Feb 22, 2013

The Bride Price of Syria’s Refugees

Karen Leigh and Mohammed Sergie

As thousands of families flee their homes and face the hardship of refugee life, fears are mounting that desperate families will hastily force their daughters into marriage.

We haven’t seen evidence that it’s a widespread phenomenon on the ground, but online there is a flourishing array of Arabic language forums where men seek opportunities to pick up a Syrian bride. Some of the requests get very specific; this relatively tame posting, allegedly from a university professor in Egypt (married with two children), seeks a Syrian woman with “a white, round face and smooth hair,” over the age of 24 and at least 173 centimeters in height, who would agree to be his second wife.

In a column in The National, Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan called attention to forums where men set the dowry, or bride price, at less than $200. Most of the women end up in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraq. Wife hunters and matchmakers have been posing as aid workers in order to comb through the stock of women at the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp, theWashington Post reported last month.

It’s the dusty lanes of the Zaatari camp near the Jordan-Syria border that could be the breeding ground for a scary assault on young Syrian women.

“You’ve got a bunch of people who’ve lost all stability, and when stability breaks down women are the most vulnerable,” said Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege project, which tracks sexual abuses.

“There’s often not enough light or protection in the camps. New arrivals are always coming in and out and that disrupts social norms. That’s when we see sexualized violence in any society,” she added.

For men seeking a wife with few complications, refugee camps have become prime markets for women whose families can’t afford another mouth to feed or have been shamed by the presence of unwed rape victims. A campaign to protect Syria’s women launched earlier this year, with a singular message: the women fleeing Syria aren’t the bounties of war. An activist who works with the group told Syria Deeply that many refugees, especially those from conservative and poor families, feel pushed by economic pressure, or could be duped by a suitor’s seemingly good intentions.

It isn’t clear how many women are being forced into marriage. The activist credits awareness campaigns for shaming men from this practice, but said refugees are still vulnerable given the lurking prostitution and human trafficking networks in the Middle East and Turkey.

Religion and tradition further complicate this issue. Arab men from wealthier countries have long sought wives from rural villages in Syria. Many people don’t understand why providing a better life for refugees living in horrible conditions is so reprehensible, especially when Islam strongly encourages its followers to get married. Many Syrian men married women from Chechnya and Bosnia during their wars, viewing it as part of a religious obligation to help fellow Muslims.

For the women in the relative safety of the Zaatari camp or surviving inside of Syria, it leaves an open choice: accept a risky marriage or face continued violence and destitution.

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