“Everything in our lives as women discriminate against us,” a Syrian woman replied when I asked her about the forms of discrimination against women in Syrian societies. Qamar, a 45-year-old primary school teacher in Rif Dimashq, said the lives of women in patriarchal societies are painful and harsh, full of oppression and injustice. Syrian women are governed by customs, traditions and societal stereotypes, which are reinforced by legal texts based on discrimination, exclusion and biased opinions and decision.
The law obstructs women’s human rights
The laws and regulations are general rules that are supposed to apply to all persons without discrimination and to all facts without exception, but in the Syrian law there are numerous discriminatory laws that have contributed to the obstruction of women’s human rights.
These discriminatory laws include the Personal Status Law, which regulates marriage, divorce, descent, custody, guardianship, and inheritance. The Syrian personal status courts are divided according to religious denominations, each with its own sectarian courts and legislation which has made matters worse and strengthened the authority of clerics at the expense of the legislative authority.
Syrian personal status laws, particularly Shari’a, are rigid in the face of the dynamic and evolving reality of women at all levels and violate the rights of citizenship and human rights, which include the right to life, respect, justice, freedom, the right for women to work, the right to privacy and the right to a decent life.
Minor amendments that did not change the reality
Marwa, a 55-year-old Syrian mother currently residing in northern Syria, says the personal status law is linked to pain, injustice, and long waiting times in court, this is caused by her struggle to obtain custody of her children after years of separation from her husband.
“I struggled a lot until I got a divorce, it tasted bitter and humbled everyone for the sake of my children’s care and expenses,” she said. “These laws are unjust, they stand on the side of men and do not consider women as human beings or citizens, and all of them must be blown up and replaced by just laws,” she added.
The Personal Status Act has been amended several times. For example, in 1973, it states: Restricting polygamy by the existence of a legal ground, the wife’s right to maintenance shall be forfeited if she works outside the home without her husband’s permission. In regard to custody; “the period of custody ends when the boy turns nine years old and the girl turns eleven years old”. Previously, the period of custody ended when the boy seven years and the girl nine years.
In the second amendment, in 2003, the mother’s custody period for her children was increased. It stipulated that “the mother’s custody period shall end when the boy reaches the age of 13 and the girl reaches the age of 15. The mother may request the judge to hand over her child or her child without the need to file a lawsuit.”
In regard to divorce, the amendment was unfair. Instead of preventing divorce by unilateral will, it merely relaxed the conditions for compensation in a divorce to make the only condition for compensation arbitrary. Instead of giving women and men equal rights to guardianship, the amendment merely prohibited children from traveling with one parent without the other’s consent. The amendment raised the age of marriage to 17 for girls and 18 for boys and left it to the discretion of the judge in the marriage of a child or girl at the age of 15. The punishment of an elder who marries outside the court was made stricter. These laws apply in all Syrian governorates subject to various de facto authorities.
Disregarding women’s rights
Syrian writer Khawla Dunia believes that discriminatory laws against women, including personal status, penal and labour laws, don’t even meet the Syrian Constitution, which is also considered discriminatory. Laws are considered contrary to the Constitution.
“Discrimination occurs in all aspects of the civil, political and practical life of Syrian women, in terms of wage discrimination, promotion in employment and presence in decision-making positions,” she said.
“All of this has affected Syrian women and their development, as well as their basic rights, which are enshrined in international human rights conventions, as well as the conventions against violence against women (CEDAW), and affects their relationship with their families, children and their living conditions,” she said.
There are no platforms for women to express themselves through their presence in decision-making positions, which allows for more discrimination in the family and society, she said. Women’s rights are easily taken lightly, and women’s rights are exploited on many occasions when their rights conflict with what male members of the family and society want them to do which tends to be forcing them to submit to their wishes.
As for the Syrian Personal Status Law, she said, “It tries to compliment all the religious particularities in Syria, and we know the diversity and differences in the Syrian religious fabric.”
She pointed out that there are laws specific to all Christian and Muslim sects, and they consider the specificities of the churches and sects’ laws. We see the impact of this on women in particular, whether in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, etc.
