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The Syrian crisis has contributed massively to the growth of cohabitation via several factors.
It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when the public debate on cohabitation in Syria emerged. However, some references indicate that the official Syrian newspaper Thawra published interviews with young people cohabiting back in 2006. Some of the young surveyees did not seek societal approval since they knew society would reject them for various reasons.
Many young people have left their families and, to study or work, have moved to Damascus, where high rental costs and the deteriorating economic situation have led to a shared housing culture. Nonetheless, cohabitation is a byproduct of personal freedom, regardless of other factors.
Cambridge dictionary defines cohabitation as “the act of living and having a sexual relationship with someone, especially someone you are not married to.” The Oxford Dictionary traces the term back to the mid-16th century: “from the Latin cohabitare, from co- ‘together’ + habitare ‘dwell.'”
In the Arab world, cohabitation is becoming common. However, it is not necessarily associated with sexual intercourse, as cohabitation is considered possible regardless.
It is also worth distinguishing between civil marriage and cohabitation. Civil marriage is a formal, documented relationship that takes place under civil law without the interference of religion. Cohabitation is not a legal or formal relationship between partners.
The Syrian law’s views on cohabitation remain ambiguous. Legal expert Rami al-Khair told Fanack, “In the Syrian law, there is no punishment for the act of cohabitation, and nothing permits it.” He added, “However, it is mentioned implicitly in other laws, which renders it punishable.
For example, the Syrian Penal Code clearly criminalises immorality with up to six months in prison. This is serious because immorality has a broad definition that can include the act of cohabitation.”
Al-Khair believes some laws should be abolished since they are remnants of old customs.
Christian and Muslim clerics agree that cohabitation is considered adultery and thus forbidden. Ali Mohammed al-Azhari, a faculty member at the al-Azhar University, said that a formal marriage contract is a must, and anything else is adultery and forbidden.
Both Dr Abdullah al-Naggar, a member of the al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy, and Mazhar Shahin, a preacher and member of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, agreed with al-Azhari.
On the other hand, Syrian thinker Muhammad Shahrur supports cohabitation as long as it is consensual. In a 2008 interview with al-Arabiya, Shahrur advised young people, “Read the Quran. Do not be scared of it or worry about it. You can do this without an intermediary or a sheikh. Cohabitation is halal provided both parties consent, and the relationship is monogamous.”
The Syrian feminist movement considers cohabitation as a means of protecting women and supporting their freedom of choice and independence, especially on a paramount issue such as choosing a partner.
In an interview with Fanack, civil activist Maribel Haddad stated that cohabitation allows partners to get to know each other for who they really are.
She only envisions cohabitation as an additional burden to women when society, family, and religious views consider it a violation of customs and traditions. This point of view might elicit different reactions, such as disownment or honour crimes against women.
Haddad hopes society will accept all freedoms in general and cohabitation and partner choice in particular, as they are personal matters. “Society tries to impose a certain way of life on you and your partner but holds you accountable if the relationship fails,” she added.
Setting aside liberal concepts such as cohabitation, Haddad believes society remains influenced by religion and cultural customs. “Some families may agree in principle to cohabitation, but the societal pressure exerted on women and their families turns it into a rejection,” she said. “The law is not enough.
Even if cohabitation is legalised and protected by law, customs are still stronger. This is because of their great weight when it comes to a social phenomenon such as cohabitation.”
S.H.*, an activist in public affairs, believes that civil society has yet to achieve acceptance or social acknowledgment of cohabitation. “The societal pressure today is too strong to make that move,” S.H.* told Fanack.
S.H.* added that multiple factors, like Syria’s demographic change and the widespread shared housing culture in the capital, led to the emergence of cohabitation.
According to S.H.*, to this day, civil society has not dared to talk about the issues of cohabitation, homosexuality and the right to safe abortion. Addressing these topics is a crime and a violation of the social contract.
This, according to S.H.*, brings us back to a complex debate about the idea of change and whether this social contract is valid today with all these variables.
On the other hand, civil society is making individual efforts that merely stress the importance of not discriminating against cohabitors. According to S.H.*, civil society believes that the ‘umbrella of citizenship’ should include everyone.
While civil society does not seek to change the prevailing conservative values, it believes that citizenship should allow the freedom to choose a partner, regardless of ethnic and religious background.
Fanack conducted a Facebook survey in Syria among 80 male and female undergraduate students and graduates between 18 and 30 years of age.
51 per cent of respondents rejected cohabitation for religious and societal reasons. They based their position on the need for more Islamic values. All those who renounced cohabitation were Muslim.
Some participants equated cohabitation to adultery, which is forbidden in Islam. They also agreed that cohabitation should not differ from marriage.
Those who rejected cohabitation stressed that marriage is more acceptable because it is halal and legitimate. The opponents considered the engagement period a substitute for cohabitation because it allowed both parties to get to know each other. Otherwise, they felt it was moral decay and a forbidden act.
One of the views opposing cohabitation was based on societal rather than religious grounds. “First, there needs to be a change in the structure and thinking of society before moving forward with cohabitation.
Otherwise, cohabitation will become an end rather than a means because society is full of repression and complexes. This will lead to disastrous results psychologically and socially.”
28 per cent of respondents supported cohabitation in general. Of these supporters, 27.2 per cent conditioned their support for cohabitation on whether or not it would eventually lead to marriage.
One proponent of cohabitation argued that cohabitation is not synonymous with the phrase “unprotected sex producing dozens of illegitimate children,” but society sees it as such. “Society can accept the lack of all human rights, but it is ready to bear arms against those who cohabit,” he said.
One surveyee believed that surveying people on a social topic is the least important part because social behaviour results from complex societal data.
He said, “Does Syrian society practice and accept social behaviour such as cohabitation? Is cohabitation an extension of the philosophy of Syrian society? No. Why are there supporters, then? Because they do not agree with their society and have different points of view. Consequently, approving cohabitation is as understandable as disapproving of it.”
Another surveyee considered that “We live in patriarchal and tribal societies that are built upon families, not individuals.” He added, “The individual is treated as a dependent element.
Therefore, cohabitation violates the structure of society and its basic nucleus: the family. Society sees individual autonomy as moving from cell to cell. As a result, society considers the individual’s independence more dangerous than doing drugs or committing a crime.”
On the other hand, sixteen per cent of respondents expressed neutrality towards cohabitation as they considered it a personal matter.
One surveyee believed that the popularisation of the term cohabitation would bring it close to marriage and make it possible to implement. “Everything free from labels or linguistic restrictions is true,” he said.
Another considered cohabitation to be explicitly about personal freedom, refusing to present any opinion as it is considered a form of guardianship or preaching.
Another surveyee said, “The issue is about religious authority tightening the noose on this form of relationship. But it’s up to each person.” He added, “There are great countries that have decreed civil marriage and permitted sexual freedom, and they have not collapsed either socially or morally. They are pioneers on all levels.”
Fear of Stigma
Finally, five per cent of the surveyees expressed interest in cohabitation but feared the societal and religious exclusion they could be subjected to.