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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Prostitution in Syria: Between Necessity and Exploitation

Prostitution in Syria
A Syrian sex trafficking victim speaks to journalists at her safehouse at an undisclosed location in Lebanon on April 13, 2016, after she fled a brothel in Lebanon where she was being held captive. Lebanese security forces busted a sex trafficking ring involving 75 Syrian women trafficked to Lebanon from their country and forced into prostitution. STRINGER / AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

The unprecedented levels of poverty in Syria paved the way for exploiting women in the form of prostitution. It is a profitable business with investors and activities across the borders.

This phenomenon has turned into a tool for some officials to blackmail Syrians, including artists, and force them to pay royalties.

In recent years, the regime has turned a blind eye to what became known as “sex tourism.” Despite this, it is easy to uncover the extent of this phenomenon. Human rights organisations and press reports reveal a network of organisations facilitating prostitution for monetary gain while others directly force girls into it.

A source in the Syrian Ministry of Justice told Asia News Agency that prostitution rings have increased by 60 per cent, especially in Damascus and its countryside.

In 2013, the Syrian Ministry of Interior announced the dismantling of 80 prostitution rings compared to 30 in 2012, indicating an increase of more than 100 per cent.

According to Al-Watan Newspaper, the Ministry of Interior confirmed that 2013 was full of prostitution-related arrests. Six hundred cases were prosecuted and sentenced. Two hundred cases are from Damascus and its countryside. Aleppo comes in second place with approximately 150 cases, while Homs is in third place with 90 cases. The rest is distributed among other governorates.

On his Facebook page, the former Minister of Economy Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar questioned the economic policy pre-2011. He asked why the Ministry of Interior announced the presence of more than 55,000 prostitution facilities. However, the Chief Criminal Judge in Damascus Majed al-Ayoubi, pointed out that these numbers are exaggerated. If they were true, it would mean Syrian society has completely collapsed. It would also mean, according to Ayoubi, that every neighbourhood of every governorate, city and townhouse has more than 20-25 brothels, which is entirely untrue.

The Deliberate and Terrifying Penetration

“There are no accurate statistics about prostitution in Syria since it is criminalised by law. Furthermore, the regime obscures them since those closely associated with it promote most of the rings. Let alone, some do not even need rings,” says lawyer Khaldoun al-Adawy, who describes the spread of the phenomenon in Syria and Damascus as “terrifying.”

Adawy indicated in a statement to Fanack that most recruits are females between the ages of 15 and 28. Most of them are fed up with the Syrian crisis affecting their daily lives.

However, Adawy also believes that money is not the only motive behind the young women’s gravitation to brothels. Something forces them into it, encourages this phenomenon and protects its investors. Adawy stressed that the spread of this phenomenon is a deliberate process by the regime. The aim is to create a fragile, disjointed, immoral social structure that cannot engage in political action or civil activism.

Press reports indicate that the regular service fees in some brothels range between 15,000 and 100,000 Syrian pounds per hour. The most significant portion goes to the ring leaders, while girls are forced to have intercourse with up to ten men a day.

This trade secures a high income for the security and military officers in the regime, and they are desperate to defend it, according to Adawy. He also adds that the practice of prostitution on such a scale gave these officers profits without fear of losing capital.

Jaramana: More than 200 Brothels

According to pro-regime media, the number of brothels in Jaramana exceeded 200. Investigations also revealed that male prostitution and cross-border prostitution have spread in the town that Syrians call the “Las Vegas of Damascus.

In 2018, the Ministry of Interior dismantled the largest prostitution ring. It included well-connected power brokers, and among them were artists and restaurant owners from Damascus. Intensive investigations were conducted with them and some were referred to military court due to the involvement of military personnel in the case.

The ministry also proclaimed the arrest of 900 promoters of prostitution and drug sellers and users in Jaramana during the first half of 2017.

In 2020, the head of the Department of Protection of Public Moralities Waseem Ali Maarouf confirmed to local newspaper Tishreen that beauty salons and nightclubs are the most popular places to recruit girls. There are also some restaurants and cafes in specific areas like Hamra Street, Arnous, Mezzeh, Jaramana, Abu Rummaneh, and Shaalan.

The Role of Militias

According to journalist and sociology researcher Hussein al-Omar, prostitution rings are concentrated in the areas controlled by the Iranian militias in Aleppo. Omar believes that prostitution thrives because of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese militias.

According to Omar, the militias were not satisfied with institutionalising Nikah al-Muta’a (wedlease) and cohabitation. After taking control of the governorate in 2017, so they went on and formed more than 140 prostitution rings in wealthy neighbourhoods such as Nile Streets, Mokambo, Shuhada and Aziziyah.

