Dowries are a “Stock Exchange” Paralyzing the Marriage Market in Syria
Enab Baladi – Investigations Team
The decreasing number of grooms, poor material conditions and the specter of spinsterhood did not manage to stop the rising price of dowries in Syria, which parents have tried to find an end to in vain. With the aim of securing their daughters’ rights, parents are demanding dowries in foreign currencies and even gold and real estate, disregarding the saying that “those who do not want to marry their daughter off raise the dowry”.
“One Thousand and One Nights” Brides
“My dowry was 800 Syrian Lira. Today, girls are proud of asking for one million and they choose the bridegroom the way they want,” says Mrs. Arna, a resident of the countryside of Hama. Her sigh expresses a sadness about the value of her dowry on the one hand and confusion about the situation of young people on the other, who do not have anything other than limited pay that might be considered hardly enough to buy an engagement ring.
When asked about the change in the value of dowries, Mrs. Arna recounts old memories, speaking of the change in most of the marriage customs in her town, such as the bride’s bashfulness in the presence of the town’s dignitaries and the fact that she does not see her husband until the wedding day. According to her, the value of the dowry was very simple and talking about dowries was a secondary issue among the inhabitants of the town, something “shameful to negotiate about”.
A furnished bedroom with a closet and mattress was enough to persuade the bride’s family to consider it as a dowry, which would be registered as “bridal property” in their daughter’s marriage contract. This was despite the abundance of grooms in the past, according to Mrs. Arna.
However, despite the high rate of spinsterhood in Syria in the last six years, exceeding 75% according to a statement by Damascus’ most senior Sharia judge Mahmoud al-Maarawi, some Syrian families have seen no problem in raising the value of their daughters’ dowries. They take into consideration the depreciation of the Syrian Lira, so that the saying “A dowry of one million Syrian Lira and a deferred dowry of one million” have become familiar to Syrians, and not unusual as it was in the past.
We do not know how Mrs. Arna would have reacted if she knew that dowry of Marwa, a resident of Damascus, was 10 Gold Lira, equivalent to 1.6 million Syrian Lira (one Gold Lira is equivalent to 160,000 Lira). She might consider it to be one of Scheherazade’s legends in “One Thousand and One Nights”, who used to be given gifts of gold in a small straw bag.
Ms. Arna may even have rejected the idea of writing the term “US dollars” in the marriage contract, even before it being rejected under the law, in order not to follow the ways of “foreigners’” and to preserve the history of the Syrian Lira, which lost around 500% of its value after 2011.
However, gold and dollar dowries do not really satisfy the bride’s family, who often reluctantly agree on a low dowry due to the current circumstances in Syria. This is the case for Susan, whose parents asked for a dowry that reached $5,000 upfront and $5,000 to be paid later. However, the parents consider this not to be enough, even if it is paid in dollars, since it is not equivalent to its previous value in Syrian Lira, according to what their neighbor Umm Mohammed told Enab Baladi.
Since dowries in Syria did not exceed 500,000 Syrian Lira before the revolution (equivalent to $10,000 at that time), the value of Suzanne’s dowry is less than half what it would have been before, although it is in dollars.
Dowries that go against recognized customs
After 2011, the issue of dowries in Syria has provoked considerable controversy in the public, religious and legal spheres. Given the talk of the increase of its value in Syrian Lira, the idea of taking dowries in dollars, gold and real estate has emerged in order to preserve the value of the dowry in the long term. Thus, the standards and customs that have prevailed for years in Syrian society, with all its diverse cultures, have changed.
The rising price of dowries and warnings of “illicit relations“
Syrian society has witnessed clear changes when it comes to marriage, which has been affected by several factors in terms of money and prevailing security conditions. According to a statement by Damascus’ most senior Sharia judge, Mahmood al-Maarawi, the number of females in Syrian society has increased to 65%, due to the death, disappearance, detention, migration and conscription into military service of many young men in Syria.
The natural result of this increase is the high rate of spinsterhood in Syria, which has reached 75%, prompting the authorities concerned to urge Syrian men to marry a second wife in order to preserve the normal state of society and to avoid the spread of “prostitution” among Syrian women.
