By Mona Mahmood
One of the many wretched consequences of the Syrian war is the sudden insecurity felt by millions of female refugees, deprived (sometimes permanently) of their menfolk, left to fend for their families by themselves, threatened by the unwanted attentions of predatory men.
A UN report this month found that almost 150,000 Syrian families are headed by lone women. Another this week pinpointed one of the unfortunate upshots of this: that more and more Syrian girls are being married off to bring a measure of security to their families.
Here, Mona Mahmood interviews three mothers who arranged pragmatic matches for their girls, only to regret it after the event.
We left in February last year: me, my husband Ahmed and our seven children – two sons and five daughters. I borrowed 5,000 Syrian pounds (£20) from my mother to hire a car to drive us from our home in Deraa to the border with Jordan.
When we got to the borderlands, we had to walk with other Syrian families who were fleeing Syria too. We walked at night to avoid being spotted by Syrian security, who would shoot at us. It was so risky, but I was more scared of what would come next, what sort of life we would have in the refugee camp. Finally, we got into Zaatari camp, which was like paradise compared with the hell of Deraa. And yet I became worried about the safety of my five daughters. My husband is old and not well, and my sons are little boys. There is no one to protect us. The tents are too close to each other, young men would pass by and stare at our tent.
My eldest daughter, Rulla, was 13 and is attractive. She and her other sisters could not even change their clothes in the tent. We were so scared that my daughters and I might be attacked by strangers. The camp was full of men of different ages. I could not let my daughters go alone to the bathroom. I have, I had to take them one by one even though the bathrooms were far away. Along the way we would be harassed by young men. If any of my daughters wanted a wash, we would have a basin in the tent, and I or my mother would keep watch in case anyone came.Looking around I could see that families were trying to get their daughters married by any means, even if they were only 12 or 13. They were not asking for dowries, they just wanted a man for their daughters.
My daughters were a huge burden to me. I never thought I would think of them like that. I was so glad when they born. You can’t imagine the fear of a mother when she looks at her daughter and thinks she might be raped at any moment. It is horrible to think if the rape story became known publicly, her uncles would kill her immediately.I felt like dying when I thought of that moment.
Most marriages in the camp are for girls of 12, 13 or 14, but even 10-year-olds might get engaged if they are tall and developed. The way it works is that a female relative of the groom tours the tents to find a girl. When she finds someone suitable, she brings her to the man, who asks for her hand. The groom might be Syrian or Jordanian or from other Arab nationalities.
A 70-year-old Saudi man married my neighbour’s daughter. She was engaged to a Syrian man but her family could not believe their luck in getting a rich Saudi, so they dumped the first groom to make way for the second. The man had to pay the family 1m Syrian pounds to marry their young daughter.
It was a big shock when an old Jordanian man came to my mother’s tent asking for her hand. He said that he wanted to provide her with a better life and spare her humiliation. These Jordanians are really exploiting Syrian refugees’ terrible circumstances.
An acquaintance in a nearby tent had an 18-year-old nephew, Omer, who worked in an embroidering workshop. She told him about our daughter, came to our tent and told us she wanted Rulla for her nephew. Rulla blushed in astonishment. For me, it was hard to accept the idea. She was still a child, playing with kids in the camp. But the war, hunger, humiliation and fear forced me in the end to accept the offer. It was difficult to throw my daughter into a new life I do not know and she herself does not know either. Rulla knew nothing about marriage, I had to teach her every single thing.
We rented two houses in Amman, one for Omer and one for us. The groom brought jewellery and even paid for a wedding ceremony. We had to take in the wedding dress to make it fit Rulla’s tiny body. I had to tell her how to behave with her husband. I asked her if she loved her groom. She said she did, but I was not sure that she knew the real meaning of love.
I fumbled to illustrate things to her bluntly. I told her that her husband might get too close to her, he would kiss her and she should not shudder but welcome that. I did not want to scare her with the whole story of marriage. I told her he would teach her how to be a good wife. I sat for two hours with the groom before he married my daughter. I tried to prepare him for the fact that he was getting married to a child, not a mature woman, and that he needed to be more tolerant with her.
