Bill of Rights

What does the Syrian constitution say about citizenship and how might this change?

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

With the escalation of the unrest in Syria and the accompanying surge in political dialogue, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the concept of citizenship.

In his book Guide to Citizenship, Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher, wrote that it is not enough to define citizenship as acquiring a nationality and enjoying the civil and political rights it offers. The definition includes active participation in public life.

“Freedom is the legal status quo of the citizen meaning that a citizen is free to choose between becoming an active citizen who participates in public life or…being a passive one,” Abbas wrote.

“Citizenship means the right of citizens to participate in all aspects of life,” Adel, a young theater critic who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Today. He explained that the concept combines rights and duties, but that in Syria, duties trump rights.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties.”

Until recently, broader duties and rights as citizens went ignored, he argued, because people were more concerned with their everyday struggles.

“Through chatting with friends or with the grocer, I have a perception that the majority of people here have a similar direction in life: to secure a living for their families,” he said. “What has been happening [since the unrest started] put this view to the test. Things are bigger than that.”

The outline
Lawyers interviewed by Syria Today argued that deficiencies in ensuring citizens’ rights in Syria come from flaws in the constitution, where the state defines its idea of citizenship and organises the relationship between the government and citizens. Others said that the constitution guarantees adequate rights to citizens; however, the problem lies in many laws which are, in fact, unconstitutional.

In his speech last month, President Bashar al-Assad said that the new media, parties and electoral laws will allow “citizens to participate in making decisions, monitor and denounce” activities of the state. Making this change, Assad said, might require revising the constitution or issuing a new one.

President Assad said that no changes will take place before September and if any do occur they will be based on what the national dialogue meetings, held in July, recommended. It called for the establishment of a committee to “offer suggestions” that would create a “contemporary and new” constitution that “ensures political collectivity, social justice, the sovereignty of the law and basic human rights”.

Contradictory rulings
To implement citizens’ rights, as outlined in the Syrian constitution, articles from the very same constitution must be changed and effectively applied.

People’s political and civil rights can be found in the first chapter of the constitution titled “Basic Principles”. It grants all citizens personal freedom, equality before the law, participation in the political, economic, social and cultural life of society, the freedom of faith, the right (and duty) to work, free obligatory education, the right of free and open expression, freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

However, articles like number 8 – which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country – contradict and effectively negate the right of citizens to participate in political life.

Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge and the manager of Syria Court, a legal website that covers human rights and other legal issues in Syria, said the constitution includes many contradictory articles. For example, it states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but another article says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

“Syrian women cannot pass down citizenship to their children, and they do not have the right of equal inheritance, or even [the right] to take independent decisions in many cases; like marriage, or travel,” Diala, a 27-year-old working in a private bank who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Syrian constitution states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but at the same time says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

Anwar al-Bouni, a lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies, said that problems like these come from laws that contradict the constitution.

“In the Syrian constitution, there is no discrimination between men and women, but discrimination exists in some laws like the nationality one [which prevents Syrian mothers from passing their nationality to their offspring],” Bouni said.

Recently, a committee was set up to study the draft bill about amending Article 3 of the Nationality Law, which includes granting nationality to the children of Syrian women married to non-Syrians.

Another measure that contradicts the notion of universal equality came in with the constitution of 1961, which was drafted following a military coup that ended three years of union between Egypt and Syria, when the Syrian republic was first defined as Arab. This remained unchanged.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties. Equality and people’s general liberties must be established by the constitution regardless of their religion or ethnicity.”

A new constitution, if amended or overhauled, should more clearly delineate citizens’ rights in order to prevent such contradictions in the future, he said.

“Individual liberties must be addressed by the constitution and should not be governed by laws because laws are subject to change, according to who is in power and are easy to play around with,” Maalouf explained. “The constitution is obligatory and is not easily changed.”

Challenges to change
“Changing the constitution alone is not enough. There should be a new constitution,” the veteran lawyer Bouni said.