Last year, “Enab Baladi” quoted sources saying that groups affiliated with the militias of Iran and Hezbollah supervise and protect brothels in Aleppo, especially in the event of raids.

It is noteworthy that Iran was involved in the sex trade in Syria before the war. After Iranians acquired the real estate surrounding the holy sites in Damascus in the 1990s under the pretext of religious tourism, they built casinos near the Zahra Hotel on the outskirts of Ghouta towards Jaramana. The Sayeda Zainab area became famous for prostitution and drugs.

Business Without Borders

In the wake of the war in Syria and the loss of the tourism sector, prostitution rings began sending girls to Lebanon pretending to work in barbershops or hotels. In 2016, the Lebanese security forces dismantled a vast prostitution ring. They rescued 75 girls, most of whom were Syrian. A security source told AFP, “This is the largest network of women trafficking exposed since the war in Syria.”

According to the General Directorate of General Security report, the number of prostitution-related arrests among Syrian women between 2011 and 2018 was 30 per cent. This figure jumped to 69 per cent after only two years.

Similarly, Majesty News stated that a ring of 50 girls busted last year promoted covert prostitution and sent girls from Syria to Lebanon to work.

It all started in a perfume shop in Jaramana of Damascus, according to the website. After tempting them with secure job opportunities in Lebanon, the owner lured the girls and then forced them to engage in prostitution in exchange for money.

The salary of a prostitute in Lebanon is up to $1,000 per month, and pimps can achieve this amount in just two days. According to reports, a night in Syria is worth $100 in wealthy neighbourhoods. Other sex-services range from $20 an hour or even SYP25,000.

Blackmailing the Syrians

Investors in prostitution were not limited to preying on Syrian women for a quick profit. Instead, security officers used this trade to blackmail Syrian citizens, including artists and celebrities, for money.

A few days ago, Syrian actor Yazan al-Sayed revealed that a security officer tried to blackmail him. The officer claimed there was a prostitution lawsuit against Yazan, thinking the latter would get scared and pay him money.

However, after returning from Dubai, Yazan met the Minister of Interior, who took over the case and punished those responsible for what he described as a “hugger-mugger.”

History of Prostitution in Syria

Predating the 2011 war in Syria, prostitution was restricted to unlicensed underground locations. The Marjeh hotels in central Damascus used to openly call for customers in public squares. At the same time, prostitution was readily available in brothels in major cities and nightclubs around the capital.

Before 2011, prostitution was not limited to traditional forms. Types such as wedlease and tourist marriages appeared. In 2010, Deutsche Welle published a report about these marriages spreading in Syria. Most of them were Gulf men and Syrian women, who did that purely for the money.

According to a study published by Harmoon Centre For Contemporary Studies titled “Societal Destruction,” prostitution in Syria grew in the 1970s by implicitly allowing the spread of brothels under the regime’s supervision and mediated by real estate offices in Damascus under the pretext of tourism.

According to the centre, the number of brothels at the time was estimated to be more than 40,000. A loophole was found that allowed prostitutes to work in nightclubs if they applied for the Syndicate of Artists.

Prostitution in the Syrian Law

According to Article 2 of Law No. 10 of 1961, prostitution is anyone who uses, lures, or seduces a person, male or female, intending to commit debauchery or prostitution by deception, force, threat, abuse of authority, or other means of coercion.

Article 5 of the law states, “Anyone who brings a person into the Syrian Arab Republic or facilitates his entry to commit immorality or prostitution shall be punished by imprisonment for no less than one year and not more than five years and a fine of 1,000 to 5,000 Syrian pounds.”

Article 6 stated that “whoever helps a female engage in prostitution, even with a financial agreement, shall be punished by imprisonment for no less than six months and not more than three years. Article 8 stipulates that whoever opens a place for debauchery or prostitution or aids someone with it shall be punished by imprisonment for no less than one year and not more than three years and a ruling to close the brothel and confiscate the assets and furniture.”

In 2010, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued Decree No. 3, which raised the penalty, and specified the definition of trafficking. Currently, the definition includes “luring, transporting, kidnapping, deporting, harbouring or receiving people for use in illegal business or purposes, in exchange for material or immoral gain by granting advantages or in pursuit of any of that or otherwise.”

The decree specified the penalty in these cases to be “temporary detention for no less than seven years, and a fine of one million to three million Syrian pounds, taking into account the severity of the crime committed against women or children or a person with special needs, and if a weapon is used to threatened with it or even utilised.”

However, Syrian lawyers believe there is a loophole in the law that allows engaging in prostitution in their own home as long as there is no complaint from neighbours. The police cannot break into a house or ask about the presence of a male and a female in one house without a marriage contract just because of suspicion.

So the whole illegality of the issue can be avoided as long as the female does not practice it for material benefit because that last part is what constitutes a crime under the Syrian law.