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.

Interview with Syrian filmmaker Hazim al-Hamwi

Hazem al-Hamwi is a young Syrian who entered the world of filmmaking without any introductions or academic studies, and even without learning the “craft” from dedicated filmmakers. Working hard to “earn” his first home video camera, al-Hamwi carved out a place for himself as a documentary and experimental filmmaker in his local cinema scene. Today, nothing can hinder his steady and composed camera from crossing red lines and following his favorite theme: the place.

Hazim alHamwi

 

Syrian filmmakers always complain about censorship, which is considered by many to be one of the main reasons behind Syria’s limited film production. Yet, like many other Syrian directors, you managed in “Tufulet Al-Makan” to cross religious as well as sectarian red lines. Do you think self-censorship has become stricter than that imposed by the government?

Fear mostly originates from past experiences related to the prior history of a person or a group. But a fearful mind is unable to produce art. This, of course, does not mean that one should be reckless, but we often hear our government making statements about development and change, so why don’t we think positively and try to test that. Even if we only achieve part of what we want, we would still be creating more productive conditions for the upcoming generations.

As for censorship being the main reason behind Syria’s limited film production, I strongly oppose this view. With this, filmmakers are only making excuses for themselves. It’s enough to look at the great accomplishment of Iranian cinema in spite of the harsh censorship regulations imposed on their cinema industry to negate this view. Not to mention that censorship is a very loose term and I personally believe that indirect social censorship can be stricter than that imposed by the government.

Few Syrian filmmakers have been working as independently as you; it was only recently that you studied filmmaking in the Arab Film Institute in Jordan and most of your films are self-financed or lack financial support. How far can independent Syrian filmmakers go?

My working independently was the result of the lack of governmental support for cinema rather than a choice or an objective. I personally regard it as a reaction to the production problems and it has, therefore, its pros and cons. The downside lies in the stress caused by my being in charge of handling all technical, operational and executive aspects of the filmmaking process.

The positive side, on the other hand, lies in developing an active and productive mentality that doesn’t resort to mere “complaining”, but which finds solutions to face up to and change the status quo. After all, the reality that I am filming is much more important than the type of camera I’m using. By adopting this mentality, I reversed the spell by transforming my problems into strengths and my struggle into a source of respect.

It is also important to highlight that independent filmmakers need to have a means for survival and continuity. The government and civil society organizations should support filmmakers. Unfortunately, we have very few such organizations in Syria and most initiatives are undertaken by individuals. They deserve a lot of respect for that.

Syrian critic Khalil Sweileh wrote (Al-Akhbar /27 January 2007) that “the main characteristic of Arab young filmmakers’ films is the ‘uprising of the ego’”… and their moving away from “nationalist concerns that marked the past decades”. Looking at your films and at the Syrian film production at large, to what extent is that true?

I think it’s true. Even though many of the old Syrian films had a highly cinematographic language, they were overloaded with ideologies. This affected the film’s intellectual as well as artistic shape. As a result, they seemed sober, obscure, and had no sense of play, so to speak. Although this does not apply to all Syrian films, generally speaking this was the main characteristic of the first Syrian films.

Back to the argument of Sweileh, the ego will have the final say. It will find its way to express itself; to play, to distress and rejoice, make mistakes and succeed… I can see that in the works of my colleagues. While this might be unprofessional, it’s definitely healthy. I personally make films for the fun of it. It gives me a special sense of pleasure. That’s why there’s a lot of experimentation in my work because I enjoy working on the unexpected. Making a film is like going on an ego trip where you discover a lot of inner treasures. The ego is very demanding but it also has a lot to give.

You have recently been awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2009 to produce the second part of your documentary “Tufulet Al-Makan.” Could you tell us more about the film?

“Tufulet Al-Makan” will be three parts and I will make the second and the third part with the grant funding. All three parts are depicting place, or rather the soul of the place, so to speak.

What are the Syrian, Arab or international films that had the biggest impact on you?

I was never influenced by a film as a whole. Rather, I was touched by some aspects of films. I admire, for example, the cinematography of “Kombars” by Syrian director Nabil Al-Maleh, the visual language of Osama Muhammad’s “Sunduk Al-Dunia”, the harmony in the Egyptian film “The mummy” by Shadi Abdel Salam and the rhetoric of Stanley Kubrick’s works in general.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.

