Women and girls continue to be the worst affected by Syria’s conflict, but their suffering rarely makes the headlines. Among the men who have died in the conflict, many will be honoured as martyrs. Those who have survived suffering at the hands of the regime will return to their homes as heroes. But women, including victims of sexual assault and refugees, will remain permanently stigmatised in conservative societies that simply do not see their suffering as equal.
In a column in July, I wrote that Syria’s war, like every conflict, would have profound and long-lasting effects for women and girls, even for those who have escaped the battlefield. It is very clear that this is already happening. In recent weeks, Arabic media have reported that women in refugee camps, mostly minors, are being sexually exploited under the pretext of marriage.
It is common to see on Arabic online forums requests by men “seeking marriage from Syrian girls”. At a price ranging from 500 to 1,000 Saudi riyals (Dh490 to Dh980), girls are reportedly being taken from refugee camps in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is most often named as the destination, but a similar trend is reported in other countries including Iraq and Turkey.
The Saudi columnist Mohammed Al Osaimi, who first highlighted the online posts, wrote that parents feel compelled to marry their daughters off to strangers because they see that as a better option than staying in a refugee camp.
The trend was also triggered by clerics such as Sheikh Adnan Arour, a hardline Syrian cleric, who has issued fatwas to encourage men to marry victims of sexual assault and “cover their shame” through marriage. But the fatwas ironically have led to further sexual exploitation.
In these classified ads, men post brief requests on different websites, often leaving only their first names and email addresses. “I am looking for a Syrian wife,” a man identifying himself as Asa’ad wrote on a website. “I am a man of means and I fear God. My Syrian sisters are decent and honourable.”
Many other comments are far more demeaning. A man, who identified himself only as “Jordanian”, sardonically wrote “no woman deserves sympathy these days”, in reference to dishonesty. Another man who called himself Abdulsamad wrote a longer post explaining that his desire to marry a Syrian woman had preceded the conflict, apparently to present a better case.
Another man wrote: “This is not a question of exploitation. It is a question of supply and demand.” He suggested a reduction in dowries to 100 dinars [Dh520] because of the increasing number of refugees.
Maher Abu Tair, a Jordanian columnist, wrote: “All we hear these days is talk about a Syrian wife who can be bought with 100 dinars. One could go to any of the areas of Al Mafraq, Amman, Ramtha, Irbid or Karak to pick for himself a Levantine houriya.” (A Levantine houriya, or virgin, is a reference to women from the Levant known in Arab cultures for their beauty). He added that people are encouraged by the speedy, cheap and conditions-free marriages.
Abdelbari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, wrote that old men from different Arab countries have married girls from refugee camps who are below the age of 15. “Marriage of minors in refugee camps is a type of rape that must be stopped immediately,” he wrote. “Perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
Why doesn’t the Syrian opposition raise the issue to regional governments? Why doesn’t it have a team dedicated to the welfare of refugees? According to a western diplomat who works on Syrian issues, the opposition receives sufficient relief resources, but the funds are misspent. A credible Syrian opposition would raise the issue with authorities and international organisations.
While it is difficult to prevent families from marrying their daughters off, especially given the absence of laws banning child marriage, improving refugees’ quality of life could help to stamp out abuses.
Exploitive marriages in conflict are not new to the region. It has been common for clerics to call on worshippers to protect Muslim women by marrying them, including Bosnians, Chechens and Iraqis, and now Syrian women. But these calls consistently lead to further exploitation and, subsequently, further stigmatisation.
The comments on various websites - in the thousands - underscore the plight of women in the Arab world in general, and misogynist attitudes persist despite the supposedly enlightened popular revolts across the region. Arab women are fighting injustice on many fronts, from sexual harassment to child marriage to blackmail. Their suffering is perpetuated by institutional, religious and social attitudes that view women as subordinate to men.
In conflict-torn areas, their plight takes on another dimension. Regardless of the circumstances of their suffering, women somehow are held responsible for being exploited. The traditional view of a woman as a person who needs protection is applied only when she does not actually need protection; when women really need help, too many men forget their traditional role as protectors, blaming women for failing to protect themselves.
As it progresses, this war is turning men into monsters, not only because they are killing each other, but because so many are turning a blind eye to exploitation.