Living together before marriage remains a major taboo in Syria. Some couples, however, just do not care.
Like most Syrians, 25-year-old Arwa Naser is firm in her views about living together before marriage.
“Living together is like marriage, but without any rights or sense of responsibility towards your partner,” Naser, an employee at an international Non-Governmental Organisation, said. “I find such relationships degrading for me as a woman. Why would I live with someone who only wants to sleep with me but is not committed enough to marry me?”
For a local house painter riding the Dahyet Kudsaya-Damascus service van, it is simply a matter of right and wrong.
“Love and relationships are important,” he said. “But even in love there are some boundaries that you should never cross. Living together before marriage is one of them.”
Breaking the norm
Syrians generally consider sex before marriage to be immoral; an act forbidden by God. Moving in together before marriage is, therefore, unacceptable. These views are, however, not shared by everyone.
Wasim Mikdad, a 24-year-old medical student, has lived with his girlfriend for the past year and a half. While their parents and close friends know about their living arrangements, they tell their neighbours they are married and generally try to hide the relationship from their extended families.
“My family knew about my boyfriend right from the beginning, but it was only a while ago that I told them I’m living with him,” Mikdad’s girlfriend, a 22-year-old pharmacy student who moved to the capital from Tartous two years ago, said. “First they rejected the idea all together. After two days, however, they said it was OK, but it would be better if we delayed moving in together until I graduated. Finally, they accepted the idea. They were worried about social pressure from relatives, but since I live in Damascus things are easier.”
Mikdad also delayed telling his immediate family, who live in Damascus, presenting them with a fait accompli after a year of living together. “I didn’t ask for their permission,” he said. “I told them I’m already independent and if they don’t like it then they don’t have to see me anymore.”
Living together before marriage remains a major taboo in Syria.
“We live in a society which is dominated by religion and religion condemns living together,” a 31-year-old single career woman who asked to remain anonymous said. Her partner has asked her to move into a flat with him. While she would like to, she dares not risk the disapproval of family and friends. “There is no way society would accept our relationship,” she said.
Although not technically illegal, unmarried couples living together can face charges of zena – sleeping with someone who is not your wife or husband. More than any of the above, it is a situation which can lead to violence, particularly when the woman’s family finds out. So why then do some people risk society’s scorn, as well as their families’ rage, and move in together?
The first step
Mikdad’s girlfriend said living together was an important step in testing their relationship; a way to make sure they were right for each other before involving the families through marriage.
“When you live together with someone, it’s only you and your partner,” she said. “But once you marry it’s not a game for two anymore. Rather, it’s the marriage of two families and two social circles and this puts a lot of pressure on the couple.”
She points out that she is not against marriage per se, but opposes a wedding certificate being used “as a form of permission to have sex, rather than a social system to build balanced and healthy families”.
“When I get married, I want to do so because I want to build a family and create a stable home for my children,” she said.
Mikdad is more concerned with practical matters. “When you are living together with someone, it’s enough to rent a small room and share your lives together,” he said. “Once you marry, you have to, at the very minimum, buy a house and some jewellery, arrange a wedding party and pay for the jihaz [a new wardrobe for the bride] to please your in-laws. Living together is a social arrangement that solves such problems.”
Not without risk
No specific law forbids unmarried couples from living together. Nevertheless, some articles from the Syrian criminal law can be used against couples, Da’ed Mousa, a Syrian lawyer specialising in family law and women’s issues, said.
One such piece of legislation is Article 473 which states that an unmarried woman who has sex can receive a two-year prison sentence. Her male companion, on the other hand, faces a maximum prison term of one year, unless he is married in which case he faces a two-year term. According to Article 475, however, only male relatives of the unmarried couple have the right to lay charges.
“Most people living together do so without their families knowing about it,” Mousa said. “When the family finds out they can move to prosecute the couple, but more often than not they kill them and then give themselves up to the police for committing an honour crime.”
Mousa is currently working on two separate cases involving young women who previously lived with unmarried partners. When their families found out, they threatened to kill them. The women now live in shelters. To make matters worse, their partners walked out on them after finding out they were pregnant.
“It’s not easy to live as a single mother in Syria,” Mousa said. “Children born out of wedlock can’t be legally registered and therefore have no rights.”
According to Mousa, the best outcome for her clients is for them to marry and register their children under their husband’s name. Otherwise, their children will not be eligible to apply for a number of basic public benefits, including an identity card.
While Mikdad and his girlfriend have the support of their immediate family and friends, they are well aware of the need to conform to society’s expectations. To minimise controversy, they chose to live far from their families in Jaramana, a multi-ethnic area known for its liberal climate.
“Here people are more open and tolerant to different norms and lifestyles,” Mikdad said. “But even here we fear some of our neighbours might consider our relationship akin to prostitution if they knew we weren’t married.”
Despite the difficulties of living together in Syria, the young couple says it is a lifestyle choice which is slowly becoming more accepted.
“Both private and public media have started talking about living together which makes me feel that we are not social outcasts anymore,” Mikdad’s partner said. “This gives me hope that one day society will accept us the way we are.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine