Reporter's Notebook: Syrian Women Roundtable

The women of Damascus tell me covering your head is optional here, but Amal Mouradi, a homemaker and translator, says the things people ask her are strange.

"Somebody also once asked me, 'Do you have hair? Do you dress your hair?'" Mouradi said. "Of course, I do have beautiful hair, also."

I asked her whether she wore a hijab.

"No, actually what I wanted to say is that you have in Syria many religions living together," she said. "I am Christian, for example, and I've never asked any of my friends, 'What is your religion?'"

"I, as a Muslim, I pray five times a day, but I've been every single Christmas to the church with my friends," said Thala Khair, a founder of a Syrian private school. "So it just shows what we truly are."

What do they think of American women? They say we have so many opportunities, they think we could benefit from some things they have in Syria: safety on the streets, family to help with children, and the government helping, too.

"They could be a lot better family- and professionally-wise and in making family life in balance with the profession," said Bouthaina Shaaban, a top-ranking woman in the president's Cabinet. "I feel the U.S., as a very rich and strong country, could have offered a lot more for working women."

"I think relationships here are much better like familywise," said Dana Dbbous, a violinist for the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. "The children stay at their parents' home until they get married, so this is really a very different point. It's not like in the United States."

"We have very cheap and much better kindergarten and nursery," Shaaban said. "I put my children are in nursery since they were 2 months old, and that's how I was able to keep my career and have a family. It's much easier for me to be a career woman with a family in Syria than it is in the U.S."

What about marriage? These women say family influences your choice, but if there's someone you love, there's always a way.

"I think, Diane, if you want to find someone who loved somebody in Syria and wasn't able to marry him because of family pressure, you wouldn't find any," Shaaban said. "There are always ways. You talk to your uncle, and to your aunt, and to your grandmother, and the father, and the uncle interferes. I loved an Iraqi and came from Britain, loved him in Britain, and I came here and managed to marry him."

I asked the women whether I would be surprised by Syrian television. Is there sort of a "Sex and the City Syria?"

"I don't think so," Dbbous said. "You will never find these programs."

"Too much talk about sex on American television?" I asked.

"Yes, I think so," Shaaban said. "I think it has to be done properly to be put in perspective."

Contrast that to Syria, they said, where there's far less teen pregnancy, possibly because a young man knows he's facing not just her but the whole family.

Is it that Syrian men are more respectful? They don't try anything?

"They do, but they respect the ladies and everything because they know it might bring some problems with the families," Dbbous said.

"I can hear right now American parents saying, 'What is the secret of the families that you don't have rebellion in these families?'" I said.

"I'll tell you something: Rebellion is something every generation goes through," Khair said. "It all depends on the level of rebellion. It could be expressed in so many different ways. There are levels of rebellion."

Mouradi agreed.

"They never rebel and go outside the family," she said.

"They rebel," Shaaban said. "They go to their aunt or uncles."

The women of Damascus have a final message to women here in the United States: "Well, I want to say that we share so many things at a human level -- whether we are Jews or Christians or Muslims -- that there are so many things that we share that when we meet together," Shaaban said. "The things that we differ about are much smaller than the things we agree on. And therefore let us not allow politics and strategies of some parties to keep us far apart. Let us work together for peace in the world."

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