Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Forced Marriages Legacy in Syrian Upper Mesopotamia

The essence of all Syrian laws regulating marriage strongly contradicts the conclusion of forced marriages.

Forced marriages in Syria
A Syrian woman wears her wedding dress before being wed in the northern Syrian city of Hasakeh on December 1, 2019. Delil souleiman / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

In Syrian Upper Mesopotamia, women are still used as objects and forced to marry to settle scores, close deals, prevent bloodshed or bury the hatchet.

The people of the region, known for generosity, music and folklore poetry, used to force their women, even minors, into marriage, treating them as marginal property of individuals, families or the tribe.

On that basis, women still suffer ancient masculine customs and traditions, burdening them with much more than they can endure physically or mentally.

Social progression and the openness of eastern society to the world have not been able to end or at least mitigate the injustice befalling women. Syrian courts still see bizarre divorce stories, terrifying suicide cases and horrific murders.

Even the significant strides Syrian women have made towards claiming their rights failed to make a difference and stop Upper Mesopotamia’s society from forcing them into marriage for the benefit of their families.

Many Types

Contrary to normal marriage features, like happiness and joy, terms like Fasleyiah, Nahwah, Hayar, Badalah and Qatsh al-Radn describe some of the forced marriages prevailing in Upper Mesopotamia. They can be distinguished from each other by their approach and objective.

Fasleyiah, Deyiah and Dakkah constitute marriages to prevent bloodshed between tribes. A woman from one tribe is forced to marry a man from another to pacify clashes between the two tribes, reconcile and prevent any potential conflicts.

The Fasleyiah woman is legally a wife but is often subjected to degrading treatment since she is merely an earned price. Unfortunately, Fasleyiah wives do not have the right to object or request a divorce. Despite a current decline in this type of marriage, the custom still exists, particularly in rural areas.

Nahwah or Hayar dictates that a woman shall not marry a man from outside the tribe. By virtue of this custom, a cousin or relative can claim a woman for marriage himself or marriage to another relative. Engaging another man or the mere notion thereof would threaten this man’s life.

This brings to mind the case of Aidah al-Saido, the minor murdered by her family after, according to the perpetrators’ claims, refusing to marry her cousin and attempting to escape with a man who had previously proposed to her. Similar cases still happen daily, and the murderers are let off the hook under the pretence of defending honour.

Another type of marriage is Bada’el or Badalah, based on the bartering concept. A guardian forces his daughter or sister into marriage provided that another forces his daughter or sister into marriage in return, thereby depriving both women of their rights to a dowry or consent to the marriage.

As such, the four individuals’ fates become entangled. If the first woman is happy, so shall the other be. If a man hits his wife or kicks her out of the house, the other will retaliate.

A woman from the countryside of Tall Tamr, who spoke to Fanack on condition of anonymity, was a victim of this type of marriage. In a private interview with Fanack, she vented about her 11 years of marriage, spent worried and troubled.

She says, “My brother proposed to a girl from a neighbouring village, and her relatives agreed on the condition that one of us – me and my sisters – agreed to marry her brother. Since I am the oldest of my sisters, I was chosen.”

She adds, “I was forced into this marriage. The man was illiterate, and I had recently graduated from studying Arabic Literature at the university. There was nothing in common between us. It was just our family’s customs and traditions. Every once in a while, he sends me to my parents for a long time, just because my brother, on the other side, does the same with his wife.”

She falls silent momentarily, sighs in heartbreak, and says, “The worst happened when my brother married a second wife a month ago. A few days later and with discontentment, my husband also married a second wife after I gave him three children, and I haven’t done him wrong once.”

Qatsh al-Radn is another type of marriage whereby someone visits a relative to congratulate them on their newborn. If the baby turns out to be a healthy girl, he cuts off part of her garment, stands before everyone and says, “We claimed her for our son.” Consequently, the girl can never marry anyone other than his son, and both families wait until the two children come of age to marry.

A Custom Above all Laws and Religion

Syrian legal expert Rami al-Khair says that all Syrian laws regulating marriage stipulate that the validity of the marriage contract requires consent and the absence of coercion. In this context, the essence of the law strongly contradicts the conclusion of forced marriages.

In this regard, al-Khair told Fanack, “The Syrian law only acknowledges marriages registered before the Syrian courts or before Ecclesiastical courts for Christians.”

However, according to al-Khair, forced marriage cases still thrive, specifically in areas beyond the control of the Syrian regime. Sometimes it happens under the Personal Status Law, provided that “apparent consent” and witnesses are present.

Al-Khair indicates that, based on other articles, if women file an official complaint, Syrian law can restore their rights and punish the perpetrator with imprisonment and a fine.

On the other hand, in 2014, the joint government of the region, affiliated with the Autonomous Administration, approved the “Basic Principles and General Provisions for Women.” These provisions are known today as the Women’s Law.

The provisions primarily revolve around equality between women and men in various aspects and include the prohibition of unilateral divorces. They, too, criminalise discrimination and violence against women, polygamy, and other types of marriages such as Hayar, Badalah and Deyiah.

Most importantly, the general provisions of this law prohibit marrying a girl under 18 and stipulate that she is guaranteed the right to a dowry and her gold jewellery or its equivalent value in the event of separation.

The Women’s Law also affirmed the custodial rights to children upon divorce in line with Syrian family law. Subsequently, these legal principles have produced a qualitative leap on numerous fronts in society. According to many, the law has increased the power of women.

