When I landed at the Damascus International Airport, thousands of questions were running in my mind. Did I make the right choice? Will I return to India? How safe is it to reach the hotel? Assuming that it’ll probably be my last foreign visit, I exited the airport and took a bus to the hotel.
Once flooded with tourists, now, the Syrian capital looked so deserted to me. Inside the bus, I met a local who could speak English, and when I enquired about the deadly silence and empty roads, he said, “Who will come to a place where there’s no guarantee whether he will see the next day or not.” I didn’t even utter a single word after listening to his statement as it had shaken me to the core.
To distract myself, I looked outside and all I could see was an almost empty highway with very few motorcycles and tiny pickup trucks loaded with people on its flatbed. I didn’t realise that the local, whose name was Askari Alsawi, was looking at me the whole time. Pointing at the road, he said, “This is the highway of death, but don’t be scared you’ll be alright.” I didn’t reply but only smiled at him. Being a journalist, I knew one thing and that was not to get friendly with anyone in a war-torn country. In order to avoid him, I closed my eyes and pretended as if I was sleeping.
After two hours I reached Hotel Jainulabideen, the place where I was to stay for a good amount of time. Upon reaching the reception, I got shocked again. This time it was because of a girl I saw standing at the reception. My imagination, in life, of a woman in a war-torn middle-eastern country was about to be proved wrong.
‘Oppressed and tortured women forced to wear niqab from head to toe with no rights.’ This is the kind of image that pops into the minds of most Indians when thinking about women in the Middle East.
I didn’t expect that in a country like Syria where the abduction of women and girls is so common, I would see a young girl in western attire and working at the reception. After I was done with all the formalities prior to check-in the woman introduced herself as Buthina Qubsi and told me that she was a huge fan of Aishwarya Rai.
After she showed me my room, I asked her how she was working at the hotel. Qubsi told me that despite the crisis, Syria was quite progressive when it came to women and that there are no sorts of restrictions on them.
The hotel where I stayed can be a classic example to tell the world how women can be empowered. Hotel Jainulabideen had a policy, that from the head chef to the hotel manager, only women would work in such positions. Qubsi told me that the hotel owner believed that women were not meant to be caged and they also deserve to work in respectable positions.
Upon enquiring about the reason behind such a policy, the hotel owner, who didn’t wish to be named, informed me that the Syrian war has transformed women’s role in the workforce. As compared to Syrian men, women take more responsibility and are better at decision-making, they said.
Although eight years of continuous war has taken the lives of many men in the country, forcing women to become breadwinners, one fact that cannot be denied is that unlike other Arab countries, Syria gave its women the right to control their assets, own property and manage their own business in 1949 itself.
Not just this, women are also becoming entrepreneurs at a time when the country’s future seems very bleak. According to a report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the rate of female entrepreneurship has risen from 4% in 2009 to 22% in 2017.
When asked about working conditions, Qubsi revealed that the working conditions are not bad but their income is low as the country’s economy has taken a massive toll ever since ISIS turned cities into ruins.
Slamming the patriarchy, she said that despite no restrictions, gender discrimination is rampant. “The problem with men is that they cannot work under women or see them progressing. Their egos prompt them to make comments at us. Thankfully, jobs given here are based on talent and not gender, otherwise our condition would have been really different.”
Mariyam Fatima, the chef of the hotel, believes that things will one day improve in Syria and a time will come when there’ll be no discrimination based on gender or religion.
“I know women are considered a weaker section of society, but we are not weak. We have risked our lives to come out and take up jobs. Women are brave and can face any difficult situation. Things will definitely change for good in Syria, and a time will come when gender or religion-based discrimination will be eradicated from the world,” Mariyam concluded.