Why is my bra or pants size any of your business?

Toronto-Slutwalk

Why is everyone so obsessed by women´s body. I can´t seem to walk around without being surrounded by a hotchpotch of thighs, bums and boobs in all colors and sizes. Companies, regardless of the product they sell, feel entitled to tell women how they should look like and the public either slam them for encouraging women to starve or applaud them for reassuring women that it´s ok to be fat.

Are companies like Dove, Curvy Kate Lingerie and Dear Kate that launched positive body image campaigns any better than the others? They are equally concentrating on women´s looks and feel entitled to tell them how they should feel about themsleves. Isn´t it better to just forget about our bodies and find a more creative way to promote their business?

Why is my bra or pants size any of your business? A funny and at some points shocking quiz on BuzzFeed asking readers to guess what some sexist adverts are trying to sell perfectly reflects my point. Check it out here.

The West Loves the Story of Iran’s Jailed ‘Happy’ Dancers For All the Wrong Reasons

An interesting take on the FreeHappyIranians story. This was written by senior editor for islawmix, Sana Saeed.

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When there’s slow movement on the hashtag battlefield, you can always count on a story about Muslim women and headscarves to pick up the pace.

On May 7, in her Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty column, Golnaz Esfandiari highlighted a Facebook page started by Iranian political journalist (in exile), Masih Alinejad, now called “My Stealthy Freedom.” The page features images of various Iranian women defying the national law that dictates women be covered with a headscarf at all times in public.

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The story, which has the necessary ingredients of a Western media fantasy, picked up in the English press immediately. Hell, even George Takei shared the story, expressing his awe at “[some] very brave women in Iran … doing something extraordinary on Facebook.” The story is still popping up online, and the Facebook group itself now boasts over 315,000 followers — an incredible increase from its initial few hundred, then few thousand, followers over the course of less than two weeks.

And just this week, attention was turned to Iran once more in the name of freedom of expression.

A group of young, trendy, Iranians (including three women without their headscarves) were arrested for “indecency” after creating a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s hit song, “Happy.” This story, too, garnered the attention of social media crusaders when news of the arrest broke. The group has now been released.

 

 

Iranian laws governing public morality and the possible punishments undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on the citizenry. For women, especially, to be publicly engaging in defiance of laws that limit their expressions of self — as really anywhere — is a risk and feat worth acknowledging.

But there’s a self-centered quality of our appetite for these stories. We are uncomfortably selective in our interest in which human rights stories from Iran get our attention.

There’s a reason why the “My Stealthy Freedom” page has been lauded as a “silent revolution,” and stories of life under the country’s crippling sanctions are underreported: These stories reinforce a warped narrative of Iran that is all too familiar in the West.

In response to the kind of coverage this story has received, editors of AJAM Media Collective, Shima Houshyar and Behzad Sarmadi pointed out the trouble with the seductive, oversimplified narrative evident through these stories:

These articles produce simplistic generalizations for the sake of provocative and yet easily digestible reading. They do so by: treating women’s bodily surfaces as a measure of societal progress and morality; romanticizing the notion of resistance; and eliding the significance of class and consumer culture in everyday urban life.

Houshyar and Sarmadi also point out that a western audience has a tendency to “romanticize resistance,” which only offers solidarity if its “own values and ideals seems apparent in the resistance.”

In short, these stories aren’t told with the intention of understanding — they’re told for the sake of consumption.

 

Images Credit: YouTube and facebook.

That means that the voices that really matter here — Iranian women that actually live with enforced dress codes — are lost in the coverage.

According to Houshyar and Sarmadi, “There is a significant internal conversation and a long history of engagement with the headscarf that is never part of any external conversation on the headscarf in Iran or on Iranian women.”

And that internal conversation, about mandatory veiling, is one that should not be dismissed or ignored. As Alinejad noted in an e-mail correspondence with PolicyMic, “[by] the time the international publicity came, [the Facebook page] had already become established in Iranian circles … with no publicity at all I was getting more than 50 photos a day.”

And in a similar vein, the story of the Iranians arrested for making a “Happy” video is a part of a wider conversation on censorship and dissent, or as Houshyar pointed out about the unfolding story on Wednesday:

But these nuances were lost in the online chorus of outrage. That’s because our envisioning of Iran and Iranians has been and remains limited to the sorts of issues that redeem our own beliefs and visions of ‘freedom’. The issues and stories that indict us of any complacency and wrongdoing are ignored or justified. When Iranians are the denied the apparent basic human right to make a Pharrell video, we are maddened and disappointed. When Iranians are unable to access basic medical supplies as a result of our sanctions, we don’t even know.

