Rajaa Natour
03.03.2016 analysis by Rajaa Natour
A wedding in a Syrian refugee camp. Photo: Facebook
A wedding in a Syrian refugee camp. Photo: Facebook    

Neither Marriage Nor Protection for Syrian Women

Thousands of Syrian women are forced to marry men, mainly from the Gulf states, for their protection. Why is this happening and what are the ramifications of this phenomenon

The socio-political crisis in Syria has uprooted over ten-million Syrians from their homes; Most of them have remained inside Syria, while the rest have left. Syrian refugees continue to stream into Europe, but mostly into the neighboring states – Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – impoverished and grieving. The majority have been directed to existing weakened localities and to new refugee camps erected for them by the host states, usually in border areas, for their daily survive they depend on international aid that provides them only with the most basic of  needs.

About three-quarters of the Syrian refugee population in the region are women. According to UNICEF, international organizations have so far donated only one-quarter of their aid commitment to the Syrian refugees, which places the daily amount per refugee at the minimal sum of 3.2 US Dollars (as reported by the UN Commissioner for Refugees). About one-quarter of the refugees families depend on the women for their livelihood, and UN data shows that only one out of five women is paid for her work, so that most families, especially in Lebanon, live below the poverty line. Moreover, the humanitarian aid given to the refugees focuses on their daily life, physical and immediate needs.  The current “Aid Approach” lacks the long term vision of civil life inside camps, which is a question should be raised in the light of the ongoing continues Conflict and instability in Syria. So, for example is International Aid do not tackle feminist pressing problem such women safety, security education which are the foundations of human rights and the basis of normal civil life in the future.

Neither humanitarian aid nor the status of the women-refugees from Syria in their host states enable them to live in dignity. Most of them have lost their male providers –   husbands, fathers and brothers. The challenge they face is extremely harsh: refugees without status or rights, standing alone at the head of their families, without male protection, their fate in the hands of the powerful males they meet in their long-dangerous journey. Thus they have become easy prey for men - especially those from the Gulf States - and thus flourishes the phenomenon known as Zawaj A-Sutra – “protection marriage”, or Zawaj Al-Mut’a – “pleasure marriage”: the exploitation of Syrian women under the guise of support and protection.

Such “marriages” derive from a commonly held socio-religious mindset in which only the bond of marriage or a relationship with a man can protect and save women, instead social apparatuses and welfare institutions that  should step in and  support women, especially women in needs. The dominant socio-religious discourse made the Syrian women a religious matter, crisis that the only answer for it should be “religious” and not feminist, social- political matter to be answered through social approach and tools.

 The extent of this phenomenon among Syrian women refugees is not quite clear, but human rights organizations and media are reporting about quite a few cases of such “marriage” in many places, especially in the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. According to data provided by the National Council for Women Protection in Egypt, only through 2013 about 12,000 Syrian women were married with such arrangements. The UN reports of the year 2014 indicates that about 4000 Syrian women married Turkish men,  one-third of these  marriages in Turkey  the Syrian brides were under the age of 18.  Reports of  “Save the Children”  organization are even more horrifying as they states  that: about one-half of the Syrian women refugees who marry through those arrangements ,do so  with men who are a decade older than themselves, and about one-quarter of them have not even reached the age of 18.

The phenomenon is so commonplace in the host states, that it is highly organized. At the Turkish-Syrian border makeshift marriage bureaus have been erected for Syrian refugee women, in Libya there are offices importing Syrian women, in Egypt men turn to mosques and file official requests to marry Syrian women, and in Jordan the Chairman of “Al- Kitab Wa-Suna” organization reported that in the past year he received 500 requests from men asking to marry Syrian women. On the internet and Facebook, pages have gone up on which Syrian women are sold at various prices: 500 Egyptian Pounds for a divorced or widowed woman, and 2000 Egyptian Pounds for a virgin!.

The resulting picture is that of a trafficking industry in Syrian women bodies backed by social and religious apparatuses acting in public, and in plain sight of the authorities in the host states. Such services have turned Syrian women bodies into an accessible, easy and available “products” for all men in the Arab world: a click on a website picture, payment by credit card, and the goods are shipped to the client’s home. But the arranged marriages by religious organizations or matchmakers in local communities (khatbe) are the ones to turn trafficking in Syrian women bodies  into a legitimate religious duty, if not even a valued, moral one which credit the men.

The dominant discourse around this phenomenon, the one that legitimizes it is the “sutra” meaning “protection” of Muslim women, wherein men are not only the solution to the problems\issues of women in need, but heroes acting valorously for their behalf. This is one of the reasons for which the Arab states hosting the refugees are reluctant to fight this phenomenon: as usual, they have difficulties deciding between civil law and the Shari’a – Islamic law – and choose to ignore the tension that exists between these two systems. Consequently the conservative, social and religious custom is usually favored. Another  reason lies behind the plain sight of the local authorities is the political-demographic threat in all of the host states, reluctant to grant Syrian refugees any rights, even as temporary residents. So a phenomenon based on power relationship, hierarchy, exploitation and control becomes acceptable from a religious perspective. Interestingly, a considerable part of women’s discourse in the Arab world centers on the “Syrian women refugees taking our men” as local women claim, rather than the moral outrage of it. In other words, the heart of the matter is – again – men, needing them and competing over them instead of sisterhood and the promotion of refugees’ rights.

Thus Syrian women are forced to turn to the “male” option and marry local or Gulf men in order to obtain legal status and escape poverty and fear of expulsion. This is only a partial solution anyway, since states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia do not acknowledge marriage contracts with women who are not state citizens. This limiting\restricting legislation does not prevent the exploitation of Syrian women but rather reinforces the host states in ignoring the distress of Syrian women refugees.

An open socio-political discourse, which under the present circumstances in the Middle East is even hard to imagine, is the only way to structural solutions that would make matters easier for women in general and Syrian refugees in particular; solutions that would not consider the man and his needs as the only options for women to turn to in order to survive.

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