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New Texts Out Now: Sally K. Gallagher, Making Do in Damascus

[Cover of Sally K. Gallgher, [Cover of Sally K. Gallgher, "Making Do in Damascus: Navigating a Generation of Change in Family and Work"]

Sally K. Gallagher, Making Do in Damascus: Navigating a Generation of Change in Family and Work. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sally Gallagher (SG): I have had a long interest in gender and economic development, and had the opportunity to begin a study of the effects of participating in an income-generating project for women in Damascus just as it was getting started. This was a really great opportunity to watch change in the making, rather than go in after the fact and ask people: how is your life different? Slowly I was able to begin building contacts among networks of women across social classes, and was able to then address broader questions about how religion, gender, and social class work together.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

SG: The main question the book addresses is how women draw on, and in some cases are able to reshape, gender ideals to make a life for themselves over a generation of economic and technological change. There has always been interest within sociology in how people’s individuality and free choice is both constrained by their society and how people also use their values, resources, and personal connections to change society. That question is at the heart of this book—how do women’s material and social resources shape the ways they are limited by, but also draw on, recast, and creatively use ideals around gender (for example, what it means to be a good daughter, wife, and mother) to make a space for their lives?

Between 1992 and 2011 I traveled to Damascus ten times, typically staying from one to four months, spending innumerable hours talking, shopping, drinking tea, preparing meals, and visiting women and their families across the city. This style of research allowed me to address questions of personal experience, identity, and meaning in a much more fine-tuned way than would have been possible with a larger social survey even if it had been possible at the time to obtain the required permissions or obtained an adequate response rate in communities unaccustomed to survey research.

Since I started visiting in Syria in 1992, a lot has changed; talking with women as these changes were happening—as many of them graduated from high school and went on to university, to work part time, to marry and have children—the book is able to explore the ways in which women are limited, but also able to turn those limitations to their advantage.

J: What methodologies did you use in the writing of this book?

SG: The methodology I used in Making Do in Damascus was a combination of looking at state policies and practices around the economy, education, marriage, and women’s employment as the context for understanding personal conversations with a core set of women. I tried to regularly meet with this core set of women during each of my trips to Damascus  (along with many other conversations with men and women with whom I  visited over the years).

I met women in a variety of ways. Most often I was introduced through neighbors and friends of friends, gradually entering into networks of loosely connected families in different areas of the city. Because my interest was to understand the intersections of resources and the practice of work and family ideals, I gradually focused my visiting and observations on three groups of women—those whose resources were quite limited; those whose resources were modest but adequate for most day to day needs; and those whose resources were more than adequate—in families with elite connections, businesses, or high level occupations. Most of the poorer women with whom I visited were employed or friends with women employed in two craft projects. These women worked at home or in a central workshop, making cross-stitch garments, pillow covers, purses, and other small items for sale. Gradually, through the informal networks of friends and neighbors in several neighborhoods, I became introduced to women whose resources were more moderate, living in middle-income households. Young women in these families attended university, waited for marriage, worked as teachers or in offices, or cared for younger siblings at home.

My introduction to women at the upper end of Damascus’ class structure was enhanced by my status as a Fulbright visiting scholar affiliated with the American Cultural Center. Beginning with those connections, I was introduced to women whose husbands worked in government ministries, owned significant enterprises, were instrumental in establishing new technologies or trade, held positions in the government themselves, were philanthropists, or occupied other positions of social or cultural influence. Periodic guest lectures to students at the American Language Center provided entre into other households at the upper end of Damascene society.

Overall, this method of locating families was something of an intentional snowball sample—it was systematic in terms of making an effort to connect in a focused way to sets of families in different social locations, developed through expanding networks of acquaintances into a relatively stable set of women with whom I regularly visited, bounded by a larger group of women with whom I had periodic but less focused interactions, and copious amounts of field notes based on occasional or one time observations and interactions.

