Divorce Boom in Rojava: Liberated or Second-Class Women?

The establishment of numerous women's organizations in Kurdish-ruled northern Syria has led to an increase in divorce rates that bears a multifaceted impact on society.

13 January 2018

Fansa Tammo

Fansa Tammo is a Qamishli-based Syrian journalist who has worked for several local media outlets.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

(Al-Qamishli) “It was so painful to hear the whispers of my neighbors conversing about my divorce. They either cast aspersions or expressed pity. It’s really affected my self-esteem,” recounted Kima Ali[i] (28), a newly divorced lady from Qamishli, northeast of Syria, and a mother of two. Two months ago, she ran out of patience and decided to break up her eight-year marriage, citing her husband’s consistent abuse of her.

“Against the will of my family, we married in the summer of 2008, two years after we first met. Only to discover shortly after his bad temper and cruel treatment,” explained Kima, noting that he used to prevent her from communicating with her family, and even her friends and neighbors. “He always swore and beat me," she added.

Medea Zubair[ii] (24), a native of Hasakah city, described her divorce experience as rough. Women divorcees bear additional burdens, according to Medea, mainly because of the society’s pejorative attitude towards them. Viewed as weak and easy to take advantage of, they are more exposed to attempts of sexual or emotional exploitation. This has made Medea lose confidence in any man trying to court her. Yet she decided to resume her studies and to look for a job.

She explained to SyriaUntold that she had made many concessions to get married at the beginning of 2017, “from the dowry to the simplest conditions a girl could require when someone proposes to her… he did not appreciate that.” Her ex-husband traveled abroad and left her alone. “Even his family refused to host me. I requested a divorce.”

Moral and Legal Support

Before her divorce, Kima tried several times to reason with her husband, who was only five years older, hopelessly trying to change him. She found no other option than separation. She resorted to SARA, an organization concerned with combating violence against women.Finally, the two spouses were separated, and she received her freedom, as she put it.

As Medea’s husband left for Europe last September, only nine months into their marriage, she contacted his father, who refused to host her at his family’s house. “Do whatever you want, you have no rights here,” he told her. She filed a complaint to Mala Jin (the Women’s House in Kurdish), one of the women’s organizations operating under the Kurdish-led Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) in northern Syria. Medea obtained her divorce through a special court, and she received 1.5 million SYP (around 3,310 USD) as a financial compensation, grudgingly paid by her husband’s family.

Many independent and governmental women’s organizations and bodies have become active in the past seven years, since the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011. Those operating in the DAA areas have been a major destination for abused women in northern Syria. Established in July 2013, SARA is one of the main local organizations using international conventions against gender-based violence as its reference.

“We are following all cases of violence against women, not only by men but also by society,” said Najah Amin, a manager at SARA. She noted that their work was fraught with challenges since day one, as many abused women were apprehensive about complaining to these NGOs, prompting SARA activists to pay secret home visits. “Luckily things are different now,” added Amin “In cases of divorce, we follow up the complaint of wife and try to solve the problem amicably. We believe that divorce has a negative impact on all family members.” Once reaching an agreement seems infeasible, explains the SARA manager, the organization assists the victim’s divorce request by both providing moral support and hiring an in-house lawyer. They follow up the case until the delivery of the judgement and the attainment of all rights.

[Photo: The logo of SARA, one of the main organizations that focus on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in Rojava-Northern Syria - 15-12-2017 (Fansa Tammo/SyriaUntold)].
Reconciliations and Legal Framework

SARA publishes annual reports and statistics on cases of violence and divorce, which are carried out by its committees deployed across all DAA-controlled cities and towns. There have been 151 registered divorce cases in 2013, compared with 133 in 2014. The number rose to 200 in 2015, and then skyrocketed to 778 in 2016, which has been the highest since SARA was established in 2013.

The withdrawal of the Syrian regime from some areas has allowed the Kurds to establish the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava. Featuring representatives from all the ethnicities of the area (Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs), Rojava is divided into three regions: Jazira, Euphrates and Afrin. Mala Jin is one of the DAA official bodies and its mission is to follow up on the issues and affairs of abused women through a complaints system.

