Mixed Marriages in Sectarian Syria
Khaled and Mona married in Syria in April 2012. It was an unusual marriage – he is Sunni Muslim and she is Ismaili. Still, their families accepted the inter-sect marriage.
“The issue never came up in my family, and when my husband came to them to propose, they dealt with him solely on the basis of his character and his treatment of me,” said 35-year-old Mona.
Khaled says he and Mona do not consider themselves part of any sect, and neither do their families.
“We live outside a sectarian framework, so there was no issue with our getting married,” said the 46-year-old Sunni school teacher.
Khaled and Mona try to avoid mixing with their neighbours, most of whom do not know their religious affiliations. But they say that the rising sectarian tensions in Syria have not affected their marriage, mainly because their families and friends are very tolerant.
Other Syrian couples who married across sectarian boundaries tell a different story.
Fatin, 32, an Alawite housewife with a university degree, married a Sunni man nine years ago.
“We faced many obstacles, the first being my family’s refusal to allow me to marry a non-Alawite man,” she said. “They justified this by saying they were worried about me being a stranger in his family, unloved and disrespected and far from my own environment. But I was convinced of my decision and I went through with it.”
The situation has become more difficult for Fatin since the start of the Syrian uprising. The political gulf separating her from her parents widened as a result of severe disagreements about the uprising. She was forced to move away from her parents and siblings, and to cut off all contact with them, except during major family events.
Her husband’s family, too, have a hard time accepting her because of her background, despite their shared support for the Syrian uprising.
“I wore the veil to appease my husband and his family, and I adopted their customs to preserve my marriage and my children,” she said.
Although Fatin rebelled against what she called a “society lacking freedom and ungoverned by the rule of law”, she believes that like any other woman, she has paid the price of living in a regressive society, regardless who she married.
“In my case and given the current situation, I live a double oppression. A woman like me pays the price for her choices, estranged from her milieu and family,” she adds.
Abdullah, 41, an artist who is Sunni Muslim, spoke of the difficulties he encountered due to his marriage last year to Sana’a, 33, an Alawite government employee. Both of them are from the Homs countryside.
Abdullah said his wife’s family was reluctant to approve the marriage, and eventually only did so for fear that the couple would elope. He says the mood of sectarian incitement has not affected his marriage.
“We agree on things and disagree on others, just like any other couple,” he said. “We argue about cleaning the house, the amount of salt in the food and leaving hair in the sink. Our religious differences do not and will not affect our lives, because we are both secular.”
Syrian law does not prohibit marriages between different Muslim groups, so there is no need to convert. Druze men, however, are required to relinquish their faith.
“Despite the fact that the Druze are a Muslim sect, they have their own religious courts,” said lawyer Ayham.
Ayham says Article 307 of the personal status code excludes some Islamic Sharia laws from application to the Druze. The Druze courts require that a married couple are both of the faith, since one cannot convert into it.
To a large extent, the same applies to Christian sects, which are sometimes against marriages among people from different Christians churches and categorically reject marriage with Muslims.
Syrian personal status law requires Christian men to relinquish their sect and embrace Islam if they want to marry a Muslim woman. According to Article 48 of the personal status code, the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man is void. On the other hand, a Christian woman may remain part of her sect if she marries a Muslim man, although Article 264 of the code denies her any inheritance rights. In addition, there is a strong social stigma attached to such marriages, which may lead to estrangement, banishment and even murder.
Misha, 26, a master’s student in journalism who is Christian, decided to marry an Ismaili man in August last year. The man converted to Christianity with his own parents’ approval in order to win the approval of Misha’s parents. They were married in a church in Lebanon, and the couple recently moved to the United States after Misha was awarded a postgraduate scholarship.
“We believe in secularism, but society and law in Syria force one into a specific sect,”
Misha said. “It is not just patriarchal culture that’s opposed to anything alien to the established social norms or outside the power of the family and society. The main problem is that the state, through law, does not protect an individual’s autonomous choices, but rather protects the patriarchal culture particularly as it pertains to controlling women’s bodies.”
Misha and her husband were unable to register their marriage in Syria, since according to Sharia law, her husband is an apostate. He may yet be punished, if not by the state then by religious extremists.
Misha believes that civil marriage is the answer – it would dilute sectarian identity and separate religion and state. Abdullah agrees, and believes that civil marriage would offer a measure of freedom to many people.
“Removing legal obstacles to a civil marriage law that ensures the full rights of both partners is the key to security in a future Syria,” said Misha.
Whether civil marriage could be introduced in Syria is questionable. Several awareness campaigns have been launched on Facebook to promote civil marriage. Some pages have thousands of members, such as “Stop saying ‘society’”, “Sign on to civil marriage” and “Civil marriage in Syria”. They are laying the groundwork for the adoption of civil marriage as a an idea.
At a legal level, however, the situation is more complicated. Civil marriage implicitly requires the adoption of secularism, which does not exist in Syria despite the ruling party’s claim to the contrary.
“The Baath Party presents itself as secular when in reality it has only an outer shell of secularism,” said Mahmoud, an academic researcher on politics and religion in Syria who did not want his full name to be given.
“The evidence is there, not least of because a real secular state does not impose Islam as the state religion in its constitution,” he said. “Nor does it require a Christian man to relinquish his religion if he marries a Muslim woman, or make it illegal for a Muslim man to convert.”
“This is enough to prove the Baath state’s false secularism,” Mahmoud said.
(All names in this article are pseudonyms.)
This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.