November 12, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 898

Criticism In Arab World Over Exploitation Of Syrian Refugee Girls For Purposes Of Marriage

November 12, 2012 | By L. Barkan*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 898


The Syrian crisis, ongoing since March 2011, has so far claimed the lives of some 35,000 people and has also forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee to neighboring countries, especially Turkey and Jordan, where they are living in refugee camps established for them. Recently, a new aspect of this humanitarian crisis has come to light: a phenomenon called "protection marriage" (sutra in Arabic), which involves Arab Muslim men marrying female Syrian refugees, often girls aged 12-16, under the pretext of saving them from the harsh living conditions in the refugee camps, protecting their honor, and assisting the Syrian revolution. According to reports, the girls' families are often willing to marry them off for a very low bride-price in order to spare them life in the camps while securing some income for the family's subsistence. Media reports indicate that these cases exist in Jordan, Turkey, Libya and other countries, and that Muslim men from across the Arab world travel to the countries neighboring Syria in search of a young refugee bride. Some reports claim that certain Muslim clerics encourage this practice, calling it "a national duty," and are even taking part in it themselves.

The Arab media's recent exposure of this phenomenon has triggered a wave of outrage among Syrians and other Arabs, and activists have launched a campaign against it, including on Facebook. According to the activists, these marriages constitute an exploitation of the refugees in the camps, especially of young girls. They have reported cases of girls marrying elderly men, marriages leading to rape and prostitution, and men from different Arab countries bargaining for Syrian women on the internet. In light of this, the phenomenon has been nicknamed the "lust jihad," in mockery of those who present it as a form of jihad for the sake of the Syrian people.

It should be mentioned that the extent of the phenomenon is unclear. The media campaign being waged against it, and official measures that have been reportedly taken by the Jordanian authorities to curb it, suggest that it is a relatively widespread phenomenon; however, some claim that it is limited to a small number of cases, or even suggest that it was invented or exaggerated by the Syrian regime with the aim of harming the revolution and its supporters.

This document will review the phenomenon as it is depicted in the Arab media, as well as criticism of it.

The Reason For Marriage: The Low "Price" Of Syrian Refugee Girls

It should be mentioned that the phenomenon of marrying refugee women is known from previous wars, such as the 2003 war in Iraq, and that Syrian women have long been considered desirable brides in the Arab world. However, with the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and the growing number of Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, the phenomenon took a dangerous and exploitative turn, since Syrian families often agree to the marriage even if the girl is young and the union does not guarantee her personal safety and future, as long as she is spared the harsh living conditions in the refugee camps.

Some reports come from Jordan, which hosts more than 250,000 Syrian refugees, specifically from the Al-Za'atri refugee camp, where harsh living conditions recently sparked violent protests by refugees and even requests to return to Syria. Zayed Hammad, head of the Kitab Wal-Sunna Society in Jordan, which supervises aid to Syrian refugees, said that the association had received 500 requests by Jordanian men to marry Syrian women. He explained that many young Jordanian men wished to marry Syrian women to avoid the high bride-price customary in Jordan. According to Hammad, there was originally a mafia in Jordan that attempted to trade in refugee marriages, but it was exposed and its activity was stopped.[1]

A Syrian sociologist living in Amman who has investigated the phenomenon called these marriages "disastrous," and said that the practice had taken on a dangerous and obscene aspect as the living conditions in the refugee camps worsened, and as refugee families began seeking any way to avoid poverty and suffering. He added that many Jordanians took advantage of this distress, since marrying a refugee girl is cheaper than marrying a Jordanian one, and especially since these marriages are considered an act of charity and aid to the Syrian revolution. Another longtime Syrian resident of Jordan said that Syrian families married off their daughters to Jordanian relatives or acquaintances to spare them the harsh life in the camps, and added: "An elderly Jordanian married a 12-year-old Syrian girl. Is there anything more cruel than these crimes committed against our Syrian people?"[2]

Demonstration in Egypt: "Our Refugees Girls Are Free Women, Not Prisoners. We Are Not For Sale."[3]

Media reports indicate that the phenomenon is not confined to Jordanian men. An article in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi states that Syrian women have become "easy prey and a valuable catch" for rich pleasure-seekers from the Gulf and North Africa, and that the refugee camps have become "a market for choosing pretty girls to marry for a meager bride-price, between $50 and $500, without prior acquaintance and under the pretext of protecting them." Syrian political activist Rahaf 'Aita was quoted as saying that "men tell each other on the internet that, for $50, once can find a pretty Syrian bride [to be] a housewife." She added: "Everyone suddenly wants us [Syrian refugee women], most of them men from the Gulf, especially Saudis, who drool [with desire] and cannot curb their lust in the face of Syrian distress." Another Syrian activist, Hadeel 'Abd Al-Karim, said that the situation is gravest in the Turkish refugee camps, because girls married off there are often forced to become prostitutes or are raped. According to her, the media must address the problem, and aid must be extended to the refugees so that they are not forced to sell their daughters.[4] According to one report, Libya has offices that arrange marriages between Libyan men and Syrian refugees that have fled to Libya, at a cost of 500 Libyan dinars (approximately 300 Euros).[5]

