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Syrians

Syrians

PRONUNCIATION: SIHR-ee-uhns
LOCATION: Syria
POPULATION: 19,747,586 (2008 estimate/includes approximately 1.5 million refugees from Iraq and 500,000 long-term refugees from the Palestinian Territories)
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); French; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni, Alawi branch of Shia, Druze); Christianity; Judaism; Baha'i
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 4: Syrian Christians in India

INTRODUCTION

Syrians live in the Syrian Arab Republic, more commonly known as Syria, a land that has been inhabited for more than 7,000 years. The earliest human artifacts found in Syria date from the Middle Paleolithic age. Syria gets its name from the Assyrians, who controlled the area in the 14th through 10th centuries bc and again in the 8th century bc, until the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, conquered them in the 7th century bc. The city of Damascus has been continually inhabited longer than any other city on Earth, from as early as 3000 bc. The fertile land of Syria—lying at the crossroads of great trade routes between the East and West and the site of many holy places for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is a very desirable piece of property. It has been invaded, conquered, and occupied by many different peoples over its long history, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, European Crusaders, Mongols from Central Asia, Turks, French, and British.

The modern Syrian Arab Republic came about in 1946 when the French gave up the control they had been granted over an area known as Bilad al-Sham (the land of Syria) by the League of Nations in April 1920 at the end of World War I (1914–19). When the French gave up control, the area was divided into two countries, Lebanon and Syria. Damascus was named the capital of present-day Syria. In 1970, Hafez al Assad (al assad means "the lion" in Arabic), the then-minister of defense, took over the country in a bloodless coup and established himself as president. Hafez held control of Syria until his death in 2000. Although he was called president, Hafez was actually more like a dictator, wielding all significant authority in the republic and quashing any opposition. That tradition continued under the helm of Syria's leader, Hafez's son, Bashar al Assad. Bashar was elected unopposed to a second seven-year term, in 2007 in an election that international observers regarded as a sham poll. The dictatorial power held by the al Assad family led the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2008 to rank Syria 157th out of 167 nations in democracy. Syrians have few elections, civil liberties or opportunities to participate in the political system.

Syria's relationships with other Arab states are strained. Tension between Syria and its neighbors grew in September 2007 when Israel attacked an alleged nuclear facility in Syria. A peace agreement that was negotiated in May 2008 was hoped to help ease tension between Syria and its neighboring nations.

LOCATION AND HOMELAND

The Syrian Arab Republic is a small country located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel and Lebanon to the southwest. With a total area of 185,180 sq km (71,500 sq mi), Syria is just slightly larger than the state of North Dakota. Two-thirds of Syria is desert; the other third is part of the Fertile Crescent (or Levant) along the Mediterranean coast. Most of the population—about 80%—lives in that fertile region, within 80 miles of the sea coast. One Mediterranean island, Arwad, belongs to Syria. The country has a Mediterranean climate with four distinct seasons, milder along the coast than in the inland areas. Temperatures along the coast range from 10–21°c (50–70°F) in January, and 21–32°c (70– 90°F) in July. The inland desert areas are much colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. Syria has several large rivers, the Euphrates being the most important. The largest river in western Asia, the Euphrates starts in Turkey and flows 3,360 km (2,100 mi) through Syria and into Iraq to join the Tigris River at Basra. Most large wild animals are now absent from Syria because of overhunting, habitat destruction, desertification, and the use of DDT and other pesticides. Lion-hunting used to be known as "the sport of kings" in the upper Euphrates area, but lions disappeared from the Syrian desert about a century ago.

The Syrian people are one of the most ethnically mixed of all Arab peoples, blending characteristics from their many conquerors and invaders. Most Syrians are a genetic mix of Phoenician, Babylonian, Assyrian, French, and Turkish. Syrians generally have olive skin, dark brown eyes, and black hair, but a wide variety of other physical characteristics exists as well: blond hair and pale skin; black hair and dark brown skin; blue eyes and brown hair; and even red hair and freckled, pinkish skin. The total population of Syria is nearly 19 million. About 90% are Arab, and the rest are Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, and Circassian. Some Palestinian refugees also have made their home in Syria, and nearly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have fled into Syria since the start of the Gulf War in March 2003. Half of the people live in cities, 4 million in Damascus alone. About one-third (36.2%) of the population is under age 14. In addition, several thousand Syrians have been internally displaced as a result of Israel's occupation of the Golan region.