Nevertheless, despite the mentioned provisions, violence against women has not stopped. Lawyer Abdulrahim Abdo confirmed to Fanack that, according to records of the House of Women, the number of cases has increased.

He attributes this increase to the fact that many of the region’s citizens are unable to legalise affairs, such as marriage and divorce, due to the absence of the Syrian government in the area. Neither the Autonomous Administration nor the House of Women has control over these processes.

Ahmed al-Sharabasi, an Azhar scholar, says, “Forcing women into marriage or without their consent is against Shari’a. Islam grants a woman her right to choose her spouse and requires her consent because she is the one who will be his life partner. How dare we force her to choose who she does not want? The Hadith of Prophet Muhammad says, ‘A previously-married woman is more entitled to decide about her marriage than her guardian, whereas a virgin’s permission is to be sought. Her permission is her silence.’”

Most Fiqh schools have rendered these marriages invalid and corrupt. However, there are loopholes, and sometimes sheikhs label these marriages permissible if the woman shows consent and witnesses are present.

Some families try to circumvent the Fatwas that prohibit these types of marriages. In the case of the Badalah marriage, they might, for example, register each marriage with a separate dowry.

The woman will be forced to show consent and bring witnesses, making the marriage contract seem in accordance with Shari’a. Its downsides, however, remain countless.

The Syrian Crisis

Forced marriages in Syria
Syrian women accompany children in a muddy field in the Washukanni Camp for the internally displaced near Hasakeh in northeastern Syria, on February 17, 2020. Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

During the Syrian crisis, many women, especially from Upper Mesopotamia, were subjected to violations by radical armed militias such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front. These groups displaced, kidnapped, raped, exploited, abused and killed tens of thousands of women.

According to a statement by the United Nations Population Fund’s gender-based violence programme officer, underage marriage increased from 13 per cent before the crisis to 46 per cent in 2019.

Honour killings, often in response to women rejecting this type of marriage, have also increased significantly. According to a November 2022 report, since 2019, 189 murders under the pretext of defending honour have been recorded in Syria.

The Upper Mesopotamian woman became a central tool of vengeance between members of armed factions and other people, considering her “a man’s weakness and the source of his honour.” Under this guise, women have been exploited, used as bartering items and hostages to be killed and raped to humiliate and punish men.

It is worth mentioning there are no official government records of forced or underage marriage of displaced Syrian women and those living in refugee camps.

NGO reports indicate that child marriage is a growing problem for Syrian girls in refugee communities in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. In early 2014, underage marriage in refugee communities increased to 32 per cent in Jordan. In Lebanon, 41 per cent of displaced Syrian women were underage at marriage.

No Winners

Customs have forced not just women into these marriages but men as well. Many men grow up to find themselves forced to marry girls chosen for them by their families from birth or even earlier.

In an interview with Fanack, Dr Batoul Hekmat Mohamed, a civil activist in women’s education and support, stressed the importance of realising that these marriages harm not only women but might also negatively affect men.

She added, “For instance, Hayar marriage not only claims a woman for marriage and hurts her, but it also hurts men, who will most likely marry a second time to solve the problem. The same applies to Fasleyiah, Qatsh al-Radn and other marriages. However, women suffer the most, as they do not have solutions like men.”

Dr Hekmat Mohamed noted that civil society must intervene to spread awareness and correct notions linked with obsolete and hurtful customs and traditions. She warned that the process would be very challenging, as society is generally strongly connected with its customs. The process will need long years of rebuilding and rehabilitation.

Reasons for Submission

Investigations into the factors that pressure women to approve of these marriages showed that they agree under financial and social stressors. In these cases, women give precedence to financial incentives since they and their families often suffer from extreme poverty and financial instability.

Additionally, women fear beatings, violence and persecution by their families and tribes if they refuse forced marriages. Sometimes, her refusal of whomever the tribe forces her to marry results in the murder of the woman in question.

Illiteracy is a third factor of influence. In this regard, Lobnah Mahmoud, coordinator of the Hasakh Youth Centre, indicates that such marriages will not end before eliminating women’s illiteracy.

In an interview with Fanack, Mahmoud said, “First and foremost, women must learn to be capable of distinguishing between their rights and obligations and of properly choosing their partners.”

She adds, “The number of illiterate women in the eastern region is high compared to other governorates. Matters are worse in the countryside of that region, where women are not allowed to pursue their studies and are forced to work in the fields or handle livestock and other harsh work.”

Finally, some women fear becoming spinsters and society’s subsequent harsh perceptions.

In this regard, Soad Mohamed, from al-Mayadin, who is engaged to Emad, her neighbour and the brother of her brother’s fiancée, says, “I’ve grown old, and no one has proposed to me yet. I had different dreams when I was young, but the war and the poor situation we fell into did not leave me much choice.” It is worth noting that Soad is not even 30 yet.

Violation of All Rights

These marriages open a portal of severe violations. Violence and a lack of options push women in the eastern region towards suicide or flight, even if this means they will have to resort to prostitution.

These marriages also deprive women of their right to choose and consent, a clear and explicit violation of women’s rights endorsed by international covenants and human rights regulations and stipulated in the Universal Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Additionally, they violate Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This article calls to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

Article 6 mentions that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”

Many other laws combating violence against women have been instituted. Despite all these covenants, many men in the region still believe that women should not have an independent opinion, the right to choose their partners or even the right to spend their own money.

These men believe that women, regardless of their status or position in society, will remain men’s property, a mere object to use whenever they desire.

Fanack Water Palestine