 

Virgin Territory (Hymen restoration surgeries in Syria)

News of artificial hymens hitting the regional market led to huge debate in Egypt and resulted in an official ban on the product. The reaction in Syria, by contrast, was surprisingly mild.

When rumours of artificial hymens being imported into Syria first began to circulate last summer, few believed they could be true. Yet when Syrian journalist Souror Nasraldeen began researching the product, she soon discovered that the Gigimo Artificial Virginity Hymen kit was indeed no hoax – for just USD 15 Syrian women could now win back their virginity in the space of 20 minutes. Made in Japan and distributed by a Chinese company called Gigimo, the kit, which can be bought online, consists of a pouch which is to be inserted 20 minutes before sexual intercourse and leaks a blood-like substance when broken.

“No more worry about losing your virginity,” the Gigimo website says in broken English. “With this product, you can have your first night back anytime.”

Outraged by the concept, Nasraldeen published one of the first articles in the region about the device in Day Press, a Syrian daily news website, last August. “The artificial hymen is the product of an old mentality which links honour to a woman’s virginity, that’s why I’m completely against it,” she told Syria Today. “This product creates unbalanced families which are built on lies right from the wedding night. I wanted my article to be a wake-up call.”

Muted public reaction

While Syria’s state-run media paid little attention to the story, internet users did and the article racked up a huge number of hits on the Day Press website. Yet while most Syrian internet users seemed relatively accepting of the product, finding it intriguing at worst, controversy in the Egyptian blogosphere began to mount.

“There were many angry men making comments who feared that this product would encourage women to lie about their virginity,” Nasraldeen said. “Some even accused Day Press of promoting the product.”

When BBC Arabic, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Egypt’s press latched on to the article – and the device – the storm grew. In Egypt, conservative politicians and religious figures instigated a debate which grew so intense that the Ministry of Health officially banned the import of the product into the country.

By contrast, the Syrian authorities did not even comment. And what little public reaction there was in the country took a much milder tone, focusing on the issue of virginity and virtue. “Many people said the problem was not with the product itself, but with the promotion of the idea that a woman’s virginity is a good measure of her morality,” Nasraleen said.

One month after the article was published Sham FM dedicated an hour and a half of its talk show Hiwar al-Yawm (Today’s Dialogue) to the importance of virginity before marriage, a topic rarely discussed openly in Syrian society or the media.

“Most of the phone calls to the show were by men, some of whom felt angry and deceived by the idea that a woman might fake her virginity,” Qusay ‘Amama, producer and presenter of the radio show, said. One such caller was Ammar, a young man from Jobar, who discovered after nine years of marriage that his wife used to sleep with men from the Gulf for money and had pretended to be a virgin on their wedding night.

“I can’t divorce her because we already have three children but I can’t bear living with her anymore,” he said “I feel so betrayed.”

Other callers expressed more liberal views. “I don’t care whether the woman I marry is a virgin or not.” Ahmad Hamada said. “It’s superficial to measure honour by a piece of skin.”

The argument for legalisation

For many Syrians, the concept behind the Gigimo Artificial Hymen kit is nothing new. Hymen restoration surgery, while rarely spoken about, has long been carried out in the country.

“Syrian doctors have been mending hymens for ages, this artificial hymen is only the latest trend in the world of virginity reconstruction in Syria,” Da’ed Mousa, a Syrian lawyer specialising in family law and women’s issues, said. “I don’t know why people would make such a big fuss about it now.”

Doctors point out, however, that unlike hymen restoration surgery, the risks of using an artificial hymen are still unknown. According to its advertising, the Gigimo Artificial Hymen kit is made of natural albumen glue and methylcellulose. Apart from this, however, there is a complete absence of medical information about the product.

“This product has been manufactured for commercial purposes and I don’t know what it’s made of,” Jury el-Tali, a Syrian gynaecologist, said. “I certainly don’t recommend using it.”