There is a space for solidarity and support that does not situate the external conversation and perspective as the dominant conversation and perspective; that does not create a hierarchy of rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, we still have not quite learned how to find it.

Sana Saeed is the Senior Editor for islawmix, a project incubated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society dedicated to bringing clarity to discussions and portrayals of Islamic law in US news. She is also a researcher at the Islamophobia …
Article credit: PolicyMic

Review of ’Arous Amman, a novel by Jordanian writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout

’Arous Amman (Amman’s bride), a controversial book in both its form and content

Book cover of 'Arous Amman

Book cover of ‘Arous Amman

In an interview on Roya Jordanian TV channel with writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout, the presenter referred to a gay character in Zaghmout’s novel ’Arous Amman as shaz (an offensive term to describe gays, similar to faggot). „Muthley,” Zaghmout corrected her using a politically correct word for “homosexual”. By the end of the interview, the presenter was using „LGBT-friendly language”.

More than a literary work, Zaghomout’s first novel ’Arous Amman is an activism work advocating women rights and sexual liberties in the conservative Jordanian society. The novel is based on  a collection of short stories, film scripts and blog posts that Zaghmout published on his popular blog. The blog had 118,745 subscribers at the time of publishing this review.

What makes Zaghmout’s blog-turned-into-novel stand out is that it not only tackles some of the major taboos in Jordanian society like domestic rape, inter-religious marriages, sex out-of-wedlock which are often covered in contemporary literature, but it also raises other sensitive issues that are less talked about like LGBT rights and the sexual rights of women who were tricked into marrying homosexual men to hide the husband’s sexual orientation. What also makes it unique is that it is one of the few Arab feminist novels written by a man. Perhaps this is also why it is one of the few novels that don’t crucify men and blame them solely for the plight of women in the Arab world. Rather, Zaghmout presents them as loving fathers and supportive husbands and sometimes even victims of the patriarchal society just like women, blaming women rights violations in the Arab world on the patriarchal upbringing, ignorance and social pressure among others. It is also one of the few feminist novels I read that managed to walk the fine line between creating sympathy for its violated women and LGBT characters and being too depressive. In his novel, Zaghmout does not only showcase the problems that Jordanian women and LGBTs face, but also explains the mentality behind it.

The form and language of ’Arous Amman is no less controversial than its content. It is made up of a series of monologues and reflections by its main characters: 4 women and a homosexual man with very little dialogue. If this sounds daunting, it isn’t. Zaghmout divided his novel into short, blog like sections written in a simple language often using colloquial words which made it easy to read and accessible for a wider audience. While the style he adopted definitely helps in spreading his advocacy message, it triggered heated debates among the more traditional Jordanian intellectuals who call for elitist literature written in pure fusha (literary Arabic language).

Rather than its simple language and form, which I personally found suitable for the message that the novel conveys, what I didn’t like in ’Arous Amman is its romantic ’everyone lived happily ever after’ ending because it lies in contrast with the story’s serious and sometimes even tragic tone. To avoid including spoilers here… it just wasn’t convincing!

’Arous Amman is definitely a good choice if you are a foreigner interested in better understanding the psychology behind women and LGBT rights violations in the Arab world. While the novel might offer little new information for Arab readers, its power lies in challenging the traditional mindset of Arab societies and being brave enough to call social prejudices and atrocities by the name.

Behind the Legends / Naziq al-Abed

Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. 

More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Naziq al-Abed, a revolutionist from Damascus.

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Our Joan of Arc

Naziq al-Abed was a pioneer for both national independence and women’s rights.

It might be hard to imagine Damascene women in the 1920s – generally perceived as illiterate and cloaked in traditional mlaye (a short skirt and veil) – as freedom fighters. Yet many of them took up both pens and arms in the fight against foreign rule.

Naziq al-Abed, a robust woman with a round face and dark, curious eyes, was one of the most controversial women to partake in the Syrian revolutions against the Ottomans and French. Born in 1898 as the daughter of an aristocrat and an insider in the court of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, Abed traded the French dance saloons, European tours and luxurious lifestyle that her family maintained, for the battlefield. She was also a passionate feminist, often infuriating the sensibilities of Damascus’s conservative circles.