According to Bouni, the power of the country’s constitutional court is restricted. It is supposed to be able to strike down unconstitutional laws. But the president, according to the constitution, assigns the members of the constitutional court to four-year posts, limiting the court’s independence. Another article in the constitution states that only the Syrian president or a quarter of the parliament can challenge unconstitutional laws.

As a result, the system is crippled, Bouni added.

“Obviously, they [members of parliament] are not going to issue unconstitutional laws and then refer them to court. Consequently, there are hundreds of unconstitutional laws in Syria and no one can challenge them,” he explained. “Since the establishment of the constitutional court not a single Syrian law has been challenged as unconstitutional.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today

We used only first names for interviewees who wished to remain anonymous.

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Syrian Constitution Stuck in the Past

The Syrian constitution is out of date with how Syria has changed in the last four decades since it was issued.

The current constitution has many articles in common with the series of constitutions drafted since the French left Syria in 1946. In a report published on the Damascus Center of Theoretical Studies and Human Rights, Syrian researcher Jan Habbash wrote that it was the previous 1958 and 1964 Syrian constitutions, for example, that introduced the one party political system in Syria. The constitution of 1950, on the other hand, first restricted presidency to Muslim Syrians after the French mandate.

Written in 1973, the current Syrian constitution is out of date with how Syria has changed in the last four decades, according to Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge. Syria’s 10th Five-Year Plan called for an open, social-market economy while the constitution clearly states that the country’s economic policy should be socialist. References to “socialism” and the “socialist Ba’ath party” occur 25 times in the first few pages of the constitution.

“The Baath party’s ideology defines all the articles of the constitution. Therefore, there is no use in amending the constitution by the Baath party. Other expertise in the country must be involved too.”

Maalouf said in reality the concept of citizenship rests on the political system of the state. The general concept of citizenship, he said, is stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but in reality this concept relies on the political systems of socialism or capitalism.

Ahmed Haj Suleiman, from the parliamentary Constitutional and Legislative Committee said in an interview with state television that the constitution should be read and discussed as a whole, because all articles are related to each other.

Legal experts like veteran lawyer Anwar al-Bouni and Maalouf say that country’s political and legal authorities should be involved in writing a new constitution.

“Controversy is not limited to article number 8 [the article which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country] which was written under exceptional circumstances. The Baath party’s ideology defines all the articles of the constitution,” Maalouf said. “Therefore, there is no use in amending the constitution by the Baath party. Other expertise in the country must be involved too.”

They also call for the separation of power between the legislature, executive and judicial authorities, to protect the rights of Syrians citizens.

“I haven’t read the constitution, thus I do not know what should be changed. However, everyone is talking about it now, and specifically Article 8,” Majd al-Hamwi, a 22-year-old fine arts student in Damascus said. “What I know is that when people call for political pluralism and setting a certain presidential term, it is not because of a certain person or a certain party but because they want to participate,” he said.

This is a longer version of the text I published together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun as a box to accompany our story “Bill of Rights” in Syria Today magazine.

Parking Madness

Residents of Old Damascus are sceptical that a parking ban will be issued, let alone enforced.

Old Damascus - Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Old Damascus - Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Walking around Old Damascus can be an overwhelming experience. Children on bikes race through the narrow alleyways as drivers honk their car horns, forcing pedestrians to squeeze to the sides so they can pass.

Down one such alley, in the first turn to the right, is a narrow passageway. There on one recent afternoon, two cars were jammed beside each other, blocking the entrance to a house. Local residents and passing tourists gathered in a group to offer their advice to the drivers on how to escape while an obviously irate woman confined to her home could be heard screaming curses at the drivers who are “poisoning” her life.

Since early 2009, the Syrian press has occasionally published reports about a parking ban in Old Damascus that would go into effect “next month”. Two years later, government officials began saying that in a “matter of weeks” cars would be banned from entering the old city. Then they said the ban was postponed until the governorate could provide parking lots around Old Damascus, environmentally-friendly, light-weight delivery vehicles and electric cars for shop owners’ and residents’ use.