With this in mind, Mohammad Habash, Syrian MP and head of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, told Day Press that if the artificial hymen is being brought into the country anyway, it would be better for Syria’s Ministry of Health to legally import it. This way, he claims, the ministry could test the product to see if it meets the country’s health standards. Furthermore, it could also restrict the distribution of the product to women who lost their virginity as a result of rape, accident or because of health issues.

Like Habash, Mahmoud ‘Akkam, a mufti from Aleppo, defends a woman’s right to reconstructive surgery.

“Reconstructing your virginity is a personal issue and women are free to do whatever they want with their bodies as long as it doesn’t put their health at risk,” ‘Akkam said.

“Unfortunately we live in a society which stigmatises women who lose their virginity before marriage; therefore they should have the right to surgery or to use such products. If a woman has had premarital sex, however, she shouldn’t lie to her husband and deceive him by using a fake hymen, especially if virginity is an issue for him.”

This moderate response by religious figures, coupled with the local press’s indifference towards the issue, is why little controversy has mounted over the device in Syria, according to ‘Amama.

“The Egyptian press and religious figures provoked Egyptians by launching a fierce campaign against smuggling the artificial hymen into the Syrian and Egyptian markets,” ‘Amama said. “It was a kind of propaganda against the artificial hymen that didn’t take hold in Syria.”

Ahmad Barkawi, professor of philosophy and social sciences at the University of Damascus, says the issue stirred up little controversy because of the lack of a dominant conservative trend in society.

He believes that had the artificial hymen appeared on the Syrian market 10 years ago, however, the reaction would have been different.

“While I wouldn’t say that Syrian society is growing more liberal, the growing demand for different methods of virginity reconstruction during the last 10 years does signal a change in young Syrians’ attitude to sex,” he said.

“They want to have premarital sex without confronting Syria’s largely traditional society. Now they can say: ‘You want an intact hymen? Here, have a Chinese one’.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Living in Sin (Living together in Syria)

Living together before marriage remains a major taboo in Syria. Some couples, however, just do not care.

Like most Syrians, 25-year-old Arwa Naser is firm in her views about living together before marriage.

“Living together is like marriage, but without any rights or sense of responsibility towards your partner,” Naser, an employee at an international Non-Governmental Organisation, said. “I find such relationships degrading for me as a woman. Why would I live with someone who only wants to sleep with me but is not committed enough to marry me?”

For a local house painter riding the Dahyet Kudsaya-Damascus service van, it is simply a matter of right and wrong.

“Love and relationships are important,” he said. “But even in love there are some boundaries that you should never cross. Living together before marriage is one of them.”

Breaking the norm

Syrians generally consider sex before marriage to be immoral; an act forbidden by God. Moving in together before marriage is, therefore, unacceptable. These views are, however, not shared by everyone.

Wasim Mikdad, a 24-year-old medical student, has lived with his girlfriend for the past year and a half. While their parents and close friends know about their living arrangements, they tell their neighbours they are married and generally try to hide the relationship from their extended families.

“My family knew about my boyfriend right from the beginning, but it was only a while ago that I told them I’m living with him,” Mikdad’s girlfriend, a 22-year-old pharmacy student who moved to the capital from Tartous two years ago, said. “First they rejected the idea all together. After two days, however, they said it was OK, but it would be better if we delayed moving in together until I graduated. Finally, they accepted the idea. They were worried about social pressure from relatives, but since I live in Damascus things are easier.”

Mikdad also delayed telling his immediate family, who live in Damascus, presenting them with a fait accompli after a year of living together. “I didn’t ask for their permission,” he said. “I told them I’m already independent and if they don’t like it then they don’t have to see me anymore.”

Living together before marriage remains a major taboo in Syria.

“We live in a society which is dominated by religion and religion condemns living together,” a 31-year-old single career woman who asked to remain anonymous said. Her partner has asked her to move into a flat with him. While she would like to, she dares not risk the disapproval of family and friends. “There is no way society would accept our relationship,” she said.

Although not technically illegal, unmarried couples living together can face charges of zena – sleeping with someone who is not your wife or husband. More than any of the above, it is a situation which can lead to violence, particularly when the woman’s family finds out. So why then do some people risk society’s scorn, as well as their families’ rage, and move in together?