“She was not like any of her sisters,” Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin, said. “She was very liberal with a strong character. She was a true rebel.”

Burhan, an anesthesiologist in his nineties, recalled with nostalgia his visits to his cousin’s farm, where he usually found her working in the field or sitting on the floor eating with her fellow workers.

“She was a humble person who loved sports and horseback riding. She used to dress like middle-class Damascenes and avoided accessories and ornaments. She was the only woman at that time who wore trousers and boots and carried a whip,” he said.

Transition to politics
Following her student years, Abed became politically engaged. Although she originally studied agriculture, she worked as a journalist and became a vocal critic of the Ottoman and French policies in her country. In 1919, she led a women’s delegation that discussed the French mandate in Syria with the American King Crane Commission that was tasked with determining the attitudes of Syrians and Palestinians towards the settlement of their territories.

Naziq held anti-colonial views despite her family’s ties to the Ottomans. She came from a prominent Damascene family whose members held important governmental positions during the Ottoman empire. Her father, for example, was the wali (governor) of Mosul and her uncle, Ahmad Izzat, was the aide-de-camp and private advisor to Sultan Abdulhamid.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Yet, according to Burhan, her family did not mind Naziq’s political stance, even though she was exiled as a result of it in 1914 and again in 1919.

“Even though the Abed family held important positions in the Ottoman empire, they were proud of their Arab roots,” he said.

When France assumed the mandate of Syria in 1920, Naziq was the only Syrian woman to take up arms and join Youssef al-Azmah, Syria’s then-defence minister, and the military at the Battle of Maysaloun. She is also said to be the only survivor of the battle, which ended in a catastrophic defeat and in the French occupation of Syria.

Newspapers at the time hailed her as “Joan of Arc of the Arabs” and King Faisal named her an honorary general in the Syrian army. Burhan Abed proudly recounted the king’s visit to his family house, based on the story his mother used to tell.

“We served him lemonade,” he said, leafing through a thick, leather-bound book and pointing out the common ancestors between his family and Naziq’s.

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed's third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Advocate for women
Her ‘liberal’ views about women were less welcomed by her family, Burhan said. Naziq Abed removed her veil several times in public and in front of television cameras. Unlike her sisters, she was unmarried until she was in her forties and until then had lived alone in her farm in the Ghuta, a green area of Damascus fed by natural aqueducts.

“Naziq’s family were very modern and open minded compared to the mentality at that time,” Burhan said. “Even so, they did not always like her behavior. But she did not listen to them. She did what she wanted to do.”

In 1919, Naziq al-Abed established Noor al-Fayyha (Light of Damascus), the first women’s organisation in Syria. She also helped to establish many associations and organisations that advocated women’s rights in Syria and Lebanon. She financed a hospital and was the founder of the Syrian Red Star which, according to Hazim Ba’ale, director of medical services at the Syrian Red Crescent, led to the opening of a women’s branch of the international organisation in Syria in 1922.

Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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.

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.

Marriages of Convenience

Some Gulf men use a moral and religious loophole to exploit both Syrian women and their children. 
Caricature by Ala Rustom
Caricature by Ala Rustom

Many men from the Gulf travel to Syria during the summer. While here, a few pay dowries to the families of young women in exchange for brief marriages. These so-called ‘summer marriages’, in which the partners live together temporarily, provide none of the legal rights associated with marriage, such as inheritance and alimony, making vulnerable both the women involved and their resulting children.The lack of legal rights stems from the way the marriages are arranged. Although they are primarily a Muslim phenomenon, most Muslims consider marriage contracts with expiry dates to be invalid and immoral, so they are agreed upon privately between a man and a woman’s family. Official documents are either forged or never filed. As Syria’s personal status law is based on Islamic sharia, temporary marriages cannot be registered in court.

This has a nasty consequence for children of the unions. Since the aim of them is sexual pleasure rather than starting a family, the ‘husbands’ rarely recognise any child as their own. Under Syrian law, Syrian mothers cannot pass on their nationality, leaving the children of summer marriages stateless.

Few Islamic leaders acknowledge these unions, according to Younes al-Khatib, a sheikh at a mosque in the village of Saasaa, south of Damascus. Despite this, these marriages are common. There are no accurate estimates of how many summer marriages occur in Syria, although it is believed to have the highest rate in the region. Likewise, the specific nationalities of the men involved remain unknown.