However, when Syria Today met Abdullah Aboud, the director of traffic and transport for Damascus, in mid-May, he said the parking ban was suspended because of the political unrest that began in mid-March.

“The plan should have been opened for investment by now but this had to be delayed because of the current circumstances,” Aboud said.”We are in the final stages of the master plan.”

Grand plans
According to statistics from the Damascus local authority, the overall car-carrying capacity of the old city is 345 cars. The average number of cars parked there, however, is on average 1,071 cars at any one time, more than three times what the area can theoretically accommodate.

According to unconfirmed figures published in the Syrian media, approximately 27,000 cars enter the old city every day. The large number of cars in the old city causes congestion and pollution and speeds up the dilapidation of old historical buildings, according to experts at Friends of Damascus, a Syrian cultural society which aims to protect the city’s heritage.

According to the plan, only residents of the old city will be allowed to drive inside it and this would be enforced via a permit system, Aboud said. The governorate would divide the old city into seven zones and would only allow residents to park in the zone where they live. Public transportation inside the old city will consist of 75 electric cars with the capacity to seat four and another 20 with a seating capacity of 12.

“These would include a few VIP vehicles for formal delegations,” Aboud added.

A number of lightweight delivery vehicles would also be allowed into the old city for a few hours a week to transfer goods to local shops.

The governorate would also provide visitors with five parking lots outside the old city walls in Sofamiyeh, Bab Touma, Dar es-Salam, Hariqeh and on Amin Street, and the lots would accommodate 800 cars in total. Bus routes would also circumnavigate the walls. In the future, Aboud said he hopes the buses will be replaced by a tramway.

Too good to be true
Old city shop owners and residents alike said they are looking forward to the ban. Mohammad Younes, a young carpet seller, expects it to boost his business.

“Cars are a big ‘fun spoiler’ for tourists. They make the old city polluted, noisy and hard to walk around,” he said. “A parking ban would attract more tourists and shoppers.”

Rasha Mohammad, who has been living in Old Damascus for the last 20 years, said the car ban would provide her with more space to park.

“I have to fight with neighbours and the owner of the nearby restaurant over a parking space for my car. Sometimes, I am forced to park my car in a narrow alley and risk it being scratched by other cars that pass by,” Mohammad said. “Dividing the old city into exclusive parking zones for residents would provide a safe parking place for my car.”

Mohammad, however, said she worries that the governorate’s traffic plan is too good to be true.

“The governorate has been promising to introduce a car ban for ages and nothing has happened,” she said. “Even if they do issue a car ban, what guarantees that it will be implemented on the ground and won’t be ignored just like the smoking ban was ignored before it?”

Read my article on Syria Today website.

Bridge of Time

The French mandate period left a lasting impression on Syria’s systems.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The highs and lows of the French mandate in Syria are immediately visible to any first-time visitor to Damascus.

The impressive, French-built National Museum – a first stop for any newcomer – highlights the period’s positive impact. Conversely, the domed roof of Souk Hamidiyeh was left punctured with its iconic bullet holes during the 1925 air raid combating a civilian revolt. The French response to the Syrian uprising killed 5,000 citizens and made Damascus, according to US professor and Middle East expert Michael Provence, the site of a dark legacy: the home of “the first civilian carpet bombing campaign ever”.

In addition to these and other visible vestiges of the period between 1920 and 1946 when France administered Syria through a mandate from the League of Nations, numerous intangible fingerprints touch Syrian education, law and culture.

More than 65 years since the French left Syria and the country became an independent Arab republic, the French legacy remains.

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

Educational impact

Every spring, secondary school students throughout Syria agonise over the Baccalauréat graduation examination that will determine their qualifications for attending university. During this time, newspapers print numerous stories about students committing suicide because of test anxiety.

Although after independence, the Syrian educational system was nationalised and the curriculum adapted from French into Arabic, certain trademark characteristics of education implemented by the French during the 1920s remain – most obviously the Baccalauréat.

“It remains a huge rite of passage – rightly or wrongly – that can define your entire future,” said Nadya Sbaiti, a professor of Modern Middle East at Smith College in the US. “That’s directly related to the French mandate for sure.”

