On the day she was born in 1953, Sabrie Abtini’s grandmother was angry because the newborn wasn’t a male. She left the house feeling upset but someone followed her to inform her that the baby girl had a male twin. She became very happy and returned to the house. Ever since she was a child, Sabrie Abtini felt discrimination between men and women. Her mother used to breastfeed, shower and dress her twin brother before her, but she didn’t complain like other kids. She just waited silently for her turn; that’s why she was called Sabrie, meaning “patient”.
Sabrie recalls some of her childhood memories in al-Maadi neighborhood in Aleppo city: “During Ramadan, before Iftar time, my father used to give my sister and me a box of dates to distribute to fasting pedestrians from the front door of our house.”
She adds, “During the last days of Ramadan, I was playing with my sister and my nieces and we weren’t wearing hijab. We were about 12 years old. My father came from behind us, very mad, and shaved our hair off. I remember that we cried a lot, and even my mom cried, especially because it was the day before Eid al-Fitr.”
Sabrie and her siblings learned the Quran from the Sheikh, but when she was 7 years old, her parents prohibited her from going to school although her siblings were allowed to. She kept insisting that she go to school, so her parents sent her at the age of 11 to a school for illiterate girls, where she stayed for a few months to improve her reading and writing skills.
She started learning sewing skills from a skilled and competent woman from Aleppo. Her parents paid the seamstress 250 Syrian pounds to teach her how to sew, which was a huge amount of money at the time. After 3 years, Sabrie mastered the profession, and her father set up a room below the stairs in the family house for her to work in. She says, “Back in those days, society accepted that women work but only at home. Clients would come to see them, and they wouldn’t go out or move much.”
She adds, “Although we lived in an old simple neighborhood, my family was somehow more open and civilized than others. We belonged to the middle class, being the owners of a textile factory in al-Kalasa district. We also had a car and household appliances, such as a washing machine and refrigerator that were not very common in those days.”
After working as a seamstress for some time, Sabrie bought a weaving machine and put it in her father’s factory. Her father gave her the profit from the machine after deducting the worker’s wage, maintenance fee, and so forth.
Sabrie was engaged to her cousin for 3 years, but he died in an accident while returning from his military service. She then married the man who had wanted to marry her before her engagement. He had backed away because tradition said that her cousin was a more suitable choice. She also preferred her cousin to a stranger. She says, “Some families would consult the girl before marriage, but some would force the marriage on her, especially if the fiancé was her cousin.”
Sabrie and her sister got married on the same day. Their husbands were from the town of Souran in rural Aleppo. “Rarely did the people of the city marry their daughters to men from rural areas because they used to look down on them. Those from rural areas preferred to marry someone who was also from a rural area. They didn’t like girls from the city, but we didn’t care what people said. Rather, the relationship between my parents and my husband’s parents was one of mutual love and respect.”
Sabrie gave birth to five girls and four boys, three of whom died at an early age due to disease. After her daughters grew up and went to school, Sabrie went back to working as a seamstress to support her husband in meeting the family expenses that had increased over time.
Her sons grew up and did compulsory military service. Then, her husband’s health situation worsened after he suffered several strokes, the last of which confined him to bed. During these difficult years, Sabrie took responsibility for the family, working and taking care of her husband until he died after a year and a half of illness.
She says, “When my husband got sick, two of my kids had to quit school while still in elementary in order to work and help financially. In fact, the girls were cleverer at school than their brothers, but despite this my father and my husband’s parents didn’t allow them to continue their schooling beyond grade 6.”