Summer marriages are a well-established practice in Syria. Gulf men started marrying young women from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq in the 1970s, according to Bassam al-Kadi, the founder of Syrian Women’s Observatory, a prominent women’s rights group. He believes the number of summer marriages in Syria has grown in recent years, due to the country’s economic crisis.

“Some families think of summer marriages as an opportunity to provide their daughter with a financially-stable future in return for a few months of marriage,” Kadi said.

These marriages are organised through a khattabe, or matchmaker, who links suitors to families that would like their daughters to marry Gulf men. Once the amount of money to be paid as dowry is agreed upon, the couple marries with the consent of a sheikh willing to give religious approval and receives an unofficial marriage contract.

Sex trade

Activists in Syria believe the marriages are an unrecognised crime. The short period of the marriage and the expensive dowry make these arrangements a form of sex trade, Kadi said.

He argued that summer marriages also violate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as, in most cases, men in their forties and upward marry young teenagers under the age of 18.

“I wouldn’t call this marriage, it is sex trade,” Kadi said. “I have never heard of a Gulf man who married a nurse or an engineer. I have never even heard of one who married a 27-year-old woman. They are mostly old men marrying teenagers.”

In many cases parents agree to the arrangement without the bride’s consent, which also violates international human rights standards. Further, the young women often do not know the marriages are temporary, said Daad Mousa, a Damascus-based attorney and women’s rights activist who is often consulted by families on issues resulting from summer marriages. In some rare cases, parents are also unaware.

Stigma is another consequence of the practice. Women who have been involved in summer marriages often become ostracised by a disapproving society. Unable to marry traditionally, they can find themselves with no option but to become long-term sex workers, cast into repeated, temporary marriages to Gulf men, Kadi said.

“If the parents are ready to sacrifice their daughter for as little as SYP 50,000 (USD 1,087) why wouldn’t they do it again after she gets divorced?” he asked.

Abandoned children
Summer marriages have other long-term negative effects. Since such marriages are usually not legally registered, fathers do not have to pass their nationality to their offspring. That means that children born out of summer marriages who are not acknowledged by their father remain without citizenship.

The only way to grant the child citizenship is to sue the father for paternity and demand a blood test. If the man’s DNA matches the child’s, the mother can force her husband to legally register the marriage and the child can obtain the father’s nationality. However, few Syrian women have access to the documents to prove their marriage, preventing them from initiating such proceedings – which can be long and costly when they do occur.

Saudi Arabia, however, rejects citizenship for children born out of wedlock, the country’s ambassador to Syria Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Aifan told Syria Today. The United Arab Emirates embassy in Damascus declined to respond to Syria Today’s requests for further information.

There are no official statistics on the overall number of children that come from summer marriages in Syria, but Mousa estimates the figure is at least 200,000. Ambassador Aifan admitted last summer in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Shams that 400 cases have been identified in Syria, and that many more remain.

“The cases mentioned by Gulf embassies are only the ones that actually have written proof of their marriage,” Mousa clarified. “There are many mothers without evidence who are not counted in the figures.”

Possible ways for mothers to register their children’s nationality entail stigma. Without a valid marriage contract, the mother must give up her parental rights and register her offspring as an abandoned child.

“In this case mothers can still arrange to keep their children with them,” Mousa said. “However, the social stigma facing abandoned children in Syria keeps them from doing so.”

Stricter laws required
While summer marriages have been occurring for decades, little has been done in Syria to prevent them. This stems from the government’s reticence to interfere in the private sphere of the family.

“The government can’t prevent people from getting married,” Kadi said.

It can, however, raise the legal age of marriage. Article 16 of Syria’s current personal status law permits girls to marry at the age of 17 and boys at 18; though Article 18 stipulates that under “judicial discretion” if they have reached puberty and have permission from their guardians, girls age13 and boys age 15 may also marry.

“Why are girls aged 13 considered grown up enough to get married but not mature enough to vote?” Kadi asked, referring to the legal voting age, which is 18.

Civil rights activists advocate imposing stricter penalties on unofficial marriages as another form of deterrence. Currently, a couple and a sheikh who officiate an unlicenced marriage outside the courts are liable to pay a meagre fine of SYP 250 (USD 5.43), Mousa said.

She believed a stiffer penalty is needed.

Although a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Syria has not responded to several campaigns organised by Syrian civil rights organisations calling for Syrian women to have the right to pass on their nationality.

“This is a Syrian problem not a Gulf one,” Kadi said. “Syrian women should have the right to give their nationality to their children.”

   

  This article was published in Syria Today magazine