Featured image: Syrian women’s homemade cooking in Gaziantep, Turkey (Zuntz 2022)
During the Syrian conflict, the spectre of early marriage has become a staple of humanitarian discourse and NGO-run awareness-raising sessions. Humanitarian actors such as Save the Children and UNICEF ascribe early marriage to a combination of added livelihood pressures and Syrians’ patriarchal “culture”. The reality, of course, is not that simple. In this blog post, we reflect on how Syrian women in Turkey navigate changing gender roles, economic losses, and new income-generating opportunities in exile, and we consider the implications of their experiences for how we conceptualise and combat gender-based violence.
In March and August 2022, we conducted two workshops with middle-aged Syrian women in Gaziantep, Turkey, for our FIELD SONGS project.i Through these conversations, we sought to document Syrian refugees’ agricultural heritage. In recent years, humanitarians have taken an interest in the skills that refugees acquire in host countries, and that they could later benefit from when rebuilding their homes. By contrast, in our work, we focus on the agricultural expertise and traditions that refugees bring, and that still matter for their present-day survival in Turkish agriculture, but also shape their sense of identity.
During our workshops, it soon became clear that Syrian women had very distinct, gendered experiences of working in farming: many considered women as the “pillar” of rural families, as they used to work on the fields, but also cook, weave baskets, and sew clothes inside their homes. For many participants, productive labour in agriculture was closely linked to reproductive activities, such as marriage and childbirth.
We first heard from Shaymaii, a married woman from Palmyra, in March of 2022. She spoke movingly of her youth in rural Syria. Growing up under the watchful eyes of her father, she was not allowed to leave the family home or attend high school, even though some of her female cousins enjoyed greater freedoms. Instead, she often helped her father with agricultural tasks; these shared activities forged a strong bond between them and are now some of her fondest childhood memories. As a teenager, Shayma fell in love with a neighbour, but had to fake disinterest when he asked for her hand in marriage – admitting that she had feelings for the young man would have been shameful. Heartbroken, she turned down several more suitors, until her father threatened to divorce her mother if she refused to get married.
At the age of 17, Shayma thus became the wife of an older man. While this was far from a love match, her husband introduced her to her greatest passion: painting. She lived a comfortable and busy life managing their growing household until the onset of the Syrian conflict, when Shayma and her sister lost several of their children in an airstrike. In Gaziantep, the family now gets by through Shayma’s work in a care home; she also regularly takes part in NGO activities. During workshop breaks, Shayma proudly scrolled through pictures on her phone: of her oldest child, a 16-year old daughter, and of beautiful artwork that she had made herself.
In August 2022, Shayma told us that she and her husband had decided to betroth their adolescent daughter. We were surprised: had she not resented her own experience of an early and arranged marriage? But for Shayma, the passage of time, and life as a refugee, had changed her perspective. “I now understand my father better”, she explained. “He was only trying to protect me.” The reasons behind Shayma’s decision were complex: having already lost one child, she feared for her daughter in the urban sprawl of Gaziantep. She also believed that there were no other possible futures for her daughter in Turkey. In the same discussion, Shayma advocated for teaching Syrian children about agriculture, even if they now lived in Turkish cities, as white-collar jobs remained out of reach even for highly educated refugees. Finally, Shayma felt that displacement and new urban lifestyles were threatening the tight-knit rural communities that she had grown up in and sorely missed. But she thought of her agricultural heritage – including particular gender roles – not only as a bridge to the past, but also to the future: holding on to traditional expertise and family structures could later facilitate refugees’ return to Syria.
Agricultural work is family work, as evidenced by Shayma’s own memories of farming alongside her father. To her, working the land came with a deep sense of connection, encompassing nature, parenthood, and the family – aspects of life that make it “complete”. In Shayma’s version, marriage would thus not prevent a fulfilled and active life for her daughter, but rather make such a life possible within the framework of their community of origin.
Shayma’s story does not fit humanitarian narratives about how stopping early marriage could magically unlock women’s potential as economic and even development actors. In her version, fathers and husbands are not simply oppressors, but also loving and encouraging. Similarly, women are not fully devoid of agency. Shayma has worked very hard for her entire life, first as an unpaid helper in her father’s and husband’s households, and now as a salaried nurse in Turkey. Paid or unpaid, her work has been always been meaningful to her, and she takes great pride in it. While she had no say in arranging her own marriage, as a matriarch, she now gets to decide on her children’s future.
Practices such as early marriage that may look like “unchanging traditions” are highly fluid and given new meaning by refugees struggling to survive in unfamiliar socioeconomic contexts.
Behind sensationalists reports on rising numbers of Syrian “child brides” lie complex truths about what jobs displaced men and women used to work and now have access to, and how economic pressures, but also love and hopes for the future, shape families’ decision-making around marriage. As researchers working on refugee labour rights, we find that fighting gender-based violence against refugee women requires an integrated approach that does not single out “the patriarchy”, “refugee culture”, or “refugee men” as the usual suspects, but rather sheds light on displaced people’s gendered positioning in restrictive asylum regimes and exploitative global economies, and on their own expectations about what a “good life” may look like.
 The FIELD SONGS project, led by Prof Lisa Boden from the University of Edinburgh, is a collaboration between social and agricultural scientists and musicians from the University of Edinburgh, Syrian Academic Expertise and Douzan Art & Culture, two Syrian-run organisations based in Turkey. For a full list of all team members, please consult the project website: https://www.onehealthfieldnetwork.org/field-songs
 All names changed.
Dr Ann-Christin Zuntz is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Social Anthropology department at the University of Edinburgh. She is an economic anthropologist, with a focus on the intersections of labour, migrations, and gender in the Mediterranean. Ann does collaborative research with Syrian agricultural scientists, humanitarian, and cultural practitioners within Edinburgh’s One Health FIELD Network.