Because the length of visits, the expectation that I visit frequently meant that I spent whole afternoons, evenings, and sometimes entire days with particular families; it quickly became apparent that my “sample” could not expand indefinitely. In the end, I focused on twenty-eight households distributed relatively evenly across three different levels of society. These represent the core of a somewhat larger group of fifty-four women with whom I periodically visited, and hundreds of other conversations and observations that provide background to the analysis.

I mostly visited women at home, but also spent hours with them shopping, talking in parks, visiting other relatives, eating with a group of friends in a restaurant, or when practicable in their places of employment. Early in the fieldwork, I began with a set of general questions about women’s work and family life, and from there let conversations range over the topics and issues women raised—answering, as well as asking, questions during visits that typically lasted several hours. During subsequent visits conversations generally picked up where they left off, with questions revolving around the central concerns women expressed during the previous visit.

In all cases, I was introduced as a visiting professor who was collecting stories for a book on how women managed work and family life, and as a friend or neighbor with whom women could talk freely without concern that information would be passed on to the mukhabarat or security police. My son, who was three during my first trip to Syria, came along on numerous visits, allowing conversations to naturally flow towards discussions of the difficulties women face in combining paid work with family life. Visits involved not only discussion of work and family issues, but drinking tea, socializing, and helping to prepare or share in an occasional meal. In general, early discussions focused on family structure, work history, education, sources and amount of income and exchange, and the place of gender ideals in shaping women's employment decisions and relations with kin. Later discussions revolved around a broader range of topics, including dimensions of kin and friendship support and obligation, gender strategies, and the role of education in women's employment decisions.

This style of qualitative research, of course, has both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, focusing on women in different social locations over a period of almost twenty years allows me to trace women’s narratives of gender, work and family in detail through significant life transitions. At the same time, it is important not to overgeneralize based on a relatively small cross section of a large and diverse population. Clearly these women’s accounts of their education, employment and family lives cannot be taken as representative of the perspectives of women in Damascus overall, let alone of women in different ethnic or religious communities in Syria. Still, while caution is always warranted in generalizing about women in a city of several million, the finely textured quality of the narratives I collected provide a nuanced portrait of how gender dependency schemas are both a resource and constraint in the construction of gender identity within and across these specific communities of women.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

SG: Much of my research has focused on how family, gender, and religion connect. Some of the same themes that I explore in Making Do in Damascus are also present in my book on American Evangelical families (Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life). In both books, I consider how popular ideals advocated by religious leaders translate into ordinary family life, and how a changing economy reshapes which of those ideals make sense and are used to create a sense of identity and a life for oneself.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SG: I would like a lot of different people to read this book. Because I’m a professor, I hope what I write will be useful to students and will add to academic discussions around theories of social change, identity, religion, and gender. But the book is about real people—not just theory in the abstract—and the stories and struggles that are at the heart of it should appeal to a much wider readership. At least I hope it will, certainly because there remains so much misunderstanding about Islam, Syria, and women’s lives in the region more generally.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SG: The project I’m working on now is a book that explores how men and women make their way into different types of religious congregations. A lot of social science takes the perspective that choosing a religion is like shopping—you pick one that fits your taste from a wide and diverse market. I believe that’s only partly true—that religious identity is more than looking for a place where you like the music or have a network or there’s a great kids program. I’m also interested in how gender shapes that process and choice, and the book is based on interviews I conducted over several years with men and women in the process of becoming connected with three very different local congregations.

Excerpts from Making Do in Damascus: Navigating a Generation of Change in Family and Work           

Su’ad leaves for work at six thirty, walking ten blocks through congested streets to the micro-bus stop. It is already starting to get warm by the time she arrives at work an hour later, just in time to help open the workshop. When we met, she had been working in the shop for two years, doing cross stitch and designing clothing and other small items that will eventually be sold in a shop in the old city and to the international community via a number of fairs and cultural displays. This job pays well—her salary has increased gradually with her responsibilities—and is much more acceptable to her family than working in the shirt making factory down the street. Yet she feels increasing pressure from her family to stop working outside their home. Her brother has become more vocal in his objections to her independence and in a loud argument last week struck her and threatened to disown her if she failed to comply and quit her job. “He says it is ruining my chances for marriage. He says he hears rumors that I have been talking with men on the micro-bus. He tells my father he should compel me to stay home.”

