Gendered resilience among Syrian women in Amman, Jordan

Alia Fakhry

CMES – Lund Univ. (Sweden)


While women face greater difficulties throughout migration due to their gender, gender can be a tool for resilience. Syrian forced migrant women in Amman indeed renegotiate gender hierarchies with agency and demonstrate a form of gendered resilience. Their experience highlights the potential resourcefulness of gender in the experience, as well as in the study of, forced exile. This research is based on an ethnographic fieldwork conducted between September and December 2015 in Jordan. Using the concept of gendered geographies of power in transnational spaces, it intends to bring forward a rather dynamic vision of both migration and gender in which both processes intertwine.

Keywords: gender, resilience, forced migration, gendered geographies of power, refugeeness


Sitting on one of the couches of her mismatched living room, between two sips of extra sweetened black tea, Ghadir admits it: the mother of four has many more responsibilities than she used to and her social life significantly expanded. Despite the flight from Syria, the uprooting exile in Amman and the daily difficulties, “life goes on” as Ghadir says with a timid smile. Now that her husband works twice as much as in Syria for a ridiculous pay, she has to handle the groceries and other errands he or her mother-in-law used to manage. That is why she got rid of the niqab she wore in her neighbourhood of Al Midan in Damascus, “a very conservative area” adds Ghadir. Another respondent confirmed later that “it was not normal to not wear the niqab in Al Midan”. Today Ghadir goes about her day in Amman with a simple hijab as “it is easier to talk to people, shopkeepers and taxis”. She is looking for a job and already worked for a charity last summer during the month of Ramadan. She also made a good friend, a Jordanian neighbour, with whom she spends a lot of time and takes religious classes in a local centre.

Ghadir’s life has been greatly disrupted since she fled Damascus. As she accommodates urban exile with resilience and agency, she renegotiates the social structures shaping her daily life, one of them being gender hierarchies within the household. Indeed, while it is argued women face greater difficulties throughout the migration process due to their gender (Giles 2012, Alsaba and Kapilashrami 2016), my fieldwork demonstrates that gender can also be a tool for resilience in exile. Expanding “agency despite constraints” (Gren 2015, 4) through the renegotiation of gender hierarchies, Ghadir and other forced migrant women[1] could uphold resilience[2] in exile.

Since the mid-1990s a growing number of scholars incorporate transnationalism in the study of refugee communities (Al-Ali et al. 2001, Al-Ali and Koser 2002, Shami 1996, Wahlbeck 2002) that often develop “transnational identities” (Koser 2003), thus bringing forward people’s connectedness and agency in and beyond migration. Simply put, transnationalism is “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Glick Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc 1995, 48). Yet Mahler and Pessar (2001), acknowledging that gender has rarely been the focus of transnational migration studies, argue that “bringing a gendered optic to transnational studies benefits both the study of transnational processes and the study of gender” (441). This paper intends to show how transnational migration and gender hierarchies are both dynamic processes operating over time and space, evolving symbiotically in Syrian women’s lives.

Gender in (forced) migration

Women experience specific violence and potential trauma before, during and after their flight, yet their experience of migration is not limited to suffering and pain. Feminist scholars have underscored the problematics of humanitarian discourse and of the representation of refugee women, and have emphasized women’s agentic capacities (Corbet 2012, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2010, 2016, Hyndman 2000, Hajdukowski-Ahmed, Khanlon and Moussa 2008). Hence Hyndman argues that “women, whose bodies, families, and communities bear the violent inscriptions of war and displacement are neither universal subjects nor essentialized subjects in distinct locations” (2000, 86). In this way, this paper takes a close look at the gender hierarchies shaping Syrian women’s daily routine in order to unravel these structures.

Within the household unit, the sudden transformation of gender hierarchies and roles ensuing from migration often leads to diminishing men’s self-esteem, which in turn can increase risks of domestic violence (Buscher forthcoming 2017, Lutz 2010). The redistribution of labour and care often puts forward women and mothers who tend to become breadwinners while other female family members take over housework (Ibid.). Besides, women and female heads of households face greater difficulties to support themselves and their family, yet women’s livelihoods proved to be more adaptive to new environments than men’s, since childcare and housework can easily translate into service oriented work (Buscher forthcoming 2017, 5). Thus, gender and kinship undergo significant changes in exile.

