woman holding an iphone

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Syrian women take up mobile repair to protect themselves from blackmail and harassment

In northern Syria, male mobile shop owners have been known to threaten to leak female customers private photos. In response, Syrian women are taking it upon themselves to offer up safer alternatives. Sonya Alali has the story.

In the early 2000s, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had a vision of every single person on the planet one day carrying on their person a portable computer. From people Googling their every query at the press of a button, to connecting with loved ones around the globe in an instant, it was a utopian and exciting vision for a better future. 

And while Jobs’ dream of sweeping mobile phone penetration rates has largely come to fruition, he could not possibly have predicted what that deployment would look like into a very imperfect world. 

Take Syria - a country where women often don't feel safe accessing mobile phone repair services when their phone breaks - because they live in a context where blackmail and extortion is rife.

In Syria, a mobile phone containing private photos can easily become a sexual weapon and a sword over the necks of women. 

“When a phone breaks, a woman may go years without fixing it, out of fear of being blackmailed," says Duaa Ramadan.

Duaa Ramadan, 27, is part of a growing group of women who have started working as mobile phone repairwomen - Ramadan’s shop is in Idlib, in the northwest of the country - who have been motivated to enter the industry after recognising this issue. 

Many women in northern Syria have been victims of cyber-blackmail, which has spread widely in recent times for several reasons including poor economic conditions in Syria and the lack of awareness that this is a crime. Children often have their photos extracted through emotional relationships, while older women have their photos obtained by hacking their phones or engaging in video chats about work or getting to know each other, after which the series of threats and blackmail begins.

Given this context, a small group of women in the Idlib region of northwestern Syria have taken the initiative to learn how to repair mobile phones to protect women's privacy, as well as to secure job opportunities that enable them to support their families amidst the deteriorating living conditions.

Duaa Ramadan a business administration specialist, learned mobile phone repair.

"A wide segment of women in Idlib face significant embarrassment when going to mobile repair shops due to fears that the shop owners might breach their phones and search through their memory for private photos and conversations. That's why I decided to work in the repair field,” she says. 

"Initially, male mobile shop owners were surprised by women engaging in this work, which motivated us to improve our skills by attending many specialized courses in this field. We underwent a year-long mobile repair training course supervised by "the Baraka Amal organization", which included software and hardware repairs, project management, electronic marketing, and financial management. We also received training in digital security and started working."

Ramadan emphasizes that she did not stop at learning repairs but also began training women in repairs, having trained more than 100 women at centers dedicated to women's empowerment in various cities, including Sarmada, Maarrat Misrin, and Idlib. 

She explains that women in the region are prohibited from practising such jobs, which are considered exclusively for men, due to the dominance of traditions and customs that prevent them from entering many fields of work. 

However, she and other women have succeeded in breaking these customs and stereotypes about women, striving to gain new skills. Additionally, the work helps her cover her university expenses. 

She says, "All the women working at the center have received training certificates, are interested in electronics, most of them have a good command of English, and they have demonstrated high efficiency in quickly learning." 

Duaa Ramadan  points out that this project has been met with admiration from many residents of the region, as many girls have started visiting the center to repair their phones, as women workers are less likely to violate the privacy and dignity of children and fellow women customers.  Salma Al-Omar, 25, also from Idlib in northwestern Syria, was subjected to blackmail and harassment after sending her phone for repair.

"My cell phone broke down, so I sent it for repair. However, after a while, I was shocked when someone called me, threatening to publish my personal photos on social media and cause a scandal unless I paid him a sum of money to delete the photos and videos, She recalls."

She asserts that she believes the repair shop owner obtained her photos from her phone, blackmailed her, and threatened her, forcing her to comply with his demands and give him what he wanted. Beyond being the victim of a crime, there were numerous downstream consequence for Salma, including the fact that the disputes with her husband because of this person led to divorce, the breakup of her family, and the displacement of her three children.

In contrast to many men, Jaber Al-Saeed, 41, a resident of Idlib, encouraged his 20-year-old daughter Shahd to learn mobile phone repair. He believes that mastering the handling of mobile devices, including programming and repair, has become a necessity for women to protect themselves.

He says: "Seeing a woman carrying repair tools and using them to fix smartphones is unusual in Syria, as this profession is still exclusively for men. But I am convinced that having women work in phone repair is important and necessary as it helps preserve the privacy of their phones and protects them from hacking and blackmail." He emphasizes that having women's phones repaired at a center run by a woman is safer in terms of electronic tracking, surveillance, and any other unethical uses.

For her part, Reem Al-Baroudi (25 years old), a resident of the city of Binnish, north of Idlib, chose to work in mobile phone repair. She says: “With the rapid technological advancement and its variation، Driven by the need to maintain this privacy, Reem found the motivation to continue her small project despite the difficulties and challenges she faced.

She explains that her work in this profession allows her to protect the privacy of women's phones from violations and hacking by unscrupulous men. She added that her work has helped many women who used to delete photos and videos from their phones before sending them to repair centers run by men, to avoid privacy violations. She emphasizes that she was able to assist a friend when her phone was stolen by remotely erasing all the photos and videos on it, preventing her from being subjected to blackmail and harassment.

It is worth noting that the population of northwestern Syria (Idlib province and its countryside, and Aleppo countryside) has reached 6,017,052 people, according to the "Syria Response Coordinators", a team specializing in regional statistics. The area suffers from a significant unemployment issue, with average unemployment rates among civilians reaching 88.74% (divided into 28% among local males and 93.15% among local females).

Syrian women strive to prove their competence and change the societal view that criticizes their work and disapproves of their entry into the workforce. 

They are succeeding in achieving economic empowerment, serving women in the region, and breaking prevailing stereotypes.