Under the mandate, the Baccalauréat was implemented and eventually became the demanding ordeal that it remains today, after the French discovered that too many young Syrians were passing the test, Sbaiti explained. In order to reserve government and specialised professions – particularly medicine, law and finance – for French residents of Syria, the examination was made more difficult.

“The whole point was to prevent Syrians from going into these professions,” she said.

Today, the Baccalauréat has evolved, but it remains a high-profile filter that determines who can obtain an affordable education – with thousands more young people finishing secondary school annually than there are spots available at public universities.

Likewise, the French school in Damascus still provides lucky individuals with additional opportunities. While nationalised in 1967, it is an expensive, private-tuition institution to which only the most well-connected Syrian students have access.

“It’s definitely part of the elite culture,” said Randi Deguilhem, a France-based professor at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Wealthy Syrians and children of diplomats attend the school, she said, which is “a clear sign of socioeconomic status. It’s not just the knowledge [learned there] itself, it opens the door to economic opportunities.”

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Legal tradition
Syria’s legal system – its foundations and some of its high-profile hallmarks – remain rooted in the country’s French background. Syrian law is derived from legislative statutes that follow the French civil law system.

French law first arrived in Syria long before the mandate period. In 1858, the Ottomans, who occupied Syria for 400 years through 1918, replaced its sharia-based legal system throughout its empire – as part of a push towards westernisation –with a criminal law system modelled on France’s, Farouk al-Basha, professor of law emeritus at the University of Damascus, explained.

Later, during the mandate, Syria also adopted France’s civil, commercial and administrative legal systems. While the changes made Syrian law clearer – going from complex sharia to straightforward statutes – according to Basha, a number of oft-criticised laws are derived from the French.

For instance, women under sharia had full citizenship. Only under the French were they stripped of full citizenship rights, Elizabeth Thompson, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and chair of the workshop on Muslim societies, explained. Women became subjects of their husbands and fathers and lost the ability to pass down Syrian nationality to their children. The latter is a restriction that persists until today in Syria, but was dismissed by the French in 1965.

Furthermore, the law granting lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’ – when men murder their female relatives over alleged sexual impropriety – can be attributed to the French system, despite the phenomenon often being attributed to conservative, eastern beliefs and assumed to be part of sharia. France delineated a now-defunct law in its 1810 criminal code which refers to ‘crimes of passion’, absolving men of responsibility for murdering a female relative if he catches her in the act of adultery. Basha explained that, in contrast, sharia stipulates that four sheiks must simultaneously catch a woman in the act of adultery – a virtually impossible scenario.

The Syrian government also learned a few extra-judicial habits from the French, argued US professor Provence. Syria’s long-standing emergency law, which suspends the constitutional rights of certain individuals, is in part modeled on the permanent presence of marshal law under the French mandate, he argued.

“The big vestige of the French mandate are the intelligence services and marshal law,” he said. “The Syrian government learned disregard for [some aspects of] the rule of law from the French.”

Thompson, the associate professor of history, agreed that various governments in the region learned disregard for citizens’ rights from their former administrators, saying: “Nation-building during occupation is profoundly anti-democratic.”

Cultural heritage
More than education and law, French culture is perhaps the most visible – and positive – mandate legacy in Syria today. Throughout March, the embassy of France and other French-speaking countries hosted the Days of Francophonie: a series of films, lectures, exhibitions and concerts. The French Cultural Centre in Damascus and the French Institute for the Near East are two of the most active cultural centres in the region, said Eric Chevallier, French ambassador to Syria.

“More than events, we have long-term relationships on various key issues,” he added, including academic exchanges with more than 3,000 students and a project for the Louvre in Paris to help upgrade the Syrian National Museum.

In academia, a number of Syria’s most prominent thinkers learned from philosophies that originated in France, Ghassan al-Sayed, vice dean of the Higher Language Institute at the University of Damascus, said.

