Syrian refugee women’s negotiation of higher education opportunities in Jordan and Lebanon

Kathleen Fincham

International Journal of Educational Development, Volume 92 (2022), Article number 102629 


This paper examines how gender norms shape young Syrian refugee women’s engagement in higher education in Lebanon and Jordan, and highlights ways in which displacement has contributed to shifting gender norms 

Jordan hosts more than 665,000 Syrian refugees (around 9 percent of the population), while Lebanon hosts more than 855,000 registered Syrian refugees (one fifth of the population). In Jordan, 80 percent of refugees are poor, and 60 percent of refugee households are in extreme poverty; in Lebanon, 90 percent of refugee households are in extreme poverty. While most Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are above the age of secondary education, only a small fraction (8 percent in Jordan and 6 percent in Lebanon) are enrolled in higher education due to several factors including financial hardship, lack of documentation, lack of residence permits (Lebanon), and lack of capacity in higher education institutions.  

Prior to the Syrian war, women in Syria accounted for more than half of all university enrolments and graduated at higher rates than men. However, women only accounted for 15 percent of the labor force in Syria before the war. 

The author has drawn on data from a broader research project investigating Syrian youths’ perspectives and experiences of higher education opportunities for refugees in the Middle East and North Africa region. Data was collected through semi-structured focus group interviews. 

Main findings: 

  • The ways in which Syrian refugees construct and negotiate their gender identities are shaped by traditional Arab culture and Sunni Islam. For Syrian women, cultural narratives position them as biological reproducers, cultural transmitters, metaphors and gatekeepers of the nation. Syrian men are positioned as protectors and providers for the family and wider national collectivity. 
  • Displacement has changed the way that many Syrian families view gender relations. In some cases, displacement has created opportunities for women’s participation in the public sphere (through increased access to travel, education, and employment opportunities). In other instances, it has intensified restrictions on women’s movements, behaviors, and choices.  
  • Displacement has affected Syrian women’s access to higher education. In some cases, there is greater cultural acceptance of Syrian women pursuing higher education due to severe financial hardship, inability of Syrian men to provide for their families, and the pervasiveness of female-headed households in displacement settings. 
  • Participation in higher education does not necessarily challenge entrenched gender relations in the home. Women typically continue to have cultural responsibility for all domestic work and childcare. 
  • Increased access to higher education does not necessarily translate into increased participation in the public sphere for Syrian women. Employment for women (other than high status professional employment) continues to be viewed as an act of necessity or financial desperation, which compromises the honor of female refugees and undermines the masculinity of their male relatives. 

The author concludes that for many Syrian refugees, displacement has brought about social transformation and changed the way that families view gender relations. However, increased access to higher education has not necessarily challenged gender relations in the home or expanded women’s access to the public sphere.