Samira Bahow was born in 1947 in Aleppo to a middle-income family. Although they were illiterate, her parents strongly encouraged her to pursue her education. She studied at the teacher training institute then worked as an elementary school teacher for 10 years in the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood, where there was a Kurdish majority.
She says, “The students’ educational level was good and so were the laws related to the education system. However, the problem was that these laws were poorly applied. Although education was compulsory for elementary school then became so for middle school, many parents prohibited their children from completing their education either for economic or social reasons, such as the early marriage of female students. A father who didn’t send his children to school was liable to imprisonment by law, but in reality, the law was not applied, or else the school dropout rate wouldn’t have been so high, especially in rural areas.”
There was no discrimination between females and males in educational opportunities, and the number of male and female students was almost equal. Elementary schools were mixed, while middle and high schools were single-sex.
In 1966, when Samira was a second-year student in the teacher training institute, the military uniform was introduced for male and female middle and high school students. Samira says that it was imitation or emulation of socialist countries, such as the Soviet Union.
Samira studied Arabic Literature at the University of Aleppo while working as a teacher. In 1970, she started teaching high school students Arabic. She says, “The main difficulty faced by teachers was the large number of students in classrooms, sometimes reaching more than 50 in a single room. Curricula were packed with information and questions, and there was a small number of teachers in poor neighborhoods and remote areas. As a result, in villages, we would often find one teacher for all subjects, including language, history, geography and others.”
A teacher’s salary in the early 1970s was about 220 Syrian pounds, which was considered good until prices started to rise and the salaries no longer matched the growth in prices, leading to deterioration of teachers’ living conditions. “Once, on one of the last days of the month, my husband and I wanted to go to the school to collect our salaries, but we didn’t have enough money to pay for the bus ticket. So, I borrowed 5 pounds from my sister to get to the school and collect my salary. In fact, a teacher’s salary did not reflect the effort or the moral value of the work he or she did.”
As a result of their low salaries, many teachers became indifferent to their work out of resentment, which consequently caused the number of students to decrease and the phenomenon of private tutoring to grow.
Concerning the educational situation of girls in Aleppo, Samira says, “Aleppo is a big industrial city with a diverse social fabric. So, it’s only natural that girls are encouraged to learn, unlike in rural areas where girls are rarely urged to pursue their education.”
Samira worked as a teacher for 30 years until 2005, but she continued her feminist and cultural activities. She says, “I was a member of a social women’s organization called the Syrian Women’s League, concerned with spreading social and educational awareness. We organized activities for women in some poor or marginalized neighborhoods. We always respected the traditions and culture of the place we visited. I remember that one time I went with my Christian friend to the Bab al-Nayrab neighborhood to run an activity with the league, and we wore headscarves out of respect for the conservative society there.”
The league has been licensed since 1948, but it stopped its activities due to the decisions made at the time of Syria’s union with Egypt in 1958 that forced all parties, organizations and associations to shut down. In 2000, the league’s female activists tried but were unable to reacquire the license from the competent authorities, which were only granting licenses to charitable organizations.
Samira says that the league’s activities and events were not easy to carry out due to the secrecy of the activities and meetings because the league was not licensed. However, this situation started to change and become more flexible from the 1990s onwards, when activities could be publicly held on the condition that the government was informed of the nature of the planned activity.
According to Samira, Aleppo’s society witnessed competition between strict religious groups and civil activists advocating for opposing principles, such as women’s emancipation, empowerment and education. “Many women were doubtful of the nature of our activism or civil activities but this situation gradually changed with time and with the development of society.”