"I’m sheltering 20 women,” said Um Mohammad. A veiled woman in her 50s, she had sought me out at the refugee relief center I was visiting in Tripoli and asked to have a quiet word. “These women are widows, sisters and daughters of martyrs; they are all refugees who recently fled from Homs.”
“My son went to the mosque yesterday before the maghrib (sunset) prayers and announced that we have 20 Syrian women… looking for protection,” said Um Mohammad. “He asked that any Muslim man who would like to protect their honor by marrying one should come to the mosque after the isha (evening) prayers.”
The incident she described was just one example of what has recently come to light as a disturbingly widespread phenomenon amongst the growing number of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries: ‘protection marriages’. Certain online social networks have become deluged with Arab men announcing their desire to marry a girl from the Levant (i.e. Syria). This practice has been encouraged by several religious leaders, among them the firebrand Adnan Arour, a hardline Syrian sheikh in exile in Saudi Arabia who has issued fatwas, or religious edicts, endorsing protection marriages as a means to offer Syrian women refugees a better life. Indeed, for some Syrian refugee families who have been forced to trade all their worldly possessions for tents in the desert, it must seem like a chance for their daughters to escape the misery.
This has opened the door, however, for women and girls in these refugee camps to become the victims of sexual exploitation under the pretext of ‘support for the Syrian revolution’. It has become ever more common for what are ostensibly modest requests for marriage posted online to morph into bidding wars between men offering up money for Syrian brides. In a recent editorial, Abdelbari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, wrote that elderly Arabs from the Gulf have reportedly taken Syrian refugee girls younger than 15 years old. “Marriage of minors in refugee camps is a type of rape that must be stopped immediately,” he went on to say. “Perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
On August 31 a “wakeup call” campaign dubbed Lajea’at la Sabaya (roughly translated as ‘refugee women, not women for pillage’) began both online and offline, an independent initiative by young Syrian women and men. The group’s stated goals include upholding the rights of Syrian women, both in refugee camps and in Syria, preventing Syrian women from becoming a commodity for sale, and encouraging Syrian businessmen to invest and create jobs in the refugee camps to help better living conditions. Syrian women who joined the uprising did so in an attempt to assert the dignity of all Syrians, says the group, and thus they should not be sold like items in a market under the guises of ‘marriage’ or ‘protection’. The Facebook page for Lajea’at la Sabaya reached 10,000 ‘likes’ in its first 10 days.
So while human rights advocates have begun raising the alarm, it’s worth noting that Syrian opposition groups have been almost uniformly silent regarding the sexual exploitation and wholesale trade of refugee women. The issue is not new, having grown as the number of Syrians fleeing the country has risen, and yet even now as it becomes a public scandal the leaders of the opposition remain mute. This leads one to wonder what sort of “free” Syria the opposition has in mind for the future when already today they ignore these abuses against the most vulnerable Syrians.
The millions that have risen up over the course of the Arab revolutions did so demanding equal rights and justice. Women throughout the Arab world were, and still are, on the front lines leading the struggle. The true fight for equality, however, cannot be limited to toppling the tyrants and dictators that led the region’s repressive regimes — it must also confront the Arab world’s ingrained misogynist attitudes, rampant sexual harassment of women and ultimately religious and social institutions that treat women as inferior to men and facilitate their subjugation.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut