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

Counting on the People (Sustainable Development in Syria’s 11th 5 Year Plan)

What does an emphasis on human and sustainable development in the new Five-Year Plan mean for Syria’s future?

Charts by Dana Kassab

Mohammad Fathi, a young father who works for an industrial company, says that since Syria started its transition to a social-market economy in 2005, the prices he pays for food and fuel have skyrocketed.

While the 11th Five-Year Plan continues to emphasise a free-market focus – by removing subsidies and increasing the private sector’s role – Abdullah al-Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, says the plan will improve life for people like Fathi. It will do so by improving the services and opportunities open to them by emphasising the broadly-defined category of human development – the creation of jobs and improvement of services such as education.

The plan will also promote sustainable development by seeking to reduce population growth, develop people’s skills, realise equitable income distribution, provide social protection and reduce poverty. Despite significant changes since 2005, Syria’s economy remains characterised by a large public sector and a small private sphere. A population that is increasing at a rate of 2.5 percent annually is pushing up the costs of subsidies on necessary items such as bread and oil, straining Syria’s natural resources and placing pressure on the demand for new jobs.

The former socialist economy did many good things but it cannot generate the revenues needed for the next stages of development, Joshua Landis, a US professor and the author of Syria Comment blog, said. “Syria is having to reorient itself.”

New focus
The 11th plan reorients Syria by further reducing energy subsidies and allowing prices to rise to market levels, and by upgrading infrastructure and investing in core industries with the intention of creating jobs that lead to sustainable sources of income. Additionally, the plan aims to reduce disparities in social services and infrastructure among Syria’s governorates and to distribute economic investment projects more evenly.

Percentage of people-under-poverty line in Syria

The plan shifts away from industry subsidies, using the funds saved by this measure to introduce more comprehensive social-welfare programs. Many fuel subsidies were removed in 2008 under the 10th plan but by 2015 the government plans to remove the remaining energy subsidies – which cost 5 percent of GDP in 2009, according to the IMF – and phase out some blanket subsidies in other areas, such as in agriculture and water.

Populatioon-growth-rate in Syria

Unemployment-rate in Syria

“The energy deficit [the amount lost by the government through energy subsidies, which totalled some SYP 1.3trn (USD 27.8bn) during the previous five years] is greater than the total amount spent on investment during the 10th Five-Year Plan,” Dardari said. “If we raise prices to market levels, we can use the saved money for development and social services.”

A public unemployment insurance fund is in the works. It will provide unemployment benefits and training as well as monthly benefits for Syrians living below the poverty line. In the health sector, Syria is aiming to increase expenditures on health care to about SYP 4,678 (USD 100) per capita by 2015.

Additionally: “We will expand free education both in terms of quality and quantity, and do the same in health care,” Dardari said. He said that Syria will spend 30 percent of its public-investment expenditures – a total of SYP 2trn (USD 43bn) – to achieve its human-development goals.

The new plan also seeks to decrease the population growth rate from 2.45 percent annually to 2.1 percent by 2015. The plan said it will raise the legal marriage age – but did not specify to what age – to help achieve this goal. The Syrian Commission for Family Affairs is dedicating SYP 2.1m (USD 46,000) towards “population development”.

Having a balanced population is considered key to a higher standard of life for all, Amer Hosni Lutfi, head of the State Planning Commission, said.

Employment growth
Simultaneously, the plan aims to create new jobs to employ the growing population.

“We mean to create not just any job, but decent work opportunities,” Lutfi told Syria Today. “This will lead to high income and more spending, which will stimulate the economy.”

The plan aims to create new jobs within targeted industries, such as irrigation. The Ministry of Irrigation will invest SYP 202bn (USD 4.4bn) in projects, including building new dams and rehabilitating old dams and state irrigation networks. As oil revenues decline, Syria will also focus on industries that it considers more sustainable in the long-term, including agriculture, manufacturing, electricity and tourism.