Bahia Murad, head of Mala Jin’s Reconciliation Committee  in Qamishli, rejected the criticisms levelled against the organization in some local news websites, accusing it of negatively affecting women’s status and causing divorces between married couples. “These claims are unfounded. We don’t decide on divorce cases, and our role is limited to supporting divorcees until they obtain their lawful rights whenever the other side refuses to solve pending problems.” On how this is usually done, Murad explained, “We meet with the two parties and try to solve the problem as much as we can, When we fail, we refer the case to the (DAA) court until a proper judgment is delivered according to the Women’s Law.”

In November 2014, the Legislative Council of the Jazira Canton [now known as Jazira Region] issued a special law on women that included 30 articles. In accordance with art. 25 and 29, whether remarried or not, a divorced woman is guaranteed custody of her children until they reach the age of 15, at which point they are free to choose either parent to live with. In case of separation, a divorced woman has the right to the dowry, or to its equivalent value if it was spent by the husband.

According to Murad, the complaints received by Mala Jin in Qamishli number between 35 and 40 cases per month. The head of the Reconciliation Committee emphasized the importance of Mala Gel given that most divorces addressed by the Syrian government courts are unfair to divorced women and tend to deprive them of their rights.

In fact, in accordance with art. 73 and 84 of the Personal Status Law, government courts can only guarantee women their pre-registered dowry. If a divorced mother clings to her right of custody of the children, the husband is not obliged to provide housing for her or her children; he is only asked to pay a monthly expense estimated at 2,000 SYP (4.4 USD) per child, which is by no means sufficient to meet most basic needs.

Social and Religious Controversy

Kima pointed out that what embarrassed her the most was her confusion in front of coworkers asking about her social status. Would she say that she is divorced, and then endure that derogatory suggestive look, or dodge the embarrassment by falsely claiming to be single? “I took my decision and I don’t regret it,” she firmly answered. “Yes, I am a divorcee now, but at least I am my own lady now. I was locked into the walls of a house which I never felt belonged to me.”

Islamic traditions promote the notion that relationships between men and women are fundamentally based on affection, mercy and mutual compassion. As Qur’an (30:21) says, "He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may repose in tranquility with them, and between you planted love and mercy.” According to Muhammad Mullah Rashid Gharzani, the imam of the Al-Badr Mosque in Qamishli, the resort to divorce is highly undesirable in Islam, “except in extreme cases, especially if there were children. That’s because divorce devastates families and leaves children at risk of mental distress, for which the parents are to be responsible [before God].”

Sheikh Gharzani added: "Some think that the current situation has increased divorces, but I don’t agree with that. We had many divorce cases since before the crisis. The crisis may have had an effect in some cases, but it’s not the reason. It’s mainly about, spouses lacking awareness, and the intervention of parents-in-law in the marital lives of their sons and daughters.”

Medea stated that she will move on and hope to meet someone who is understanding and appreciative, away from men exploiting her as a divorcee. “I’m pretty hopeful that I’ll meet a suitable person. Yes, I do want to get remarried and build a small family.”

Regarding society’s pejorative attitude towards divorced women, Adnan Khalil, who works as an independent social counselor in Dar Shukran camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, held that “bringing about a change in the social culture and the collective mind, especially among the Kurds, and building a civilized and enlightened community […] is a huge task that cannot be finalized overnight.” Khalil emphasized the need for long years of pedagogical planning, educational programs and supervisors in order set rights and duties.

He attributed the recent increase in divorce rates to underage and early marriages, which in turn stems from a misunderstanding of marriage and lack of awareness of its objectives, such as mutual understanding, happy family-building, raising generations and creating bonds between people.

“Most young men and women today marry for reasons related to sensuality and instinct, driven mainly by their sensory deprivation imposed by social constraints,” explained Khalil. “As such, divergences between newly married couples tend to lead to quick divorces. Also poverty and difficult living conditions experienced by Syrian people in general, and by the Kurdish population in particular, have led many families to marry off their daughters without scrutinizing their husbands-to-be and check their educational levels and mannerisms.”

Moreover, in the social counselor’s view, some women’s organizations have had a negative impact because their employees were not acquainted with the praxis of social communication and psychological counseling.

The issue of divorce has become one of the most noticeably aggravated problems affecting north-eastern Syria’s family-based society. Consequently, the responsibility of tackling the reasons for divorces lies with the women’s organizations, which are now faced with the challenge of promoting a marital culture based on mutual respect for rights and duties.

[Main photo: One of the main streets in Al-Qamishli’s central market – 15-12-2017 (Fansa Tammo/SyriaUntold)].

[i] A pseudonym was used for protect the woman’s identity.

[ii] Idem.

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