War legitimises violence against women

Sunday 12/03/2017
On more than one front. A displaced Syrian woman stands holding her child at a makeshift camp near the village of Tarshan, some 20km north of Raqqa. (AFP)

The surge in violence and armed conflicts in Arab countries affected by the revolts of the “Arab spring” have deeply marked their social fabric and entangled women in practices that are going to need a long time to change.
The problems of women in those Arab countries are not as intimately connected to the consequences of the “Arab spring” as they are rooted in the capacity of those male-dominated societies to confiscate women’s rights and lives. The “Arab spring” did not plant the seeds of the changes affecting women. Where revolts have turned into bloody wars and living conditions into nightmares, women found themselves helpless victims of new inhumane practices under a thin veil of legal and social legitimacy.
The sufferings of women in Syria are perhaps the most striking examples of the unfolding tragedy. Women in Syria have become mere goods to be traded in plain sight under the guise of unfamiliar forms of marriage.
One example of these new marriage practices is what is known in Arabic as zawaj as-sitra, or “protection marriage”. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, many parents have been eager to marry off their daughters, either in exchange for money or to protect them from being kidnapped or raped. In many cases, the grooms were combatants in the war and were thought capable of protecting them. The marriage contract was often oral but witnessed by a cleric. The problem with these marriages resides in the large number of undocumented widows and children left behind.
Another widespread practice has been minors marrying in stark violation of secular laws and human rights in many countries in the world. The justification invoked for this practice is the extreme need for money by families with girls. Parents in dire financial situations would marry off their 13-year-old — and sometimes younger — daughters in exchange for significant sums.
As the war dragged on, marrying off minors has become a profitable business. Official records in Jordan show that 4,000 girls under the age of 15 were married off between 2011 and 2016. In Damascus, no fewer than five minors were married every day, the senior sharia judge in the city said. The Levant Research Institute cites 200 cases of minors being married in one day in Syria.
The UN Refugee Agency reports that it is not unusual for families to ask for a high price as dowry but what is even more tragic is that very often the new bride is quickly divorced so the buyer can look for a new girl. Similar practices were recorded in Lebanon and Egypt, even though there are no precise statistics about them.
Another type of marriage that is widespread in the Arab world is zawaj al-misyar, or “traveller’s marriage”, which circumvents the high cost of providing a legal home for the couple. In war-torn Syria, people found another use for zawaj al-misyar. For Syrian girls, this type of marriage would assure them a temporary home, a protector and a provider and a legal cover for their sojourn in the host country.
Zawaj al-misyar was also resorted to by males from countries where polygamy is illegal. Finding a partner in another country is usually done through social networks or internet-based matrimonial agencies. A simple internet search for the keywords “Syrian wives” returned hundreds of results advertising agencies providing “legal Islamic marriages in Turkey and Lebanon”.
Naturally, the problems with this type of marriage are numerous. There is the risk that one or both partners are medically or physically unfit. The temporary nature of the relationship turns this marriage into a form of legalised prostitution. The inclusion in the marriage contract of a clause nullifying the marriage in case of pregnancy places the onus of the serious consequences on the woman.
Even worse — and more often than not — potential husbands insist on including in the marriage contract clauses requiring the wife to forgo her lawful matrimonial rights, such as a home and alimony.
The latest craze in the matrimonial market is zawaj an-nikah by which women are invited to join the jihad and provide legal sexual services to combatants. It is a form of marriage based on an oral contract specifically tailored for jihadists.
It did not take long to turn this form of matrimony into a recruitment incentive and a genuine religiously sanctioned sex trade under the guise of jihad. In this respect, jihadist organisations are no different from criminal international prostitution and human trafficking rings.
When wars open Pandora’s boxes, the first victims of the evils released are women. They are not only victimised sexually and treated as slaves in ways harking to pre-Islamic practices, they are also further victimised by cloaking these repulsive practices in a thin veil of religious and social legitimacy.