Saadallah Agha al-Qala, minister of tourism, said tourist figures had almost doubled between 2009 and 2010, rising last year to some 8m. This, he said, provided SYP 330bn (USD 7bn) – or 12 percent of GDP – and employed 800,000 people by the end of 2010.

“Syria has amazing things to see, comparable to Turkey,” Landis said. “But it must do much more to attract people as its total visitor figures are still significantly lower than elsewhere.”

In the current plan, Syria aims to increase the number of tourists at an annual average of 12.5 percent to reach 12m tourists by 2015. To achieve that, it is investing SYP 33bn (USD 717m) in tourism. This investment will provide jobs for 360,000 more Syrians, the plan projects.

Rough road ahead
Some analysts argue that the plan does not go far enough and continues to focus on unsustainable areas of the economy. The public sector will still remain larger than many economists say is viable, costing the government money that could be invested elsewhere. In addition, some traditional areas that are not sustainable – such as agriculture – will still be encouraged.

“The 11th FYP does not propose to cut jobs in the public sector, which is a huge cost to the state,” Landis said. “It should also be careful not to focus on unproductive and water-intensive areas such as agriculture and industry when the money could be better spent on retraining people to work in more productive areas.”

However, the plan allocates more than seven times the amount of money to human development such as health care and education (SYP 2trn) than to agriculture (SYP 275.5bn). Such a statistic gives hope that minimising poverty and boosting living standards may be achievable.

Ensuring that Syria’s poor benefit from development is key to the country’s future, according to Maamoun Fahham, a local economist who has advised the government on sustainable development. Anecdotal evidence suggests poverty has increased since a 2004 study by the United Nations found 11 percent of Syrians lived in extreme poverty.

“This is the main concern because sustainable development cannot be achieved without this group,” he said.

I wrote this article together with British journalist Sarah Birke for 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.

Feeling the Pinch (Poverty in Syria)

Is making ends meet in Syria becoming tougher?  Together with Adel, we hit the streets to ask a number of working class Syrians – a second-hand clothes seller, a taxi driver, a fishmonger, a plumber and two factory workers – if they feel they are benefiting from the new economy.

Photos by Adel Samara

A Vicious Circle

Nine-year-old Yahya leads me to his house through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways in Idashareye, an industrial area close to Bab Sharqi in the Old City of Damascus, expertly jumping over piles of rubbish. His mother, Aisha Nasrallah, a robust woman wearing a long black galabeya and a tightly knotted scarf, is waiting for us at the doorstep. A drawing of the city of Jaffa adorns her front door, along with a spray-painted message: “Palestine is Arab”. I ask Nasrallah if her family is Palestinian.

“No, we are from the Hauran in southern Syria,” she says, laughing. “Have you seen the Syrian soap opera Al-Dawameh [The Whirlpool], the one about Palestinian refugees? They shot it at our place. They searched the whole neighbourhood, but they couldn’t find a house better than ours that resembles those found in the rundown Palestinian refugee camps.”

With two tiny dark rooms looking out on to a small courtyard, Nasrallah’s house is indeed reminiscent of a refugee shelter. The makeshift kitchen consists of a fridge, a small oil heater and some bowls and saucepans piled up at the side of the courtyard.

“When we got married, my husband already had nine children from his previous marriage,” she says. “Only four of his children survived, the others got sick and died. I gave birth to four children. Now that my husband’s oldest sons have married, there are only seven of us living here.”

Nasrallah’s husband, Mohammad Deyab Nasrallah, works at a food-processing factory in the morning and drives a van delivering goods at night.

“I took out a loan to buy a small second-hand van hoping that it might increase our income, but I got stuck in a vicious circle,” he explains. “I’m now paying twice as much to repair the van because it keeps breaking down and I still have to pay back the loan. So now I’ve ended up working all day, while the family lives off just SYP 8,000 [USD 174] per month. This is all that is left over from my salary.”