As do many other working class Palestinians, Su’ad lives with her family in a refugee camp on the edge of Damascus. To call this thriving residential and business community a “camp” conjures images of dusty tents and hastily constructed temporary shelters. Yet this area of Damascus is indistinguishable from other working and middle class sections of the city. In place of tents, multi-level apartment buildings, busy shops, galleries, schools and businesses branch off of the two main roads that make up the center of the area. Su’ad’s family has lived here for three generations. She is the second oldest of eight children, her grandmother gave birth to ten; she hopes to marry and have two or three.

When she was in tenth grade, Su’ad had hoped to go to college. But her grandfather became ill and she was asked to take on more responsibilities for younger siblings so that her mother would be free to take care of him. After a time, she fell behind in her studies and eventually dropped out of school before taking the baccalaureate exams that determine one’s course of study at the university. “I could go back and take the examinations and God willing I would do well enough to go to the university, but it is too difficult. I have to study and work in the shop, and the commute is so long. I don’t return home until late and then we must visit our relatives. It is too much. And now my older brother is compelling me to stay home. You must stay home!’ he says. He shouts, he threatens. My mother says he is trying to take care of me. To make sure I do not ruin my chances for a good marriage. I cannot even lift a finger without his permission.”


The city of Damascus is like a gray wave running up the side of Mount Qasayoun. Khadija lives half way up this mountain in the area known as Muhajareen—“the immigrants”—named for the waves of rural immigrants who came to Damascus over the past forty years looking for work. Housing was cheaper, for a time, in Muhajareen, and the area literally expanded up the hillside until the rock face was too near vertical to build. The view from Khadija’s balcony is stunning. In the summer it is somewhat cooler than in the confines of the city below, and we sit and drink tea and eat freshly cut apples and apricots and talk for hours.

Khadija is thirty-three now. When we first met she was eighteen. She was a top student in high school and had done well enough on her baccalaureate examination to enter the medical program at the University of Damascus. Although her family had limited resources (two sons were already working in the Gulf saving for marriage and sending bits of money home), her parents had enough to cover the cost of her books and supplies. Because the university itself was free to any student who qualified and agreed to work for the government for four years on completion of their degree, Khadija was delighted to attend. Her older brother was a student and accompanied her on the micro-bus each way. His company made it difficult for her to meet young men. But that would not matter. By the time she was fifteen her parents had already been receiving regular requests from suitors who were known to the family. Widening the marriage pool to strangers at the university would hardly be necessary.

At age twenty, the pressure was mounting for Khadija to accept one of these offers of marriage. “They said, ‘Why should you study? Here is a good man. His family are relatives of ours from the village. He has a good job and will support you. Why should you bother yourself with studying?’ But I said, ‘No, I like to study, I like medicine.’ But they kept asking. It was like a dripping faucet. It made me crazy! ‘When will you marry? Why don’t you marry? What is wrong with Muhammad? What is wrong with Husam? What’s wrong with Kareem? His is a good family. Why bother yourself studying?’ Eventually I gave in. Bassam is a good man. He is kind to me. He never raises his voice. We are very happy!” 

Khadija gave birth to a girl the year after she married. Eighteen months later, she gave birth to a son. She is hoping not to be pregnant again for a couple of years, and is thinking about taking contraceptives but is concerned about rumors she has heard that they make it very hard to conceive again. For now, however, she says, “It is enough! I love my children—Amal and Ahmad are a gift from God! But I get so tired! Bassam works so much and is never home. He is at the video shop from nine until two in the afternoon. He buys groceries and bread for me on the way home and relaxes while I make lunch. After he naps, he goes back to work from five thirty until almost ten. Then we eat and go to visit either his parents or my parents. We have no car and with the children it is exhausting!”


