I watch agog as Rami, a 30 year old Syrian, helps his friend change his baby’s nappy, it is so impressive at how well they work in unison, an accurate operation well practised. Is this the image westerners expect of modern men in male dominated Syria?
Later I am sat alone reading a daily paper, there is an article about sexual harassment.
Gaith is a 25 bachelor who regularly harasses girls by following them on the street and praising their beauty. He knows that his behaviour is religiously and socially unacceptable, but justifies it because “Girls like to hear romantic phrases from us” he said, “and some of them laugh and respond.”
However he would never tolerate such talk against his young sisters, “My sisters are respectable girls, not like the available girls on the street. If somebody dare look at my sisters, I would smash his bones.”
The penalties for having sex out of wedlock are high here; despite Syria being a modern secular society it is still filled with dark traditions. “I would be killed if my family found out” she tells me, “By your father?” I ask “No not my father” she says, then, thinking for a minute, “My brother would do it”.
Now she feels she can never trust another Arabic man. The treasured twins she’d been carrying had to be aborted in secret, when she asked him for help he didn’t want to know, “If you’ve been with me you could have been with anyone” he told her. The operation cost her 25000 Syrian pounds and was performed in utmost secrecy.
This is a modern-looking woman in a modern-looking society but the modernity seems like a facade that hides a much darker side. Single-handed and undeterred she has made it her mission not to abandon her country but to attempt to change it from within.
Later whilst scanning the papers for big stories, I read of ‘modern’ forward-looking secular Syria ‘banning the veil’ followed by a story about an honour killing just outside of Aleppo.
A 28 year old girl was raped. Distressed, she didn’t want to go home so went to confess to her uncle who told her father, they got together and had her own brother kill her. All 4 have been arrested, and under Syrian law all men will face the maximum prison sentence of 3 years for the honour killing.
It wasn’t so long ago that Syria, like Saudi and other Arab countries, had no sentence at all for such killings. That honour killers can now be sent to jail for 3 years is seen as progress in this complex and difficult land.