The second day aAfter the wedding, I ran to see Rulla and asked her how her night had been. She told me it was OK and that everything went well. I’m praying all the time that her marriage will last. The problem is Rulla can’t forget that she is still a child though she is married now. In one of my visits, it was terribly shocking to see her wearing socks and slipping about on the floor like other children in the house. I told her she should not do that because she is a married woman now. She said:”Oh mum, I really like to run like before and play with other girls.”
Rulla now lives with her husband’s family because she needs her mother-in-law to guide her. She has been married for five months now. I do not think her husband will allow her to complete her studies. He wants her to focus on her house and kids. Ten days ago, I took her to the hospital, thinking she was pregnant but the doctor found that she had an ovarian cyst. That was bad and good news for me at the same time. Deep in my heart I was content she won’t get pregnant soon because she is still a child and her marriage is not documented, which means the baby would not have a birth certificate. I still ask myself every day if I was fair to Rulla.
My spouse, Assam, woke up one morning to give a warm hug to our six children and run to Damascus. He was worried about his sister and her family. That was more than two years ago. He never came back to our house in Deraa. I heard he had been detained by the Syrian army. Assam was an accountant in a drug store in Deraa countryside. He used to earn about 15,000 Syrian pounds a month, but it was enough for me and my three daughters and three sons. But since he’s been gone, things have changed dramatically. Now we have no money coming in. There is no man at home to protect us. It was so stressful for a single woman to cope with soldiers raiding her house. If the soldiers harassed me or snatched any of my daughters, I could do nothing.
Tales of a couple of rapes and kidnapping incidents came to light in the town. Three young girls in our neighbourhood vanished on their way to another village. Simple daily tasks or bus journeys became a torment. If a man takes a fancy to a girl on a bus he can force her to go with him. Young girls had turned into an unspeakable source of anxiety for her parents. Everyone wanted grooms for their girls; otherwise they just had to lock them up at home.
My eldest daughter, Dima, who was 15, was doing well in school but I was worried she might be kidnapped or raped by the soldiers on the way to and from school. I thought the best security for us would be a son-in-law. I let it be known that I was ready to marry off my daughter. I had to persuade my daughter to drop out of study and prepare for marriage. She was adamant that she wanted to finish her schooling, but I said that our need was greater. We have a saying in our village: “Having an eye infection is better than blindness”: it was much better for her to get married, even though she was still a child, than to be raped by a soldier.
My neighbour told me a relative was hunting for a young girl to marry. She enticed the young man’s mother to come and visit. The would-be groom came too.
It was an abrupt marriage: no dowry, no guarantees and no wedding documentation. A cleric came with two male witnesses to endorse the marriage verbally. The groom, Hassan, who was 25, was unemployed like most of the men in our locality. I could not ask him for anything as the whole town was under army siege. Hassan got Dima a small golden ring, no furniture except a mattress, and some clothes. No one in the town had money; prices were soaring.
On her wedding day, Dima was delighted to be in her white wedding gown, which we had hired from a nearby store. But I could sense the agony in her eyes. She pretended she was happy just to please me but she was obviously terribly startled. I kept asking myself if I was unfair to her by forcing her to get married while she still wanted to play with other little girls in our neighbourhood.
The toughest job was to spell out to her how to cope with her husband on the wedding night, how to be a good wife, how to allow her husband to get close to her. I felt she did not really understand any of my instructions.
Three days after the wedding, I went to see Dima in her new home to find out how she was. She ran to me sobbing and wailing. She looked pale and in shock. I begged her to be more open to me, then she told me in broken words that she could not have any sleep in the same bed as a strange man. She pleaded with me to take her home and let her go back to school. She kept saying: “I do not like him, I do not like him.” Then my son-in-law came to tell me it was hard to put up with Dima’s stubbornness and childlike demeanour. He complained Dima howled and wailed whenever he wanted to touch her.
A few days later, Dima came home crying and asking for my help. I took her in my arms to calm her. She hid her head under my neck and said: “Mum, I do not like him, I can’t live with him. He is so scary.” Soon afterwards, Hassan came to me infuriated. He complained Dima was not obeying him and they were fighting all the time. I convinced Hassan to be more patient with herand said that she was still a kid and needed more compassion and care.
Dima’s health was waning and her depression became obvious to anyone who met her. After less than two months,Hassan dropped her at my house and said to me: “I have divorced your daughter, she can’t be a wife for me any more. I will look for another woman.” Dima refused to go back to school. She did not want to mingle with people any more. She was too bashful and ashamed to tell her friends she was divorced.