The first step

Mikdad’s girlfriend said living together was an important step in testing their relationship; a way to make sure they were right for each other before involving the families through marriage.

“When you live together with someone, it’s only you and your partner,” she said. “But once you marry it’s not a game for two anymore. Rather, it’s the marriage of two families and two social circles and this puts a lot of pressure on the couple.”

She points out that she is not against marriage per se, but opposes a wedding certificate being used “as a form of permission to have sex, rather than a social system to build balanced and healthy families”.

“When I get married, I want to do so because I want to build a family and create a stable home for my children,” she said.

Mikdad is more concerned with practical matters. “When you are living together with someone, it’s enough to rent a small room and share your lives together,” he said. “Once you marry, you have to, at the very minimum, buy a house and some jewellery, arrange a wedding party and pay for the jihaz [a new wardrobe for the bride] to please your in-laws. Living together is a social arrangement that solves such problems.”

Not without risk

No specific law forbids unmarried couples from living together. Nevertheless, some articles from the Syrian criminal law can be used against couples, Da’ed Mousa, a Syrian lawyer specialising in family law and women’s issues, said.

One such piece of legislation is Article 473 which states that an unmarried woman who has sex can receive a two-year prison sentence. Her male companion, on the other hand, faces a maximum prison term of one year, unless he is married in which case he faces a two-year term. According to Article 475, however, only male relatives of the unmarried couple have the right to lay charges.

“Most people living together do so without their families knowing about it,” Mousa said. “When the family finds out they can move to prosecute the couple, but more often than not they kill them and then give themselves up to the police for committing an honour crime.”

Mousa is currently working on two separate cases involving young women who previously lived with unmarried partners. When their families found out, they threatened to kill them. The women now live in shelters. To make matters worse, their partners walked out on them after finding out they were pregnant.

“It’s not easy to live as a single mother in Syria,” Mousa said. “Children born out of wedlock can’t be legally registered and therefore have no rights.”

According to Mousa, the best outcome for her clients is for them to marry and register their children under their husband’s name. Otherwise, their children will not be eligible to apply for a number of basic public benefits, including an identity card.

Public discussion

While Mikdad and his girlfriend have the support of their immediate family and friends, they are well aware of the need to conform to society’s expectations. To minimise controversy, they chose to live far from their families in Jaramana, a multi-ethnic area known for its liberal climate.

“Here people are more open and tolerant to different norms and lifestyles,” Mikdad said. “But even here we fear some of our neighbours might consider our relationship akin to prostitution if they knew we weren’t married.”

Despite the difficulties of living together in Syria, the young couple says it is a lifestyle choice which is slowly becoming more accepted.

“Both private and public media have started talking about living together which makes me feel that we are not social outcasts anymore,” Mikdad’s partner said. “This gives me hope that one day society will accept us the way we are.”

This article was published in  Syria Today magazine

The Faithful Translator (profile of Syrian writer Fawwaz Haddad)

The works of 2009 Arab Booker Prize nominee Fawwaz Haddad are leaving a distinctive mark on the contemporary Arab literary landscape.

Fawwaz Haddad / Photo by Carole al-Farah

Fawwaz Haddad / Photo by Carole al-Farah

When I meet Arab Booker Prize nominee Fawwaz Haddad in Choice Café in central Damascus, the modest-looking, slender novelist sitting opposite me seems, at first, anything but the fearless 62-year-old author I have heard so much about.

Yet Haddad’s novels, which intertwine Middle Eastern history and criticisms of its political fabric with fictional plots, have earned him a reputation as one of the Arab world’s boldest contemporary writers.

“I don’t see why we can’t give fictional stories a political or historical background,” Haddad says, in a distinctive Chami accent. “This helps readers to understand the story in context, even 10 years or more after the event.”

Haddad’s most internationally celebrated work, The Unfaithful Translator, delves into the murky business of what he labels the “corruption” of Syria’s intelligentsia. The novel highlights how intellectuals are pressured to succumb to the demands and whims of government agendas, free-market economic policies and global inter-governmental dynamics. The story focuses on Hamed, a passionate translator, who becomes so involved in the novel he is translating that he cannot resist changing the plot to create his happy ending.

