Not to get all National Geographic on you, but it’s definitely interesting living in a place that has such a defined culture. I know, I know most places in the world have distinctive cultures (duh) but living in the U.S., in a family that was not too big on being ‘Indian’ has left me relatively culture-less I think, which makes it all the more interesting to observe others…
Anyways, here are some interesting things that I’ve noticed about women in Damascus in my time here (sorry for the generalizations, and I’m sure there are exceptions):
— Their dress: First of all, from what I’ve seen, generally speaking, no one in Damascus wears traditional Arab clothing (the colorful abayas and jilbabs you see in the souq). Everyone wears Western clothing, i.e., long skirts (denim is really in), pants, jeans etc. The trend now is towards tattered skirts (the bottom looking like it was cut in a zig-zag fashion), and towards ‘suits’, i.e. long skirts and short jackets in the same color, khaki, denim, funky orange, etc. Most women here wear hijab, and many also wear the monteau. Monteaus are basically chic coats, similar to the kind women wear in the U.S. over a suit or a dress, but they are ankle length, and worn over normal clothes when a woman goes outside of her home. It’s like a jilbab, but it’s not loose or flowy, but more fitted. The typical Syrian hijab is tucked in, tight around the face, and not flowy or big. Women almost always wear high-heeled shoes, and a coordinating purse. The overall effect is a look that’s “smart” in the British sense of the word: Women always look well-dressed, neat, ironed, and well-groomed, with nothing shabby or untidy.
I was in a photo shop in our neighborhood the other day, and a woman walked in wearing a perfectly tailored charcoal gray monteau, a black hijab tucked in, and khimar the Syrian style — a second black scarf, wrapped around from the back, and appropriately pinned so that the bottom half of her face was also concealed. She had fair skin, dark sunglasses; a chunky ring of gold on her finger and then a ring of diamonds; a black purse, and killer-high heeled shoes; the perfect example of the Syrian woman; feminine, Muslim, confident, and well put together.
How they manage to maintain this is beyond me, who usually returns home after a walk in the souq or school with the bottom six inches of my clothes covered in dust, and my hijab needing a repinning The high-heels also astonish me, since the roads here are not always smooth, and I’ve fallen myself more than once wearing normal flat shoes…
The monteau is also something that takes some getting used to. I’m not comfortable with the idea of uniformity. My first response to it was, does hijab necessarily have to mute your personality? But their perspective is: The uniformity is only in the public sphere. Why do random people on the street have the right to ‘know’ you or your personality? That’s something you show to the people that are important in your life, not to just anybody. (And this flows into their mannerisms in public too, read below…)
The ‘Bedouin’ women (that come from the outskirts of the city) are very different. The older women are usually stocky, with tanned and weathered faces, and wear velvet jilbabs or black dresses that have elastic at the waist. They wear black hijabs, and then a colorful one tied on top bandanna style. We often see them in our neighborhood on the weekends, because one of the local masjids provides free Quran courses for them and their children. They tend to be loud and bold, as opposed to the more prim and sophisticated manners of the city folks
Some women wear niqab in the way I described above, and others wear it similarly, but pin the second scarf under their nose, instead of on its bridge. Some women, especially the older ones, wear niqab by draping a second cloth over their head, that shrouds their entire face. I think this style is slowly fading though, because it’s not as often seen as the others.
— Their behavior in public: Women are very prim and proper Speaking and laughing loudly is considered uncultured, as well as smiling or talking to shop-keepers, drivers, etc. Women though are very independent in Damascus; they drive, take public transportation on their own, go out to eat at restaurants, work, study, etc. I think this is one of the reasons why many single sisters come here to study… the culture does not have a lot of restrictions on what women can and cannot do.
— Their knowledge: There are many, many knowledgeable women in Damascus, which is an extremely refreshing thing to see. They have really taken the forefront when it comes to Quranic studies, memorization and Tajweed; and every Shari’ah college has a parallel program for women. This is one of the things I love about living here: meeting strong and knowledgeable Muslim women, whose philosophy is that women, though having different responsibilities from men, have their own unique and important role to play in service of this deen, and they put that into practice in their actions. It’s not just talk, and their ability to balance being a mother/wife/daughter with working effectively for Islam is something we need more of in the US, where I think we fall into extremes.
— Marriage: There is a really traditional understanding of marriage and a lot of focus on it, especially for the young girls. There is a lot of emphasis in established families on preserving a girl’s reputation, by making sure she’s not going out late, hanging out with the wrong crowd, etc. In this respect I feel that Syria is much like many other traditional Muslim cultures (Pakistan, India, etc) but not to the same extent. It’s considered odd for a man to help out at home or in the kitchen, and the pressure for having children comes immediately after someone gets married. I guess it balances out, because there is also a strong sense of manhood and responsibility among the Syrians; it’s shameful for a man to be unemployed or fall short in providing for his family, and out-right wrong for his wife to feel obliged to work. In many ways women in Syria are an interesting blend of traditional and modern; much like its landscape. Walking down the street from my apartment, you will see an eight-hundred year old masjid; and directly across from it, an internet cafe. Or a student of knowledge, wearing traditional clothing, looking as if he stepped out of a long ago century, hop a suzuki to get to a masjid on the mountain side. That’s just life in Shaam walhamdulillah.