(Up)rooted, in the absence of men

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Illustration: Fatima Moallim


“A woman is like a flower and a man is like her roots.” Aisha unfolds her hands and moves a little forward towards the edge of her sister’s couch. Its floral pattern is interrupted by the black fabric of her ankle-length jacket. Elaborating on the difference between men and women, she adds: “As long as he supplies her with water she will thrive, but if he cuts the water she will die. You know… a man can give but also deprive a woman of life.”

Aisha was 33 and pregnant when she, her husband and their seven children fled Eastern Ghouta, Damascus. Now, five years later, she reflects on the journey that took her to her sister’s cold concrete apartment in an impoverished suburb of South Beirut. “I had a normal life until I was 33 years old,” she sighs. “Then my struggle started.”

Lebanon was a pragmatic destination of refuge. The Syrian regime had tightened its military control and sudden disappearances of adult men had become all too common. And Aisha’s husband was wanted. He therefore travelled 70 kilometers west into Lebanon’s agricultural Beqaa Valley to seek an alternative residence for his family. He encountered a farmer for whom he could work, and was offered a tent to host his family right by the cucumber fields. Taking advantage of the open border between the two countries, Aisha and the children followed a few days later. “See it as a vacation,” her husband had comforted her. “We’re just going to live somewhere calm in nature for a while.”

Aisha smiles as she revisits memories of the valley. The people were generous and nature served as the children’s infinite playground. The air was clean and the water fresh – nothing like the polluted air and salty tapwater of noisy South Beirut. One day in winter, her husband drove off onto Damascus Road to collect some documents back in Ghouta. This is when her struggle started. He never returned. She shrugs her shoulders: “Arrested at the border.”

Then, for the first time of her life, she had no male relative to turn to for support. She was forced to head the household on her own, which led her to take up roles and responsibilities which were previously reserved for her husband. Instead of her husband it was now herself who planted cucumbers in the field to sustain a living. In his absence, she walked in public unaccompanied, and shouldered the dual role of being a mother and a father for soon-to-be-eight children. “It was imposed on me,” Aisha adds. “I did not have a choice. I was responsible right away.”

Aisha is not alone in her endeavors: male absence is a gendered characteristic of war. As it is generally men who are forced to join the battle, have to hide from persecution, or migrate abroad for better economic opportunities, it is up to women to fill the gap that is left by killed, injured, hidden, imprisoned, missing or migrated male relatives. In fact, one out of every five refugee households in Lebanon is headed by a woman alone.

Uprooted twice

In popular media, refugees’ narratives of flight are often represented through a discourse centered around loss: of a homeland, of belonging, of relatives, of quality of life, of identity, of capacity. Such a perspective fits with a more general assumption that identities can only be whole when rooted in the nation-state. In this light, refugees are marked by their loss, by their being out of place, or as termed by the anthropologist Liisa Malkki, “outside the national order of things”.

When she likens a woman to a flower and a man to roots, Aisha implies that when the man is absent, the woman becomes uprooted. This suggests that in Lebanon without a husband, Aisha is not only uprooted from the nation-state as a refugee, but also from her gendered sense of self. Left without a life-giving supply of water, she is uprooted twice.

At the same time, there is a difference between this picture of amplified uprootedness and Aisha herself. The wrinkles on her face do suggest that time has been tough on her, but her energy is remarkable, and she speaks almost uninterruptedly with the confidence of a woman who knows what life is. It seems she has found a way to navigate an everyday life in conditions of continuous crisis. She explains that she “could not just stop and weep” when her husband disappeared. Especially after giving birth to her youngest daughter, she “had to be realistic”. She then left the search for her husband to his family, as she now had eight mouths to feed and felt she had done her part.

Despite her own appreciation for the countryside, she packed their few belongings once again and moved with her children to the suburbs of Beirut. She joined six female relatives who had settled there during the years of war prior and insisted on her moving to the neighbourhood, as their support and public schools would be just a few minutes away. Four of them had also lost their husbands to the war and were consequently providing for their households on their own. They had found work and while it proved challenging to adjust to such a novel occupation, and the wage was only just enough to get by, it also allowed them to establish a routine of ordinary life.

