BAR ELIAS, Lebanon — Samar Hijazi stood in front of the judge of the Sunni sharia court in this Bekaa Valley village last month as he addressed her in rapid-fire bursts from behind an imposing desk.
“This is against God’s will,” he said. “If you divorce, you’ll have problems with your children. God will be against you. God won’t bless you. Will you reconsider?”
“No,” she said firmly.
The judge pronounced her divorced. Just like that, Hijazi, 45, was freed from a 33-year marriage to a man she described as abusive and domineering. The refugee from Syria’s war had long wished for such an ending, but it had never seemed possible in her old life. That changed when the family fled to Lebanon two years ago. With shelter and food provided by aid organizations, she was less dependent on her husband. And as she began making decisions for the family and venturing out of the house alone, she felt, for the first time, self-sufficient.
When her husband delivered a beating that left bruises all over her body, she decided she had suffered enough.
“In Syria, because of the family and social pressure, I submitted to him,” she said. “But here, the circumstances we’ve passed through made me stronger. Here, I feel independent.”
For some Syrian women living in Lebanon, the bitter realities of life as a refugee have nourished an unexpected side effect: empowerment. Difficult economic and legal circumstances have pushed women to take on more responsibilities within their families, including many that were once a man’s domain. Uprooted from some familiar social constraints and exposed to programs promoting women’s rights through contact with aid groups, some of them have obtained a degree of personal autonomy they never experienced in Syria.
More than a million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, seeking refuge from a war that has raged for more than four years. Amid fears that the influx would overwhelm the fragile country, in 2014 the government began requiring visas for arriving Syrians. Last year, it introduced stringent residency requirements that made obtaining legal status impossible for many of them. That has sharply restricted mobility — and the ability to work — for men, who are more at risk of arrest for undocumented status than women.
As a result, the women shoulder much of the burden of taking care of the family. It is an enormous shift for those who in Syria never left their houses without a male relative.
“Many of these women come from conservative societies where men do everything and women stay at home,” said Nibal Al Alow, senior social counselor at Basmeh and Zeitooneh, an organization founded by Syrian expatriates that works with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “Now they have to register the children in school, buy the food, take children to the doctor and take care of everything. Women have taken on larger roles.”
Increasingly, that means women are working outside the home. The resulting economic empowerment is a major catalyst for change, giving women more say in decisions such as how the family spends its money or whether to send children to school.
For Um Mohamed, a 28-year-old mother of two, moving to Lebanon opened a door to the world beyond her home. In Syria, she rarely left the house, and never by herself. Her husband shopped for food, and she stayed home to cook and take care of the children. But in Lebanon, he doesn’t work, and she takes a minibus to a women’s empowerment center run by the Amel Association aid group in a Beirut suburb to learn how to make jewelry and decorative wall hangings that sell for small sums.
“In the beginning, my husband didn’t want me to come here, and he tried to convince me not to,” said Um Mohamed, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of angering her husband. But she prevailed, partly because of their difficult financial situation.
“I’m happy about it. I feel I can come and go as I like,” she said, a smile creasing her lightly freckled face.
She now dreams about opening her own business when she eventually returns to Syria.
Yet as in Um Mohamed’s case, the increased freedom for women often stems from the disempowerment of men. Many Syrian men say they feel ashamed of being unable to provide for their families and allowing their wives to work while they sit at home.
“When you talk about what is being a man [in Syrian society], it’s the person who is responsible for the family, who provides the money and the house,” said Gisele Abichahine, a psychotherapist who works at the Men Center run by Abaad, a civil society organization focused on gender equality.
When they can’t provide these things, she said, some channel the resulting fear and frustration into physical violence against their wives and children — a widespread problem among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to aid groups. Empowering women can make it worse.
And not all women have experienced progress in Lebanon. For those who came from less conservative families in urban areas of Syria, the move can restrict their freedom, said Maria Assi, director of Beyond Association, which works with refugees. Girls and women who may have gone out freely at home are now kept inside by fathers and husbands afraid for their safety here or constrained by new neighbors from more conservative areas.
Still, for many women, the change has been significant. Hijazi was married at age 12 and bore six children in quick succession. They all lived under the thumb of her husband, who she said didn’t allow her to leave their home in a Damascus suburb without him. She said he beat her and the children. When she fled to her parents’ house, they sent her back.
The first time she stood up to her husband was when she demanded the family leave Syria in 2014. Their home had been bombed, and destruction followed them everywhere they fled. One son was detained at a government checkpoint and never heard from again, and two sons-in-law were killed in airstrikes, leaving seven grandchildren fatherless. Hijazi insisted it was time to leave, despite her husband’s opposition.
“He was behaving like he was God, controlling my life,” she said. “And when I took this decision, that’s the first point I started feeling independent from him.”
Now she lives in a spare and tidy prefabricated structure in a dusty refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. A small bed is pushed against the wall in the corner, and a brown flowered curtain hides shelves neatly piled with clothes and suitcases. It’s small, but it’s hers, and it’s safe.
At her age, Hijazi is unlikely to remarry. But even if she did, she said, she would never accept a husband who restricted her freedom.
“I want to prove to myself that I exist and I am on my own, and to be free,” she said.
Suzan Haidamous in Bar Elias contributed to this report. The reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation Reporting Grants for Women’s Stories Initiative.