However, the strange paradox is the continued high cost of dowries despite the prevalence of spinsterhood and the decreasing number of young people in Syria who are willing to marry on the one hand, and the eagerness of the parents of girls to marry them off at an early age on the other hand, with the aim of “protecting” them putting responsibility on their husbands, while also reducing the burden of their expenses amid the dire economic conditions of Syrians.
According to Nidhal al-Bakour, a social expert, young men who want to marry in Syria find that dowry and other costs of marriage often stand in their way, which contributes to their reluctance to marry. They simply accept the circumstances imposed by the war on all Syrians at home and abroad.
Al-Bakour, who is in charge of psychological and social support for Syrian refugees in the Turkish city Urfa, believes that the high cost of dowries may open the door to widespread “moral vice” among young men and women alike. He told Enab Baladi, “The natural consequences of the reluctance of young people to marry are for them to resort to illicit relations considered unacceptable in Syrian society, in order to meet their own sexual needs, which are just as strong as their need for food, drink and sleep.”
Between opposition-held and regime-held areas: Has the dollar brought the Lira down?
The average value of dowries in Syria before 2011 was between 250,000 Syrian Lira in cities and 150,000 in the countryside. After 2011, the value of dowries varies in regime-held areas and the areas controlled by the opposition.
Taking into consideration the fact that the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition are under siege and are suffering from shortages of essential materials, it is difficult for young people to secure thousands of dollars for dowries. In addition, living in these areas means they need these thousands of dollars in order to buy bread, flour, barley and water, prompting the bride’s family to show greater compassion and to request a symbolic dowry.
In the more stable opposition areas, however, dowries have witnessed an increase in value. Hayat al- Eid, Director of the Dawn of Syrian Women Association in Daraa, considers this “natural” as a result of the devaluation of the Syrian Lira against the dollar. She points out that the average dowry in Daraa was 150,000 Lira upfront and 150,000 Lira to be paid later. This is in addition to the so-called “al-tallah” (the visit), where the bride buys 100 grams of gold for the bride.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Eid commented that “dowries now range between 300 and 400,000 Syrian Lira, while al-tallah is estimated at 30 grams of gold depending on the groom’s financial situation.”
In Idlib, the situation is not very different from Daraa, but new alternatives have led to the Syrian Lira increasingly falling out of use when it comes to dowries. The most important alternative is the dollar, with dowries ranging between $200 and $3,000, according to Sheikh Ahmad Abu Amr. Amr, who is a resident of Jericho, told Enab Baladi that the most common value is $700.
He added that some of the marriage contracts that he has written in Idlib included golden dowries only, while others included gold alongside the dollar.
As for regime-held areas, Umm Muhammed, who has three daughters, says that dowries have witnessed a huge rise in Damascus, reaching one million Syrian Lira. She explained to Enab Baladi that new forms of dowries have entered into the marriage contract, including the Gold Lira and amounts in dollars reaching $2500.
When asked about the dowry she would request for her daughters, Umm Muhammed said, “The family of the bride is supposed to ask for the dowry they want, as long as this is not forbidden by religion.” She added, “However, we must take into consideration the conditions that young people are going through and, at the same time, try to guarantee the rights of the bride in the future.”
Second wife’s dowry is an exception
The idea of marrying a second wife became popular in Syrian society after several calls by Syrian sheikhs in mosques and in Friday sermons urging men to marry a second time.
The issue has caused an uproar, especially after Sheikhs used Sharia arguments to convince young men, based on the rule that marrying a second wife becomes a “pressing need” when spinsterhood is widespread, in order to prevent the spread of “prostitution” and protect women who are “forced” to deviate from religion and customs.
Sheikhs are advising men who are willing and financially able to marry widows, wives of martyrs and poor mothers who are raising orphans, and not young girls. According to Sheikh Ahmed Abu Amr, this makes marriage easier since the value of the second wife’s dowry will be lower in most cases.
He considers the main reasons behind marrying a second wife to be “protection and fostering orphans”. Thus, the bride will only ask for a symbolic sum of money as a dowry. He added, “The number of widows has become larger as a result of the war. In most marriages, the dowry is symbolic and just enough to meet basic living needs, nothing more.”
There are many concerns regarding the combined impact of the rise in the dowries of young single girls together with the calls by sheikhs to persuade young men to marry widows and mothers of orphans whose demands are often lower, in light of cultural heritage and perceptions prevalent in Syrian society.
In Europe families insist on Euros
Living in European societies has imposed several new factors on Syrian refugees, of whom more than 400,000 have been granted asylum, according to EU Statistical Office data for 2016.
Due to Syrian refugees’ efforts to integrate into their new societies, whose customs and traditions are very different from those of Syrian society, the Euro has strongly imposed itself on the marriage contracts of Syrians in Europe. This is despite the difficulties young men are facing in saving money and entering the labor market regulated by European laws.
However, according to Omar Shehab, a young Syrian man living in Germany, the rise in dowries in Europe has “exceeded all limits”, to the extent that it has led to marriages between Syrians grinding to a halt.
Shehab told Enab Baladi that since he came to the German city of Nuremberg two years ago, he has only witnessed two Syrian weddings. He attributed this to the high cost of dowries and to the families going so far as to ask for 10,000 Euros upfront and another 10,000 Euros to be paid later.
“In a few cases, parents ask for 3,000 Euros but the majority ask for between 8,000 and 10,000 Euros under the pretext that their daughter came to Europe by plane and that they spent thousands of dollars when she arrived.”
According to Shehab, most families of brides in Germany insist on receiving the dowry before the engagement or what is known in Syria as “kitab al-sheikh” (the sheikh’s contract), which is the official marriage contract often conducted by a Turkish sheikh living in Germany. Shehab says that young men often change their mind when they hear the cost of the dowry, “No one is able to pay 10,000 Euros not to mention the other costs of marriage such as buying gold and clothes, and other expenses.”
How do Sharia and law view the issue of high dowries?
The high costs of dowries have recently provoked great controversy among the public and within religious and legal circles. While it is widely held that Sharia and the law do not object to the value of the dowry however high it is, there are growing calls to curb demands for excessive dowries before this becomes an established practice in Syrian society.
“There is no limit on dowries but moderation is necessary”
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Sheikh Mustafa Ismail stated that Sharia law does not specify a value for dowries. He considers that attempts throughout history to set a specific value are “wrong”, quoting the following verse from the Qur’an, “But if you want to replace one wife with another and you have given one of them a great amount [in gifts], do not take [back] from it anything. Would you take it in injustice and manifest sin?”
According to interpretations of the verse, if the husband wants to leave his wife and take another wife, he is not allowed to take anything from her dowry, not even a quintal (a historical unit of mass equivalent to 100 kilograms). This means that the Quran did not prohibit large dowries.
However, Sheikh Mustafa Ismail encouraged people to abide by the Sharia rule formulated by Umar Ibn al-Khattab, one of the senior companions of the Prophet Muhammed, “Do not exaggerate in the cost of women’s dowries. If this practice was more honorable in this world or more pious, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would have been the first to do it.”
Sheikh Mustafa Ismail stressed the need to take into account the current conditions of young Syrian men, both inside and outside Syria, and called for “not overburdening them in order to keep them away from illicit and immoral relationships, so that what is halal (allowed by God) does not become difficult and what is haram (forbidden by God) becomes easy.”
Moreover, Syrian law does not set limits for dowries, whether a minimum or maximum threshold. The first paragraph of article 54 of the Personal Status Law states, “There is no maximum or minimum limit to a dowry”. The second paragraph states, “All that is allowed by Sharia can be a lawful dowry”.
In May, social media was fixated on the news that a man paid a sum of 50 million Syrian Lira for his wife upfront and another 50 million to be paid later. If it is proven to be true, this figure would be the largest in the history of the Sharia court in Damascus, according to Sahibat al-Jalala, a local news website.
Gold and dollars to “guarantee” the wife’s rights
A girl’s parents have always believed that a dowry is supposed to protect the rights of their daughter in case she divorces or is widowed. However, in the past six years, the deterioration of the Syrian Lira has reversed these prevailing conceptions after dowries, which were common before 2011, lost more than 80% of their value.
With the dollar manipulating the value of the Syrian Lira, people have begun asking for dollars and Gold Lira as dowries, whose value will be preserved regardless of time, since they are internationally recognized.
However, according to Sheikh Mustafa Ismail, the rights of the wife “are not protected by money, at all”. He went on to say that “the less confidence you have in the husband, the more expensive the dowry is, while the more confidence you have in the husband, the lower the dowry is.”
