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North-east Syria's first female barber is cutting up gender norms

Before the war, women were barely visible in conservative Syria, but teenage barber Amy Mousa says times are changing

Amy Mousa, 17, trims the hair of a client while wearing a protective mask and gloves at a barber's shop in Qamishli, Hasakeh province. AFP
Amy Mousa, 17, trims the hair of a client while wearing a protective mask and gloves at a barber's shop in Qamishli, Hasakeh province. AFP

A female barber is a rare sight anywhere in the world, but in conservative Syria before the civil war, it would have been unthinkable.

Secondary school student Amy Mousa, 17, from the Syriac Christian minority, is among the women trying to change that – she is believed to be the only female barber in north-east Syria and knows of only one other in the country, who is in the capital Damascus.

From the Jazira region, she trained to be a barber in Qamishli – the de-facto capital of Syria's embattled Kurds and other minorities – near the Turkish border.

If a hairdresser is a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter – their objective is still to cut hair

Amy Mousa, barber

While the region prides itself on being more progressive than regime-held areas of Syria, it is still part of a country with deeply ingrained traditions and customs. Yet Ms Mousa is taking a pair of scissors to preconceptions of gender roles by entering this male-dominated profession.

“If a woman drives a car and another drives a bicycle, can you say one is more correct than the other? The use of either has the same objective – transportation. Likewise, if a hairdresser is a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter – their objective is still to cut hair,” she told The National.

As a child, she would visit the barber shop with her father and noticed that it was run by only men. But she was enthralled with the profession, and decided she would learn it.

Although she is still at school, she plans to become a full-time barber and perhaps own her own shop when she’s finished. For now, she has her own shaving tools and cuts her relatives and sometimes friends' hair at the local barber shop.

Amy Mousa, 17, is thought to be northern Syria's first female barber. AFP
Amy Mousa, 17, is thought to be northern Syria's first female barber. AFP

While she has been encouraged to continue her hobby by her family and friends, she has faced some criticism from people in the local community.

“People say ‘how come a girl does this?’ but I've decided not to listen because that would make me feel weak. Praise God my parents were with me and helped me become strong. As days pass people will adapt to the idea that a girl is working in this trade,” she said.

“I know myself and I know that I’m not doing anything wrong. If I thought I was doing something wrong, I would leave the profession.”

Evin Suede, spokesperson of the Kongra Star women’s movement in northern Syria, said Ms Mousa is the only female barber in the Syrian-Kurdish territory. She said that views towards women’s role in society have changed markedly since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

“Women have had to assert themselves. They lacked experience in the roles considered as male-designated and men overpowered and subdued women’s voices,” she said.

'People say "how come a girl does this?" but I've decided not to listen because that would make me feel weak," said Syrian female barber Amy Mousa. Courtesy Amy Mousa
'People say "how come a girl does this?" but I've decided not to listen because that would make me feel weak," said Syrian female barber Amy Mousa. Courtesy Amy Mousa

“Things have changed drastically year on year as women have enrolled in extensive learning courses … I don’t want to be unrealistic and say that women taking up traditionally male roles is socially accepted now, but the majority [in northern Syria] are encouraging towards it.”

After nine years of civil war, a generation of Syrian men have either been killed, imprisoned or have fled as refugees. The women left behind have had to adjust, with many working for the first time and change is also being driven by their empowerment on the battlefield.

All female militias such as the Women's Protection Units (YPJ) fought against ISIS and Kurdish political parties have pushed women to the forefront.

“I think the popular movement that began in 2011 was an opportunity for women to prove their potential and talents in the military, and in the political, diplomatic and economic fields,” said Ms Suede.

“We need to share the success with all Syrian women to build a new Syria, where women are in leadership rolls.”

For Ms Mousa, women’s lives are still dominated by tradition – gossip among the community and parental approval holds many back. However, times are changing.

“As time goes by, we will see society change, especially for the new generation. Everything is available to us now,” she said.

Updated: June 17, 2020 04:56 PM

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