Mohammad says he regrets his decision to move to Damascus, but is unable to return to the Hauran because he doesn’t own a property or a piece of land from which he can generate an income.

“Life used to be much easier,” he says. “Everybody is talking about modernising the country, but all we have seen are soaring prices. As for me, I’ve lived my life, there isn’t much left. But God help the younger generation. How will my children survive?”

Begging to Sell More

As I chat with a shop owner in Souk Al-Harameye in downtown Damascus, a young man with a sunburned face interrupts me: “Hey, are you a journalist? Listen to me – I have a lot to tell you!”

Abu Yazan, 19, has been selling second-hand clothes in the souk since he was 12 years old. He is desperate to explain that times have become tougher since he was a child. Abu Yazan used to return home each day with at least SYP 800 (USD 17.40) in his pocket, but today he says he is lucky if he earns SYP 300 (USD 6.50).

“This souk is for the poor,” he says. “Those who can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes for SYP 2,000 [USD 43.50] come here and buy a pair for SYP 250 [USD 5.45]. But people aren’t buying many clothes anymore and when they do they aren’t willing to pay more than SYP 100 [USD 2.17]. I have to pay SYP 7,000 [USD 152.17] each month in rent for my house in Kabun. I can’t afford to buy my own house. How can I get by on such a small income?”

Abu Yazan doesn’t own a shop in the souk. Instead, he sells his goods on a table in the middle of the street. As the stall is illegal, he often runs into trouble with the police.

“I’ve been arrested several times,” he says. “I spend two days in jail and then go back to work until the police catch me again. We play a game of cat and mouse.”

Abu Yazan smiles mischievously while recounting his dealings with the police, but he soon becomes angry.

“People think I’m homeless,” he says. “They treat me like I’m a beggar just because I work on a street stall in the souk, but I’m not. I work hard from morning until night to earn the little money I have. I work harder than any of those rich guys driving around here. They say I’m living on the street, but they are actually the ones who roam the streets all day doing nothing but spending their parents’ money.”

By the time Abu Yazan has finished his speech, a small crowd has gathered around us. He draws a large X with his trembling hands, turns on his heels and shouts “that’s it” before disappearing into the crowd.

Have a Little Faith

Entering Riad al-Hamwi’s home, I find his family gathered together cheerfully sipping tea and munching Easter chocolates.

“Our life is not easy, but we are grateful to God that he puts food on our table,” Hamwi says with a smile.

Life is a struggle. The 40-something Hamwi used to work at an iron foundry, but when he developed asthma some 17 years ago he was forced to quit his job. Without a diploma and few savings, he turned to the taxi business.

“Neighbours and family members raised money for me so I could buy a taxi,” he explains. “Without them I don’t know what I would have done.”

When the Syrian government issued a law in 2004 prohibiting car models dating past 1976 from operating as public transport, Hamwi was forced to buy a new car.

“The new law, coupled with the rising price of fuel, made it very hard to start all over again,” he says. “We bought another second-hand car and are paying for it in installments, but it’s very expensive and keeps breaking down.”

To make matters worse, Hamwi’s wife suffers from kidney problems. With weekly dialysis sessions and medication bills to pay, not much money is left for the family to live on.

“We live day by day,” Hamwi says. “It’s impossible to save any money. But thank God we are together, that’s all that matters. The Lord will help us.”

The Big Squeeze

Bahaa al-Din Shahada, a plumber-cum-locksmith in his early 40s, is the proud owner of a small shop tucked away in the bustling streets of Shaalan.

“I work as a plumber,” he tells me. “But I also make keys and anything else a customer might need. I’ve been working in this shop for more than 25 years now.”

Shahada is eager to talk about how times – and prices – have changed since 1985 when he opened his shop.