Scope Of Phenomenon Remains Unclear

Despite the outcry against the phenomenon, activists admit that they lack the tools to assess its scope, and even criticize the media for "exaggerating" it. An activist in the Al-Za'atri refugee camp in Jordan, who participates in the campaign against the phenomenon, admitted in early September that the campaign office in the camp had no more than ten registered cases of marriages to refugees, but added that there were cases of marriages conducted in secret that could be traced or documented. The activist added, however, that some media outlets attempted to "exaggerate" the problem, "exploiting the suffering of refugees to promote their agenda."[6]

The Jordanian authorities, for their part, responded to the media reports by denying the existence of the problem. Jordan's Supreme Judge Department published statistics according to which marriages between Syrian women and Jordanian men in the first half of 2012 did not exceed the average number of such marriages over the years. Department experts stressed that the shari'a courts would not issue marriage certificates in the absence of certain basic conditions, including consent by both parties and an adequate income, and that the most important condition for marriage to foreigners is the consent of the Interior Ministry.[7] Syrian refugees in Jordan likewise issued a communique denying the existence of exploitation, saying that, contrary to media reports, the marriages taking place were with relatives living in Jordan.[8]

Muhammad Al-Rumaihi, a columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, accused the Syrian regime of exaggerating the phenomenon for its own ends. He claimed that the "phenomenon" was limited to a few isolated cases, and that the media campaign against had been triggered by the Syrian regime with the aim of diverting attention from the large number of Syrian victims and harming the reputation of Gulf residents assisting the Syrian people.[9] A reporter for the website claimed, citing sources in Jordan, that the stories were baseless rumors spread by certain journalists, and that the Syrian regime was spreading them in order to demoralize the Syrian opposition and drive a wedge between the opposition and its supporters.[10]

However, despite the denials by Jordanian officials, steps reportedly taken by the Jordanian authorities suggest that the rumors are not, in fact, baseless. Elaph reports that the Jordanian government has decided to ban marriages of Syrian girls to men who are not their relatives, and that, following the decision, the Jordanian Interior Ministry ordered the courts to view any marriage conducted outside the shari'a courts as invalid, and to summon the groom for questioning.[11] Moussa Barhouma, a spokesman for the Jordanian Committee for Supporting to the Syrian People, likewise said that the Jordanian authorities had tried to restrict the phenomenon by specifying strict conditions and procedures for the marriage of Syrian refugees in order to prevent exploitation.[12] Bisan Al-Sheikh, a columnist in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, wrote that this decision had been taken in response to popular and official outrage over the problem, but claimed that such "protection marriages" could still be conducted verbally, based only on the consent of both parties, even without sanction from a court or cleric.[13] Jordanian journalist Muhammad Al-Fadhilat wrote in Al-Safir Al-Arabi, a supplement of the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, that the Jordanian authorities had indeed acted against the phenomenon and succeeded in limiting it, but that other offenses against female refugees remained ongoing and unexposed, such as sexual abuse of female refugees employed as maids.[14]

Do Clerics Encourage The Phenomenon?

According to media reports, some clerics encourage Muslim men to marry Syrian refugees in order to protect them and assist the Syrian revolution (although it should be mentioned that no explicit fatwas by specific clerics could be found), and some have even expressed an intention to do so themselves, whereas others have forbidden these marriages. Some clerics stress that such marriages must conform to the directives of the shari'a and must not be temporary mut'a marriages for purposes of pleasure.[15]

In June 2011, during the early days of the Syrian crisis, the Saudi daily Sabq reported that Meccan judge Sheikh Badr Al-Rajhi intended to visit a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey with the support of several sheikhs and preachers, and that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had expressed fear that he would marry a refugee during his visit and called on him to avoid this.[16]

The Algerian daily Al-Fajr reported that, in their sermons, several imams in the country had encouraged Algerian men, even married ones, to perform a "national duty" by marrying Syrian refugees who had fled to Algeria in order to rescue them from a life of begging on the street.[17]

Sa'ud Al-Fanisan, former dean of Islamic law at the Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud Islamic University in Riyadh, said that marriages to Syrian women are religiously permitted as long as both parties consent, the husband pays a bride-price, and the wife has a guardian, and called to draw up a marriage contract in order to safeguard the rights of both sides. He added that the man would be rewarded by Allah for such a marriage if he undertook it with the aim of pleasing Allah and protecting a Muslim girl. However, he emphasized that marriages to Syrian women are forbidden if they are done with intent to later divorce the woman, or if they are mut'a marriages for the purpose of pleasure and lust. He also forbade the husband to offer a meager bride-price, unless he was unable to pay more and was committed to the marriage.[18]