LANGUAGE

Ancient Syrians spoke Syriac (a Semitic language) and Greek. Later Syrians spoke Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. (Modern-day people in the small hill village of Maalula still speak Aramaic, and it is used in church liturgies there.) The earliest phonetic alphabet in the world, Ugarit, was discovered in Syria in ruins dating from the 14th century bc. Arabic is now the official language of the Syrian Arab Republic and the language spoken by nearly all Syrians. French is the second most common language, but it is beginning to be rivaled by English. Both French and English are taught in Syrian schools. Other languages spoken in Syria include Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian.

Arabic, spoken by 100 million people worldwide, has many dialects that are so distinctive that people living as little as 300 miles apart may not be able to understand one another. Written Arabic, on the other hand, is classical Arabic and is the same for all Arabic writers the world over. It is written and read from right to left. Oddly, Syrians do not use standard Arabic numerals but instead use numerals that came to them from India.

"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam 'alaykum ("Peace be with you"), with the reply of Wa'laykum as-salam ("and to you peace"). Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is 'Afwan. "Yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sita, sab'a, thamanya, tis'a, and 'ashara.

At least half of Syria's men and boys are named Muhammad (they often use their middle names to distinguish themselves from each other). This name is common because of its association with the Prophet Muhammad. The next most popular male names are: Ahmad, Khalil, Khaled, Yassir, 'Imad, and Samer. Women's and girl's names commonly are Amal, Basima, Huda, Iman, Fatima (nicknamed Fatoum), Majd, and Sana.

FOLKLORE

Syrians are great believers in fate and frequently resign themselves to it. They also love proverbs, many of which reflect their strong attachment to family and intense involvement in social relationships. For example, "One who has no good for his/her family has no good for any other," and "Where there are no people, there is Hell."

One of Syria's heroes is Queen Zenobia of the ancient city of Palmyra who took control in ad 267 when her husband and her son were both assassinated. She managed to achieve full independence from Rome, then went on to attack Roman territories, taking over lower Egypt and all of Asia Minor before she was stopped by the Roman emperor Aurelius in ad 273. Aurelius took Zenobia back to Rome in chains the following year, where she lived as a respected former warrior and head of state until her death.

RELIGION

The majority religion in Syria is Islam: 91% of the population is Muslim. About 74% of Syrians follow the Sunni faith; however, many Syrians also follow Shia, Alawi, and Druze traditions of Islam. The Alawi branch of Islam is in the Shia tradition and is the branch to which Syria's leader belongs. The remaining 9% of Syrians are mostly Christians of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, and Maronite sects. Small numbers of Jews, Baha'is and others also reside in Syria. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and it is illegal to try to convert others to your faith.

Syria was one of the first lands conquered by the Islamic expansionists in the 7th century ad. Damascus was taken by the Muslims in ad 635 and became the first capital of the Islamic empire in ad 661. Muhammad had earlier made Medina, Saudi Arabia, the first Islamic capital. Damascus, named the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate in ad 661, is also an important city for Christians. St. Paul was on the road from Palestine to Damascus when he was converted to Christianity by a miraculous blinding light, and he lived in Damascus for almost 20 years.

MAJOR HOLIDAYS

Muslim holidays, Christmas and Easter (both the Western and Orthodox dates), and the Christian New Year (January 1) are official holidays in Syria. There are also several political holidays, celebrated with fireworks, parades, military air shows, and/or Baath Party (the ruling party) speeches. Political holidays include: Union Day (February 22), Revolution Day/Women's Day (March 8), Arab League Day (March 22), Evacuation Day (commemorating the day French troops left in 1946 to give Syria full independence, April 17), Martyr's Day (May 6), Security Force Day (May 29), Army Day August 1), Marine's Day (August 29), Veteran's Day (October 6), Flight Day (October 16), Correction Movement Day (November 16), Day of Mourning (November 29), and Peasant's Day (December 14).

Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by 11 days each year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar. The main Muslim holidays are: 'Id Al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; 'Id Al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Haj)—families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawlid An-Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and 'Id Al-Isra wa Al-Mi'raj, a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven from Jerusalem.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Marriage is the main goal in nearly every Syrian's life, so weddings are a major social event and rite of passage. The actual marriage, or exchange of vows, often takes place a few days or weeks before the wedding reception in the presence of a religious leader, the imam. A marriage contract is signed before witnesses, and a mahr (dowry) is paid by the groom's family to the bride's family. Christian marriages also require that a mahr be paid to the bride. The wedding reception is a festive event for which the groom's family provides dinner and sweets.

Children live at home until marriage and sons might bring their wives to live with their families. While some Syrians date before marriage, most are careful to choose a potential future mate whom their families would approve of. Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims in Syria are rare.

Upon the death of one parent, an adult child, usually a son, is required to take care of the surviving parent until death. After a death, there are three days of mourning during which friends, relatives, and neighbors visit the family of the deceased. Close women relatives of the deceased wear black for many months, and then they can start wearing half black and half white. For traditional families, it can be up to a year before the women can wear colors again; more modern families wait only six months.

INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

Syrians are generally very loud, aggressive people who may be very polite in their greetings but then cut in line, bump into people without apologizing, drive offensively, honk their car horns constantly, and blast music and talk loudly late into the night (right under someone's bedroom window). They love to laugh, joke, eat, talk, and dance, and will get a party going at any excuse. Haggling is a way of life; punctuality is of little concern. Both men and women are very affectionate with others of the same sex, often touching and holding hands, or even kissing on the mouth in public; this is not considered sexual behavior. Syrians are very interested in personal relationships, and they like to be part of a group. It is not a nation of fierce individuals; in fact, most Syrians hate to stand out in a crowd. Men enjoy a game of insults, where the object is to come up with an insult that is both clever and eloquently expressed.

Most Syrians are proud of their country's cultural heritage. Political opinions vary, however. Many Syrians would prefer to live under a more democratic regime, while others approve of the president's strong leadership.

Syrians stand close together, talk loudly, and use extravagant hand gestures. Holding the hand out with the palm facing up and the fingers together like a tent over the palm, then pumping the hand and forearm up and down, means "Wait a minute." Moving both open hands up quickly above the shoulders, palms facing the other person, means "That's my point!" or "That's my excuse!" Brushing the open palms together quickly as if to brush off dirt means "I'm finished with it (or you)." Patting the hand over the heart when meeting someone expresses affection for that person. A quick upward movement of the head with raised eyebrows, often with closed eyelids and a click of the tongue, means "No." A downward nod of the head to one side means "Yes." Shaking the head from side to side, often with a puzzled look on the face, means "I don't understand" or "I didn't hear you."

LIVING CONDITIONS

Nearly one-fourth of Syria's economy is agricultural. As a result, the country does not have a highly skilled labor force, which has made industrial development difficult to achieve. Unemployment was about 9% in 2007, compared with higher rates of 35% in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although traditional Syrian homes were built around large courtyards, most Syrians today live in apartments. It is not unusual for a family of five people to share a unit that is 650 square feet or less. Those who are wealthy enough build villas or large vacation homes in the mountains or on the sea coast. There are no financing options for Syrians who wish to buy their own homes. All such transactions are paid for fully at the time of purchase in cash. Cities were once divided into ethnic and religious residential sections, but today they are divided more along lines of wealth and class: the wealthier people of all backgrounds move into the more modern sections of the city.

Syria's road system expanded in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century, and the nation has built two major ports and two international airports. Public transportation, however, is inefficient. Plumbing and telephone systems are unreliable. Trains are slow and crowded, and taxis and buses vary greatly in quality.

Health care is free for Syrian citizens but is somewhat limited. There are only 1.2 hospital beds per 1,000 people in Syria. The infant mortality rate is high at 26.78 deaths for every 1,000 births, and life expectancy is fairly low (69.5 years for men, 70 for women). Villages are poorer than cities and have even fewer modern conveniences available. Very few village residents own cars. Villagers live in small one- to three-room houses with a small courtyard, the older ones made of adobe bricks and plaster. The focal point of a village house is the front door, which is often huge and painted with multicolored geometric patterns. The interiors of all but the most modern Western-style Syrian homes are ornate and highly decorated. A favorite Syrian decoration is a massive crystal chandelier that hangs so that it can be seen from outside.