For instance, the French literary schools of existentialism, deconstructionism, and idealism all influenced numerous high-profile Syrian writers, including the poet Adonis, the deconstructionist Kamal Abu Deeb and the Christian existentialist George Salim.

“All the Syrian thinkers studied in French universities in Syria during the mandate,” Sayed said. During the post-independence 1950s and 1960s, they traveled frequently between Damascus and Paris, and eventually established Syrian-flavoured versions of French philosophies, Sayed said.

For instance, existentialism argues that man is free to make his own choices and must therefore be committed to those choices, he said. The Syrian existentialists – noting the importance of community in their country – extended this idea, arguing that the philosophy includes an inherent choice to be committed to one’s fellow citizens.

He explained: “They took the French concepts and adapted them, in order to acknowledge the Syrian reality.”

This article was written by Claire Duffett in Syria Today magazine. I helped reporting about French influence on Syria’s legal system.

Bottoms Up

Changing legislation is altering how alcohol is bought and consumed in Syria.

photos by Adel Samara

photos by Adel Samara

Assalamu Alaykum is not exactly how one expects to be greeted when walking into a liquor store. Yet, that is how Ayman Kaadan, owner of the Royal Stone alcohol shop in the Muslim-majority Barzeh neighbourhood greets his visitors.

Kaadan said he does not see any contradiction in being a Muslim who sells alcohol. However, liquor stores in Muslim areas were prohibited by Syrian law until July last year, when the law licensing alcohol shops was modified. Places where alcohol can be consumed, however – such as pubs and restaurants – are still illegal in Muslim-majority areas.

Modern alcohol legislation dates back more than 60 years. According to a law issued in 1952, pubs, restaurants and other locations where alcohol is consumed must be located in non-Muslim areas, 20 metres from police stations and government buildings and 100 metres from places of worship, schools, hospitals and cemeteries. A similar law used to govern liquor stores. Kaadan’s shop, which he opened in 2009, operated without a licence for two years.

According to employees at the governorate of Damascus, the growing demand for alcohol shops drove the Ministry of Local Administration to modify the law. The ministry issued a new law in July 2010, allowing liquor stores to open with the only restriction being that they be located 75 metres from places of worship and that shop owners do not allow customers to drink inside or in front of the store. When the new law was issued, Kaadan immediately applied. He was granted the licence late last year.

Unlicensed pubs
Since the law licensing liquor stores was modified, the number of new shops has increased. Other previously unlicensed shops also applied for licences, Ghassan Maamouri, director of the licensing unit at the governorate of Damascus told Syria Today.

The number of licensed pubs and restaurants serving alcohol, on the other hand, is decreasing, Abu George, the 50-something owner of a 70-year-old pub called Abu Gerorge’s, said. Abu George inherited the pub in Bab Sharqi from his father and grandfather.

“Many alcohol shops and pubs in my alley closed because their owners died and the family did not want to continue the business,” Abu George, who started working in the pub when he was seven, said. “The number of places of worship, schools and hospitals is steadily increasing. This is leaving little space for new, licensed pubs to replace the old ones.”

Because of the high public demand for pubs combined with the challenging licensing conditions, the number of unlicensed pubs is increasing, Somar Hazim, the owner of Beit Rose, a licensed alcohol-serving hotel in the old city, said. Hazim counted six unlicensed pubs near his hotel.

Maamouri from the licensing unit said that unlicensed places that sell or serve alcohol face penalties of SYP 500 (USD 11) and are given a two-week notice to apply for a licence. This penalty is repeated twice. If the owner still does not comply, his shop is closed. The governorate, however, could not provide statistics about the number of unlicensed alcohol selling and serving shops that have been recently closed down.

Hazim from Beit Rose hotel said that this system is not enough. He argued that strict monitoring is required. Kaadan from Royal Stone alcohol shop agreed.

“I didn’t have any trouble with the governorate for the first year-and-a-half when my shop was unlicensed. Unless neighbours file a complaint against the shop, the governorate does not know that the shop is unlicensed,” he said.

Hazim said that this is affecting his and other licensed, alcohol-serving establishments.

