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

Out of the Dark (Suicide in Syria)

Suicide, once a taboo subject, is now making headlines. Prevention efforts, however, remain insufficient.

“A 16-year-old boy shot himself dead because of an argument with his father.”

This passage was published in an article on Aks Elser website in November. Similar succinct, brutal news briefs about suicide appear regularly in Syrian media. At least 100 news briefs on suicide cases are reported by Syrian publications every year, according to estimates by the Syrian journalists who cover them. The Syrian news website Aks Alser alone has reported 80 suicide cases this year.

Although such widespread coverage of suicide is surely a relatively new phenomenon, it is difficult to determine whether this is because suicide is increasing or if interest in it and coverage of it has simply grown. Most reports paint unsympathetic pictures of suicide victims, focusing on the method of suicide rather than analysing its causes.

“Al-Thawra newspaper sells out every Monday because it dedicates a section to local crimes,” said Yahya al-Aous, a journalist in his thirties who covers suicide for the online magazine Thara. Notably, suicide is included in the crime section. “People are attracted to violence, and, as a result, many newly-established Syrian websites have turned to ‘yellow journalism’ and are solely covering crimes and suicide cases.”

However, the increased media attention of suicides at least makes the issue less of a hidden problem.

“Suicide is becoming less of a taboo here,” Mohammad Dandal, a psychologist who runs a clinic in central Damascus, said.

This shift might be in part due to Syrian religious figures’ liberalising ideas towards suicide. While traditionally, major religions have labelled suicide a sin, some Syrian leaders have moderated their attitudes towards the subject. For example, although Islam forbids those who commit suicide from being buried in a Muslim cemetery, this rule is no longer strictly applied, Sarhat al-Kafen, a sheikh in Damascus, said.

“Today, in most cases, suicide victims are given the same burial rituals as any other Muslim,” Kafen said, explaining that there were no official changes to the rules, but rather a voluntary oversight that is considered merciful. “People recognise that the family is already having a hard time and do not wish to make it worse.”

Rising stress

The increase in media coverage may nevertheless indicate that suicide is on the rise. Identifying reliable figures on it, however, is challenging. There are no statistics on suicide in Syria – neither the Ministry of Health nor the Central Statistics Bureau keep them. Even if they were to, doctors say many families register suicide as sudden deaths to avoid being stigmatised.

Globally, suicide rates are increasing steadily. Today, 3,000 people commit suicide daily and another 60,000 attempt to do so, according to figures from the World Health Organization. Health workers in Syria say they believe the country is no exception, pointing to mental health problems related to the increase in stress of everyday life. Syria’s economic liberalisation, which caused an increase in prices but has yet to boost wages at the same rate, is an ever-present source of anxiety for many people.

“We entered the age of globalisation unprepared,” the psychologist Dandal said. “The economic and cultural changes from this transition were huge and have affected people deeply.”

In tandem, traditional support networks have broken down, leaving people isolated, he explained. This has particularly affected young people. According to Aous, most suicides reported by his website are primarily by young Syrians between age 15 and 30.

“The traditional family structure that used to provide financial, social and psychological comfort to young people is also changing,” he said. “This is taking its toll on young Syrians.”

The stigma continues

Despite some strides, prejudice towards the suicidal and their families remains.

“Many Syrians still view those who commit suicide as murderers,” Aous said. “This is reflected in the way the reporting often doesn’t look at why the person has committed suicide. Instead, it focuses on the method and often draws an unsympathetic picture.”

Legally, people who attempt suicide can be detained and questioned for up to three days while police investigate the case to make sure it was not an attempted murder, Mohammad Ismaeel, a Damascus-based lawyer, said.

Though punishment awaits, few preventative services exist to help stop suicide attempts. Mental health services are limited and people receiving psychotherapy face social stigma. There is no hotline for those considering suicide and no public or private inpatient depression centres exist in Syria. Dandal said this unnecessarily puts people at risk.

