Marriage classes empower women

Syrian girls can attend a school for brides-to-be to help them manage the matrimonial home when they tie the knot.

ALEPPO, SYRIA, JULY 2009. Young women prepare for marriage by attending a bride school in the city of Aleppo.
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ALEPPO, SYRIA // In a room off the courtyard of a restored school, tucked away in the winding maze of streets in Aleppo's old city, girls in hijab and long coats jostle around a table to watch as their teacher explains how to make a Greek salad. In an adjacent room, more faces focus expectantly on a whiteboard as the teacher takes them through English and Arabic sentence structure. This is Aleppo's school for brides-to-be, which has been running in the conservative neighbourhood of Qalat ash-Sharief for just over a year. The young Muslim girls are taught skills that will be useful when they marry - an inevitable eventuality in an economically and educationally poor area of the city where women are expected to take a traditional family role. The subjects are broad, including literacy, embroidery, cooking, psychological awareness, first aid, child-raising and family health care, including the importance of breast-feeding. "We want to prepare the girls to be good wives and mothers," said Rasha Arous, the programme's manager at Aga Khan Cultural Services, part of the Aga Khan Development Network, which runs the school. "At any age, marriage requires compromise and the emotional maturity to work through problems," she said. "The younger the girls, the less used they are at doing so, especially when they have often spent a lot of time alone in the house with their family. We teach them how to communicate, such as the right way to approach their husbands and talk to them." But the school does more than just teach the girls how to compromise. It has also started a label for their embroidery which is sold in the city. "The very fact that the girls are allowed out of the home is an achievement. Most of the girls leave school by the age of 10 and are confined to the home to wait for a groom," said Ms Arous. A study carried out by her team last year put the average age of marriage for women in the area at 17. However, an initial survey in 2006 found it to be 15 - two years under the legal age for women (it is 18 for men) - and well below the average age of 25 calculated by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2008. Locals say that when parents and religious leaders decide a couple are to marry, not much can be done to prevent it. In some cases, the marriage is not registered until the legal age is reached, in others documents are forged. According to Unicef Syria's latest statistics, in 3.4 per cent of marriages the girl is 15 or under and in 17.7 per cent they are under 18. Of the country's 14 governorates, Aleppo has the third highest rate of marriage for girls under 15. So instead of trying to fight the practice, organisations are trying to make sure girls are better prepared. "The girls face social, economic and educational issues," said Razan Rashidi, a spokeswoman for Unicef in Syria. "For example, they are often not experienced in dealing with the emotions of marriage or sorting out problems." Last year's intake of brides-to-be are now putting those lessons into practice. Qamar, 17, recently got engaged. She speaks shyly about the effect the classes have had on her. "I have learnt how to deal with my future husband and to bring up my children well," she said. "I feel more confident about getting married." Aisha, 35, who accompanies her two daughters to the lessons, said she wished she could have attended such a school before her marriage. "I have only just realised the importance of educating myself," she said. "And I would have known how to stand up for myself and demand a bigger dowry!" Before starting at the school, girls and their mothers were invited to meetings at the homes of local women and asked to draw pictures of themselves. They frequently depicted themselves as small and featureless in comparison to their husbands and brothers. Some drew themselves with speech bubbles proclaiming that they could not speak while one drew a ladder taking her away from her family. Mothers were asked to writedown what issues they faced in their marriage and would have liked to known about beforehand. "The results varied enormously," said Ms Arous. "Answers included not knowing how to deal with their husbands' stubbornness, wanting more education, being worried that their husband no longer found them attractive because they were putting on weight as well as one who was frustrated at not being able to unveil at home because her brother-in-law lived there." The curriculum, based on these findings, is taught during three-hour classes spread throughout the week to reduce the number of times the girls need to leave the house. When the school was founded the girls were eager, albeit nervous. But overcoming resistance in the community was a huge challenge. Ms Arous and her team spent six months getting to know the neighbourhood's families, convincing community leaders of their plans and employing local teachers. They managed to get 30 girls enrolled in the school, 23 of whom attended regularly. This year a further 17 have joined. Support for the bride school comes from surprising places. The neighbourhood's sheikh, a jovial grandfather figure called Ahmed Abu Aaisa, describes the school as "a gift from God". He said the community has not changed since 1970 when he became the area's leader. But now, he said, he has noticed a shift in the attitudes of men. "When it started many fathers and brothers came to me and told me 'I won't be letting my daughter or sister go to the bride school'. I told them to let them go. Knowledge is light. This programme is giving girls hope, friends and improving their marriages," he said. The girls agree. "It used to be tricky to attend lessons, but now if I am around the house for two consecutive days my parents ask me why I am not at the bride school," one student, Lama, said. * The National