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Coerced Cousin Marriages Remain Common

Over the years, 16-year-old Muna Haji has seen her older sister Mariam grow bitter after being forced to marry her cousin.

Now that she is over 15, Muna feels desperate because she knows she is going to share the same fate. According to a custom known as “hayar” which is prevalent in al-Riqa, a poor village in northern Syria, she too is to be married off to a cousin, and she does not like the sound of him.

“When my cousin is angry with his mother, he hits her with an iron bar. He might do that to me, and I am afraid,” said Muna. “My heart and mind reject it.”

Hundreds of girls like Muna and Mariam living in rural parts of northern Syria are coerced into arranged marriages with cousins.

Muhammad Nuri is a Muslim cleric who conducts marriage ceremonies in Aleppo, and is a staunch opponent of the “hayar” tradition.

He explained, “According to this custom, which is still widespread in closed-off rural areas where strict tribal traditions dominate, a girl is promised in marriage to one of her cousins in the first days after her birth.”

To seal the arrangement, her uncle – and future father-in-law – cuts a small piece of cloth from the baby girl’s dress and keeps it as a token that the girl has been pledged to his son, Nuri said.

Once the girl turns 15, the cousins are forced to marry.

“It’s a form of marriage that contradicts all reason, logic, and Islam,” said the cleric, adding that he refuses to sign any marriage contract drawn up according to the “hayar” tradition.

Nuri noted that outside the tribal communities, other forms of arranged marriage, sometimes contracted at an early age, remain common in Syria.

Under Syrian law, the legal age for marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys.

Rula Zuhairi, a professor of law at Damascus University, says “hayar” persists because men in these communities remain attached to the old ways.

“Tribal societies believe that this kind of marriage keeps maintains purity in a family’s lineage,” she said.

Haj Khalid Ramzi, who works the land in a village near Aleppo, said he would never abandon a custom that has been passed down the generations.

“No matter what, we must live by the tribal rules set out by our grandfathers,” said the 60-year-old man.

The Syrian government has recently run campaigns to raise awareness about the health risks of marriage among close relatives, which can increase the likelihood that rare genetic diseases will be carried out. TV programmes have highlighted the issue.

At the same time, government officials have avoided tackling the “hayar” tradition head-on for fear of offending tribal leaders.

Fahed al-Amer, a farmer in his twenties living in al-Riqa, said the practice was none of anyone else’s business.

“The state does not interfere with our customs,” he said. “It’s entirely up to the families here to decide who they will marry their children to.”

Attempting to break with tradition can meet with stiff resistance.

When Haifa Khalil, from a village near Aleppo, refused refused to marry a cousin whom she found “disrespectful and childish”, her parents tried to arrange a marriage to another, unrelated man.

But they faced opposition from her uncle, who threatened them. He said she could marry any of his sons, but insisted they had priority over anyone else. Under pressure from tribal elders, Haifa finally agreed to the match.

Now, she says, “I have no dreams or hopes in life. I feel that I am under sentence.”

Mazin Afash, a social worker who follows cases like those of Muna and Haifa, says many young women forced into cousin marriages are greatly distressed.

“These girls feel that their rights have been violated and that, moreover, they can do nothing about it,” he said.

They cannot complain to an outside official because of the social stigma that would bring, he said, adding, “Most of them wouldn’t dare ask for a divorce because they are afraid of being disowned.”

According to Zuhairi, most of the women involved end up accepting the situation and “trying to deal with their wounds.”

Muna has tried to talk her parents out of marrying her off to her cousin against her will, but to no avail.

“Maybe they don’t care about my fate because I am a girl,” she said. “If I’d been a boy, they’d have had some sympathy for me.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)