“Suicide is not a choice in the way people believe it is, but is caused by mental illness such as depression,” Dandal said. “In 90 percent of the cases, suicide can be prevented by awareness and better facilities, which are still lacking in Syria.”

For those who do seek counselling, the cost of it can be prohibitive. Therapy sessions generally start at about SYP 500 (USD 11), not cheap for most Syrians when this is almost equivalent to the average daily wage in the country.

“I do not have the money to pay for my children’s schooling, so psychotherapy is an unaffordable luxury,” a father of two teenage sons who suffer from depression said.

Action needed

Journalists and health workers told Syria Today that government and civil society organisations could do more to tackle suicide. They emphasised successes in publicising the causes of equally touchy social issues.

“To prevent suicide we need the government to support civil rights organisations’ work in Syria,” Aous said. “Just five years ago few Syrians sympathised with the victims of honour killings, but a swath of civil society campaigns have changed people’s views. The same can be achieved for suicide.”

Dandal said more publicity of mental-health treatment could also help prevent suicide. The majority of his suicidal patients have contacted him after learning about therapies from the television or radio, at lectures or through friends. He has more patients now than ever before, he said, and a few of them even travel from rural areas for their appointments.

“The taboo of suicide is finally breaking in Syria,” Dandal said. “It is now the responsibility of everyone, from doctors to activists, to make sure that vital support is put in place.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A with Journalist and Photographer Doha Hassan

I sat down with journalist Doha Hassan to discuss what motivated her to create an exhibition on drought victims at Cham Mahel art café in the Old City of Damascus.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about?

According to UN statistics, 60,000 families from the north-east have been forced [since 2006] by the ongoing drought to migrate to urban areas. A journalist friend from the Jazeera area suggested that I and two other journalists go and teach the children of this area to read and write. So we went. It was an individual initiative by us, so families there were sceptical at first. They didn’t allow their children near us because they thought we wanted to kidnap them and sell their organs. After going there several times and accepting cups of coffee in their tents, they finally began to trust us. We’ve been giving weekly classes to the children for four months now. They wait for us and run to greet us every week. I took a lot of photos and put them on Facebook. The owner of Cham Mahal art café saw the photos and suggested I make an exhibition in his café. My instinct was to refuse. I’m a journalist and not a professional photographer. But as we were planning to start a media campaign to raise awareness about drought victims in Syria, the exhibition seemed like an appropriate starting point.

Your exhibition, Temporary, aims to support the victims of drought and raise public awareness of the issue. Has it achieved its goal?

The exhibition attracted considerable media attention. In addition to all major Syrian media outlets, regional publications like Lebanon’s daily Al-Hayat and international ones like the BBC covered the exhibition. I sold enough photographs to cover the exhibition’s basic expenses and I will spend any profits to support the drought victims. I also printed postcards of my photos that were sold during the exhibition. I’ll continue to sell the postcards at Cham Mahal and Itana library after the exhibition.

How are you supporting the drought victims?

We are buying them basic food elements and notebooks and colors for the children. Apart from the exhibition, we also organized a facebook campaign and asked people to donate clothes. The response was huge and we got tons of second-hand clothes.

Why have you called your exhibition temporary?

Because I hope that the drought victims’ current refuge is only temporary. It simply can’t go on for long. Each of the drought affected families has 5 to 6 children. If these grow in poverty without proper education and a safe home, they’ll end up as criminals and thieves.

When attending an exhibition about drought victims stuck in the desert, you’d imagine photos that reflect the blazing sun and the hot colors of the desert. Instead you chose to print your photos in black and white giving a rather cold and old feeling to your works. Why is that?

I wanted my photos to resemble raw footage rather than art works. By that, I wanted to give a sense of documentation. I also believe that black and white brings out the details in a photo.

What is your next step?

We want to  provide greater media exposure to drought victims. We hope that the campaign will encourage more people to help. In the long run, we hope that government organisations will help us because, after all, we are only individuals. It’s not easy to achieve change alone.

