For Talia, Istanbul was only a refuge from war and a place where she could continue her university education before becoming the wife of a Turkish man and the mother of a child whose future could be better than the future of thousands of Syrian children in Turkey.
“I was able to get admission to the University of Istanbul to complete my studies, and what happened next was a coincidence.” The coincidence is seen as destiny and fate when it comes to marriage. Talia told Enab Baladi, “My husband’s sister met me and asked to introduce me to her brother. It was not very different from what we call a ‘traditional marriage’ in Syria.”
Knowing the Turkish language opened her sole linguistic communication channel with her husband, who does not speak any Arabic or English. Talia had to make a greater effort to develop their relationship and achieve harmony between them. Even though her lack of vocabulary prevents her from being able to fully express herself, the affection between them enabled them to overcome that obstacle.
Talia is one of around 6,450 Syrian women married to Turkish men, according to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TUIC). Syrian women are “nice, obedient and calm” from Talia’s point of view, “unlike Turkish women who are known for being strong”.
TUIC’s statistics support Talia’s claim. According to the statistics for 2016, Turkish men who married Syrian women made up about 11.7% of the total number of marriages in Turkey, which makes Syrian women the most sought-after foreign women to marry in Turkey.
Having a common religion might justify the desire of a large number of Turkish men to marry Syrian women. Islam is also the source of many other factors that motivate Turkish men to marry Syrian women. Talia says, “My husband’s relatives often ask me to introduce them to Syrian women with the aim of marriage. From their point of view, an Arab woman who can read the Qur’an would be a better mother and would teach her children religion properly.”
Meanwhile, Syrian women’s motives for marrying a Turkish man revolves around the need for a sense of stability, in light of the difficulties many Syrians face in obtaining official papers such as residency, marriage contracts and birth certificates.
While the motives may seem logical on both sides, Talal al-Kharrat, 27 years old, was not driven by any specific rules or motives when choosing his wife. Rather, he proposed to his Turkish wife Khadija because he loves her, a sentiment that they were able to express to each other in a neutral language. English poems were a substitute for Arabic love poems and Turkish love songs.
From Talal’s point of view, even though there is no common language between him and his wife, the language of love is the only language capable of creating understanding between two people. “I could marry an Arab girl but what about the relationship that will develop between us, which will create its own language?”
Khadija’s parents were an important factor in facilitating the marriage, which took place about seven months ago in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. They did not make Talal’s financial situation an obstacle and were tolerant of the fact that he was not able to pay the dowry and buy gold, considering that “anything but love has no value”.
On the other hand, Talal made every possible effort to arrange the wedding ceremony for Khadija, in which both families shared in the couple’s joy and where laughter was a way for the Arab groom’s family and the Turkish bride’s family to greet and communicate with each other.
It is probable that Talal would not find the understanding and appreciation he felt from his Turkish in-laws when proposing to a Syrian girl. Customs and traditions still control the details of most marriages among Syrians. Families ask for a high dowry to give their daughters in marriage, which most Syrian young men cannot afford. According to a survey conducted by Enab Baladi, 32% of participants considered that difficult marriage conditions and the economic situation are the most important factors that push Syrian young men to marry foreign girls.
Neighboring countries in which Syrians have sought asylum have also witnessed many marriages between male citizens and Syrian women, namely Egypt, where more than 12,000 Egyptian men have married Syrian women, according to official statistics. This has led Egyptian women’s associations to counter this phenomenon “in order to protect Egyptian girls”.
Europe, which has been a refuge for thousands of young Syrian men fleeing war and mandatory service, has also been a gateway to greater freedom of choice when it comes to marriage. However, this freedom of choice has often led to Syrian men marrying European women.
However, these marriages seem more difficult compared to marriages with other Arabs or with Turks. This is what Omar, a young man who left Hama for Denmark and married a Danish woman there, soon realized when he found that fundamental differences between the two cultures and religions were capable of weakening any marital relationship, even leading to its total collapse.
He and his Danish wife divorced after four months, despite legal obstacles. He first resorted to the “Islamic method” for divorce before his ex-wife hired a lawyer to carry out the legal divorce proceedings.
The phenomenon of Syrians marrying foreigners in asylum countries raises many questions about their return to Syria, which is often impossible even after the end of the war. Talal does not want to deprive his wife of being in her country and close to her family. Talia says she will obtain Turkish citizenship a year from now and may visit Syria one day but will not leave her home or her husband behind.