“Everything has become more expensive and people are getting poorer,” he says. “A simple lock which used to cost SYP 150 [USD 3.25] now costs more than SYP 800 [USD 17.40]. Before, if the bathroom started overflowing, people would change the whole bathroom suite. Now they ask me to fix it. They can’t afford to regularly change their bathroom fittings and accessories anymore.”

Shahada blames the rising prices of raw materials and fuel for the “soaring costs”, as well as higher taxes.

“Even though I’m charging more for my services, my income has decreased,” he says.

Competition from larger companies entering the market is also a huge concern.

“Syria is opening up and the competition is growing,” he says. “Soon, big companies will start providing similar services to mine, at cheaper prices. Once that happens people will no longer need self-employed handymen like me. I’m not available 24 hours a day like company employees. If I get a phone call from someone who needs his bathroom fixed, I will go. But if another customer calls me at the same time, I can’t do that job as well. I don’t have employees who I can send to fix the other bathroom, whereas the big companies do. If this happens I will either have to go and work for one of these big companies or change my profession altogether and start selling clothes. Everyone always needs clothes.”

Casting the Net Wider

“What kind of fish would you like to buy?” Salim Leila, a tall, slender man in his early 30s asks. To my surprise, when his young customer asks for a kilo of ‘sea fish’, Leila advises him to rethink his order.

“I wouldn’t recommend you buy that fish today,” he says. “It’s not fresh.”

Perplexed, I ask Leila why he would choose to send a customer away. He answers with a smile: “People need to trust me or else they won’t come back. Once they know I will only give them the best I have, they will never buy fish from anyone else.”

And indeed, this cheerful fishmonger is not short of customers. His shop is bustling with people and the phone has not stopped ringing with delivery orders since I arrived.

So, is the growing competition from large supermarkets entering the market a worry?

“People are not naive,” Leila tells me. “They can’t be fooled. These big malls might have tonnes of fish on display, but they can’t guarantee their freshness and they don’t have fishmongers who recommend which fish tastes better. They only have employees who sell fish like they sell clothes.”

While Leila may not fear the competition, his business has struggled in recent years.

“I’ve been selling fish for 25 years, but over the past 10 years work has become more difficult,” he says. “While I used to employ 10 people in my shop, now I can only pay the salaries of two. After 2pm, I now usually spend my time drinking tea. Why? Because fish that used to cost SYP 700 [USD 15.20] now costs SYP 1,700 [USD 37]. Not many people can afford these prices.”

Yet Leila remains optimistic about the future.

“As the economy opens up, I’ll be able to start importing a larger variety of fish at cheaper prices,” he enthuses. “Chicken is very expensive these days and full of hormones. People will soon turn to fish.”

Hoping to Strike it Lucky

When Hassan Ismaeel was offered a job at a textiles company in Damascus 14 years ago, he did not think twice about leaving his hometown of Banias on the Syrian coast for the big city lights. What seemed like a dream job back then, however, is no longer enough to put food on the table, Ismaeel says. For the past year, the 40-something-year-old has been walking the streets selling lottery tickets after his shift at the factory in order to earn some much needed extra cash.

“Every day I work for eight hours at the textiles company and then another six hours selling tickets, yet things are getting more expensive by the day,” he complains. “Once the price of fuel rose, so did everything else including food and clothing.”

Not many people are buying Ismaeel’s lottery tickets either.

“Only poor people buy lottery tickets and they usually buy them at the beginning of the month,” he says. “Most of the time I sit here doing nothing. I’ve been buying lottery tickets for the past 15 years, but I have never won more than SYP 500 [USD 10.60]. But it’s OK. Syrians are accepting. This is how God planned my life to be – so be it.”

While times may be tough, Ismaeel is hopeful that the new social market economy will create more job opportunities and bring his only son a better future.

“I want my son to go to university and get a diploma,” he says. “I don’t want him to lead the same kind of life I have. Without the right qualifications he won’t get the chance to work at any of the big companies. He will end up selling lottery tickets on the streets like me.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.