How will you ensure the continuity of your campaign?

We’ve developed a moral commitment to these children. These four and five year olds run to greet us every week. They overwhelm us with affection. They haven’t seen anything in their lives other than tents, water barrels and scorpions. They regard us as their window to the world. Once you see that hope in their eyes, you simply can’t step back.

This is a modified version of the Q&A published in Syria Today magazine.

Breaking Down the Barriers (Disabled in Syria)

A lack of street ramps, handicap-accessible buildings and low-floor buses makes Syria decidedly disabled unfriendly. An ambitious plan by civil and public organisations aims to change that.


Hazim Ibrahim, a translator in his thirties who was left wheelchair bound after an early-childhood accident, says his mind is like “Google Maps”.

“I know by heart which streets are ramped and on which ones cars park and block the way,” Ibrahim said.

Venturing out independently in Damascus requires him to maintain an encyclopaedia-like knowledge of his home city’s physical layout. Even then, getting around is a struggle. Damascus may have ranked number seven on the New York Times list of top destinations for 2010, but for the mobility impaired, moving around the city is a daily nightmare. Gutters are deep and footpaths are narrow and uneven. Elevators are rare, as are building ramps and accessible public transportation. Cars park wherever they can, creating an ever-changing obstacle course.

“I can’t use public transportation,” Ibrahim said. “Riding minibuses in a wheelchair is simply impossible and I can’t ride regular buses unless passengers volunteer to carry me in and out of them.”

Disabled-friendly plan

Frustrated with the plight of the disabled in Syria, Ibrahim decided to take action. He joined the National Council for Disabilities Affairs (NCDA), a joint council staffed by representatives from six Syrian ministries and several NGOs, in addition to a number of experts and people with disabilities. It has been lobbying for the rights of the disabled since 2004.

Syria is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008. The convention aims to protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. Specifically, it demands that governments take measures to ensure disabled people can live and move about independently by ensuring that roads and buildings provide disabled access.

AMAAL, The Syrian Organization for the Disabled, is also playing a leading role in promoting the rights of the disabled. Established by Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad in 2002, AMAAL drafted a national plan focusing on the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in 2007. Endorsed by NCDA the following year, its effects have started to become visible in the past few months, with audible and tactile signals appearing on traffic lights throughout the capital.

Traffic lights are only part of the plan, Tarif Bakdash, general secretary of NCDA, said. The organisation has also prepared a building code to make Syria more disabled-friendly. The code, which will be binding by the end of the year, requires all buildings and public venues, such as parks, to provide wheelchair ramps, accessible toilets and elevators with audible controls for the hearing impaired and tactile controls – such as the Braille reading system – for the visually impaired. For its part, the Ministry of Transport says it aims to import 1,000 handicap-accessible buses by the end of 2011 and it is working to ensure that 25 percent of the public bus fleet provided by private companies will eventually provide wheelchair access.

The over-arching goal of all these efforts is to remove the factors that inhibit the life of the disabled in Syria, Bakdash said.

“My poor sight disables me from seeing clearly, but with my glasses on that’s no longer the case,” he said. “In this sense it’s not my poor sight, but rather the lack of glasses, which disables me. Failing to remove the obstacles that people with visual, hearing and moving impairments face in Syria is what actually disables them from living like anyone else.”

The workload confronting organisations like AMAAL and the NCDA is immense. A case-in-point is the lack of accurate statistics on the number of people with disabilities in Syria. To provide a more comprehensive picture, the NCDA is in the process of carrying out a nationwide survey of the country’s disabled community to evaluate their needs and better tailor government policy to meet them.

“We need to know the numbers and kinds of disabilities Syrians suffer from and where are they located,” Bakdash said.

Past government policies aimed at assisting the disabled have not always been as successful as originally intended. For example, the government passed legislation instructing private companies that employ more than 50 workers to offer 2 percent of their positions to persons with disabilities. Public institutions must offer 4 percent. But despite such legislation, many disabled people cannot pursue employment because their mobility challenges prevent them from attending school. This then makes them unqualified for suitable work opportunities.