Prominent Egyptian preacher Khaled 'Abdallah denied a report in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida that he had expressed on Twitter an intention to marry two Syrian girls in order to promote the Syrian cause, and had called on young Egyptians to do the same and marry Syrian refugees sheltering in Egypt.[19] 'Abdallah claimed that the tweet was a fabrication, and that he regarded Syrian refugees as free women entitled to respect from the Arab and Islamic ummah. 'Abdallah even said he had endorsed a campaign against the phenomenon.[20]

The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that several clerics in Jordan and other Arab countries had issued fatwas against such marriages, but mentioned that, despite this, the phenomenon was hard to stop.[21]

Criticism Of The Phenomenon In Syria And The Arab World

The "protection marriages" and exploitation of Syrian women met with criticism from various elements in the Arab world. Some even called this a "lust jihad," claiming that Arab men were exploiting the plight of Syrian families in order to obtain a wife at a bargain price and satisfy their needs. They pointed out that a similar phenomenon had occurred with Iraqi women during the Iraq war, and called on the Arabs to fight this mentality.

Al-Hayat columnist Bisan Al-Sheikh praised Syrian and Arab society for daring to speak out against the exploitation of women refugees: "The barrier of silence has been broken, and the struggle against the culture of shame and female subordination to exaggerated masculinity came from [the refugees themselves] and their surroundings and community... In order to show the victim that she does not carry the burden of this social disgrace alone, we need great courage, mutual assistance and solidarity. Breaking the walls of this private and intimate silence requires a special kind of revolution, which the Syrians have already started."[22]

Facebook Campaign: A New Form Of Slavery; Toying With Women's Future

Criticism of the phenomenon was also expressed on Facebook. A page dedicated to the matter, titled "Refugees, Not Prisoners," received the support of over 14,000 people. The campaign organizers wrote that their purpose was to increase awareness among Syrian families to the dangers of protection marriages; to explain to young Arabs that this is not the way to help Syrians; and to encourage human rights organizations in Arab and Muslim countries, as well as Syrian and Arab intellectuals and businessmen, to establish a fund that would help Syrian women marry Syrian men. The campaign organizers claimed that this was a new form of slavery, and warned against its consequences: "We cannot remain silent in the face of this new [form of] slavery disguised by flowery titles... While Syrian society suffers the worst kinds of killing, displacement, and deprivation... it is inconceivable that those who want to help are offering [not real help but] a substitute in the form of sexual marriage by shari'a contract. [Such a marriage is] unlikely to become a basis for a healthy family or to ensure, first and foremost, the rights of the woman or girl, and also those of her children. There is no guarantee that this husband, who wants to help, will not try to 'help' again by marrying another girl. He could even be married already."

"Refugees, Not Prisoners" Facebook page.[23]

From the campaign Facebook page: "I don't want to marry. I want to study, work and live."[24]

Syrian oppositionist websites also condemned the phenomenon. An article titled "Syrian Women Are Not Goods In The Disguised Slave Market," posted on the oppositionist website, claimed that, since the outbreak of the revolution, the conscience of Arab men had died while their lust had awakened: "...Traders in human souls have begun toying with the future [of Syrian women refugees], exploiting their temporary need for support, for a shoulder to lean on, and for a man, whom they long dreamed would be Syrian... [The people who do this] are lustful Arab men, whose conscience died a clinical death... with the outbreak of our blessed revolution... [Now] their conscience has [re]awakened, but it is an awakening of lust disguised as emotion and compassion, and the exploitation of hardship for [personal] interests. We, the free young men and women of Syria, announce that the cries of our women in the camps have penetrated our ears and hearts, and declare that this is a spark of awakening [that will cause us] to take responsibility for half of our society... We will take all available measures as part of the international efforts and [with the help of] the relevant international organizations..."[25]

The Exploitation Of Female Refugees – A Result Of Global Incompetence

Some Syrians and Arabs also blamed the Arab countries and the international community for failing to address the problem and help the refugees. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) stressed that "the suffering of Syrian women in the refugee camps is a crime against humanity, which is first and foremost the doing of the Syrian regime, due to its barbaric attack on Syrian towns and villages fighting against it, which has forced their residents to escape to the hell of the refugee camps on the border. But this does not mean that neighboring countries and the [other] Arab countries to which Syrians have fled are absolved of responsibility."[26]

The Syrian Forum For Women and Democracy also complained that Arab and international policies are not forceful enough when it comes to the suffering of Syrian women. Syrian political activist Rahaf 'Aita said that the women's plight stems from "the world's impotence [in dealing] with our problem."[27]

