The thick black veil that covers Fatima’s slender body from head to toe has done little to stop the constant accusations from her community that she is too open, too audacious and, even, too masculine.
The 36-year-old Syrian who fled a brutal war that ripped through her village of Qusayr, destroying her home and killing her husband, is now facing a lone fight for survival with her two children in one of the poorest villages in Lebanon.
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She is one of more than 145,000 Syrian refugee women who, according to UN figures, are the sole breadwinners for their families, struggling to provide food and shelter for their children and often facing harassment, humiliation and isolation.
A report released by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on Tuesday, says that one in four Syrian households living in four major countries of refuge – Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt- are headed by lone women.
I was living in dignity, but now no one respects me because I'm not with a man
Of the dozens of Syrian refugees camps in Arsal, Fatima lives in one of the most densely-populated. The “Mothers of Martyrs” is a complex of 113 concrete, four-by-four metre rooms, where a few hours of electricity is a luxury and the water tank is a 15 minute walk away.
After the death of her husband – who died under torture in a Syrian regime-run jail – she found herself, not only in a fight for survival, but in constant conflict with her new community as she tried to make the ravaged camp a fit home for her children.
“Every time I voice my opinion on how to improve the aid distribution in the camp, the Syrian men in the village shut me up. Because I am a woman, I am being told my opinions are worthless even though I am more educated than most of them,” Fatima told Al Jazeera.
“They say I am too open and too manly because I leave the house and speak out, even though my clothing has nothing to do with openness,” she said, as her black robe trailed behind her along a muddy and unpaved road.
‘Prey to men’
According to the UNHCR report “Woman Alone: The Fight for Survival by Syria’s Refugee Women”, which is based on the personal testimony of 135 women, one in three female refugees said they were too scared or overwhelmed to leave home, and 60 percent expressed feelings of insecurity.
Many women complain of regular verbal harassment.
“A woman alone in Egypt is prey to all men,” Diala, who lives in Alexandria, was quoted as saying.
“I was living in dignity, but now no one respects me because I’m not with a man,” Zahwa, in Jordan, said. She said was even harassed by refugees when collecting food coupons.
Om Mohmmad, who now lives in the Mother of Martyrs camp after she lost her husband to the war and was separated from her family, told Al Jazeera that she is even scared to take her children to the outdoor bathroom at night because the men in the village view women who leave the house after dusk with suspicion.
“I do not want to hear hurtful words in the streets on the way”, she told Al Jazeera as she sat in her shelter, one of those four-by-four metre rooms.
The 38-year-old mother of five depends solely on a stipend from aid organisations for survival. She breaks her fast during the holy month of Ramadan with her five children over a dinner of crusty bread and canned food, a striking contrast to the long and rich dinner table that her family united over before the war blighted their lives.
In common with Om Mohmmad, one third of the women interviewed by UNHCR said they did not have enough to eat. And only one fifth of them have paid work with many finding it hard to get a job, or simply having too many other responsibilities.
“Many have reached the end of their savings – even selling off their wedding rings,” the report says.
“When I was living in Syria, I did not have to even worry about going shopping for bread. My husband brought everything,” Om Mohammad told Al Jazeera, tears filling her eyes.
“Now I am running around from one place to another to fetch stuff for my children to eat.”
‘Humiliated for losing’
Before the conflict forced Syrian women into exile, many of them depended heavily on financial security and protection provided by the men in their families.
In some cases, their lifestyles were such that they did not even go shopping alone. Often they lived in areas where other members of their extended family were nearby – Syrian families are traditionally very tight-knit.
But the civil war has torn those families apart, forcing at least three million people – mostly women and children – to flee the country.
“Syrian refugee women are the glue holding together a broken society,” Angelina Jolie, UNHCR’s special envoy, has said.
“Their strength is extraordinary, but they are struggling alone. Their voices are an appeal for help and protection which cannot be ignored.”
UNHCR has called for urgent new action from donors, host governments and aid agencies.
“For hundreds of thousands of women, escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship,” Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said.
“They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety and are being treated as outcasts for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war.
“It’s shameful. They are being humiliated for losing everything.”
Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_
|Women are the sole providers for one in four refugee families residing in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt [UNHCR]|