritage. Its impact on Syrian culture can be summarized in four important points:
- The strong intertwining and overlap between intangible heritage and religion, where in some cases its rules and customs override those of religion. This overlap gives it immunity and sanctity that makes it immune to criticism and inflexible.
- Many of the rules of this heritage, especially those related to women, conflict with many laws and human rights conventions in general, and women’s rights in particular. Those responsible for monitoring such conventions acknowledge the shortcomings and weaknesses of gender policies and their perspective on mechanisms for implementing the provisions of the convention.
- The increasing fears of the communication revolution and globalization have driven some to take refuge behind this intangible heritage and consider it a tool for confrontation against any change, in favor of more conservatism and closure on what is local.
- The failure to achieve democracy after the Arab Spring waves and the armed conflicts that created more chaos reinforced conservatism in general, curbed enlightenment efforts, and eroded trust in concepts of human rights and democracy. This justified bypassing the basic condition of protecting and preserving intangible heritage, “compliance with human rights.”
One of the most significant outcomes of the Syrian war was the strong resurgence of intangible heritage as a decisive alternative to the loss and collapse of state institutions. At times, this resurgence countered what had been surpassed in previous stages of positive development in Syrian society. The absence of education and school dropout led to the adoption of intangible heritage as an alternative and source of sciences and knowledge, as a single perspective for interpreting and dismantling social and natural phenomena.
However, the most dangerous point currently is that the diversity of intangible heritage in a region like the Syrian Jazeera may become a tool for conflict and strife among the diverse and neighboring local environments. Although the beginnings of peaceful activism carried positive indicators that advanced significantly, the brutality and violence of the regime, as well as counter-violence, pushed matters toward chaos and the use of weapons, resulting in the rotation and deployment of intangible heritage, giving it ethnic or religious dimensions and involving it in conflict, apart from the generalization of violence as the only means to resolve differences.
The Syrian Jazeera region is considered, by virtue of the nature of rural and agricultural life and its diversity, fertile ground for intangible heritage in all its manifestations and ramifications. It clearly reflects “the rural environment… that constitutes the objective carrier of intangible heritage,” and women take a wide space in the manifestations of this heritage, as its raw material for passing violence and discrimination against them, which is evident in the forms of marriage prevalent in that geographical area, such as the “hairy marriage,” which is the naming of the girl to her cousin since birth, and he has the right to label her by cutting a piece of her sleeve, as a sign of identification, and some may name her to him while she is still a child, and her engagement is held, waiting for her to grow up to marry her.
In addition to marriage by exchange/barter that allows male relatives to exchange their sister or daughter for a wife without a dowry, as well as the customary marriage payment in cash or kind, and the marriage contract conducted by local elders (informal marriage), which is not registered in civil registries until the first child is born in some cases.
- Gender-based violence: According to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women adopted in 1993, violence is defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” More specifically, it refers to violence that is justified by local culture against women based on their gender, and varies from culture to culture. Gender refers to socially constructed characteristics and roles of men and women, such as customs, roles, and relationships between males and females. Discriminatory behaviors related to power acquired by individuals based on their gender through cultural patterns and behaviors in society, which can be changed if suitable conditions are provided by individuals and groups through fair distribution of influence, power, resources, and development.
Violence against women in the Euphrates region is manifested primarily in the deprivation of economic and social rights, as a result of the concentration of traditions and customs to maintain the continuity of lineage and wealth simultaneously in the hands of tribal leaders or the ruling class, based on male discrimination. Women are a free, exploited, and draining labor force by the family or tribe, and the high dowry in the Syrian Jazeera region is one of the most masculine forms of exploitation, which transfers ownership of women from fathers to husbands. “Women represent a glaring example of … subjugation.”
“It is a social ownership (tribe, village, family, husband and before him the father, son, uncle and paternal uncle), its entity is not owned by it. She cannot choose, and therefore cannot discuss, think, and analyze. She has to surrender to authority, to be subject and a tool.” A large portion of agricultural work and livestock breeding is supported by women, in addition to their roles in caregiving and reproduction in the family, duties that fall solely on their shoulders. The man is the one who controls and manages wealth, power, and expenditures. The extent of exploitation of rural women in Syria is evident, compared to the size of the rural population, which constitutes 47% of the population of Syria and is concentrated in the Jazira region.
The image of the Syrian secular system that supports women dissolves as soon as we look at the Personal Status Law, which constitutes discrimination and bias against women, “considering it the highest law and the parallel constitution that governs women, it has not been amended to keep pace with economic, political, and social changes and developments … but took its sanctity as a religious law by choosing the sayings of male scholars that are most in line with customs.”
