If you walk into one of the many restaurants or cafes in the Saroja area of Damascus today, you might be waited on by a young woman. But that would have been unheard of three years ago.
It’s a new phenomenon that directly results from the Syrian crisis. Previously, it would have been considered shameful, demeaning and even dangerous for women to work as restaurant servers. But now young women, and especially those studying at university, are challenging their parents and prevailing social norms as a result of basic economic necessity.
Lama, 23, works as a waitress at the La Roche restaurant in downtown Damascus. She provided Syria Deeply with a snapshot of a shifting social pattern.
Why did you first consider working at a restaurant?
I started as an evening part-time waitress about two years ago to cover my college expenses. It became harder after the [crisis] and I could no longer depend on the pocket money my dad provides. The hike in prices is everywhere and beyond what my father can afford. Everything is constantly becoming more expensive. We have to face this new reality, so I started working here at the restaurant, and I’m very happy here.
How did you start out?
I heard about some of my girlfriends applying for jobs at restaurant or cafés. I considered it and asked one of them whether she would recommend [the work]. She encouraged me after she achieved some of her financial goals in her job. After some time, I read in the classifieds that a restaurant needed a female [waitress]. I applied after I convinced my parents, and I was hired.
Why did you choose this specific profession?
It was the only one available. I got to a point where I needed to work to cover my personal expenses. I applied for a number of jobs but was unsuccessful. Jobs that are suited for women, such as secretarial work and working in corporations, are rare and need a lot of prerequisites. Work in cafeterias and restaurants is widely available and doesn’t require a lot of effort to land. So I’m happy here at my current job.
Female waitresses are a new phenomenon here, and most Syrians aren’t used to it. How did you deal with it in the beginning?
It was hard in the beginning, as my parents couldn’t accept the idea. I didn’t expect to work in a restaurant either, so it was very difficult in the beginning. I used to get upset at the questioning looks I got from customers, but with time, they accepted me working there. But some customers encouraged me for my bravery, especially as the phenomenon of girls working in restaurants has become widespread.
What are the difficulties you face at work?
This is just like any other job. There are obstacles. It’s especially hard for girls working in an environment that has different kinds of customers. I had to be cautious. The questioning looks of the customers were blatant, but I was able to handle it. The manager also cuts me some slack since I’m the only girl, so I don’t have to wear the uniform and my time is more flexible.
What is your salary? Is it enough to cover your expenses?
I wasn’t planning to save anything of my salary. I know that working in restaurants doesn’t pay well. My salary is 18,000 Syrian pounds ($109) a month, with some incentives. It’s enough to cover my university fees and daily expenses.
Did you have a job before the crisis in Syria?
Getting a job was the result of the current situation in Syria. Before the crisis, I was a sophomore in college. My monthly allowance was 7,000 Syrian pounds, and it was enough. I didn’t need to work at all. My father used to cover my expenses as we were well off. Even after the crisis broke out, for a while, things were cheap and available. There was no incentive for a girl to get a job. But the crisis forced a lot of us girls to be [financially] responsible for ourselves as the prices of basic commodities increased. Our lives moved from financial bliss to financial need. I started accounting for everything I bought so my salary would last until the end of the month. That’s why [girls] getting jobs at restaurants isn’t the only change that has taken place during the crisis.