FAMILY LIFE

The family is the center of life in Syria. Children live with their parents until they marry and sometimes after. There are no nursing homes in Syria; the elderly are cared for at home by their families. There is some child abuse, and children are sometimes punished harshly, but children and parents also show a great deal of affection for each other. Getting married and having children is the top priority for almost all Syrians. Arranged marriages are still common, with first cousins being the preferred match. Polygamy is legal, although it is uncommon in the cities. Divorce is rare; when a divorce is granted, the father almost always gets custody of the children.

Women do practically all of the cooking in Syria; few Syrian men know how to cook. Most kitchens have no modern appliances, such as dishwashers, food processors, or microwave ovens, so food preparation and clean-up take much time and energy. Groceries are usually bought fresh every day because of limited refrigeration and the vast quantities of food required to feed a large family. There is a separate shop for each type of food and four different kinds of bakeries: one that sells only flat bread (a Syrian staple), one that sells baguettes and rolls, one specializing in European pastries, and one that sells Syrian sweets. Consequently, it can take most of the day just to purchase and prepare food and then clean up afterwards. Women are constitutionally guaranteed equal rights, but in actuality, traditional expectations and duties usually keep them from enjoying those rights.

CLOTHING

Syrians wear a mix of traditional Arab and Western-style clothing. However, casual Western clothes, such as jeans, T-shirts, and running shoes are rarely seen. Syrians, both men and women, almost always cover their legs to at least below the knee, and their arms to below the elbow. Women almost never wear their skirts or hair short, and men never have long hair or earrings. Neither men nor women wear shorts. Middle- and upper-class women, especially younger ones, tend to wear bright colors, lots of jewelry and make-up, high-heeled shoes, and "big" hair (teased and sprayed into bouffant styles). Young men have very short, closely-cropped hair and also dress stylishly.

The first royalty ever to wear purple robes were in Syria, the dye coming from a type of mollusk that is unique to the Mediterranean shore in that area.

FOOD

Syrians eat typical Middle Eastern food, such as hummus (a ground chickpea paste with lemon juice, tahina [sesame seed paste] and garlic), falafel (fried, spiced, ground chickpeas), and shish kebab (lamb chunks on skewers) or shish tawouq (chicken chunks on skewers). Unique to Syria is a dish called farooj, which is roasted chicken with chilies and onions. Ice cream is called booza, and fruity soft drinks are known as gazooza. All other soft drinks are called "cola." Syrians drink their coffee (qahwa) strong and sweet; tea (shay) is also drunk frequently. In general, Syrians love their food either very sweet or very sour. Most Syrian food uses some combination of the same basic ingredients: lamb, chicken, chickpeas and other dried beans, eggplant, rice, burghul (cracked wheat), olives, yogurt, Syrian cheese (white, salty cheese made of sheep's or goat's milk), garlic, and olive oil. Burghul (wheat that is parboiled, dried, and cracked) is a staple in the Syrian diet. It is cooked a variety of ways and is used as a cheap substitute for rice. When boiled, burghul can be combined with vegetables or meats or stews. Another use for burghul is in the making of kibbeh. To prepare kibbeh, burghul that has been presoaked in warm water is strained thoroughly and then combined with ground meat to form a paste. The paste is formed into small ovals the size and shape of an egg. A hole is poked down the center of the oval and is stuffed with a mixture of chopped onions, spices, ground meat, and pine nuts. The hole is then sealed by pinching the burghul paste over the top. Each unit of kibbeh is then fried in vegetable oil until brown and crispy. Kibbeh is served at social gatherings of all types.

Damascene gardens are known for their grape vines, and use of the grape leaf in Syria, as in all of the Middle East, is common. Leaves from the vine are picked, washed, and dipped briefly in boiling water. Each leaf is laid out on a flat surface. A mixture of rice, margarine, spices, and ground meat is prepared. A small portion of this is laid in a straight line across the bottom of the leaf, and the leaf is then rolled up over the rice mixture. The stuffed grape leaves are set in a pot, covered with water, salt, and tomato sauce, and cooked on the stovetop until tender, about ½ hour.

