Life in Exile: New Roles and New Challenges for Syrian Women

Many women are here in Bekaa without men, only with their children; four on average, but I know mothers with up to 12 children. Those women are now the main bread winners.’

These are the words of Syrian activist Majd Chourbaji, director of the human rights organisation Basamat, as she explains the situation of women in Lebanon’s central Bekaa valley. Bekaa is a region close to the Syrian border which hosts around 360.000 refugees from Syria who live in ‘informal tented settlements’ or private houses. Currently around one in five refugee households in Lebanon are headed by women, their husbands having died or gone missing. Many are fighting in Syria or have left their families to embark on the perilous journey over the Mediterranean.

Whether they are accompanied by men or not, life in exile forces women to take new roles and responsibilities. There is an effect on gender relations; whilst women are assuming responsibilities outside the house and increasingly making decisions regarding income and expenditures, those men who remain with their families in exile are losing their roles as breadwinners and decision-makers. This shift should not be misunderstood as an exchange of roles, however. Women continue to shoulder the majority of household chores, and therefore are often under a double pressure, continuing to do the domestic work while assuming the role of providing for the family.

How do these women manage the complex demands of life under exile in Lebanon? How do they survive? What does this daily struggle look like, and what are their biggest concerns?

How Legal Precarity Harms Women

We could describe Lebanon as a piece of land where they put you and say: “Yalla, deal with it yourself.”’ - Majd Chourbaji 

Precarity of life affects all Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Provisions are scarce, and due to the decentralised nature of the refugee camps, many refugees might not be reached by international aid. International support exists mostly on paper, as only a share of pledges made to assist refugees have materialised.[1]

On top of this, the Lebanese government no longer allows the United Nations to register Syrians as refugees. This is possibly because Lebanon never signed the UN convention on refugees.[2] The Lebanese state obliges all Syrians over the age of fifteen to have a valid residency agreement, but this goes hand in hand with considerable costs and difficult conditions. The residency costs 200 Dollar per year/person, and it is also necessary to have a Lebanese sponsor or a properly registered lease agreement. Even if one is able to fulfil these conditions, valid residency does not automatically entitle the holder to obtain a work permit.

This renders all Syrians vulnerable, but affects men and women in different ways. Men are more likely to get stopped and subsequently arrested at checkpoints than women are. Therefore, as most families cannot afford to pay for proper papers for all members, if they have to choose, priority for the residency permit is usually given to the men of the family. Women find it easier to slip into Lebanon’s illegality, but this makes them more vulnerable to harassment.

The same holds true for those who are trafficked across the Mediterranean. If a family can gather the 2000 Dollar often demanded for the trip, it is usually a male member of the family who will go. This is because they are considered less vulnerable to harassment on the journey, and therefore have the greatest chance of arriving safely in a European country. Therefore, restrictions imposed by states who receive refugees on family reunification mostly affect the women and children who are left behind by their husbands and fathers.

Financial Troubles, Family Life and Forced Marriage

Families’ living conditions within the refugee households depend obviously on the resources they have. Majd explains,

the women who are living in houses are in a better situation than those living in settlements. Still, often two families are sharing one apartment in order to be able to pay the rent. At the moment, refugees even need to pay for the tents in a tented settlement. The tents cost about 100 Dollar per month- if they live in houses it is even more. In addition to that, they then need to calculate the water and electricity bills, eventually medicine, and food for a five person household.’

Another concern for families is the schooling of their children. Many Syrian children do not attend school as a result of the war, with the risk now being that a whole generation will grow up without even basic education. One of the worries around this for many families is the potential that such a lack of opportunity creates for religious and political radicalisation. Using international aid, many Lebanese public schools have been refurbished and renovated over the past years and are running second or even third shifts for children to attend. These are not consistent – sometimes the Lebanese curriculum is taught, sometimes the Syrian curriculum. Yet even the minimal fees of these schools are an obstacle to many families placing their children in the classes, as are the expenses of and access to transportation to get them there.