“Bringing up the issue of corruption and calling for an end to it doesn’t make a difference,” Haddad, born in Sarouja, one of Damascus’s oldest districts, says. “It’s more important to highlight the ways in which corruption actually works.”

Combining the accuracy of a history book with the suspense and humour of a novel, The Unfaithful Translator has been recognised as an important contemporary Arab work, so much so that it was one of only six works shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a prestigious literary prize awarded in association with the UK’s Booker Prize Foundation. Haddad now hopes the work will be translated into English.

“I think it’s important to translate Syrian novels into English, not only because it will give foreign readers an insight into Syrian literature, but because it will allow them to get a different image of Syrian society than the one that is created within the international political debate,” he said. “This, in turn, will create a connection between Syria and the West and make us realise that we are more similar than we thought.”

The Faithful Translator

The Unfaithful Translator is officially banned in Syria, although relatively easy to come by. Unfazed by the controversy, Haddad says his favourite literary themes remain corruption and censorship, as well as political and military coups. Willing to sacrifice exposure for content, only four of Haddad’s eight novels are technically permitted on Syrian bookshelves.

“I don’t take censorship into account when I’m writing my novels,” Haddad, whose latest novel Azef Munfared ‘ala al-Piano (A Solo Performance on Piano) has just been released in Lebanon, said. “My real problem is with inner censorship. I often have to face myself and wonder to what extent I, as a novelist, can overcome my own set of axioms and beliefs and if I have the courage to question them in the first place.”

All of Haddad’s novels are set in Damascus, whether the topics touch on politics or sex. Haddad lovingly recreates his city of birth: the districts, landmarks, shops and traffic are so vivid that readers feel like they are watching the novel, rather than reading it.

“I consider Damascus to be one of the main characters in my novels,” Haddad said. “I want readers to recognise the city in my works and realise that my characters aren’t imaginary. They live among us and resemble us or might even be any of us.”

Damascus was the focus of Haddad’s first book, Mosaic, Damascus ‘39, a novel set at the beginning of the Second World War when Syria was under the French mandate. The novel, published in 1991 when Haddad was 44 years old, had respected critics such as Syrian writer Abd al-Salam al-Oujayli raving about its insightful description of 1930s Damascus.

“No one could describe the city in this way unless he actually lived in Damascus during the 1930s,” Oujayli told Haddad.

For Haddad, the secret of his success is simple. “To write a good book you need a lot of intellect, reading and life experience,” he said. “This is why, even though I started writing at the age of 14, I only published my first book after the age of 40.”

Haddad’s dark eyes sparkle as he recalls the hours he used to spend as a child coveting the thick books on display in the window of his local bookshop.

“I couldn’t wait for my end of year exams because every time I passed the year at school, my brother would take me to the bookshop and I would leave carrying a pile of books taller than me,” he laughs.

Back then, Haddad could never have imagined his books would one day line up on the very same shelves he used to stare at as a child.

“When I saw my first book out in the market I was terrified,” he said. “I worried about how people would receive it and whether or not they would like it. Today I don’t worry about these things anymore. I write because this is what gives meaning to my life.”

FAWWAZ HADDAD
Born in Damascus in 1947, Haddad graduated with a law degree from the University of Damascus in 1970, but chose not to pursue law as a profession. Instead, he worked part time at a pharmacy and as a trader, importing and exporting industrial materials before he became a full-time writer. He published his first book in 1991.
HADDAD’S NOVELS
• Mosaic, Damascus ‘39, (1991)
• Teatro 1949, (1994)
Al-Risala al-Akhira, (The Last Letter), (1994)
Surat al-Rawee (The Image of the Narrator), (1998)
Al-Walad al-Jahel (The Ignorant Child), (2000)
Al-Daghina wa al-Hawa (Rancor and Affection), (2001)
Mersal al-Gharam (The Love Messenger), (2004)
Mashhad ‘Aber (A Fleeting Scene), (2007)
Al-Mutarjim al-Kha’in (The Unfaithful Translator), (2008)
Azef Munfared ‘ala al-Piano (A Solo Performance on Piano), (2009)

This article was published in Syria Today magazine