ALEPPO, Syria — The women of eastern Aleppo were rarely visible before the war, but now they shape the bitter peace. In the poor, conservative districts of Syria’s ancient commercial capital, many women seldom used to leave the house, and only with their husbands if they did; the men not only won the bread, but also went out to buy it.
Then came the civil war.
Eight years and counting of bloodshed have condemned a generation of Syrian men to their deaths, to prison or to precarious lives as refugees. Now, with most of the country once again under government control, yet ruptured beyond recognition, moving forward is up to the women left behind: part survivors, part mourners, part mop-up crew.
Grandmothers are raising orphaned grandchildren. Single women worry they will never find husbands. Widows are supporting families gutted by losses that once seemed unendurable, and that the world now treats as routine.
In many cases, women are leaving the house on their own and working for the first time, old customs succumbing to the extremities of war and an economy in collapse — nothing new in large cities like Damascus, the capital, but a swift transformation for some of the more traditional corners of this socially and religiously conservative country.
“Before, women were afraid of everything,” said Fatima Rawass, 32, who opened a beauty salon for veiled women in May, three years after her husband died in the war. “But now, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Rawass had never met a man outside her immediate family when, at 19, she found out she was engaged to a cousin, she says. No one had consulted her. Born stubborn, with a barbed tongue that would later win her a reputation as a neighborhood brawler, she informed her parents she wasn’t interested.
“You can say ‘no’ if you don’t like him,” her mother was finally hounded into saying. Then her fiancé started calling her three times a day. By the time they married, she was in love.
After they settled in east Aleppo, Rawass said, she left the house so infrequently that she could wear heels under her abaya — the long black robelike gown worn by many conservative Muslim women — all day. It was much the same as in other conservative parts of Syria, which is mostly Sunni Muslim, marbled with religious minorities: Her husband did the grocery shopping and the errands. She minded the children.
In 2012, fighting between rebels in eastern Aleppo and government forces in western Aleppo tore the city in two. By the time the government reclaimed it in late 2016, after four years of relentless bloodletting, eastern Aleppo was all but pulverized. The war’s momentum swung irreversibly to the government.
Rawass had begged to flee, but her husband insisted on staying to guard his carpentry workshop. He refused to join the rebels, who eventually threw him in prison.
Fifteen days later, the children were hungry, and, with trepidation drumming in her veins, Rawass resolved to go out to buy some milk for what would be her first time. Government bombs and shells were falling outside, some targeting hospitals; snipers stalked the streets. It was, she recalled later, “a very long, hard walk” — the first of many.
To pay her husband’s way out of jail, she sold everything she could, took in sewing work and borrowed.
“I hope I die before you,” she remembered him telling her one day in July 2016, after his release, “because you’re stronger than I am.”
The next day, they heard explosions. When he ran outside, flying shrapnel killed him on the spot.
Rawass said she soon discarded the heels she had worn even during the war.
She walked to the store through still-unfamiliar streets, dodging the glances of male strangers. She walked to the doctor who treated her for exhaustion and depression and to the beauty school where she eventually started taking classes. She saved up and got a loan from the Red Crescent. And in May, she opened a salon in her partly ruined upstairs room and hung up a sign with her name on it.
Rawass had fallen in love again, she said, but she dared not defy her father’s prohibition against remarrying; he believed a widow should devote herself to her children, and her children only. If she disobeyed, he could take them away.
If only she were childless, she sometimes thought. Then she would have to worry only about herself.
What she had was work. It helped her forget.
“It’s only at night,” she said, “that I remember all the bad things that happened.”
A few hours south of Aleppo, in the coastal city of Latakia, Lekaa al-Shaekh and her fiancé were being photographed inside the ancient Egypt-themed wedding hall where they had met, and where — finally! — they would be married. They posed on a white sofa bathed in neon-pink light and crowned with fake white flowers, a fluorescent bridal fantasia.
“I’ve been waiting so long to sit on this couch,” she said, rolling her eyes.
She and her friends used to expect a great deal from future husbands. Traditionally, Syrian grooms paid a bride-price: a car, a house, and cash in Latakia; a kilogram of gold jewelry in Aleppo.
Then the fighting came, and Latakia, an area dominated by President Bashar Assad’s Alawite minority religious sect, sent thousands of young men to battle. All over Syria, the economy buckled. Al-Shaekh, 34, decided she could not afford prewar standards.
“There are so few men; that’s the problem now,” she explained. “Some of my friends are waiting for men to give them everything, but it’s tough. We’re in a war, after all.” (Not, she hastened to add, that she had compromised in choosing her fiancé, a soldier she described as kind, handsome, and responsible.)
She had advised single friends to make concessions to the emergency, yet many remained disappointed. Some had resorted to adding eligible-looking strangers on Facebook, a stratagem unheard-of before the war. It had even worked for a few.
It was rare to find a single woman who did not survey the field with some despair.
“There are no men in Syria,” said Afraa Dagher, 36, a Latakian who said she had many friends in the same, perpetually solo boat. “At my age, they’re all martyrs or soldiers.”
How did she meet men now?
“I don’t know,” she said, with a brief smile. “Leave it to God.”
Paro Clothes’ business card proclaimed the Aleppo garment workshop “different & fashionable,” and its owner was both. Paro Manoukian, 44, was an Armenian Christian and a woman in a male-dominated industry. In her windowless basement headquarters, the June heat had bargained her down to a red tank top, red lipstick, red nails and a profusion of gold jewelry.
Manoukian opened the workshop after getting divorced in 2011. Half her all-female workforce had surrendered husbands, brothers, or sons to the war. A few dozen toiled at home, applying furbelows to garments; three more worked in the back, shielded from male eyes by a teal plastic curtain.
“I asked for the divorce, but I’m sure if I got married now, my husband would want a divorce because I work all day,” Manoukian said, laughing throatily.
In the back, three employees chatted about their troubles — money, men, children — as their fingers disciplined the cloth. They tried not to talk too much about the people they had lost.
Hayat Kashkash’s husband had forbidden her to work, but after his government salary fell behind rising prices last year, Kashkash, 53, got hired without asking permission.
“I found a job,” she told him. “I’m going to work.”
“OK,” he said. “Go.”
This was sometimes as much burden as triumph.
“Now you have to cook, wash, clean and take care of the kids, plus work,” she said. “Before you leave the house, you have to clean it. After work, you go home and cook.”
But with two sons conscripted into the army, she wanted to keep busy.
“I come to escape,” she said.
“I’m here to escape my kids,” put in Fatima Kelzy, who was hot-gluing pompoms onto a T-shirt, a cigarette dangling from one corner of her flashing smile. Everyone laughed. She was the joker, the one who got up and danced when they needed a pick-me-up.
Married at 11, she had never imagined any career but housewife. Now, at 44, she was a working widow with six unmarried daughters to feed.
“Actually, I’m working for my kids,” she said, serious now, “because I’m both mom and dad.”