“Some restaurants serve alcohol undercover,” he said. “They don’t have to pay taxes so they can sell alcohol for cheaper prices than we do. It is spoiling our business.”

Customers at Abu George’s like 20-something Maher Samaan also complain that, with the lack of monitoring from the government, many unlicensed pubs mix local, low-quality alcohol with imported liquor, while illegal stores often sell smuggled, low-quality alcohol.

Anwar Hamoud, owner of liquor store in Dummar, argued that the unreasonably high taxes on alcohol – as high as 85 percent of the product price – encourages illegal sales, which harms business.

“[Unlicensed shops] can afford to sell for much cheaper than legal purchasers of alcohol can. This leads to great losses in the government treasury,” Hamoud said. “If taxes were reduced, it would no longer be worth it for smugglers to risk being caught.”

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Segregating non-Muslims
Salina Abaza, a graphic designer in her twenties who enjoys going to pubs, said she believes that the law regarding pubs and other alcohol serving places should be modified. She said that restricting alcohol serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas segregates the country’s non-Muslim community.

“Serving alcohol in only non-Muslim areas limits the places where Christians, for example, can hang out,” she said. “This segregates them from other Syrians.”

Tony Khouri, a 40-something trader and one of Abu George’s regulars, agreed.

“I like going out and having lunch with my wife and drinking a glass of wine, but I’m bored of the old city. I live and work here so it would be nice to hang out somewhere else,” he said. “The problem is there is only a handful of restaurants that serve alcohol outside old Damascus and their numbers are decreasing.”

Pub owners in Bab Sharqi also said they believe that restricting alcohol-serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas is ridiculous, since most of their customers are Muslim.

“About 70 percent of my customers are Muslim,” Abu George said. “Even veiled women come and have a drink in my pub.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Sexism in the System

Some laws that are prejudicial towards women were amended this year. But gender inequality remains entrenched in Syria’s criminal code.

photo by Carole al-Farah

A presidential decree issued at the beginning of 2011 made long-awaited changes to the country’s criminal law, which dates to 1949 and contains numerous provisions considered prejudicial towards women. But while the amendments are a step forward, local activists say they do not go far enough.

The amendments included stricter sentences for rape and honour killings. While some women’s rights advocates hailed the amendments, others argued that certain provisions – such as articles 548 and 508, which provide for lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’, and encourage rapists to marry their victims – should be dropped completely.

Critics also note that other prejudicial provisions in the criminal code remain unchanged. For example, article 489 permits marital rape and article 473 imposes longer sentences on women than on men who have sex outside of marriage. A woman who has sex outside of marriage can be sentenced to three months to two years in jail while a man who commits the same ‘crime’ can be imprisoned for between one month and one year.

Licence to kill
One of the most controversial articles in Syria’s criminal law is article number 548, which provides lighter sentences for unplanned ‘honour killings’ – murder by male family members of female relatives for the latter’s alleged impropriety – than it does for other non-premeditated murders.

The amended article raises the sentence for men who “by chance catch their wife or female relative in the act of having sex with a man and inadvertently kills one or both of them” to five to seven years of imprisonment instead of the previous two-year sentence. For other non-premeditated murders, the regular sentence is 15 to 20 years of hard labour. In some cases, however, the sentence amounts to a life sentence of hard labour.

Bassam al-Kadi, director of the women’s rights group Syrian Women’s Observatory, said amending the honour killing law is not enough.

“The main problem with article 548 is not that the sentence is lenient. Rather, it is that the state is giving men a licence to kill female citizens under the excuse of honour,” Kadi said. “This article cannot be amended. It should be dropped.”

Kadi also argues that the amendment is insignificant because this article only applies to 1 percent of the honour killings that occur in Syria.

“Men rarely catch their wives or female relatives in the act of cheating,” he explained.