“It’s the ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma – a vicious circle,” Ibrahim said. “Many people with disabilities are poorly educated so they can’t find a job. But it’s the difficulty of movement and the lack of an accessible educational system which prevents them from getting a proper education in the first place. But there’s no use sitting and crying over the past. We have to take measurable steps towards a more accessible Syria.”

Preventing Future Disabilities

Rami Khalil, executive director of AMAAL, said the need to improve access for the disabled was particularly acute in Syria since he believes the country has a particularly large disabled population.

“Marriage between relatives, poor health care for mothers and pregnant women, irregular vaccinations, malnutrition and a high accident rate make Syria a big disabled-generating country,” he said.

In addition to making the country more disabled friendly, NCDA is also planning to decrease the number of Syrians with disabilities. A key part of this strategy is to improve the safety of homes and workplaces to reduce the number of accidents which can result in mobility impairments. While NCDA admits that change will take time, people like Ibrahim are hopeful that things will get better for the country’s disabled.

“It will probably take another two generations for things to change, but I’m optimistic,” he said. “A disability lies in the environment and not in the person. If you remove the barriers, people with disabilities will become full participants in society. But they need to be empowered. They can’t dig their way through life alone.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Cold Comfort

A government decision to deny divorced women, orphans and unmarried men a special allowance for heating oil has caused uproar in Syria’s civil society movement and among women’s rights activists.

Photo Fadi al-Hamwi

When the Ministry of Local Administration announced last November that it would distribute a SYP 10,000 (USD 217) allowance for heating oil to the population, many Syrians breathed a sigh of relief. In February, however, this collective sigh turned into a gasp of horror when Minister for Local Administration Tamer al-Hijeh announced that the allowance would not apply to single or divorced women, widows, bachelors and orphans.

“Last year the ministry gave a similar allowance to all Syrians and Palestinian refugees residing in Syria,” Sadik Abu Watfe, an assistant to the minister of Local Administration, said. “This year, however, the allowance will only be allocated to those in need.”

The needy, according to Abu Watfe, are Syrians and Palestinian refugees who live permanently in the country and do not have a financial stake in more than one car, a residential or commercial piece of real estate or agricultural land. They also have to own a family book, which is a certificate delivered to every Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian groom when he gets married, in which his wife and later his children are registered. Women are never issued with a family book, except if their husband dies, although not all widows have one.

“Why is the right to the heating allowance associated with the family book?” Da’ad Mousa, a Syrian lawyer and activist, said. “This means that a whole segment of society has no right to heating in winter. Furthermore, second, third and fourth wives who live in separate houses don’t get an allowance because while the husband may have four wives, he is only issued with one family book.”

In short, unless a woman has a husband or her husband’s family book, she is not eligible for a heating allowance. Furthermore, according to the minister’s instructions, even divorced women who are in the possession of their father’s family book are not eligible for the allowance because only the head of the family registered in the family book (or his wife if he has passed away or is ill) can apply for the allowance. Syrian women married to foreigners are also ruled out because their husbands do not receive the all-important document.

The minister’s announcement has caused uproar within the country’s civil society movement, with local press describing the move as “a punishment to women” that is “against the Syrian constitution”. The Syrian Communist Party also vehemently denounced the decision, saying it was a form of discrimination against women, not just because of the link being made between the right to a heating allowance and the family book, but also because women cannot even obtain a family book.

“We have always demanded and we still demand that a woman’s right to independence in all matters be acknowledged, especially with regards to civil and personal status law,” an editorial published on February 24 in the Syrian Communist Party newspaper Al-Nour stated. “This includes giving women a family book in case their parents die, they don’t get married, are divorced or widowed. This would release them from their complete dependence on their families, husbands, ex-husbands or late husbands.”

No way out

Despite the public outcry, Mousa says little can be done to change the situation.