Between Arabs and Westerners
“Conservative” Syrian society opens up to marriage to foreigners
Customs and traditions have long regulated the issue of marriage in Syrian society. However, these were swept aside by the war raging in Syria for the past six years, in addition to the conditions of asylum that forced more than five million Syrians to integrate and open up to other societies that differ from the conservative society to which they were accustomed.
While the preference for decades was to only allow marriage between two people from the same region, with a few exceptions, Syrian society has recently accepted the idea of a Syrian woman marrying an Arab man or a Syrian man marrying a European woman, for example.
Marrying Syrian girls in asylum countries: The numbers
As a natural consequence of war and displacement around the world, many young Arab men have taken to marrying Syrian girls in countries of asylum that are geographically close and similar to Syria socially-speaking, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, which have collectively received nearly two million Syrian refugees. These marriages have been carried out legally according to the laws of the country.
Nibal al-Alou, an expert in sociology and head of protection at the Sabra and Shatila Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, told Enab Baladi that more than 10 percent of Syrian women living in Lebanon have married Lebanese citizens. She relates this to the fact that Syrian women have fewer demands than their Lebanese counterparts.
Al-Alou added that young Lebanese men “marry Syrian girls because they are capable of tolerating all sorts of conditions and because they accept to live in less comfortable conditions due to the circumstances they have gone through due to being displaced”.
Jordan does not differ much from other countries, as it has witnessed more than 11,000 marriages between Syrian females and Jordanian citizens since 2011 according to a statistic issued by the Central Judicial District in the capital Amman in 2015, which indicated that in most of these cases the Syrian woman was becoming a second wife.
The same statistics indicate the marriage of approximately 6,000 Syrian females residing in Jordan with Arab or Western residents in 2014 alone.
In Egypt, there has been a remarkable rise in marriages between young Egyptian males and Syrian females. According to the National Center for Social and Criminological Research in Cairo’s latest statistics for 2014, more than 12,000 marriages occurred between Egyptians and Syrians. What is striking is that Syrian women are often first wives in Egypt.
Popular perceptions of Syrian girls among young Egyptian men are similar to their depiction in Syrian soap operas, where they are portrayed as “beautiful women who spoil their husbands and are very obedient to them, as well as putting their homes and children as their top priorities”.
It is likely that the number of these marriages has increased in Egypt since 2015, given the absence of official statistics in recent years.
In Turkey, which received nearly three million Syrian refugees, figures do not differ much despite the differences in language between Syrians and Turks. According to a statistic issued by the Turkish Statistics Institute in 2016, approximately 6,450 marriages between Syrians and Turks took place in the last six years, representing 11% of all marriages in Turkey.
Syrians go for Europeans because they have “fewer conditions”
Although marriage to European women is not new to Syrian society, it was previously a rare phenomenon in comparison with recent years, when many Syrians emigrated to Europe. An estimated 550,000 Syrian refugees have moved to Europe, most of them settling in Germany, according to a 2016 report by the Interim Syrian Government.
Unlike marriage to European women, the marriage of Syrian men in Europe to Syrian women faces many obstacles. The first is the difficult reunification process where the woman lives outside Europe, in addition to “complications” imposed by Syrian girls residing in Europe on the groom, according to Omar Shehab, a young Syrian man residing in Germany.
Omar told Enab Baladi that reunification procedures became more complicated in 2016 and 2017. The German Government introduced the so-called “secondary residence” status for Syrians, which lasts for one year (which is extendable). This status does not allow the holder to bring his family to the country and requires him to return to his country if the conflict in his country draws to a close.
These complications have made young Syrian men who are looking to get married in Germany move away from thinking about getting married to a girl living inside Syria. Some of them resorted to marrying Syrian girls living in Europe but were surprised to find other “obstacles”, as Omar put it, including harsh financial conditions imposed by Syrian families impose on young Syrian men, who finally resort to marrying German girls.
Omar says that Syrian girls “are now asking for 15,000 euros as dowry and 3000 euros’ worth of gold, in addition to other conditions such as “leaving her credit card with her parents so they receive her salary on her behalf “. He went on to explain that “German girls often have fewer conditions because they are looking to settle down, since young German men prefer to have multiple relationships over engagement and marriage.”
