The Shifting Sands of Divorce and Polygamy, Inside Syria and Abroad

The Shifting Sands of Divorce and Polygamy, Inside Syria and Abroad


Enab Baladi speaks with women and experts about the impacts of the war and exile on marriage and the family dynamic

Between trying to preserve the love that bound Rowda with her husband and the desire to be liberated from the burden of a relationship for which she no longer desired, the decision to divorce took 11 years before it was translated into action. It was the war and the details which made separation inevitable.

“The negative use of the internet was the most important reason in our separation,” the activist Rowda Mohamad Radian tells Enab Baladi, with a confidence derived from her great conviction in her decision. She then recounts the rest of the story, about her revolutionary action and the effects of war and displacement, using this to shed light on the nature of her strong personality.

There had been no appropriate time to resolve the problems that resulted from Rowda’s ex-husband using the internet to get to know other women after communications were cut between the city of Saraqeb, where she lives, and the city of Aleppo, where he lived at the time. When they met again after two years there was no way to fill the large gap that had been created between them.

“He left Syria for Turkey, leaving behind the revolution, and I left it after a while for security reasons, and when I reached Turkey I learned that he had married,” she said.

At the time Rowda was able to bear the problems and consequences of these dimensions, but could not accept the harm the man she loved had participated in.

Rowda’s story is one of hundreds of stories of women for whom the circumstances of war and displacement changed the course of their lives and turned them into “divorcees.” And if the word no longer bears the old social impact, it must pile hardship on women who are forced to bear the hardship of exile on their own and perhaps care for an entire family.

Rania, 38, a woman from Damascus who lives in Istanbul, is trying to look for any supporter to care for her three children after her husband divorced her and exiled her in the streets of the megacity, returning to Syria where he built a new life and married another woman.

Rania, who refused to reveal her full name for personal reasons, says the conditions of exile and not having her family by her side, gave her ex-husband room to behave in ways that he would not have dared in Damascus, including trying to betray her repeatedly and waiting to free himself from the burden of caring for children and provide a decent life for them.

“He made the excuse that there was a lack of appropriate job opportunities, and his daughter of 14 years was forced to work in a textile factory,” Rania told Enab Baladi in a phone interview.

Like Rowda, Rania was not able to obtain a civil divorce in Syrian courts due to the difficulty of getting an agent in Turkey, and so the matter was limited to an oral divorce, which is neither suspended nor absolute but makes it impossible for them to marry again.

In Europe, with the increase in refugee traffic, the situation of Syrian women is no better than in Turkey, as the number of cases of divorce among Syrians has grown sharply since 2015. There are no statistics explaining the situation in terms of numbers, but an activist concerned with refugee affairs in Germany, Salem al-Gheneimi, told Enab Baladi that the phenomenon had spread greatly, attributing this to the laws which gave woman freedom as well as the decreased impact of traditions and customs due to the war.

The situation was different for women who remained in Syria, where, instead of searching for independence and ridding themselves of former burdens, they have found themselves subject to the weight of the circumstances of war and the multiplier effect of these customs and traditions, making polygamy a fait accompli and no longer a choice. This is largely due to the lower number of men compared to women and an increase in widows after the number of war victims rose to more than 500,000, a greater portion of them males.

Although the areas under rebel control have seen cases of polygamy more than the regime areas, the issue is related to the number of dead and the flow of Shariah fatwas “requiring” this. The lack of sufficient civil registry and documentation makes it impossible to estimate the proportions of this, but in the regime-controlled areas the rate of polygamy saw an increase of six times between 2010 and 2015.

The large rates of divorce abroad corresponding to the divorce rates inside Syria are not the only urgent paradox for Syrian society, and it is not strange that seven years of war should create cracks in a society which cannot be mended after its residents were scattered across the Earth.

Divorce for “liberation” rather than “stability”

The life of Syrian refugees in various countries across the world has been impacted as a natural result of attempts to assimilate into some communities, especially those in Europe, with the number of Syrian refugees exceeding 5 million, of which about half a million have headed to European Union countries.

Perhaps most prominent of what has circulated in the lives of refugees in Europe is the spread of divorce to an extent Syrians were not used to in their conservative society, and which has been unshackled in more open societies in terms of civil rights.

Although the fact that Syrian women have become more aware, relatively, in the past few years, in terms of demanding their rights in divorce from husbands in defiance of the “dominant” views of society, the reasons and circumstances of divorce varied between Syria and Europe with their various societies and laws.

Salem al-Gheneimi, a sociology student and researcher in refugee affairs in Germany, said that the phenomenon of divorce had spread among Syrians in Europe, and told Enab Baladi that official statistics were absent. He said that the Syrian wife in Europe was often the one demanding the divorce, certain that German law would protect her and her children, and this had made her not accept qualities in her husband she would have otherwise accepted in the years under Syrian law.

Here Syrian women find themselves liberated from the views and accusations of people in society because of which she was forced to bear the oppression of her husband in order to avoid the term “divorcee,” which would stick to her and her children as a shameful mark. This is something the social researcher sees as positive for the interests of Syrian women.

The facilities which European governments offer to divorced women play a role in the divorce decision, as the government guarantees education for the children and paying rent and living expenses if the woman is unable to work.

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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