“This is a government allowance,” she said. “No legal procedure can force the ministry to extend it to women as well.” It is a reality that is hard to accept for women like Kamar Habasheye, 50, who has been divorced for three years. With no diploma in hand and in fragile health, finding a job is no easy task. Since her three daughters got married, Habasheye lives alone, surviving off a monthly income of SYP 2,000 (USD 43) that she receives from an Islamic charity. She tries to supplement this meagre amount by taking on the occasional cleaning job, which earns her another SYP 1,500 (USD 32) a month.

“I simply can’t make ends meet,” Habasheye said. “Every week I have to spend a few days at my parents’ house and another couple of days at my brother’s place so as not to starve. I desperately need this allowance. The winters are getting colder every year and I have no idea what to do.”

Habasheye is one of many women hoping for a change in this year’s heating allowance distribution scheme. However, according to Abu Watfe, the funds allocated to the heating allowances have already been distributed, making it pointless to change the eligibility criteria.

“We’ve already distributed the majority of the allowances, covering eighty-five percent of Syrian families,” Abu Watfe said, adding that the ministry could make an exception in extreme cases. “While they are not eligible for the heating allowance, women who are extremely hard up could come to the ministry and ask for help,” he said.“We might investigate their case.



In February, the Ministry for Local Administration announced that the heating allowance, provided under Law No. 29 of November 19, 2009, does not apply to:

• A divorced woman whose father, mother, brothers and sisters are married. The allowance will only be allocated to the head of the family registered in the family book, or his wife in case he has passed away or is ill.

• A divorced woman who has lost her parents and does not have a family book.

• Underage children who do not have their late parents’ family book.

• A widow who does not have a family book, even if she lives in Syria permanently.

• A bachelor whose parents passed away and who does not have a family book, or whose family book is in the possession of his stepmother.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Bassam al-Kadi, Director of the Syrian Women Observatory

Bassam al-Kadi, founder of the country’s most prominent women’s rights group, has gained a fierce reputation as someone who knows few limits when it comes to challenging discriminating practices or campaigning against outdated laws. I sat down with the social activist to discuss what inspires his work.

As a young man you were involved in politics. What made you swap the political arena for the social one and establish the Syrian Women Observatory (SWO)?

I joined Syria’s Communist Labour Party in 1982 to achieve change. I was imprisoned for seven years because of my political work and have been banned from travelling for the past 19 years. Following my release from prison, I started working as an electrician at a Syrian university in 1996. While working there I met a lot of young people and began to realise the huge potential they have to achieve change. I began to see the importance of separating society from politics, so I left the latter and went into the area of social work.

Political decisions are necessary for improving society, but they are not enough. Change should be initiated from below before pressure is applied on the government to enforce it. I decided to open the observatory in 2005 with the aim of raising awareness about violence and discrimination against women, children and the disabled. Today, the observatory is the only organisation which provides information in Arabic about violence against women in Syria. On our website you can find all of the relevant Syrian laws, reports and international agreements relating to women’s and children’s rights issues.

The SWO will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the beginning of next year. What have been the organisation’s main achievements?

Since it was established, the observatory has taken part in a number of major campaigns. Prime among these was our involvement in the ‘Say No to Violence against Women’ campaign organised by the United Nations Development Fund for Women in 2008. We are also involved in an ongoing campaign which is demanding that Syrian women be granted the right to pass on their nationality to their children.

In addition, we have launched three major initiatives of our own. The first campaign lobbied for change of Syria’s Law of Associations, a law which gives the government the authority to control the activities of social organisations and to shut them down at any time. This control is so far-reaching that an organisation cannot even publish a flyer without applying for permission.

Our second major campaign was launched in 2005 and lobbied for change to those laws in Syria that permit honour killings.

Our latest campaign, launched last June, was against a proposed fundamentalist draft law to replace the existing Personal Status Code. The draft law violated women’s rights and was kept secret until it was leaked to the press earlier this year. Under pressure from our fierce campaign, the government dropped the draft law.