He argued that the wife’s family would willingly give up their daughter’s dowry and even pay her husband in exchange for a divorce if her husband is a bad person and mistreats her. He advised parents to let their daughters choose the right husband before focusing on the value of the dowry.
Syrians living inside Syria ask for a dowry in dollars, even though Legislative Decree number 54 of 2013 banned the use of foreign currency in civil and commercial transactions. The Syrian Lira became the only approved currency in an attempt to prop up its deteriorating value.
A female lawyer in Damascus, who preferred not to be named, noted that the agreement between the couple’s parents to contract the dowry in dollars is often an “oral pledge” by the husband, while the dowry is written as the equivalent of dollars in Syrian Lira or Gold Lira.
The lawyer pointed out that the Sharia court does not interfere in determining the value of the dowry whether high or low, unless the first Sharia judge is the guardian of the girl, in which case the dowry is currently set between 350,000 and 500,000 Syrian Lira.
Modification of old dowries: Is it legally allowed?
While many Syrian women consider that many laws and articles within the Syrian legal framework have not been fair to them, the issue of modifying existing dowries has been at the forefront of their demands for a long time. Given that the value of the dowry did not exceed 15,000 Syrian Lira forty years ago and has only slight increased during this period, the drop in the value of the Syrian Lira has led to dowries losing much of their real value and making them merely symbolic.
Many believe that it is unreasonable for the wife to obtain her old dowry (15,000 Lira) in case of divorce or death of her husband, or if he decides to give her the dowry before his death. However, according to a female lawyer in Damascus, Syrian law does allow for modifying the value of the dowry, but only if the husband consents or provides for this in his will.
The most senior Sharia judge, Mahmood al-Maarawi, submitted a request in 2015 to the Syrian Ministry of Justice to discuss the issue of the modification of existing dowries but these attempts have been unsuccessful so far.
Al-Maarawi clarified to the al-Iqtisadi local website that the Personal Status Law does not explicitly allow modification but “if the law is silent, article 300 stipulates that in the absence of a specific legal text on an issue, Hanafi doctrine will have the final word”.
Al-Maarawi confirmed that one of the scholars of the Hanafi school, Abu Yusuf, found a solution to this problem, stating, “In the case of devaluation of the currency, the value of the dowry is equivalent to the devaluation of the currency. Thus, the court will apply this principle if any case is filed in this regard”.
From the Quran to the gold gram: Dowry customs reveal differences between provinces
Social customs in Syria are highly complex, with differences between one province and another, between a city and its surrounding towns, and even in villages. Two neighboring villages may not have the same customs, which are reflected in the details of everyday life that characterize the rich mosaic that makes up Syria.
Marriage customs and their associated details are the most important traditions that characterize a village or city, since marriage is the most public social event. It is carried out through public rituals and its details are shared among people as a financial and moral reflection on the families involved.
Among the details that explain the differences in customs between provinces is the method of choosing the dowry, which is the set of financial rights presented by the husband as evidence of his good intention and his desire to marry, which is usually determined by mutual consent between the families of the husband and wife. The dowry is registered in the marriage contract and is either money, gold or clothing. The wife can choose to postpone the dowry or to receive it immediately.
A symbolic deferred dowry and an undue upfront dowry
Generally, the concept of the upfront dowry is what the husband offers the bride when the marriage contract is signed in order for her to be able to finish her marriage preparations and as a proof of his good intention. Meanwhile, the deferred dowry is what the husband pays if the couple divorces.
In the customs of some Syrians, this takes a different form, as some people demand that the deferred dowry only be given in cases of divorce. This is common in Aleppo, so that while the bride gets a certain amount of gold, the upfront dowry is postponed and the wife gets it along with the deferred dowry if a divorce occurs.
In other areas, particularly in Rif Dimashq, it is customary not to allocate a large amount for the deferred dowry. It is often a symbolic amount or a few Gold Lira and serves to express rejection of the idea of divorce, which requires not postponing the wife’s enjoyment of her rights.
This is also part of the customs of al-Hasakah, where the groom provides an amount to the wife as an upfront dowry in order to buy personal and household items, while the deferred dowry is limited to a symbolic amount or a few Gold Lira.