However, Thorleifsson argues that women taking on new responsibilities and the changing of social relations and networks “does not constitute a reversal of traditional gendered roles” (2016, 1076). Kopytoff (1990) confirms that “an apparently radical transformation of women’s roles can occur by what is in fact a slight variation in role shedding and role acquisition” (90). Gender roles and hierarchies are only rearranged in order to secure a certain livelihood and matters of security and dependency are at the basis of these renegotiations. According to Barnes “a subtle shift takes place when women do not have to depend on others, but instead use other people to who depend on them in order to meet their needs for security” (Barnes 1990, 257). Thus, how do gender and kinship relations morph through forced migration?

Transnational feminist theoretical framework

More than an attibute of definition of the self, gender is a process, a set of relations “among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts” (Butler 1999 [1990], 13). Therefore, while gender is a contextualized and specified relation, this relation varies and evolves according to the given setting and the subjects involved. Hence, gender is a social construct and a discursive practice (Butler 1999 [1990], de Beauvoir 1949). Because it carries power distinctions and social difference, gender becomes a meaningful concept in transnational studies to unravel these structures. In this way, gender evolves across borders and is reshaped in situations of transnationalism (Mahler and Pessar 2001).

In her overview of the state of scholarship on Gender in the Migratory Process (2010), Lutz pleads for a study of the “gender-specific (transnational) migration patterns” through a multi-scaled analysis. Scholars have indeed acknowledged the role of nation-states projects and households on gender roles (e.g. Fouron and Glick Schiller 2001, Pessar 1999), yet they have lacked to take into account the various layers of power affecting migrants’ lives. She brings forward “the need to integrate gender aspects into theories based on transnational migration, labour market and network approaches” (Lutz 2010, 1658-1659).

Linking the concept of social words to the study of transnationalism, and bringing in the role of gender, Mahler and Pessar (2001) introduce the conceptual model of Gendered Geographies of Power in transnational spaces (GGP). Their framework articulates geographic scales, social locations and power geometries, as well as the role of personal resourcefulness and social imaginaries in the (re)definition of gender through migration (2001, 2003, 2006). Following Lutz’s argumentation, each element of their concept provides a wide and in-depth analysis of gender in transnational contexts, taking into account the various scales impacting gendered aspects of people’ lives across borders. They understand it as a framework to analyse “people’s social agency – corporal and cognitive – given their own initiative as well as their positioning within multiple layers of power operative within and across many terrains” (2001, 447). They articulate gender, transnationalism[3] and transnational spaces[4] to craft a concept that acknowledges power hierarchies and degrees of agency (power geometries) on multiple spatial (geographic scales) and social scales (social locations). Although convenient to the study of transnational forced migration, the concept of GGP has been little used in this context so far. While the concept of GGP is not explicitly designed for the study of refugee communities, Mahler and Pessar argue (2006, 51) that:

as agency is more interrogated the commonplace poles ‘voluntary’ (immigrant) versus ‘involuntary’ or ‘forced’ (refugee, slave?) migration should be rightfully seen as endpoints in a long continuum with many intermediary measures and sites where gendered ideologies and processes operate.

The concept of GGP serves the overall aim of this research, which is to explore the facets of Syrian women’s resilience in transnational exile. Besides, it allows a multiscale and multilevel analysis simultanely looking at the transnational social spaces in which women are embedded (geographic scales), the spaces in which they inscribe themselves (social locations) and the gender roles (power geometries) that define their daily lives.

I chose to use qualitative methods of research as they suited the needs of my fieldwork for several reasons. On the one hand, feminist critique has argued that qualitative small scale research methods in social sciences are suited best to women studying women, as it increases intersubjectivity with the research participants (McDowell 1992). Besides, Vargas argues that “the delicate condition of refugee families […] means that service providers and scholars […] encounter a variety of thorny ethical dilemmas” (1998, 35). Conducting research with forced migrants, it was primordial to preserve and anonymize their information. Indeed, most of them worked or resided in Jordan illegally, some had escaped camps and risked to be taken back. Thus the names of all my respondents, as well as my interpreters’ have been modified.