The observatory’s most important achievements, however, are not the campaigns themselves. Rather, it is the change we have achieved in the way the country’s media covers women’s and children’s issues. Before the observatory was founded, you couldn’t find more than three articles about honour killings in the Syrian media. Since we launched our campaign, more than 1,000 articles and programmes about honour killings have been aired on local TV channels, radio stations and published in print and online publications.

What is most important, however, is the quality, not the quantity, of such articles and programmes. The Syrian media used to condemn violence against women out of pity or because they viewed it as haram or as hindering social development. The observatory has encouraged a new approach to media coverage by coming at the issue from the angle of human rights and citizenship. Women should not be violated, not because it is haram or hinders development, but because it is simply their right as human beings and Syrian citizens. Today, 80 percent of the media coverage about women’s and children’s rights is in line with our approach, or very close to it.

The observatory has also pushed for young Syrians to play a greater role in developing their society. Working teams at Syrian organisations are usually closed and they do not include young people. The observatory works with any young Syrian volunteer willing to help raise awareness about women’s and children’s issues. We do not set specific work plans or recruit employees. Instead, each of our members sees what they can do from their position in their workplace, village or family. Even though the observatory doesn’t receive any funding and is based solely on voluntary work, in the past five years we have managed to launch several campaigns and expand our network to cover all parts of Syria.

The SWO-led campaign to cancel the proposed draft law to replace Syria’s Personal Status Code was hailed as a victory for civil society. A number of local observers described the campaign as a daring initiative that crossed a number of the country’s infamous ‘red lines’. How important was the campaign to the development of Syria’s civil society movement?

Our campaign did not cross any red lines. While it is fair to say we face a number of red lines, they are not as tight as Syria’s civil society organisations pretend. Instead, Syria’s civil society movement uses red lines and a lack of funding as an excuse for its own incompetence. When I launched my campaign against the draft law, many civil organisations refused to cooperate, choosing to remain passive for the first 37 days of the campaign, the goal of which they described as impossible to achieve. We did not cross red lines. Instead, we broke our fear to act and realised our potential in the process. From the first day I opened the observatory, I decided that what should be said must be said, regardless of the consequences.

You have said the reason why such a controversial draft law was able to reach such an advanced stage is because the local civil society movement has failed to effectively monitor the rise of extremism in society. What are you now doing to tackle this issue?

Syria’s civil society movement has turned a blind eye to the rise of extremism happening all around it. The observatory is trying to correct this mistake by establishing the Private Syrian Observatory for Monitoring Extremism. At the moment, we are working on defining extremism because it is such a wide term. When we have done this, the private observatory will monitor all forms of extremism affecting Syria, be it in the form of audio, visual or printed media, or in other ways such as general attitudes. The observatory will document and publish these forms of extremism on its website and comment on them from a human rights and equal citizenship point of view to raise awareness.

Although religious extremism will be our main theme, we will also focus on other types of extremism. A secular man’s degrading attitude towards a woman who wears the hijab is a form of extremism, as is a radical man’s harassment of a woman because she is not fully covered. Through our activities, we hope to change public opinion by prompting media outlets, NGOs and religious organisations to tackle the issue of extremism, the same way they have tackled women’s rights.

Are you working on any other campaigns?

The observatory is presently lobbying the government to make any future draft law available to the public before it becomes a law. It is unacceptable to have secret draft laws. When I, as a Syrian citizen, elected the members of the country’s parliament I didn’t elect them to replace me. I elected them to represent my opinions. However, I cannot have an opinion on a draft law unless it is made public. This campaign will be long and it is only in the initial stages, but I’m very optimistic that it will produce results.

We are also planning a campaign to raise awareness about child rape, an issue the Syrian media has done a great job of tackling recently. We plan to launch a campaign focusing on how to raise a child’s awareness of the issue, what symptoms and behaviour a sexually harassed child displays, how to deal with a child who has been sexually harassed and the role children’s organisations and the courts can play in combating this issue.