She was broken and lost her avidity for reading. All she wants is to be left alone. I feel guilty whenever my eyes meet hers and do not know how to make her recover her confidence. She seems immensely battered. Not long afterwards, I took Dima and my other five children and fled to Zaatari camp in Jordan to escape the heavy shelling in our town. I’m trying to get a psychiatrist for Dima, She needs emotional support to get back her cheerful nature and get on with her life like other kids her age.
My husband died four years ago, leaving me with three daughters and three sons. I’d become increasingly concerned about the safety of my girls after the Syrian army installed a checkpoint in our district in Ankhil city, Deraa province.
One day, my neighbour’s two girls did not come home. The neighbourhood was in panic hunting for the sisters, but they couldn’t find them. I was terrified– appalled for my neighbour’s loss. Suddenly all the families were resolved: we needed to marry off our daughters immediately to avoid kidnapping and rape. FemaleWomen’s social standing in our community is as fragile as a piece of a glass: once it is cracked, it cannot be fixed.
I told my oldest, Nour, to serve coffee to anyone who visited our house. One day, a provincial woman came asking for Nour’s hand for her 38-year-old son, Adil, who was in charge of a vast farm owned by the family in Sanamin town. I wasn’t bothered by the groom’s age. I told Nour, who was shocked and worried he wouldn’t let her go back to school.
Adil came to see Nour and declared he was interested. His financial status was good. Nour deserved a better life. It was one fewer worry for me.
Nour’s marriage was endorsed by a cleric verbally. There was no official documentation because the bride was less than 18. Nour sobbed long and hard when she learned there would be no white wedding dress. The ceremony was brief and sparsely attended. Adil gave his bride a golden ring with a necklace and earrings, and promised her a big ceremony as and when the country is liberated.
I could not advise Nour on her wedding night. She was too confused and apprehensive to listen or chat to me. My youngest sister offered to do the job. She was always pretty close to Nour. After few days, I went with my sister to Sanamin where Nour was living with her husband on his family farm. Nour ran to hug me and flooded me with kisses but as soon as we sat down and I turned my face to speak to her, she ran to her room. I wanted to go after her but I felt that there were barriers between us. It was a poignant moment. Nour did not look happy like a bride after her wedding. I sent my sister to check what the problem was. Why was Nour avoiding me?
When my sister came back, she told me Nour was in shock. She felt she had committed an immense shameful sin and was wondering if I knew about that and would accept it. She asked her aunt: “Does my mum know what had happened to me?”
Then Adil came to say hello to me and to tell me Nour was too naive and understood nothing about marriage. He added that she needed lot of guidance to be a wife and manage housework.
Nour was my first baby, profoundly precious to me. I knew that if I had fled from Syria to Jordan, I would not have let her marry that man. She was a pleasant child who spent most of the time playing with other young girls in grain fields and she was a member of the school basketball team.
Adil brought Nour to visit me a few times after their wedding. He was always grumbling about her childish behaviour and enraged after once catching her playing football with his young nephews, jumping and running like a little child. There was a huge gap in thinking between Adil and Nour. I felt Nour was doing a duty she neither liked nor enjoyed. She was miserable watching her friends heading to school.
Adil’s mother was unhappy with Nour for her incompetence in cooking. There was another problem: Adil’s mother was dying for her to have a baby, and took her to several gynaecologists. She was told Nour needed more time. Eventually, security became so bad that I had to flee to Jordan. Adil brought Nour to say goodbye to me and her brothers on the day I decided to leave Ankhil.
I phone Nour twice a week from Jordan, I’m worried about her safety and her relationship with her husband. I’m afraid Adil will get fed up of teaching Nour how to be a good housewife. There is a high possibility that he will either divorce her or marry a second woman to have a baby. Adil did not profess his discontent and frustration directly, but I could sense by the tone of his voice that he regretted his marriage to Nour. He can get another wife so easily with the help of his mother and Syrian families desperate to marry their daughters by any means.
Nour always answers my calls in tears and makes me feel so guilty for leaving her alone in Syria. She does not feel that she is married but that she is fulfilling a duty imposed on her by me.
I can’t get her out of my mind. I ask myself repeatedly whether it was right to marry Nour to Adil even though she is only 16. Every day I think about this, and every day I conclude: I got it wrong.