Articles number 191, 192, 240 and 242 were not amended. They refer generally to aggravated assaults and murders committed with ‘honourable intentions’ and, according to Kinda al-Shammat, a professor at the University of Damascus’s faculty of law, pertain to 90 percent of ‘honour killings’ most of which are believed to be premeditated. While the regular sentence for pre-meditated murders according to article 535 is execution, men convicted of murder under these codes can go to prison for a meagre three months.

“Even if the ‘honour killings’ article 548 was dropped altogether, these articles can still be used to give murderers a reduced sentence,” Shammat said.

Rewarding rapists
Another amended provision of the law lambasted by critics is article 508, which reduces the sentence of rapists who agree to marry their victims.

Rapists in Syria are sentenced to a minimum of nine years of hard labour and a maximum of 21 years if the victim is younger than 15. However, article 508 of the old criminal law states that the sentence is suspended if the rapist marries his victim and does not divorce her within five years. The sentence was raised to two years for men who marry their victims.

The law is designed to encourage rapists to marry their victims to protect the women from being murdered for ‘honour’ by male relatives.

“Unfortunately, raped women are not considered a victim by our society. They are blamed for triggering the incident and are in some cases even killed by their families to restore the family’s honour,” Shammat said. This leaves some women with two alternatives – to marry their rapists or die.

“No woman would willingly accept to marry a man who raped her,” Kadi added. “This law not only gives rapists a reduced sentence, but also offers them their victim as a present.”

Instead of forcing the victim to marry her rapist, Shammat said a better solution would be to open shelters for victims of rape who are being threatened by their families. These women should also have access to free counselling, she added.

Marital assault
Other articles in the current criminal law in desperate need of amendment remain. One such article states that a man can be convicted of rape if he forces “any woman other than his wife” to have sex – in effect sanctioning rape within marriage.

Statistics on the frequency of marital rape in Syria are hard to determine, however. Kadi, who through his work meets many rape victims, estimated that 70 percent of married Syrian women have been raped by their husbands.

“All my female acquaintances have been raped at least once by their husbands,” Kadi said. “With the lack of sexual education in Syria, many women are raised to believe that having sex with their husband is a duty rather than a source of pleasure. This makes marital rape acceptable for them.”

Wives’ reluctance to talk about their sex life publicly makes combating marital rape difficult, he added.

Even though Kadi calls for the amendment of this and other articles that restrict the rights of women, he said he believes that changing the law alone is not enough to prevent marital rape. Instead, family counselling centres must be opened, sexual education should be introduced in Syrian schools and policemen must be trained on how to deal with marital rape cases.

A nod to civil society
While activists say the amendments are far from sufficient, Shammat remains optimistic. She said the changes signal that the Syrian government has started to seriously address women’s rights.

“Activists have been calling for amending the law since the seventies. However, it’s only in the last seven years that tangible changes have been made,” she said.

Shammat was referring to seven years ago, when the Syrian government announced that part of its 10th Five-Year Plan would be to work to combat violence against women. At that time, it established the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs as the first public organisation to work on women’s rights issues. In 2008, the commission organised the first official conference about honour killings and called for dropping article 548, among others. It also played an important role in the campaign to freeze a personal status draft law – leaked to the public in 2009 – which restricted women’s rights in numerous ways and critics say would have reversed years of hard-fought advances.

There are only two shelters for Syrian women who are abused by their husbands or family members. Shammat, who works at both shelters, said the increased media and government attention on women’s rights has encouraged more women to speak up and visit the facilities during the last five years.

Kadi agrees. “Though they have little effects on the ground, the amendments are symbolically important,” he said.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

A Family Affair (How is it going for Syria’s elderly?)

With minimal pension benefits to senior Syrians, some of the country’s elders struggle with poverty and loneliness.

Photo by Owny Mohammad

At 75, Um Khaled has worked as a cleaner at Hama’s Home for the Elderly and People with Disabilities for 46 years.

“The residents of the home are all like my kids,” she said proudly. “I’ve taken care of them for years – I even married one of them off.”

The centre’s residents are more like family than her biological children, with whom she has no relationship.

