Twenty-year-old Hala is fed up with society’s prohibitions in Syria. “I lost my virginity a year ago to a young man I loved. I didn’t think at the time what society would say, because society doesn’t take my feelings or fears into account,” Hala (not her real name) told the Syrian journalist Ranim Rasan Khalouf.
“This society, in its villages and cities, is concerned about the blood of virgins and is unconcerned about the blood of war. It’s a society that fears the passion of lovers without a marriage certificate and isn’t concerned when it hears the cries of children taking their last breath in the street.”
Hala’s story piqued Khalouf's interest regarding a new phenomenon brought about by the civil war: More and more young people aren’t afraid to show affection in public – from passionate kisses to sex in a park.
In the nearly eight years of war, women and girls have become sex slaves or targets for rape, or have sold their bodies to support themselves or their families. Or they have been forced to marry to ostensibly avoid the humiliation of rape. But now young Syrian men and women have launched a new kind of protest.
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The heightened public sexuality is natural in wartime, said a Syrian psychologist who only identified herself as M.Z. “The fear of death becomes justification for this behavior, as does daily uncertainty, being uprooted from one’s home and moving from society to society as one flees,” she said.
The psychologist’s take on the situation is backed by Maha, a university student who was in the tenth grade when a bomb exploded nearby. “I couldn’t find anyone to adopt me and I was trembling with the fear of death,” she said.
“This happened again two years later, but then Johnny was next to me. He held me tight and took upon himself my fears and trembling, with the love and compassion that I had lost when my mother and father died.”
Johnny added: “The war taught us that we mustn’t fear death; we don’t know where it will find us.”
Saha, 30, who is studying for an engineering doctorate at Damascus University, says she has full sexual relations outside of marriage with her partner, a doctor.
“The difficulty in getting married, the problems caused by the war, the heavy shadow of obligatory army service, the expenses like buying a house, a shortage of young men because of emigration – all these prevent young people from getting married,” she said. “Must I die without knowing the taste of sex?”
The willingness of men and women to tell their stories of forbidden love to journalists is also apparently one of the outcomes of the war. In the past, love affairs could be seen on television or read about in books.
But to talk about them publicly and use the war to justify them – that’s a new story. Amid the war, the destruction of families and the crushing of traditional values and parental oversight will take years of research to assess – not only the damage but also whether Syrian society will forge new rules of identity and behavior.
Free love coming out of the closet is perhaps the starkest manifestation of young people’s opposition to the war. But it is seen in small spaces – in cities and not in villages, mainly on university campuses or on the job where it may be possible, like at hospitals or private firms.
A trip to Cyprus
A more widespread phenomenon that has even reached rural areas is civil marriage. This isn’t something new in the Middle East; it’s accepted in Lebanon, with its multiple ethnic groups and religions.
Thousands of couples make the short trip each year from Beirut to Cyprus to get married. In Syria as well, especially in the big cities, mixed couples have had to take this step, which is not recognized by Syrian law.
Marriage in Syria has always been in the purview of the religious courts or authorized officials of whichever religion the couple belongs to. In the case of mixed marriages, the demand is that the non-Muslim of the couple convert to make the marriage legal.
But years of war have brought significant change here as well, including the need to recognize civil marriage between Christians and Muslims or Alawites and Sunni Muslims.
To respond to this new social need, a few young people are working to change the law. Last year, a group of young Syrians opened a Facebook page backing a bill to recognize a mixed couple as married and respond to the needs of young couples seeking to start families outside their own religious tradition.
The Facebook group’s members include lawyers who drafted the bill. “Young couples had very little choice during the war; the choice that was left was to wait for a suitable candidate in terms of religion, or to marry someone they loved but not of the same community,” a young Syrian woman said.
She was married in a civil ceremony, but she has to live with her husband in Germany because in Syria they aren’t considered a legal family. “When the law changes, I’ll return to the homeland,” she said. That probably won’t happen in the near future.