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.

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Bottoms Up

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

photos by Adel Samara

photos by Adel Samara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Sexism in the System

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

photo by Carole al-Farah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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

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

Photo by Owny Mohammad

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

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

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

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

Pension problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOX

Life Imitates Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

 

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.

******

LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

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.

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