However, the idea of splitting the dowry into an upfront dowry and a deferred dowry is an idea introduced later into Sharia and law, according to Shaykh Muhammad al-Subayh, a member of the Association of Scholars in the Levant, confirming that the dowry used to be treated as one.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the Sheikh said, “The custom of dividing the dowry into an upfront dowry and a deferred dowry has become widespread. This division is symbolic and does not contradict the Sharia, so we can accept it.”
The Quran: A proof of modesty and good intentions
Sharia and law allow the provision of any kind of dowry in a marriage contract, whether money or other objects, leaving plenty of room for people to express their personal positions or to identify their needs more precisely.
Some of the families of Palestinian refugees in Syria have brought part of their customs with them. Regarding the dowry, the groom must display his generosity and provide the bride with an upfront dowry and deferred dowry, as well as with gold and clothing. The bride’s family must also show “modesty” and only ask for a deferred dowry and for a Quran as an upfront dowry. This shows that they see that “their daughter is not for sale and they are asking for a man for her, not for money”.
“You take the meat and we take the bones”
As a proof of their modesty, some Syrians do not ask for a dowry for their daughters. This is often the case when the two families are related or when they already know each other. In some Homs families, the expressions “You take the meat and we take the bones” is widespread and is said by the father when asked about the amount of money he wants as a dowry for his daughter.
The same term is used in many areas in Damascus’ countryside and families consider it a way to “value the man and his role in protecting the woman before offering money”.
“Ostentatious dowry” costs seven million
Although dowry customs in many parts of Syria are similar, consisting of giving money, gold and the wedding dress, this is somewhat different among the tribes in the province of Deir ez-Zor, where “showing generosity and honor” often requires giving a large amount of money as a dowry for the bride, in addition to gold, which is supposed to adorn her very visibly, in order to demonstrate the family’s wealth and generosity.
While the average dowry in the city of Deir ez-Zor ranged between 150 and 500 thousand Syrian Lira before the Syrian revolution, this amount was significantly higher among tribes in the countryside, especially if the bride was the daughter of the sheikh or leader of the tribe, in which case it would exceed one million Syrian Lira since the 1990s. This is an amount that is rarely encountered as a dowry in other Syrian regions, even with the recent devaluation of the currency.
Residents of Deir ez-Zor mention that in 2000, the dowry of the daughter of the leader of the al-Baqaara tribe in Syria, Nawaf al-Bashir, reached seven million Syrian Lira.
Gold “in grams”
Some Syrians consider that gold is a way to guarantee the woman’s rights, given that its value does not decrease over time. Syrian women often compete to collect the greatest amount of gold, which provides “a guarantee for their future and for hard times”, and a chance to show off their wealth.
In most Syrian regions, the bride’s family does not record the amount of gold they want for their daughter, in order to keep it as a gift from the husband to his wife that he gives her on the engagement and wedding. However, in Aleppo, mentioning the amount of gold requested is considered part of the conditions for determining the dowry.
Any change or decrease in the amount of gold offered might cause a serious problem for some families. Reducing a few grams of gold may be considered as undervaluing the girl and a sign of the groom’s “stinginess”.
Emergency laws: Wife pays half of the dowry
Before the Syrian revolution, the average value of the dowry in al-Hasakah province was about 300,000 Syrian Lira for the upfront dowry, without recording an amount for the deferred dowry (the value of the dollar before the revolution equaled 50 Syrian Lira). It is common in the region for the girl to buy all the household goods as part of her upfront dowry along with her personal belongings and clothes.
Although the value of dowries rose significantly in al-Hasakah province after the revolution and reached about 1.5 million Syrian Lira due to inflation, the Autonomous Administration issued regulations requiring that an amount of money should be set as the dowry but not for the wife. Instead, the amount is shared by both the husband and wife, and used to buy all their needs and home furnishings.
Poll: How has the change to paying dowries in gold and in dollars affected Syrian society?
In a poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its website, in which around 250 people participated, we asked about the impact of demands to pay the dowry in gold and in dollars on Syrian society and its customs.
65% of participants consider that excessive dowries lead to reluctance to marry among young men. Meanwhile, 25% of the respondents believe that the wife has the right to ask for her dowry in gold and in dollars instead of Syrian Lira in order to preserve its value even with the passing of many years.
However, 10% of respondents think that paying the dowry in dollars and in gold has not had any impact on society.