Syrian refugee women caught between patriarchy and new responsibilities: How being the female head of a household in Jordan determines expectations towards daughters.

Source: UNHCR (2014).

The ongoing war in the Syrian Arab Republic accounts for approximately 5.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide (UNHCR 2019a). With the protracted nature of the conflict, forced migration has become one of the most pressing regional and global issues of our present times (Freedman et al. 2017).

Jordan is one of the countries most affected by the Syrian crisis, hosting more than 700,000 refugees (UNHCR 2019b). Since a lot of men are missing or have been killed in conflict, 29 % of refugee households in Jordan are headed by women and the trend is rising. Female-headed households are defined as households, where women are the sole providers of income. The term functions as a proxy for the whole range of family structures and households in which women bear primary responsibilities for their families (Buvinić & Gupta 1997).

A growing body of research focuses on the challenges of being a female refugee in general, especially concerning the weak economic situation women face, health issues and harassment, including sexual and gender-based violence. Further research investigates the sufferings of women with primary responsibilities for their families from a social, economic and psychological perspective. It is stressed that women now hold roles traditionally held by men. They provide for their families, engage in decision-making processes and participate in the public sphere (UN Women 2018, UNHCR 2014). Patriarchal patterns tend to be deconstructed, gender roles alter, and women need to undergo the process of empowerment.

Unfortunately, having a look at how the new role of women shapes the next generation has been neglected so far. But since an early end of the conflict and a speedy recovery cannot be assumed, an investigation of this topic seems to be crucial. Experiencing forced, permanent migration is not only affecting women themselves – I suggest their experiences are also reflected on their behavior and expectations towards their descendants, especially when traditional systems and support networks alter. Thus, it is important to investigate how being the head of a household affects refugee women’s expectations towards the future social and family role of their daughters.

Ulrike Krause (2014, p.28) analyzes the empowering impact refugeeism can have on women and emphasizes that “forced displacement can break patriarchal patterns because refugees renegotiate and redefine gender relations while in camps and settlement.” When women participate actively in the society, it leads to increased empowerment. Particularly in protracted displacement situations, redefined roles are manifested and reinforce empowerment, which includes broader areas of life (Krause 2014). Generally, community rules and social norms are social constructions, passed down through generations. They define social arrangements, how to interact and are anchored in individual, collective, and cultural memories. But these constructions can change (Krause 2014). Following Krause’s female empowerment theory, it could be assumed that women who head households, and therefore need to take an active role in society to provide for their families, expand their empowerment towards their daughters. On the other hand, a growing body of literature shows that women are often overburdened by the added responsibilities (UNHCR 2014, UN Women 2018). They perceive empowerment and changed gender roles as a negative development, forced by the situation (Care, 2016). This implies that they would rather emphasize the importance of traditional roles and family systems. These two tendencies may result in ambivalent expectations Syrian refugee women heading a household have for the future social and family role of their daughters.
Do they promote traditional patterns and family systems of patriarchal societies? Or do they encourage their daughters to aspire an independent, empowered life?

Finding answers on which social constructions and patterns are passed on to the next generation will not only help to improve the current refugee response, but also help to deal with the effects of a changing world.


BUVINIĆ M.; GUPTA, G. (1997): Female-Headed Households and Female-Maintained Families: Are They Worth Targeting to Reduce Poverty in Developing Countries? Economic Development and Cultural Change. University of Chicago. p. 259-280.

CARE (2016): On her own. How women forced to flee from Syria are shouldering increased responsibility as they struggle to survive [Online]. Available at Accessed 14 July 2019.

FREEDMAN, J.; KIVILCIM, Z.; ÖZGÜR BAKLAZIOGLU, N. (2017): Introduction: Gender, migration and exile. In: FREEDMAN, J.; KIVILCIM, Z.; ÖZGÜR BAKLAZIOGLU, N. (ed.): A Gendered Approach to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Routledge Studies in Development, Mobilities and Migration. New York. p. 1-15.

KRAUSE, U. (2014): Analysis of Empowerment of Refugee Women in Camps and Settlements. Journal of Internal Displacement, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 28–52.

UNHCR (2014): Women Alone. The fight for survival by Syria’s refugee women [Online]. Available at Accessed 12 July 2019.

UNHCR (2019a): Situation Syria Regional Refugee Response [Online]. Available at Accessed 11 May 2019.

UNHCR (2019b): ‘Fact Sheet Jordan April 2019’ [Online]. Available at Accessed 11 July 2019.

UN WOMEN (2018): Unpacking gendered realities in displacement: the status of Syrian refugee women in Jordan [Online]. Available at Accessed 14 July 2019.

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