Below Mount Qasayoun, where the city begins to flatten and spread toward the horizon is the area known as Abu Rumaneh. The embassy district. The high rent zone. The elite shopping and dining places. Here, in a penthouse apartment reached by a glass and marble lined elevator, is the home of Madam Ghaliya, wife of a high-ranking government official, daughter of a major export family. She just turned forty-five and is beginning to take German language classes to supplement the French she learned while in school in Lebanon. Her four children are nearly grown—one son is doing mandatory military service; a second is starting his career as a dentist; the third is studying in Ft. Lauderdale; and her only daughter is hoping to travel to Germany to visit relatives before starting the foreign language and literature program at the University.

I arrive at nine in the evening for a women’s munaqisha—a discussion group that meets twice a month. Madam Ghaliya’s cook has prepared a table full of delicacies for the women to enjoy, including a wide range of Middle Eastern hors d’oeurves, imported chocolates, and pastries from the local French bakery. Her friends arrive in ones or twos, their drivers parking their cars on the street below, or arranging to come back to pick them up when the meeting is over. Removing the dark “trench coats” and head scarves that mark their public status as conservative Muslim women, they reveal stylish suits, leather slacks, sequined sweaters, spiked heels, and jewelry worthy of royalty. These women are the Syrian equivalent. They are not just wealthy, they are “Shami”—members of families that have lived in Damascus for generations. Damascenes of the upper class. They take seriously their noblesse oblige and although this particular group began as a religious study where a woman taught them the meaning of the Qur’an, tonight they are meeting to talk about a cultural exhibition that will raise money for a local orphanage.

Three hours later as the meeting winds down, the women sip thick unsweetened coffee in gold and blue demitasse cups, smoke, and talk of husbands. They trade jokes in rapid succession: “My husband is gone so much, he is never at home when I am at home. In the morning, I see him and ask, ‘Who are you?’”; “My husband watches the first ten minutes of a movie, then falls asleep and wakes when it ends and asks ‘What happened?’”; “When my husband watches television, he goes like this (blinking her eyes in rhythm as her thumb pumps an imaginary remote control)!” “My husband thinks I’ve gone out to visit a relative. I told him, I’m going out to see my friends. He said ‘No!’ So I told him I was going to my sister’s house and came here instead!” The phone rings and Ghaliya says to the woman who had just spoken, “It’s your husband!” The talking abruptly stops until the women realize it’s a joke and burst into relieved laughter. All but the one for whom the joke appears too close for comfort. Ghaliya leans over to me and says, “It is good for us to laugh, but you know all these women are afraid of their husbands.”


Why are these women’s lives so very different? Why are they so very much the same? Is social class what matters? Do material resources and what we do with them determine the outcome of our lives? Or are family, religion, ethnicity, and local culture the factors that make us who we are?


Syria’s place in international relations, however, is not the main focus of this book. Instead, I focus on a second reason for studying Syria—that is the ways in which the policies of a strong state, a struggling economy, local culture, religion, and family values shape the lives of ordinary women, particularly around questions of gender. For forty years, Syria’s commitments to the Ba’th Socialist Party, for example, opened educational opportunities for women that rivaled those available in the West. Yet relatively few women have been able to translate those opportunities into long-term employment. At the same time, two decades of uneven development and rising prices have made it more and more difficult for families to live on men’s wages alone—opening a host of questions about the appropriateness of women’s employment at a time when families must generate additional income simply in order to stay afloat. Religion as sets of practices, beliefs, and communities also shapes decisions about work and family. So do the subcultural values of individual families. While none of these are unique to Syria, Syria does provide a window through which to observe the intersections of personal identity and local culture, religion, resources, and ideas about gender. The latter is the primary focus of this book.

[Excerpted from Making Do in Damascus: Navigating a Generation of Change in Family and Work, by Sally K. Gallagher, by permission of the author. © 2012 by Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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