Conditions of Women
The structure of the population has had an obvious impact on educational policies. While the gender gap across schooling cycles has decreased, there is no clear evidence that educational policy is gender-sensitive. The relatively high rate of female enrolment in the education system has not had a great impact on employment. The gender bias in the private sector is even more marked for graduates with only technical or intermediate education. The investment law passed by Parliament in 1991 appears to be gradually creating new opportunities for women to participate in the private sector. The role of women in research is confined to medicine and pharmacy and reflects the bias in enrolment rates in specific faculties (see Education). The role of women is further restricted by constraints on funding, which is more readily allocated to men, and because women have fewer opportunities to publish their work.
The Syrian government has made progressive strides in the area of education. Adult female literacy rose from 33 percent in 1980 to 60.4 percent by 1998, but still lagged well behind adult males (87 percent). Women comprise 57 percent of the nation’s teachers, but they tend to be underrepresented in higher education. Females hold 39 percent of seats in the national university system.
Women comprised 27 percent of the labor force in 2000, primarily concentrated in agriculture, medicine, and teaching. Very few women own their own businesses. All women are entitled to eight weeks paid maternity leave with additional leave possible at less pay. The government also provides national childcare for a small fee in schools and workplaces.
President Bashhar Al-Asad appointed Dr. Najah Al-Attar as a second vice president for cultural affairs on March 23, 2006. This makes Mrs. Al-Attar the first Arab female to hold the position of vice president. Dr. Al-Attar, 73 years old, was minister of culture in Syria for a period of 24 years. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from a British university. Mrs. Al-Attar is not a member of the ruling Ba'th party. Syrian women were granted suffrage and the right to stand for office in 1949. The National Strategy for Women set a target figure of 30 per cent for female occupation of decision-making posts by 2005. There are currently 30 women members of parliament out of a total 250. The most recent elections were held in 2003. Women are also gaining access to the armed forces. There are currently 414 women in the security and police apparatus.
Law of Personal Status
Islamic law governs the personal status of women in Syria. Several civil laws have been reformed over the past 30 years to create gender equity. Many of these reforms have not been put into force as social convention prevents enforcement of statutory code. Following the 1995 Beijing Conference, the government established the National Committee for Post-Beijing Follow-up of Women’s Affairs. This committee issues reports to the United Nations on the nation’s progress towards gender equity and makes recommendations to the national government. The National Committee for Post-Beijing Follow-Up has noted a need for better implementation of reforms already codified.
The family plays an important role in society. The Syrian Code states that if a woman over 17 years of age wishes to marry, the judge must ask her guardian for his opinion. If the guardian does not object within a specified period or makes a spurious objection, then the judge may proceed with the marriage as long as the husband is eligible. Another provision states that if an adult woman marries without her guardian’s consent, the guardian may demand that the marriage be annulled if the husband is not eligible, unless the woman has conceived.
Under the Syrian Code, a wife’s right to maintenance ceases when she works outside the home without her husband’s permission. A woman who leaves her marital home without legitimate reason is defined as having violated marital law, and the price she pays for doing so is loss of the right to maintenance for the duration of her absence. While it is known that violence against women occurs, no reliable statistics on domestic violence or sexual assault are available. The vast majority of cases are not reported.
The Arab Ba’th Socialist Party has ruled Syria since 1963. The party, which utilizes women as a political base of support, has promoted gender equality. In the 1970s, women were actively recruited into the armed forces, which included a female special parachuting unit. At the same time, Syria remains an Islamic country with a strong commitment to religious tradition. Deeply felt social codes discourage women from entering the public realm or making political demands. While a minority of women has entered the workforce and politics, the majority continues to live a traditional lifestyle.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
Syria acceded to the Convention of on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on March 23, 2003.
The central political organization for women in Syria is the General Union of Syrian Women. Founded in 1967 by a coalition of political and social women’s groups, the Women’s Union is a nationwide organization with an active membership. Although not formally part of the government, the Union is supported by the state and has implemented a number of social development projects in the areas of childcare and education. Within the government, women hold few senior positions. One woman currently holds a cabinet post: Buthayna Shaban heads the Ministry of Expatriates. In the 2003 elections, 30 women were elected to the national parliament out of 250 total seats. One female ambassador has served in the Syrian government. Women comprise approximately one-fifth of all government workers, but most are employed in clerical and staff positions.