During a three-month fieldwork in Jordan, I interviewed 18 Syrian women, aged between 17 and 60. All of them lived on the outskirts of Amman at the time of the study, or in peripheral areas. Most of them used to live in, or on the peripheries of, large Syrian cities. Some came from rural areas in the North and South West of Syria. They arrived in Jordan between the summer of 2011 and August 2014, mostly coming by road. In general, they first ended up in other Jordanian cities or passed by refugee camps before reaching Amman. Most of them lived in a male headed household, where the male main figure was often their husband.

In Syria, they were mostly housewives (sitt beit) or students. While only one of them had already a paid activity back in Syria[5], seven were working at the time of the study. Indeed, widow since 2013, Um Amer started selling accessories back in Syria and cumulated side jobs in Amman. The others were working in factories, as secretaries, housekeepers, language teachers, in beauty salons or with charities and NGOs. While most of my respondents are registered as refugees, four of them are not, either because they are married to, or children of, Jordanians or because they made the choice not to register. All of my research participants had relatives, friends or business connections in Jordan, who sometimes moved to Jordan long before the conflict in Syria, and who generally eased their arrival and settlement in the country. Their quality of life and living conditions in Amman varied. While Leila dwells in a two-room basement with her four children in the shabby neighbourhood of Jabal al Taj, Ghazal lives in a spacious and bright flat with her family by the university of Jordan, where her brother studies. Yet, they all faced precariousness on a daily basis.

The modification of women’s social worlds after forced migration implied in almost all cases a renegotiation of gender roles in the household unit, reshaping gender roles and household patterns. In order to comprehend the multiplicity of forces operating on gender roles across transnational terrains, I will use here the concept of Gendered Geographies of Power (GGP) developed by Mahler and Pessar (2001, 2003, 2006). It allows a multi-scaled analysis, encompassing different geographies, integrates social locations reflecting the different power hierarchies in which one can be embedded, and acknowledges various degrees of agency. Using this concept in the study of forced migrant women in urban settings, I have identified three household patterns. They involve various uses of the city and rates of activity, translating diverse levels of agency : the sitt beit (1), the collaborative household (2) and the awaiting wife (3). These patterns highlight questions of sexual (un)availability that are at the heart of the renegotiations of gender hierarchies, and which are perhaps exacerbated in urban contexts. Indeed, feminist scholars such as Wilson (1990) have emphasized the ambivalence of urban spaces for women, being both exclusionary and potentially emancipatory. Besides, Jackson (2005) argues that cities and public spaces are the stage of normative violence engendering shame people tend to escape, often retreating in specific areas of the city, or avoiding it at all. Finally, the three different roles I have identified are not explicitely communicated, but transpire from data analysis and coding.

First, the sitt beit’s activities are traditionally restricted to housework and caregiving. Many of my respondents presented themselves as sitt beit (house wife). Yet, for the purposes of this study I use the term to refer to women living in male headed households and who do not engage in any type of paid activity besides housework. That was the case of Noor, who quit her job at Jabal al Nasser hospital when she got married to another Syrian refugee. Since then, she lives at her in-laws, also in Jabal Al Nasser. Her husband works in a fabrics factory and provides the only salary of the household. Noor spends her day with her mother-in-law Salma and helps her with the housework. She has a rather limited experience of Amman:

N: I go shopping with Salma to the mokhayiam. Every week we go there.

A: And what other neighbourhoods, or places do you go to?

N: Only the mokhayiam. That and the hospital, when I was working there. But that was before [I got married]. And also the UNHCR.

On the other hand, in collaborative households women often invest the city on a daily basis and have a rather diversified experience of it. Collaborative patters often occur in male headed households, in which women’s activity can be renegotiated with the main male figure. It is typically the situation of Lina:

When we left Syria, I told my mom we had to go to Amman, because I knew I could give classes to foreigners. Some of them I knew from Damascus already, when I was at university. So when we came to Amman, I started working like this [as an Arabic tutor] and after one year I had like a salary with like six to ten students. I go everyday to West Amman to meet them. Also my husband teaches Arabic. Now he has three students, but they are all from my contacts. But because I could not teach more, I gave them to my husband. He teaches on top of his job.