The collusion and intersection of legislative violence with customary violence has complicated women’s situations and made any possibility of positive change in their conditions unlikely in the near term. In 2019, the regime amended some personal status laws in an attempt to change its image to the outside world, more than responding to pressure from demands for change from within. However, the step was just a formal measure that did not include a substantive change towards women’s justice and the abolition of all forms of discrimination against them, but rather as a kind of customary deception that overlooks the entitlements of the stage. “The law as a whole remains identical in its essence to the original law established in 1953, which does not differ in its overall content from the Shariah judgments code issued during the Ottoman era in 1876, and the decision on family rights (or the book of Shariah judgments in personal status on the Hanafi doctrine of Qadri Pasha) issued in 1917 by the same administration, both of which primarily relied on the Hanafi legal doctrine.” The implication is that there is a persistent insistence on keeping women’s situation deteriorated, regardless of the increasing needs for change and the changing traditional roles of Syrian women in recent years, in addition to the challenges that have shown numerous defects in laws and regulations pertaining to women. The regime still believes that dressing up some phrases will be an alternative to issuing fair and non-discriminatory laws regarding the obstacles that stand in the way of gender equality. Polygamy remains permissible, and patriarchal authority remains exclusively for men, and all laws pertaining to early marriage, guardianship, divorce, custody, and inheritance give privileges to men over women, in addition to the lenient law on crimes committed against women in the name of honor, which allows a man to take a woman’s life with impunity. With such laws in place, domestic violence continues to be a fait accompli within the family, practiced by male family members against females as a socially and legally acquired right.
- The absence of sustainable development plans in the Syrian Euphrates and Jazira region Syrians are aware that the regime’s army costs them between 70% and 80% of their country’s budget, although these figures are not publicly disclosed. However, some may not know that the budget for the Ministry of Education and Higher Education accounts for only a quarter of the budget for the health sector, according to the 2020 budget. Despite both sectors having the same importance and impact on citizens, they can be considered as the basis for sustainable development and a measure of progress in society. As for the sector that is primarily important for the Euphrates and Jazira region, the Ministry of Agriculture had a budget of only 10 billion, which is four billion less than the budget of the Ministry of Information. This means that the share of the media, which promotes the regime, exceeds agriculture by 40%. This, if anything, indicates that education and agriculture still occupy a low position on the regime’s priorities scale. This explains the instability in the lives of farmers due to exposure to droughts and reliance on traditional farming methods, and the weakness in the use of technology, which ultimately affects women and children.
The Public Space Law was abolished under the Emergency Law effective March 8, 1963, rendering the Associations Law issued in 1958 meaningless after this arbitrary action, making it impossible to form women’s organizations that work to improve women’s living conditions. Only the General Women’s Union affiliated with the Ba’ath Party, as a union with authority assigned to it, was tasked with conducting some literacy courses, sewing and beauty courses, and preschool education, without approaching the discriminatory laws that hindered women’s access to resources, control over them, and building their independent personalities. Some secondary organizations and associations affiliated with some progressive national front parties were able to operate to a limited extent, such that they do not pose a competing threat to the official women’s union. All of these obstacles were the reason for the continued decline in the education of Mesopotamian women, and the present has its multiple challenges due to the ongoing bloody conflict, and the decaying official education structures have shifted to the shores of the authorities of the status quo, with different ideological orientations.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The reality of women in the Euphrates region needs more attention from policymakers. When it is said that the Syrian Jazeera is the Syrian food basket, it means that women and their children are the ones who practically provide this basket. “Without the rural woman leaving her home every day before sunrise, the men who oppose women’s liberation (and those who do not oppose it as well) would not be able to have breakfast every morning, nor find clothes to cover their bodies, nor find paper on which to write their backward ideas about women.” The conditions of oppression, exploitation, and subjugation overshadow their basic needs, and are absent from development plans aimed at improving their conditions, especially in the field of education as a fundamental and mandatory condition for starting sustainable development. At a time when their suffering is being ignored, and violence practiced against them is considered a fixed cultural legacy that cannot be changed, through a complex network of discriminatory social and economic relationships against them, the equation of gender equality is eroded in the face of the hammer of customs and traditions and the anvil of discriminatory laws against women, in a repeated cycle of legislated violence against women, through a complicity between society and the ruling authority. This leads us to the conclusion that the regime was not interested in improving the situation of women as it tried to portray itself, otherwise five decades of monopoly of power would have been enough to bring about change, perhaps several times, unless it was itself the greatest tool of oppression.
The recommendations can be summarized as follows:
- The education system in Syria needs a comprehensive rebuilding aimed at reviewing comprehensive conceptualizations and rephrasing them to create a national consensus aimed at bringing together Syrian citizens and reflecting a future image of the active Syrian citizen in their environment.
- Focus on horizontal development in the field of education as a basic right for all Syrians, regardless of their place of residence or other considerations.
- Work on eliminating all forms of discrimination and violence against women in both the public and private spheres, and implement international treaties and conventions that Syria has signed but not yet implemented, including the CEDAW Convention, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and Resolution 1325, and draw up national plans to enhance the effective participation of women in all fields.
- The necessity of clear public education policies in the provisions of the upcoming Syrian constitution, with a clear formulation that does not accept the dominance or guardianship of any political party.
- Drawing up serious policies that offer sustainable solutions to the problem of violence against women as a prelude to addressing its spread in society as a whole, in order to build sustainable peace based on mutual respect and acceptance of differences.
- Adopting the critical analytical approach in educational curricula to build a creative and free-thinking society, starting with building the Syrian individual who is capable of facing future challenges, is crucial for building a civilized Syria. This should involve identifying the needs of all diverse groups in the process of rebuilding education, while considering the principle of Syria’s unity as a land and people, and the sovereignty of the Syrian people over social infrastructure.
- Additionally, building a culture of citizenship, diversity, and peace through education, and emphasizing the principle of equal opportunities for all citizens is essential.
References and sources
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