For those women who can afford to get their children into higher education, the question is what will happen next. A combination of legal insecurity and poverty increased the risk that women will experience sexual violence or forced marriage. On top of that, rumours of ‘disappeared’ women around the settlements curb the freedom of movement of young women. Even though over the past years only one case of a woman going missing in Lebanon’s north could be confirmed, the fear that this threat creates is enough to keep parents from having their daughters participate in schooling or other educational activities, even where available.

Some women are pushed to marry - either by these circumstances or by their parents - in order to get out of this miserable situation. Without proper papers, they can only get married in front of a Sheikh; their inability to officially register the marriage means it does not have any legal recognition and therefore no protection for the woman. To marry is often not felt to be a desirable choice for women themselves, but they feel compelled to give in to men’s demands. As Majd Chourbaji explains, ‘some women get married to Lebanese or Syrian men so that they take care of them. But some get divorced after 20 days and the men will marry another, which is a form of hidden prostitution.’

Majd also highlights the problem of child marriage. According to Lebanese law, 12 years is the minimum age for a girl to marry. Child marriages were not uncommon in Syria, especially in the rural areas. Yet now it is rather the vulnerability of families in exile than customary practice that leads to these arrangements. There are also cases of forced marriage, with fathers marrying off their daughters for money. Majd states

‘there was a case of a 19-year-old girl and her father married her to a 50-year-old guy from Aleppo. The father took 1000 Dollar, so he was just selling his daughter to the guy. Of course they haven’t registered officially their marriage. After a month, she couldn’t respond to his sexual demands and she wanted to get divorced and got divorced, all unofficially. All this explains why people here are taking the risk to cross the Mediterranean hoping for a better life. They cannot afford the life here anymore. People are borrowing 2000 Dollar to make this trip possible.’


The Need for Protection Mechanisms

State institutions such as the police, whose mandate it is to protect people, are deeply distrusted by women, making them reluctant to report harassment or abuse. In some cases, Majd says, women in Lebanon are afraid to go to the police station because they fear harassment by the police themselves.

There is a lack in the legislation but at the same time everybody knows that even the existing laws are not being enforced. In Lebanon the police officers ask sometimes for your phone number when you are leaving the Police station, not to call you on the case, but in private. Still, we always ask the women to demand their rights even though there might be no direct and immediate benefit for them.’

The presence of men within refugee households not necessarily change women’s situation for the better. Some men stay at home to avoid checkpoints and many do not have jobs. The sense of disempowerment this creates for men is exacerbated by their wives increasing adoption of traditionally male responsibilities as breadwinners. This often goes hand in hand with domestic violence as men who are forced to stay at home are reluctant to embrace new responsibilities within the home and feel emasculated. Majd observes that in the camps ‘there is more domestic violence due to the fact that women are working and men are not. The men are abusing the women because they feel depressed as they have nothing to do in their life.’

Emancipation? No Turning Back

Despite these challenges, some women experience the new roles forced upon them by exile and war as an emancipatory step. As different human rights activists have observed, women have had to leave their communities, but these communities have been themselves a source of disempowerment. Their new lives provide them with increased freedom to do things they may not have been either able or expected to do before.

However, human rights activists also see a strong link between the perception of the new role as an emancipation and the social class a woman belongs to. Lubna Alkanawati, a human rights activist in Turkey, suggests that 'the middle class for example, and the class that is considered as “intellectual” lives in freedom, regardless of the country they are living in, whether it is Turkey or Lebanon.’ She exhorts us not to forget

‘the “populist” classes that have become more closed and couldn’t get out of their environment and traditions. Many articles and researches were carried out on women who took off their scarves. But come and see those who became more extreme. The vast majority are still living in a “small Syria” inside Turkey, Lebanon and even Europe. This majority is not active, neither politically nor socially. Syrian classes have been divided as there is no land to unite them anymore. Syria was this land.’

Majd Chourbaji states that it might not be a revolutionary moment for women, for some the experience of exile will have changed their lifestyle forever. ‘Many women are saying that they will not go back to the point of departure and will not accept to stay at home for example. Even though they feel the whole burden on them, they like their new role and do not want to go back to the role they had before.’


[1] 12.1 billion Dollar have been pledged during the Donor Conference in London in February 2016. Referring to a report by concern worldwide in May 2016, only 1.2 billion Dollar have been transferred.…

[2] For more information, please compare the Law Library of Congress