Meals last a long time in Syria, two to three hours or more. Most food is eaten by hand or is scooped up with flatbread. French fries are one of the few potato dishes eaten. They are served with every meal at restaurants and are eaten with a fork. Potatoes are also sometimes sliced and cooked in a pan with meatballs and onions. Syrians eat all parts of an animal, including the brains, sexual organs, and intestines. Small eggplants stuffed with spiced meat then pickled, or artichokes stuffed with meat but not pickled, are a Syrian specialty.

EDUCATION

Schooling is mandatory for six years, and higher education is paid for by the government at the four Syrian universities. These universities, however, have huge classes and outdated teaching methods, so those who can afford to study abroad. School children wear green, military-style uniforms and attend school six days a week. In high school, students must study either English or French for two years. The literacy rate in Syria is 83% for men, and 76% for women

CULTURAL HERITAGE

Syria's literary heritage includes mostly theologians, philosophers, and scientists, such as Jacob of Edessa (late 7th century ad), who is best known for his Syriac Grammar, and the philosopher Bar Hebraeus (mid 13th century ad), who wrote on logic, physics, mathematics, and astronomy. Only recently has there been any significant development of Syrian fiction writing. The Arab tradition of poetry remains strong in Syria. Ali Ahmad Said (1930–), pen-named Adunis, is an influential Syrian poet who was exiled to Beirut in 1956 and now makes his home in Paris. He uses poetry to inspire revolutionary change to create a new society, and he was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 and 2007. One of the most popular modern women writers in Syria is Ghada al-Samman, who was born in a Syrian village in 1942, studied in Damascus and London, and then moved to Beirut.

Arab music is much like the Arab language—rich, repetitive, and exaggerated. The 'oud is a popular instrument; it is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. The Islamic prohibition against depicting the human form has greatly shaped Muslim visual art, which finds its greatest expression in mosques.

During the Middle Ages, sword-makers in Damascus became famous throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and southern Europe for their extremely high-quality swords made from a secret alloy called Damascene steel. The hilts were elaborately decorated by a process known as "Damascening" in which the hilts were incised with intricate patterns and then inlaid with bronze, gold, and silver. In the 14th century, however, one of Damascus' conquerors captured all the sword-makers and put them in his own service, and the art of Damascene steel died out. The process of inlaying lives on, though, in Syrian woodworking.

WORK

Syrians worked mostly for the government or in agriculture until the mid-1990s when government efforts to privatize the economy opened up more opportunities. However, private companies have been slow to invest in Syria. Lafarge, a French company, is building a cement factory with the Syrian MAS Group, and oil and related industries are developing in the Deir al-Zour region. Most Syrians, however, continue to work in the government in large, inefficiently operated companies.

SPORTS

Syrians enjoy soccer as a spectator sport and also play the game in friendly street-side competitions. One can regularly spot boys playing soccer in open fields, school playgrounds, and streets—anywhere there is enough space for a game. Martial arts are very popular, with classes offered in many districts. Syrians also enjoying swimming (in both outdoor and indoor pools), tennis, track meets, and ping-pong tournaments. Bodybuilding and weight-lifting clubs are frequented by the higher social classes. There are soccer and basketball teams, and camel-racing is a popular spectator sport.

ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION

Eating and socializing in coffee houses are the main forms of entertainment. Social activities involve whole families, only men, only women, or women and children. Some public activities are considered socially unacceptable for women. Men sit for hours in all-male tea houses drinking tea or Turkish coffee, smoking the water-pipe, talking, and sometimes playing a favorite board game—a Turkish form of backgammon. Young men often hang out on the streets, or if they have cars, they cruise the streets. Women generally spend their leisure time talking with other women or family members, exchanging recipes, doing crafts, or dancing together. On Fridays, the Islamic day of rest, Syrians with cars often drive to mountain resorts where they eat, talk, and stroll along the streets. When strolling through the streets at night, Syrians wear their finest clothes.

Cinemas show either tear-jerker Egyptian films or super-violent American or Asian action films. These are only attended by rowdy young men. Wealthy Syrians own VCRs and like to rent videos. All Syrians enjoy music concerts, from jazz to classical, and they love parties even more. Women will not belly-dance in public (they will sometimes dance in front of each other at home), but men at a party will show off their best moves in a hilarious belly-dance routine, laughing uproariously at each other's attempts to shake their bottoms and bounce their breasts. At celebrations such as weddings, both men and women, either separately or together, perform the dabka dance. The dabka is a line dance performed to the music of a band or a hand-held drum called a tabla. A leader guides the dancers by shouting out moves that they must make as he or she dances ahead of them.

FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES

Syrian crafts include jewelry-making, characterized by extravagant gold- and silver-work (gold is considered higher class); mosaic, inlaid woodworking; glass-blowing; and weaving and embroidering textiles, such as clothing, tablecloths, pillow covers, and carpets. A special brocaded fabric called damask is named for the city of Damascus where it originated. Damask used to be made of silk with silver and gold threads woven through it by hand into a raised pattern that appears on both sides, making it perhaps the first reversible fabric. Modern damask is made from a variety of cloths but is still woven by hand. Syria is known for an alum charm that is supposed to ward off evil. The charm is colored blue and has a triangular shape. It is adorned with strands of beads and a symbolic blue hand that protects its owner. Taxis and buses have the charms hanging from their rear-view mirrors.

There is a well-attended international folk festival of music and dance every September in an ancient Roman amphitheater in Busra.

SOCIAL PROBLEMS

A struggling economy and the war in Iraq have made life difficult for many Syrians. Syria's population has doubled in 25 years and has been further swelled since 2003 by increasing numbers of Iraqi refugees, who now number around 1.5 million, almost 8% of the population. Syria's infrastructure has been expanding rapidly but remains poor by regional standards. The transport and energy sectors are antiquated and bureaucratic. The telecommunications and Internet sector is expanding rapidly, from a low base, following the easing of government restrictions. Many of the brightest students (particularly medical and engineering students) go abroad to study and never return. Syrian society is a fragmented one, made up of separate groups defined by language, region, religion, and ethnicity. There is little social cohesiveness or national loyalty. Violent acts of racism are rare, but there is pervasive stratification along skin-color lines, with the lightest-skinned people at the top and the darker-skinned at the bottom.

The chief of military operations for Hizbullah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia group, was killed in Damascus on 12 February 2008. This action called attention to Syria's lack of internal security. The assassination followed an air raid by Israel five months earlier on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria.

President Haffez al Assad's dictatorship was brutal and oppressive to those who did not support him. Although his son, Bashar al Assad, has promised reforms, democratic participation is virtually non-existent in Syria. Opposing voices are silenced by imprisonment or death (or exile for the lucky ones), so few dare speak openly against the government. Nevertheless, some activists are beginning to fight for political reform. Several dozen opponents of Bashar were arrested in late 2007 and early 2008 for promoting the Damascus Declaration, a 2005 document that sought reforms.

GENDER ISSUES

When a Syrian man tells a woman that she cannot do something because women are not capable of it, she is said to retort, "What about our Queen Zenobia?" The reference is to Syria's legendary female warrior and national hero. Most Syrian women, however, do not have the power of Zenobia, and are confined to more traditional domestic roles. Women have few rights within marriages and often are at risk of violence from their husbands or other males.

The United Nations has begun to call attention to the poor status of Syrian women and, in June 2007, called on the government to reform its laws regarding marital rape, citizenship rights, and honor crimes. The UN also has called for the establishment of shelters and services for victims of violence. Little effort has been made by the government to improve the conditions for women, and there are some indications that conditions may be worsening. In January 2007, Syria's minister of social affairs and labor declared the Syrian Women's Association illegal and dissolved another women's rights group known as the Social Initiative Organization a month later. The government also has refused to license non-governmental organizations that support women's rights and services for victims of domestic violence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Amnesty International Report 2008: State of the World's Human Rights. http://thereport.amnesty.org/eng/Homepage (retrieved 3 August, 2008).

Economist Intelligence Unit: Country Profile: Iran. Economist Intelligence Unit Inc., 2007.

South, Coleman. Cultures of the World: Syria. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.

Syrian Arab Republic. Culture Grams: World Edition. Ann Arbor, Mich.: ProQuest LLC, 2008.

Willard, Jed, ed. Let's Go: The Budget Guide to Israel and Egypt 1996, including Jordan, Syria, and the West Bank. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

—revised by Himanee Gupta-Carlson.

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