“There is great injustice against women and sometimes against men, especially in relation to marriage and divorce among Christian sects,” she said. “Meanwhile, in Muslim sects, women are considered second-class human beings whose rights simply do not exist,” she added.
Women in Syrian societies live under marginalization, exclusion, neglect, and inferiority. This is due to the historical roots of male authorities who have successfully used coercive methods against women that have deprived them of their dignity, freedom, and ability to make decisions about their lives, and made their lives dependent on men’s consent and comfort. Now, under the de facto authorities who have different doctrines, ideas, and ideologies, the situation is even more complicated.
Syrian feminist Mona Freij, from al-Raqa, spoke about discrimination against women at birth. She said, “Society dictates the colour clothing a child should wear and her toys, and they judge her life on her defects and characteristics, even the way she sits and what her voice sounds like.”
“One of the most distinctive forms of discrimination in the eastern Euphrates areas, is their interest in male education at the expense of female students, because they think it is illogical to spend money on female education and then marry and have a family,” Mona added.
She also points to a very important problem that most Syrian governorates share, which is the issue of inheritance. She says, “Our societies do not let women inherit agricultural land, and women cannot file claims for their inheritance rights because they will be the victims of gossip and shame in their society.”
Areas that try to break free and others that increase restrictions
Efforts by the Autonomous Administration in eastern Syria to improve status of women in society cannot be ignored, as some policies have been adopted that seek gender equality, and this is not easy in a region governed by clans, societal traditions, religion, and other factors.
According to Mona, women’s status has changed in the region, but they need more serious legal controls because the authority in the region is strong.
“Women in the region are now filing lawsuits to claim their rights, especially in relation to inheritance, but they may face judges who reject these claims on the grounds that they cause discord and problems between families,” Mona said.
Mona pointed to the Women’s Protection Units of the Autonomous Administration, which are working to protect women but in an ill-conceived and unorganized way, causing new problems in the region.
In northern Syria, the situation is quite different, with HTS controlling the area along with the Salvation Government in Idlib, and the Syrian National Army (SNA) with the Syrian Interim Government (TSG) in the Aleppo countryside, all of which have different approaches to managing the area under their influence.
Women living in areas under the authority’s control are subjected to severe restrictions imposed by the authorities in the name of “sharia”, which prohibits them from mixing between the genders in schools, starting with primary schools, and in the areas of work and daily life. It also prohibits women from leaving the house without a male guardian present.
In areas under the control of the national army, women are struggling to obtain employment and women working in civil society organizations are being restricted socially and face criticism, and they are controlled in regards to their dress and life decisions.
Civil society organizations that work to “support and empower women” are trying to meet the challenges and exert efforts within the region. Some women’s organizations are working on projects to raise awareness and educate women about their civil rights, in addition to economic empowerment.
“The women’s struggle is new in Syria, and its features may have become clearer after the revolution,” said Syrian writer Khawla Dunia. “women have become more aware of their rights and the extent of the injustice they are subjected to and there has also become a kind of solidarity in this struggle among Syrian women,” she added.
Syrian women have achieved what many political entities were unable to achieve, she said, as they were better able to communicate, monitor efforts, identify priorities and develop a vision for the future of Syria. It was not only inclusive to women’s rights but included a political, social and cultural constitutional and societal perspective.
A quick look at some of Syria’s discriminatory laws
Syrian law includes articles that place women under supervision and male guardianship. These restrictions are then passed on to their husbands.
There are laws in the system of crime and punishment, which have served as a cause rather than an end to crime. It can be said that such laws are violent to women and support those who are violent towards them. They have also strengthened the concept that women are inferior to men.
The first of these is the Code of Offenses against Public Morals and Private Morals, which gives a husband the right to rape his wife. This is in addition to the legality of so-called honour crimes, although this was removed from the law. However, many of the crimes committed under this pretext have gone unpunished.
Change and justice and equality cannot be achieved in a society without changing the rigid legal texts that have been enforced for decades without change, because the law is supposed to be the equal platform on which justice and equality is based.