Analysis

Another Casualty of the Syrian War: Thousands of Women in Marital Limbo

Even women who have been abandoned by their husbands have a hard time getting a divorce, but more and more are trying -- throughout the Arab world.

Syrian women and children walk past government soldiers as they evacuate from the town of Jisreen on Saturday. Many women have been abandoned by or separated from their husbands during the war.
AFP stringer

A Syrian woman in her twenties told a journalist in an interview that she and her husband had fled to Turkey and from there, he had continued on to Germany to find safe haven. He promised her that as soon as he reached Germany he would apply for family reunification so that they could start a new life together.

It’s been almost a year, and the husband seems to have forgotten his promise. He blocks her phone calls. She doesn’t know whether he has married a German woman, or moved on from Germany to another country.

According to Syrian law a woman who has been abandoned can only file for divorce if a year has passed without any communication from her husband.

The predicament of this young Syrian woman is not unusual, given the thousands of Syrian men and women who have fled the country or sought refuge in another part of Syria and lost contact with their spouses.

A woman’s right to divorce — whether because her husband has deserted her or because of family strife — is enshrined in Syrian law only if the husband granted this right to his wife in writing while they were married. This does not nullify the husband’s “natural” right to divorce his wife at will.

But because granting one’s wife permission to initiate divorce is considered an “insult to masculinity” and means granting a woman independence, it is not easily given.

Moreover, it turns out that women are not always enthusiastic about obtaining such permission. One woman interviewed said she feared that if she had the option she might act impulsively and “divorce my husband at the first quarrel.”

The right of women to divorce their husbands stirred major public controversy in Egypt about six months ago when a bill was presented outlining the obligations of those who write marriage contracts. According to the bill, which was meant to reduce the number of marriages of underage girls, those who write these documents must ensure that the bride is at least 18 years old and that the marriage contract explicitly cites the amount of money the husband must give the wife as temporary support until a final financial compensation is ruled.

Moreover, the officiant must inform the bride if she is his second wife and must give her written consent of divorce. According to interpreters of religious law at Al Azhar University in Cairo, which among other things examines the extent to which religious and state laws conform, granting a woman permission to divorce does not contradict religious law as long as both the husband and wife agree to the granting of the permit.

Other interpretations state that a woman can divorce her husband only if she gives up all her rights or if her husband consents to divorce her.

In recent years, divorce at the wife’s initiative has become widespread in the Arab world. This is true in Egypt, where each year some 170,000 alimony suits are filed and in Jordan, where 15,000 such applications a year are filed.

Jordan has also seen an ever-increasing number of husbands informing their wives they are divorcing them via email or text message. Such an announcement must be officially registered, but in fact it is considered valid from the moment the wife receives it.

Large numbers of divorces, about 60,000 a year, are also registered in Algeria, where women have the full right to alimony and housing for themselves and their children even if the divorce is against the husband’s will.

In Iraq, approximately 20 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and about 70 percent of divorces are initiated by the wife. In addition, many divorces take place outside the courtroom or official government procedures. As in Syria, in Iraq, many women do not know their husband’s whereabouts; some were killed in wartime or fled to other countries. Iraqi law does allow women to initiate divorce after the husband has been absent for at least a year, but these women must also wait many years for a ruling that will grant them the status of a divorcee and make them eligible for alimony if the husband can be found to pay it, or eligible to marry again.

Another painful problem is that of women forced to marry Islamic State fighters; some have had children under these circumstances. The letter of the law treats these marriages as legal, and requires official divorce proceedings to end the “union.”

In such cases the whereabouts of the husband, not to mention receiving his permission for the divorce, is impossible, and the woman’s fate depends greatly on the flexibility of the religious figure issuing the ruling or the judge before whom the woman appeals.

In these cases, many women find themselves social outcasts, distanced from their families. They are looked down upon not only because they initiated a divorce — which under ordinary circumstances is considered improper — but they are also seen at best as prostitutes and at worst as ISIS collaborators, which can lead to trial and imprisonment.

According to Iraqi Justice Ministry figures, the highest number of divorces took place in areas where ISIS ruled from 2014 to 2017, and is attributed to mixed Sunni-Shi’ite couples fearing for their lives under ISIS.

For these women, International Women’s Day is no celebration. Ostensibly their situation is another outcome of war and their only solace is that they survived at all. But for most of them survival offers no comfort, with their situation a curse they must live with for the rest of their lives.