Why would a man dedicate his life to defending women’s rights?

Trying to stop violence and discrimination against women is generally defined as defending women’s rights. But I believe that by doing so I am also defending men’s rights. Women are the prima facie victims of violence and discrimination, but men are also victims. When you violate women’s rights, restrict their development and treat them as second-class citizens, you create an unstable marital relationship and an unbalanced family. This takes its toll not only on women, but on husbands, children and the whole of society.

For more information about the SWO, log on to

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Personal Status Matters

A campaign to halt proposed changes to Syria’s personal status code is being hailed as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

Syria’s civil rights movement is celebrating a successful campaign to freeze proposed changes to the country’s personal status code which they say would have reversed years of hard fought advances for women’s rights and secular personal liberties.

The campaign, heavily utilising social media forums such as Facebook, was launched three months ago after a new draft law written to replace the entire Personal Status Law of 1953 was leaked to the public. Shocked civil rights groups, MPs and religious figures argued the draft law reinforced old laws in desperate need of amendment and added new clauses which took Syria backwards. Activists described the proposed law as “frightening” and accused the committee responsible for writing it of trying to impose extremist Islamic views “similar to those of the Taliban” on Syria.

Meanwhile, shades of grey in the draft about whether or not the laws would apply to all of the country’s different religious communities added more fuel to the flames.

Arguing that the draft law contradicted the Syrian constitution, interfered with the rulings of Syria’s religious courts and reversed forward thinking on women’s and children’s rights, civil society groups compelled the government to recently declare the draft, officially at least, cancelled. The relentless campaign launched on the web in opposition to the draft stands as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

“The campaign that activists launched against this draft law signified progress for civil society,” Antoine Mousleh, head of St. John’s Church in Damascus, said. “The boundaries were lifted when it came to criticism of the law, people were more open. A few years ago this may not have happened.”

A fiery debate

For supporters of the draft – publicly few and far between – the controversy is without merit. They deny the draft is extremist, arguing it complies with sharia law as all personal status matters should.

“I wasn’t surprised by the draft law, it’s very similar to the current one,” Khalid Rashwani, a lawyer specialising in criminal and sharia law, said. “Certain people interested in women’s rights issues made a big fuss about the matter, but there was no need. Personal status laws should follow sharia law and in sharia law the rights of women are specified, so we should accept this. Why is it being likened to the Taliban? Most people in Syria agree that sharia should be applied in personal and family law.”

Rashwani’s position is rejected by activists such as Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women’s Observatory. Kadi said the draft does not represent the views of the majority of Syrians, but those of a minority who are abusing the term sharia to impose their extremist views.

“This draft law doesn’t represent the views of society or the government,” he said. “Sharia is too broad a term to apply here. Sharia is everything that has been laid down as laws by Muslims, so if you say this draft complies with sharia laws then you must specify which ones. Sharia can be what Osama Bin Laden or anyone says it is. In this case, sharia is being used as an excuse to apply extremist Islamic laws.”

One of the most controversial articles in the draft law was Article 21. It prescribed the creation of a legal body with, among other powers, the authority to divorce a couple without their consent if one of them is deemed to be a murtad, a Muslim who has renounced his or her faith.

According to Rashwani, the authority of such a body is both necessary and legitimate. “If a man is considered a murtad, of course he should be divorced from his wife,” he said. “A Muslim woman can’t be married to a non-Muslim man, so an independent body should be able to divorce them.”

Contrary to this view, critics such as Kadi argue that nobody has the right to speculate about another person’s beliefs or to interfere in a marriage without at least one of the partner’s consent.

Pressure on moderates

Mohammed al-Habash, a member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, said the proposed law was an attempt to pressure moderate Muslims to conform to more conservative teachings. “This legal body could be used as a weapon to put pressure on moderate Muslims,” Habash said. “Either they follow the same beliefs and actions as the legal body does or they will be considered a murtad and consequently divorced from their partner.”