Contrary to popular assumptions, marrying a Muslim does not represent an obstacle for German girls. The marriage contract is usually signed in the mosque in the presence of a Sheikh (Sheikh’s contract) until the birth of the first child. At that point, the husband is obliged to legally solemnize the marriage in German courts in order to register his child in the civil register.
“Enticing” material and legal benefits
From the point of view of social experts, the phenomenon of marriage by Syrians to foreigners has several causes and side effects. Mahmoud Uthman, a social expert at the organization Syria Bright Future attributed this phenomenon essentially to economic conditions that the Syrian people are suffering from, both at home and abroad.
Young Syrian men in Arab countries of asylum often face tough financial conditions as a result of the low wages they receive, while those in Europe receive “limited” subsidies, which forces them to look for a source of financial stability.
The same applies for Syrian women abroad, many of who consider marrying a citizen of their country of asylum because of the widespread assumption that young Syrian men are “unable” to secure a decent life for their wives and children.
According to Uthman, the legal status of Syrian refugees is no less of a problem than their financial situation, and is one of the causes behind the phenomenon. The acquisition of permanent residency and nationality of a host country has become a concern for many Syrian men and women abroad. The “best” solution is to marry a citizen of the host country in order to obtain material and legal benefits that guarantee them stability.
Uthman adds that the material and legal motives for marrying foreigners are “legitimate and justified. We cannot condemn anyone or view this as a phenomenon that is negatively affecting Syrian society in light of the strict restrictions imposed on refugees”. He went on to explain that “in psychological analysis, material and legal stability are part of the pyramid of a human being’s basic psychological and material needs”.
“Alienation from Syrian society” is the most prominent side effect
Speaking of the side effects of Syrians marrying foreigners, social expert Mahmoud Uthman stated that having a relationship between young Syrian men and Arab women is “better” than with Europeans because European societies differ from Arab societies. The young man is often forced to “ditch” his society, customs and local culture for a Western girl, and the same applies to a Syrian girl who marries a Westerner. He added, “We cannot be so pessimistic. Many young Syrians have managed to preserve their culture after marrying a European and have transferred part of Syrian culture to their wives”.
Uthman pointed to a “comical” video that has spread all over social networks of young Syrian men who are in relationships with European women. One European woman is depicted in one of its sections speaking in the dialect of Damascus or Aleppo in a humorous way, in addition to other passages that reflect Germans’ acceptance of Syrian customs such as a video of German girls dancing the Syrian folkloric dance.
Marriage to “Al-Muhajireen”
Foreign Fighters Look for “Life Partners” in Syria
In addition to loss and displacement, Syrian women have over the past few years suffered greatly through no fault of their own. They were forced to be victims of every aspect of the war, even of “jihad” by foreign fighters who came to fight alongside a number of military factions in Syria.
From the beginning of 2013, thousands of foreign fighters began arriving in Syria to fight with various Islamist groups. Many of them were looking for a wife in Syria who could mitigate part of the “difficulties of jihad” and the ” loneliness of emigration”.
Although ISIS-controlled areas registered the highest number of such marriages, opposition-held areas have also witnessed many cases of foreign fighters marrying Syrian girls and women.
As many families of girls who have married foreigners refuse to talk about the issue, it is difficult to monitor and document the number of such cases. Enab Baladi’s correspondent explained that the areas of Jisr al-Shughur and Tifnaz in the countryside of Idlib have witnessed several similar cases since these are mountainous areas where foreign fighters were concentrated. However, in other areas such as Jabal Zawya, the number of such cases is small since families completely opposed the idea.
Goodwill or greed?
Shaykh Mohammed al-Khatib, head of the Sharia Committee of al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, believes that the reasons for the acceptance of some families to marry their daughters to foreign fighters are based on ignorance, and many follow the prophetic saying that “when someone whose religion and character you are satisfied with asks for your daughter’s hand in marriage, agree to his request”. However, they do not verify his identity and origins.
However, the former Sharia committee member Ahmed Abu Amr says that some people were impressed by the fighters and “their asceticism and good manners”. He says that their marriage to Syrian girls is part of making them feel at ease and that they are not strangers, but marriage does not take place until the father of the girl verifies the morals of the muhajir (migrant).
Money is also an important factor for many families who wish to marry their girls to foreign fighters. Abu Omar says that some of these immigrants “are rich” and, in general, “the dowries of immigrants are higher than the dowries of Syrians”.