Feels heavy like a mountain/ I carry us but mostly you. Illustration: Fatima Moallim

Walking into a man’s world

While Aisha explains how she adapted to the challenges of the suburban everyday – such as meeting many unfamiliar men out in the streets – a door in the background opens slowly. A three-year-old boy peeks his head around the corner. The door’s narrow opening reveals Aisha’s sister shushing a number of small children to be quiet. The boy sneaks out and runs to Aisha’s lap. As he crawls close to his mother’s chest, she raises his arm in an arm-wrestling pose, looks him gently in the eyes and asserts: “Mama is strong, right, very strong!”. The boy giggles and mumbles something sounding like “cookie”. Aisha turns her head back and laughs: “This one, I know, he loves me so much!”. She then continues her narration as she strokes his head, and elaborates on how her role as a caregiver has extended to include that of a provider, as well:

“My role is everything now. I am a mother in terms of housework: cleaning, washing dishes and clothes, helping my children with their homework. But I am also a father now. I am the one responsible for the house. I deal with the landlord and the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] administration. I have the authority to say no to my children. I go out of the house to run errands. I work. I have even become the husband of my oldest daughter, who also lost her husband to the war. It feels like I have entered a man’s world”.

Entering a man’s world indicates a significant shift in gendered spaces for Aisha, whose responsibilities prior to the war were constrained to what she refers to as “the four walls of the house”. She describes how in her social environment in Eastern Ghouta, people would gossip if they saw a woman walking outside without the company of an adult man. If a woman took up a job outside the house, it was looked down upon as a failure of her husband or other adult male relatives to provide.

Now however, in the absence of her hubsand, Aisha was left with no choice but to walk onto uncertain terrain, which she previously naturalized as “a man’s world”. By taking up the male role of providing for her family, Aisha, together with her female relatives, transgresses a moral code of appropriate womanhood which is centered around caregiving. She thus constantly has to negotiate between societal expectations of appropriate womanhood and the wish to be a good mother, sometimes having to sacrifice aspects of the former to achieve the latter. This complex and at times ambiguous process of gender renegotiation has a profound effect on the way Aisha relates to herself and others.

Grows within us. Illustration: Fatima Moallim

Planting seeds

Previously, Aisha was used to being identified as “the wife of”. With no husband to be identified with, Aisha was left with her eight children, and herself. This introduced a significant shift in the gendered framework that shapes her identity. While working her various jobs, she learned how to deal with people in new ways: “I learned to be courageous when I worked. I used to be so shy. Now that I interact with people, I am learning about myself too. I am much more powerful than before”.

Relating her own story to her relatives’ similar experiences, she narrates how she “discovered that women are capable of doing what they need to do”, which leads her to conclude that, in general, “in time women will find out that men are not very important”. She affirms that “even though it would be nice to have someone to share responsibilities of the household with, I do not need a husband anymore”.

Considering that Aisha’s life is conditioned by a crisis of war and of male absence, such a narration of newfound strength allows her to find rooting in a context where she is otherwise deprived of it. In other words, it allows her to order the disorder of things. While the loss of her husband, homeland and quality of life are certainly present, Aisha’s narration of flight is not centered around a discourse of loss. Rather, the presence of loss in her life has allowed for a new window of social reflexivity and opportunities to imagine her identity in ways she did not envision before.

To become uprooted does not necessarily mean to lose a sense of self. As Aisha’s story shows, it can necessitate new interpretations of the self, of others, and of the moral ideals that shapes one’s everyday being and acting in the world. Such renegotiation of the self can lead to transformative experiences. As Aisha’s oldest aunt, who joined the floral couch at the end of the conversation, put it: They used to tell us that women only sit at home. We didn’t know that we can be productive, we didn’t know that we had the ability. But when we came to Lebanon we found out that we can actually produce, we can work. We can plant seeds and grow trees”.

The name Aisha is a pseudonym. This story is based on ethnographic research conducted in Lebanon in 2017. The research was part of a Master’s thesis called Gender in Crisis: How single female Syrian refugees in Lebanon negotiate gender and morality in the absence of men (2017), which was co-written with Mikala Due-Christensen.