Other parts of the proposed law lambasted by critics include Articles 63 and 92 which prohibit secular people from marrying. “Every person has the right to marry regardless of his or her beliefs,” Habash said. “Therefore, I disagree with the attempt to prevent secular people from being allowed to marry.”

Restrictions were also proposed for interfaith wedlock outside the Islamic courts. Article 38 in the draft law states that a non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim man outside the Islamic courts cannot legally register the marriage unless her husband agrees. A Muslim man, on the other hard, can register a marriage even if his alleged wife denies it exists. “This law is completely unacceptable,” Mousleh said. “If a Muslim man says a woman is his wife, that’s it, she’s his wife no matter what she says. Her word counts for nothing. This law treats Christian women like women in the old days of war, when they were captured as trophies.”

Another cause for alarm was Article 140, which states: “A husband is obliged to pay expenses for his wife’s education according to his financial ability and as long as the wife’s study does not contradict with her family obligations”. Critics argue this article would mean young girls could lose their right to education, adding that it runs contrary to reforms that have raised the age of compulsory education to 15. “This law means that a husband can prevent his 13-year-old wife from studying, using the excuse that it affects her household duties,” Kadi said. “It tries to undermine progress made via reform of Syria’s education laws.

Activists were also angry the draft law still contained several clauses which they have long campaigned to change. Just like the current law, Article 45 in the draft law permits boys to marry at the age of 15 and girls at the age of 13. The reinforcement of this law dealt activists, who have worked hard to raise the age of marriage to 18, a huge blow. “Children at such an early age don’t even know what marriage means, let alone what it is to create a family of their own,” Kadi said. “The law should have been changed.”

Rashwani, however, said allowing marriage to take place at the ages of 13 for a girl and 15 for a boy was not only suitable in certain cases, but sometimes a necessity. “Boys and girls living in Deir ez-Zor, for example, become mature earlier due to the tough circumstances in the Jazeera region, therefore they should be allowed to marry younger,” he said. “Sometimes it’s even necessary for a young girl to marry earlier because when both parents die, she has nobody to look after her.”

Drafted in secret

Critics of the proposed law are also deeply concerned about the manner in which it was drafted – it was drawn up in secret by a committee of anonymous sharia scholars, without the knowledge or input of other interested social and religious parties, and sent directly to the prime minister’s cabinet instead of parliament for public discussion.

“I call it a conspiracy because the draft wasn’t sent to parliament,” Kadi said, “The committee knew the reaction the draft would get which is why they didn’t put it to the press. They sent the draft to a few interested ministries and bodies with a note which gave a deadline for comments within a week. A week is not enough time to read such a large law, let alone comment.”

Habash echoed similar concerns. “The prime minister gave permission to the [former] minister of justice to choose the committee, but unfortunately he only chose from one corner of Syrian society,” he said. “Most Syrians believe we should follow our religion when it comes to personal status matters. But that doesn’t mean we should only ask one sect. All groups need to be consulted when it comes to such a significant law.”

There has been much speculation about why such a select committee was given the authority to write the draft law. According to Kadi, the government was just as surprised by the content of the draft law as civil rights groups. “The government followed procedures and asked the justice minister at the time to set up the committee,” he said. “However, they didn’t keep checks on the committee and what it was writing. Before they knew it, this crazy draft law had been written and was causing controversy.”

While the proposed law has been shelved by the government – Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem told the regional English-language newspaper The National last month it would never be passed – civil rights campaigners like Kadi say his fellow activists cannot rest on their laurels. Ultimately, Kadi said the blame for why such a draft law was able to reach such an advanced stage lies with civil society.

“The problem is that civil society organisations in Syria have a phobia of Islam – many dare not criticise wild interpretations of it because they’re scared of being labelled non-believers,” he said. “The content of this draft is civil society’s fault, because it hasn’t kept checks on extremist figures trying to infiltrate the system.”

I published this article with British journalist Fay Ferguson in Syria Today magazine