Doubts over legitimacy
It is often difficult to verify the identity of immigrants who come to Syria to fight with armed factions. They resort to using nicknames such as “Abu so-and-so” for “security reasons” and their travel documents are not a reliable way to verify their identities because they can be easily forged.
The mechanisms for verifying the identity of these fighters are often deficient, as Sheikh al-Khatib argues, due to the lack of sufficient verification mechanisms, which are limited to contacting his family or relatives.
Islamic contracts with someone who may be claiming a “fake” identity are not valid because the two parties must be known. This makes the validity of these contracts questionable from Sheikh al-Khatib’s point of view.
As for the former member of the Sharia committee Abu Amr, he explained that immigrants often “bring elders from among their entourage to write the marriage contract, we rarely write these contracts”.
Isolation of immigrants
Despite claims that there are many cases of marriage by Syrian women to immigrants, Sheikh al-Khatib believes that these cases are “limited” and not widespread.
The former Sharia committee member Abu Amr confirmed that the cases were “many” in the past but have now decreased in number as a result of the existence of immigrant communities. He said, “For example, Uzbeks or Turkestans live together concentrated in a certain area, making it easier for them to marry from the same country”.
Abu Omar adds, “Some immigrants have ruined the reputation of immigrants in general, making Syrians think carefully about marrying an immigrant or vice versa.”
East or West, Home is Best
How Do Syrians View Marriage to Foreigners?
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo on views on marriage by Syrians to other nationalities. There was a divergence of views between those who supported the idea and those who opposed it completely.
Oussama al-Nabu, owner of a solar power shop in the town of Ma’r Tharma says that marriage between Syrians and foreigners is “natural and common” even before the revolution. He adds, “Marriage between a Syrian man and a Western girl existed in the past. In addition, many Syrian girls have been marrying men from the Gulf, Lebanon and Palestine for decades”.
Oussama pointed out that the increase in the number of females compared to males in Syrian society, from his point of view, justifies their marriage to non-Syrians in order to bring down the high rates of “spinsterhood”. He concludes that “the most important thing is to be with the right person. In the end, everything is meant to be”.
Alaa al-Shaiban, a resident of Sahl al-Ghab in Hama, has a similar view, considering it normal, especially the marriage of Syrian females to fighters. He says, “It is normal for a fighter who comes from abroad to seek family stability if he stays in Syria for a long time.” He added, “The most important thing is that he should be a good person, since the Prophet peace be upon him said, ‘When someone whose religion and character you are satisfied with asks for your daughter’s hand in marriage, agree to his request.’”
On the other hand, Ahmed, who works as a barber in the southern countryside of Idlib, rejects the idea of Syrians marrying foreigners. As for the marriage of fighters to Syrian women, he believes that it is possible if the person is suitable for the girl. However, he was interrupted by a client who said sharply, “I’m completely against the marriage of Syrians to people of different nationalities.”
The client justified this by the fact that he had heard about many of the fighters who married Syrians and returned to their homelands and left them “neither married nor divorced”. He said “If it were up to me, I would punish every father or brother who married his daughter to a non-Syrian.”
Abu Abdullah, a resident of Kafr Nabudah, rejects the marriage of Syrians to other nationalities just as strongly, “I’m completely against it”, he said, adding that some fighters marry a Syrian girl for a month or two and then send her back home for no reason. He concluded with the popular saying, “East or West, home is best”.
Financial and legal conditions or extinction of habits?
Enab Baladi conducted another opinion poll on its website, which showed a broad diversity of views among the 300 respondents. The question was, “What motivates Syrians abroad to marry people from other nationalities?”
Poor financial situation and the legal uncertainty facing Syrians in countries of asylum were selected by a similar percentage of respondents. The poor financial conditions faced by Syrian youth were cited by 32% of respondents as the main factor, in addition to the conditions and hurdles imposed by Syrian families on those seeking to marry their daughters, which made them consider marrying a woman of a different nationality and prompted Syrian women not to think about marrying Syrian men.
On the other hand, 23% of respondents felt that marriage by Syrians to other nationalities is due to the decline in the influence of customs and traditions in Syrian society. Migration has opened up Syrian society to other societies and cultures after traditions had strictly regulated marriages in Syria for many years, restricting Syrians to marrying from within their own province.
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