In this way, both of them collaboratively contribute to support the household. It is precisely because both the woman and the main male figure (who is not necessarily her husband) can contribute to the household economy that Lina and others are able to perform activities outside the household and can navigate in the city. In such situation, the head of the household is shared as much as the financial burden is. Moreover, in this configuration former sitt beit begun experiencing the city in new ways as they started working or taking care of the household economy and hence, had to leave the house during daytime. Rabiyah, for instance, lived in a conservative area in Homs where she used to wear a niqab when going outdoors:

I used to wear the niqab in Syria […] Why? Well, it is the just the way it was there.

Similarly, since she started having activities outside the house, such as grocery shopping or working as a cook for a local Islamic charity, Ghadir changed her outfit for a simple hijab as “it is much more practical when you have to talk to people, shop sellers and taxi drivers”.

Within collaborative households, women seem to experience the city as an emancipatory space. Thus the city becomes “as a shifting space that can be appropriated by women” who can explore the interstices of urban anonymity (Wilson 1990, quoted by Bondi and Rose 2003, 230). However, they do not completely escape normative expectations contrary to what Wilson argues. Though free to come and go according to their daily activities, women living in collaborative households still pay attention to matters of honour and shame, such as neighbourhood monitoring. Thus, Lina makes sure that:

when I come back home and it is already dark, I always ask the taxi to drive in front of the gates of my building. It’s better. Not that the area is dangerous, really it is safe here. You know, I am married, people speak. And also you see, I am not veiled [laughs].

Contrary to women in collaborative households, awaiting wives have the lowest activity rates, barely leave the house and rather experience the normativity and uncertainty of urban space. Though their husbands are “unavailable”, their shadows remain and hover over the family. Samia is one of them, married and yet, de facto head of the household. Her husband left Jordan a year ago to reach Sweden. Today the family is hoping to be granted asylum there to obtain family reunification. Since her husband left the house, she remains at home with her 5 children and her mother:

I go out once a month with my mother to [the Palestinian camp of] Wardat for grocery shopping, because it is very cheap there. We take everything we need, flour, sugar, oil and we take a lot, like this we don’t have to go back. Taxi drivers always make fun of us when they see all our bags. Sometimes I also buy fresh fruits and vegetables from a hawker. That is it. I don’t like to go out. Before with my husband we visited our relatives in the North, now I feel like I am dying in Jordan, doing nothing.

Besides Samia started wearing the niqab upon her husband’s departure from Amman. Her limited experience of the city and the change of dress she operated highlight her sexual unavailability and comply with matters of honours. Avoiding public spaces, she makes sure to display her unavailability: her husband left Jordan, yet he is still part of the gender equation and becomes visible, through Samia’s urban invisibility. Thus awaiting wives might experience the city as a rather constraining and disadvantaging stage (Bondi and Rose 2003). Looking at gender as a social construct, a shifting set of relations, it is important to acknowledge the content of this relation, the term of exchange. As Strathern (1988) argues in her study of Melanesian societies, gender should be seen in terms of what men and women do to define it. In the case of Syrian forced migrant women, and especially awaiting wives, men are traditionally financially accountable to women while the latter are maritally accountable to men.

Samia, Leila and Rahf, all awaiting wives are in the complicated situation where their husband has left the household and is (believed to be) alive. Samia’s family hoped to obtain asylum in Sweden, while Rahf’s hoped for Germany. Leila’s husband was captured by the Syrian regime at the beginning of the war. I do not include in this category the two 2 women whose husbands divorced them or who left the household, because they have definitely left the family and hence, are not part of the gender equation anymore. To these three women, I would add women such as Salma and Rabiyah, whose husbands are present with them in Amman, but are unable to work due to health issues. In all these cases, women cannot take over men’s provisioning duty, as they are supposed to find it back some day (after a knee operation, once they will be reunited in Sweden or when he will be freed from Syria). Thus, depending on people who cannot support them, awaiting wives find help from the people who depend on them. Indeed, Barnes argues that “a subtle shift takes place when women do not have to depend on others, but instead use other people who depend on them in order to meet their needs for security” (1990, 257). Most of the time, women who found themselves in these situations relied on their children, as Rabiyah and her husband relied on their 15 years old son:

He goes to school here in Jabal al Nasser. At two o’clock he comes back because then the school is for Jordanians[6]. He makes his homework until five and he sleeps until eight and then he goes to the shawarma restaurant that is around the corner. And he works until two in the morning. And really you know, his boss loves him, he loves his little employee [proudly smiles]!

