NEW YORK—Sitting in an airy meeting space in the heart of New York City on a recent Saturday, a group of young women had traveled a long way—from universities they’re attending across Canada and the United States, after having left Syria over the last several years.
The women were attending a mentorship event as part of “100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives,” a scholarship program that offers them what students and experts say is needed: University scholarships specifically for Syrian women after more than five years of war. Studies have shown that a gender gap emerged in higher education after the start of Syria’s conflict, even though education for women is critical. Not only could it empower Syrian women to help halt the war, but it could also develop young female leaders who will benefit Syria when the fighting is over, students and experts say.
Lama Rangous, a graduate student attending The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey on a “100 Syrian Women” scholarship, said Syrian women leaders are “the biggest need” for the country’s future. “They have the biggest effect on the men that are creating war, so they can stop it, but they don’t know how,” she said, suggesting education is a way to change that. If you want to change the conflict situation, “change the situation of women – change their skills, their education,” she said.
Before Syria’s conflict started in 2011, women accounted for about half of the country’s university students, according to a 2014 report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the University of California, Davis. That changed dramatically as millions of Syrians began fleeing war. During the 2013-2014 academic year, an estimated less than 1 percent of Syrian women in Turkey were attending an accredited university, according to the IIE-UC Davis report, which also said few Syrian women were attending universities in Lebanon and Jordan.
Maya Alkateb-Chami, director of the nonprofit organization Jusoor that leads the scholarship program for 100 Syrian women, said the organization experienced gender disparity first hand. When it advertised other scholarships that were for both women and men, it received fewer applications from women. Alkateb-Chami also said that in a partial-scholarship program that required some students to help pay their way, the families that contributed financially were all families of male students.
“We don’t have enough research to say what are all the reasons that may cause this, but we are observing that when families are having limited financial resources, they are prioritizing maybe spending on the breadwinners, who are traditionally the guys,” she added.
Seeking to address the gender gap, “100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives” will give 100 women the financial resources they need to attend universities in the United States and Canada. The goal is to foster leaders who will become role models for their families and their communities, whether inside or outside Syria.
“It can only benefit Syria to have the brightest young women educated and equipped to define what Syria is when the conflict is over,” said Gavin Brockett of Wilfrid Laurier University, a Canadian institution that accepted four Syrian students this year as part of the program.
New York City resident Marwa Darkhabani, 28, has directly felt the impact of a scholarship program: She’s lived it. She moved from Syria to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 2011 and now works in New York in the financial services industry. “If it wasn’t for Fulbright, I would be right now where my sister is—I would be in Lebanon, I wouldn’t have a job, or I would be trying to get a job under the table,” she said.
And Rangous, at The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is already beginning to envision how the educational opportunity she was given could allow her to have a broad impact. She said she’s started applying what she learns in her classes—including one on conflict resolution—to the war in Syria. “I believe I can make a change now, because I know more,” she said. “I cannot stop the war, but I can make a difference.”
Leaders aren’t only needed in fields such as conflict resolution. The Syrian women’s scholarship program, which is administered as part of a Syria consortium for higher education led by IIE, aims to empower women across industries—from media to policy, education, engineering and information technology. “To build a strong society you always, in regard to Syria or any other country, you do need participation of women,” said Nele Feldmann, a senior program officer for IIE’s Platform for Education in Emergencies Response.
Women affected by Syria’s war have already taken on diverse leadership roles due to the conflict. They’ve become heads of households as men went off to fight or were killed or detained. They’ve kept families and communities functioning following displacement. They’ve also been highly active in civil society, experts say.
Syrian women in the NGO and relief community “have rolled their sleeves up and are actually working on things that are very concrete: running underground schools in opposition areas, running psychosocial support sessions in various locations that have received either displaced people or refugees, or even working with women on various kinds of empowerment,” said Tamara Alrifai, regional communications adviser for Arab states at the United Nations Population Fund.
One Syrian working on women’s empowerment is Milia Eidmouni. She co-founded the Syrian Female Journalists Network to focus on three things: changing how women are portrayed in the media, covering Syrian women in a positive light and promoting women in the media industry. “Usually in the media… they will [describe] a mother as ‘mother of Ahmed,’ or ‘mother of Omar,’ but will never see her as a person, as a human being alone,” Eidmouni said. “It’s the time to challenge the community and how they are perceiving women.”
Despite changes in some corners of society, however, female political leadership is lacking, experts say. In the three major organizations that effectively serve as the representative organizations of the Syrian revolution—the Syrian Coalition, the High Negotiations Committee and the Syrian interim government—the number of women can be counted on one hand, said professor Steven Heydemann, director of Middle East Studies at Smith College.
He noted that this isn’t due to an absence of skilled and confident women. “It’s a deficit that has not been as high a priority as it should be for the men who occupy leadership roles on the opposition side, and we and certainly others who are engaged in support for the opposition, need to keep pushing on it,” he said.
But promoting women alone could create challenges, some say. Sonja Meyer, CARE’s partnership manager for the Regional Syria Response, said scholarships focused on women are a good idea because there are fewer very highly qualified females than males, and because women “don’t get a lot of chances from their families and their communities.”
Men, however, shouldn’t be sidelined—both to prevent them from feeling discriminated against and to ensure they’ll collaborate with women, she said. “If men don’t become exposed to different ways of thinking and they don’t have the education available, then they are less likely to accept women in higher positions.”