Given Syria’s traditionally strong family ties, most elderly people are cared for and supported by their children. The state considers elderly care to be the responsibility of families, and therefore offers minimal pension benefits to senior citizens. As a result, lone elderly people like Um Khaled continue to work – and struggle – well into their twilight years.

Pension problems

The age of retirement in Syria is 60 years in both the private and public sectors. Only after working for 30 years in the public sector and 25 years in the private sector does a Syrian worker qualify for a full pension, which is equivalent to 75 percent of his or her salary, Moummar Kharboutly, a Syrian lawyer specialising in employment law, said.

These figures are commensurate with Western standards: workers in the US and the UK retire at an average age of 62 and 61 respectively, with public-sector pensions paying 20 percent of workers’ salaries in the US and 40 percent in the UK. However, workers in these countries are expected and able to save substantial portions of their wages, whereas in Syria, public-sector wages, at about SYP 12,000 (USD 255) per month, remain too low for workers to accrue personal retirement funds.

“This leaves an average employee with a pension that is barely enough to put food on the table,” Kharboutly said.

Although public-sector salaries are low and employees are banned from taking a second job, working in the private sector is worse, he said. Because more than 50 percent of private companies in Syria do not register employees, Kharboutly estimated that less than 10 percent of retired workers from the private sector qualify for pensions.

Retired Syrians with inadequate or no pensions who cannot rely on family care must live on charitable donations or move into Dar al-Karameh, the country’s only free home for the elderly that has two branches in Damascus and Aleppo. Another 20 privately run homes exist, and their fees vary. The facility in Hama where Um Khaled works costs SYP 5,000 (USD 106) to SYP 15,000 (USD 319) per month, depending on residents’ ability to pay, Mohammad Kheir Zikra, who serves on the home’s board of directors, said.

“Some elderly people are so hard up that we end up offering them a room for free,” he added. “We are a charity organisation after all; we can’t leave them out in the street.”

To raise funds, the centre collects donations, runs its own funeral services and operates several small shops.

Legal protection

Syria’s personal-status law is based on sharia, so poor or ill parents without family care have the legal right to sue their sons, though not their daughters, for parental alimony.

“According to sharia, just like parents cared for their children when they were small, the children have to take care of their parents when they grow old,” Kharboutly said.

Since few Syrians register their full incomes with the authorities, however, elderly parents are rarely awarded more than SYP 1,300 (USD 28) per month from each son, he said.

“If a man registers around SYP 15,000 (USD 319) as his salary, the judge simply can’t order him to pay SYP 10,000 (USD 213) to support his parents,” Kharboutly explained.

More than lack of money, many of the residents at the home for the elderly in Hama said they are concerned about estrangement from their children.

“It just feels so lonely when eid (Muslim holiday) comes and no one passes by,” a resident who has not seen his family for 23 years, said. “It used to be different; my house used to buzz with friends and visitors. Now I have nothing to look forward to. I’m just sitting here doing nothing until death comes.”

BOX

Life Imitates Art

Once you grow old, life is no longer “an action film”; it is a “black-and-white classic”. That is how Abu Yazan, who is in his 80s, described his life now. Luckily, the cinema aficionado loves old movies.

“When the first cinema opened in our neighbourhood, I was 10 or 11 – I can’t remember exactly,” Abu Yazan said with an embarrassed laugh. “As I was underage and couldn’t buy a ticket, I used to sneak in to watch the films. Now I’m old enough, but I can’t afford a ticket.”

Since his wife died three years ago, Abu Yazan lives on a pension of SYP 10,000 (USD 213) per month – enough to cover his bills and food, but not enough for him to go to restaurants or to the cinema. Instead, he watches films on television and takes short walks every evening with his elderly friends in nearby parks.

“Alhamdullilah,” he said with a smile. “It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for someone living alone like me.”

Although his children live abroad, Abu Yazan would never consider living in a home for the elderly.

“Moving to a home would be admitting that my life has ended,” he said. “It would feel as if I’ve expired. I’d rather stay in my own house, live my daily routine and wait for my children’s summer visits. Another nine months and summer will be back again.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.