Similarly, Leila put at work her two oldest children, two young men (17 and 21 years old). The two of them work in a shop selling plastic containers located nearby their flat:

They work a lot, from eight to eight, everyday even on Fridays. Like this they make 250 JOD [together]. Before they used to do deliveries in the neighbourhood for another shop. But I told them to stop, I was too afraid for them [because they work illegally and are undocumented in Jordan]. You know my brother once he was controlled by the police in a bus. He could give the name of our brother, because he is registered but my sons, maybe they take them back to Syria. So now, it is better that they stay in the shop.

The situation of uncertainty in which awaiting wives find themselves is often reinforced by their thorny legal situation: Leila and Samia are both undocumented as they respectively escaped the camps of Azraq and Zaatari. I further elaborate on the role of the refugee label and experience in women’s lives in the following section.

Exploring gender roles that have arisen from forced migration, with the help of the concept of gendered geographies of power, my concern here was to highlight the ways in which gender can morph in exile. As a discursive social construct, gender evolves in various forms and hierarchies, translating different household patterns. These new gender hierarchies involve specific uses of the city, emphasizing the versatility of urban space. Either emancipating or restricting, the experiences Syrian women have of the city of Amman tend to reflect the ratio of power impinging on them. They also underscore the fact that the city is not defined in its essence, but is rather a stage exacerbating specific social configurations. As Lutz rightfully puts it, “in everyday life practices, gender-specific characteristics are mirrored and, simultaneously, the individual migrant’s position in transnational spaces is marked by intersections of life-cycle, class and ethnicity that can turn out to be (more or less) resourceful” (2010, 1658). Thus, I argue that gender is not only a powerful tool in the study of forced migration, but that it is a tool in the process of forced migration itself. It becomes a social hierarchy to (re)negotiate, in order to manage the sudden changes that have occurred in women’s life, from their flight and their resettlement. This research also shows how the use of transnationalism in the study of refugee communities widens the scope of analysis and replace them in larger time/space continuum, highlighting further agency. It goes beyond the extraordinary in their lives and takes a look at their daily routines and mundane rituals. It shows how forced migrants place themselves in dense and complex sets of relations they use as resourceful tools. Looking at gender and migration as dynamic processes, evolving in time and space and morphing into a variety of social situations and household patterns, this research also questions refugeeness, as a legal concept and as an experience of exile. It looks beyond matters of violence and suffering and overtakes the mainstream representation of refugees framed by helplessness.


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[1] I rather use the expression ‘forced migrants’ rather than the term ‘refugees’, as some of my respondents have not or could not register as such. They do not all qualify as refugees, yet they do all experience forced exile. Some are Jordanian citizens, from their husband or from their father, many others benefit from the help of extended family who emigrated prior to the conflict and/or have long established connections in Jordan, and others decided to not register as refugees due to different rumours about the registration.

[2] Here and throughout this paper, the term resilience refers to the capacity to cope and “adapt existing resources and skills to new situations and operating conditions” (Comfort 1999, 21).

[3] Mahler and Pessar use here Glick Schiller’s (1999) definition of transnationalism, adding to Kerney’s distinction (1995) of global and transnational non-state actors in transnational practices, the role of transnational actors’ agency.

[4] Transnational spaces are a form of transnational social world, however more inclusive and broader not only geographically but also in terms of depth (Mahler and Pessar 2001).

[5] I use the expression ‘paid activity’ instead of differentiating between working and non-working women. Indeed, some have side activities, such as cooking for Rakiah, that cannot be compared to an full-time office job. As DeVault (1991) suggested certain aspects of people’ (and specifically women’)s lives cannot be addressed by analytical divides created by Western sociology.

[6] Schools in Jordan have implemented shifts to provide education to both Jordanians and Syrian refugees and to avoid overcrowded classrooms.