Sexual Relations In The Guise Of Jihad

Criticism was also leveled at the clerics who encourage the phenomenon and have reportedly issued fatwas to this effect. The Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi attacked the Algerian clerics who had called on men in their country to marry Syrian refugees, claiming that "these religious fatwas encourage unemployed young men who are still unmarried to regard Syrian women as their chance to taste 'white meat' and have permissible sexual relations."[28] Syrian journalist 'Adnan Azrouni wrote: "We must raise an outcry inside and outside the camps: No to the interference of clerics in the issue of female refugees, no to those who trade in crisis; no to making the Syrian woman a victim twice over."[29]

According to an Egyptian website, a Syrian professor who has fled to Iraq has threatened to file a lawsuit against members of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq's Najaf province for taking fifteen refugee girls and returning them two days later, after they were forced into pleasure marriages and deflowered.[30]

Muhammad Al-'Usaimi, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Yawm, claimed that Arab men who regarded themselves as jihad fighters for Syria came from across the word to marry underage Syrian girls: "These 'mujahideen' race each other to the places where Syrians shelter, and announce their intention to marry underage Syrian girls seeking protection. They spread this disgraceful phenomenon with great enthusiasm... According to one Jordanian participating in the… 'lust jihad'... the price of a Syrian beauty does not exceed 500-1,000 Saudi riyals. What kind of nation uses the sorrow of the daughters to quench the sons' lust?... Some might say that these marriages are in accordance with the Sunna of Allah and His Messenger... My answer [to this claim] is that these are forced and exploitative marriages. Nothing [but misery] would compel a girl in the prime of her youth to marry a passerby she does not know, and who does not guarantee her a respectable life. The number of these lustful men, who exploit the circumstances of war, [is increasing], just as it did during the tragedy of the Iraqi [war]..."[31]

Syrian regime officials also condemned the phenomenon and claimed that religion and jihad were only excuses for sexual relations in this case. For example, in response to a U.N. Secretary-General report dealing with children in armed struggles, the Syrian representative to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, claimed that the report was unprofessional because it did not acknowledge the phenomenon of "sanctioned sexual jihad," as part of which Syrian girls aged 14-16 living in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey are picked up by men as cheap brides.[32]

In an article in the official Syrian daily Teshreen, columnist Safa Isma'il attacked Jordan for refusing requests by Syrian refugees in the Al-Za'atri refugee camp to return to Syria, and wondered whether this was due to "the desire of Bedouins from the Gulf states to marry underage immigrants on the cheap... and to bargain for their bodies under the pretext of religion."[33]

* L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 4, 2012.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 9, 2012.

[4] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), September 8, 2012. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported that the Syrian authorities had confiscated this issue of the weekly because of the article on the exploitation of refugees., September 10, 2012.

[5], September 6, 2012.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 10, 2012.

[7] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 4, 2012. Zayed Hammad of the Kitab Wal-Sunna Society, which supervises aid to Syrian refugees, concurred. He claimed that the number of Syrian refugees married to Jordanian men did not exceed 100-200, namely less than one percent of all Syrian refugees in the kingdom, and denied that there was a phenomenon of marrying off underage refugee girls. According to Hammad, marriages of Syrian women are performed by the Jordanian courts under the exact same conditions as any other marriage., October 16, 2012.

[8] Al-Sharq (Qatar), September 8, 2012.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 30, 2012.

[10], September 10, 2012.

[11] September 10, 2012.

[12] Al-Sharq (Qatar), September 8, 2012.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), September 12, 2012.

[14] Al-Safir Al-Arabi (Lebanon), October 12, 2012.

[15] Mut'a ("pleasure") marriage, a pre-Islamic custom, is a temporary marriage contracted for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires. Today it is forbidden by the Sunna but still permitted by the Shi'a.

[16] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), June 20, 2011.

[17] Al-Fajr (Algeria), August 24, 2012.

[18] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), September 7, 2012. Hassan Abu 'Arqoub, an official at the Jordanian jurisprudential authority, told the daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi that marrying refugee women was not forbidden, provided that the marriage was conducted according to the shari'a, without denying the women her rights or exploiting her need. According to him, the shari'a courts permit marrying foreign women under certain conditions, such as consent by both parties and adequate socioeconomic circumstances. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 4, 2012.

[19] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), September 22, 2012.

[20], September 23, 2012.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 10, 2012.

[22] Al-Hayat (London), September 12, 2012.

[25], August 29, 2012.

[26], September 10, 2012.

[27] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), September 8, 2012.

[28] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), September 8, 2012.

[29] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 10, 2012.

[30], August 29, 2012.

[31] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), August 29, 2012.

[32] Teshreen (Syria), September 21, 2012.

[33] Teshreen (Syria), September 27, 2012.

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