The Position of Women in Syria
May 1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
The tide of modern progress is sweeping away in its mighty flow many of the prejudiced, fanatical ideas concerning woman’s sphere in the east. Records of the faraway past teach us that woman in ancient Syria, Egypt, and Arabia held a prominent position in art, poetry, music, and literature. Our Arabic language is rich with feminine poetry and prose; and woman’s literary products, though less in quantity than man’s, are, I am proud to say, equal in quality. The present educated woman is striving to bring back the happy, prosperous times, and renew her pursuits in all the fields of high attainments with men. Her position is held higher, and is greatly improved in many respects these last years. Fifty years ago women who could read and write their native tongue were very scarce, and the fathers and mothers of that period, both ignorant, shrank with horror from educating their daughters. They supposed, poor creatures, that a girl learned to read and write would use her knowledge in writing love letters to men, and that she would be utterly ruined as a good, obedient wife and a good, thrifty housekeeper. It does seem strange that her office and calling as a mother was of no consideration, or less considered than her being a housekeeper.
Oriental women are naturally timid, and shrink from public notice. The long established customs of the country which place them in seclusion keep them from asserting their rights. They live in the shade, contented to be unknown except to their families and intimate friends. As a rule they take life easy, and make no effort to change the order of things. Education is awakening them from their long slumber, is opening their eyes to the sorrowful condition of the country, and is stirring them up to shake off these old monotonous habits and to introduce better ones. Their work is beginning at home, where every improvement should begin, and they are now more able to fill the office of wife and mother, and better fitted to become the companions of educated men. Their advantages are far behind the advantages of the European and American women, but still you find many who are intelligent, intellectual, and refined. The oriental woman is naturally, notwithstanding what Mark Twain said, beautiful, modest, and sensible. All she needs to raise her to the plane of her western sisters is a good liberal education, which she is now partly enjoying.
The orientals have been cured of many conservative, prejudiced ideas concerning woman’s sphere, and have come to acknowledge that in order to uplift and elevate humanity, woman, the mother, should be well educated. We have several schools for girls, both foreign and native, and these schools are crowded with students. The education in these schools is what might be classed as elementary; the girls are instructed practically, instead of in science and letters. They study their own language, one or two foreign languages, elementary geography, mathematics, and science. But every woman, no matter how ignorant, how learned, how rich, or how poor, consecrates herself to the home and its requirements, and exerts her energies to make it pleasant and beautiful. Women doctors, lawyers, clerks, newspaper reporters, presidents of institutions, and the like are yet unknown to the country. Rich, leisurely women, as a rule, occupy their time in presiding over their household duties, meeting the demands of society, and making their toilet. It is usually the lot of the poor who are thrown upon their resources, or the mission of the few energetic, aspiring women, to face the public and carry out their different projects. In such cases as the former, when poverty stares them in the face they help their husbands in all farm work, and go about the city selling flowers and fruits, and some of them resort to the various branches of needlework, and earn livelihoods by the beautiful embroideries they make.
When I was traveling in Mount Lebanon last summer, I was struck with the contentment and simplicity of poor hard-working women, whose lives are a perpetual strife, a daily combat with poverty, yet who in their innocent hearts do not realize its bitterness and hardships; they take it as a matter of course, and never stop to argue with fate.
Such hard-working women, placed often in the remotest parts of the country, where modern improvement does not penetrate, where discontent, which is to me the strongest stimulant to progress, does not try to break the sad monotony of their lives, are less to be pitied than those who are starving for knowledge and can not easily get it.
As for those who are not driven by poverty to exertion, the government does not encourage their advancement, and the public regards them with prejudice and suspicion, opposes their objects and mercilessly criticizes all their efforts to be of any consequence in the world. Our present sultan, his majesty Abd-ul-Hamid, has recently established several schools for girls in different parts of the country, and although education in these schools is limited, yet we hope — we can do nothing but hope — that these schools will grow in number and efficiency, and lead to a free public education.
Woman’s position in society varies with her religion. Oriental society is the reverse of western society; it is slow and monotonous. Religion governs our society, and while the Christian community is improving by European influence, the Mohammedans will long continue to exile women from their circles, and for this reason progress among them is much slower than among the Christians. Social gatherings, on the whole, are very few; they consist mostly of dinner parties, card companies, home concerts, and weddings. Public receptions, lectures, literary organizations, and pleasure clubs are unknown; but balls and soirées, à la mode, are beginning among our communities. They are not considered the right thing, and justly so, for the country needs intellectual entertainment and not dancing. The seclusion of the houris of the harem casts a shadow of dullness and reserve on the social intercourse of the Mohammedans. It is a great mistake to suppose that the Mohammedan women are unhappy because of their seclusion; they are not, and would not wish it otherwise, and they have many occasions to which they look forward with ardent pleasure. Religious feasts, wedding ceremonies, and boys’ birthdays are great events in their lives. The house that has been quiet for months bursts forth as if by magic with oriental music and singing, and the marble halls and the receiving apartments of the harem are crowded with beautiful faces and willowy forms, adorned with precious gems and dressed in purple and gold. Coffee, sherbet, and choice unintoxicating oriental drinks are then served. The whole scene is enchanting, brilliant, happy, and joyous; and the Moslem women take great pleasure in these occasions. Notwithstanding all the religious restrictions, the innocent, simple occupants of the harem are peeping from out the veil to catch a glimpse of modern enlightenment, and many of the inmates are well educated and devote much time to literary pursuits.
There is no doubt that in the future Moslem men, missing the charm and refinement of feminine society, and cured of many old ideas, will thrust back the thick veil of seclusion and lead woman to take possession of her place as the equal companion of man.
Writers have, all of them, misrepresented the oriental woman in their sketches — her sphere, her capabilities, and her person. Foreigners who travel in our country for two or three weeks, or a month, come in contact only with the lowest class, and consequently their opinion about our women is not reliable. The general condition of women is not so favorable as in Europe or America, but it can not be classed as pitiable. Many of them rule as queens, and are loved, revered, and respected by their husbands and children.
Americans, who are enjoying the advantages of independence, freedom, and equality, can not readily comprehend the many obstacles that stand in the way of the oriental woman’s progress. What she has achieved so far, though very little, promises far greater achievements in the future. Although she has not yet learned that unity is power, and therefore no great movement can be carried out by organized bodies, yet by concentrated effort she has lately established a native school for girls, supported by her funds and directed by her intellect. Of course, this is no great thing in America, but in Syria this means a great deal; it means that the women have come to see the necessity of education, and the need of native schools, and that above all these they recognize the individual responsibility to work for the uplifting of the masses.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. 2., Ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp. 1-90.