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Ana Maria Luca

Marriages of shame

Child marriages among Syrian refugees have turned into a lucrative business

A young Syrian girl earlier in 2013.

Sahar* wished she could slap that Saudi sheikh, just like she had slapped taxi drivers asking her to provide them with young Syrian girls. But instead she just said “no” and told him that if he shows up at that mosque again she will cut his beard. Then she says she left, slamming the door. It wasn’t just an accident, neither was it just one sheikh who asked her to serve as a matchmaker.

 

A few months later, another Saudi sheikh approached her at the mosque: He wanted a young Syrian girl to marry and he was wondering whether she could find him a bride, for a fee, of course. Sometimes she gets such proposals from taxi drivers. “Once, I was in a taxi and the driver approached me. There was this Lebanese sheikh who wanted to marry a Syrian girl. ‘He will give you money, and he will also give that woman money,’ he told me. I slapped him, as usual,” she recalled.

 

Sahar is a conservative Muslim. She wears a hijab, she dons an abaya, she goes to the mosque. “I am a good girl, I am trustworthy. They feel they can trust me with that,” she explains. “If I agree to sell a girl, maybe some other woman would sell me against my will.”

 

But not many think like Sahar does. Young women get sold off for a week to men willing to pay. Taxi drivers ask around about young girls aged 16-17; deals are made in the streets of Tripoli. “I have refused to do this, but many people don’t.”

 

Some people make a business out of trafficking women for rich foreigners, says Ayman Hariri, a Syrian activist who settled in Akkar in 2011 when he had to flee Daraa fearing arrest. He used to run an NGO that provided aid for Syrian refugees, but he decided to close it down. Trying to provide aid is difficult, with some aid organizations using their small NGOs to sell 16-year-old girls to their Gulf sponsors in exchange for money.

 

“I can tell you about someone I know, I met him in person and he offered to bribe me. He posed as a sheikh with a Saudi benefactor. People soon found out his organization was actually what you call a whorehouse: He was getting girls for the Saudi sheikh. If he liked the girl, he would offer $10,000, he would marry her for a week, and then she would go back home with $1,000. The rest was given to the so-called Lebanese sheikh, who now owns a building and has several cars,” Hariri explains.

 

He says that Akkar is not like the Zaatari camp in Jordan, and the arranged marriages and cloaked prostitution aren’t nearly as frequent. “Jordan is closer to the Gulf, where girl-brides and early marriage are more common. Lebanon is farther away.”

 

But international organizations and NGOs in Lebanon say early marriage happens among the Syrian refugees as well as host communities. Stopping it is almost impossible, because Lebanese law allows child marriage, sociologist Rafif Rida Sidawi told NOW. “The Lebanese family code allows marriage for girls as young as 13-14. In some confessions, even as young as 9.” (Lebanon has 15 different family codes, almost one for each sect. Many of them allow child marriage.)

 

A Lebanese sheikh who requested to remain anonymous told NOW that he would never marry a girl under 13, although the law tells him that the minimum age is 9. “I need to see the girl, to see if she’s ready. I also need a medical certificate, and the father’s permission,” he explained.


Most NGOs that deal with women’s rights in Lebanon are concerned by the increasing number of early marriages among Syrian refugees. According to UNHCR’s refugee response plan, 10% of Syrian refugee women and Lebanese women in host communities have been exposed to gender-based violence, including early marriage, rape, and domestic violence. To cope with poverty, Syrian girls are married off very early, sometimes for money, sometimes for protection. The family simply can’t afford to support them and they find a husband to share the burden.

 

“It doesn’t mean that early marriage did not take place in Syria before the war, but the difference is that now it has become a business, a trade. It turned into trafficking,” Roula al-Masri, Gender Equality Programme Manager at ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality, told NOW. “They tend to sell their daughters for the husband to take care of the entire family or pay the rent… It’s a coping mechanism. And it is highly discriminatory, because they think that even if the girls were educated, they would never contribute to the economy of the family,” she explains. (Al-Masri’s association is one of the few in Lebanon which provides shelter for Syrian women who were victims of gender-based violence, including early marriage.) She says the women who get to the three shelters are always afraid that somehow they are going to be exposed, and they demand strict confidentiality.

 

“They don’t talk about this. The families don’t talk about this. The girls don’t talk about this,” Sahar told NOW as she put her hand over her mouth to show how obstinate people’s silence is. “It’s shameful for them,” Sahar explains.

 

Shame is a big thing, says Sahar. Shame makes people do horrible things.

 

“I will never forget this little girl in Wadi Khaled,” Sahar almost whispers, trying to regain her voice while her eyes fill with tears. Sahar found this girl locked by her family in the bedroom. She was assessing aid needs when she heard her crying. The men were not at home. The mother was too scared to speak, the little girl’s body bruised, her face burnt. She had been beaten up by six Syrian soldiers when they attacked their house in Baba Amr, in Homs. “When the doctor came, we found out that she had been raped. Only she had no idea that what had happened to her was rape. She thought they were hitting her. Her father and brother then burnt her face.”

 

What happens when a young girl like this gets married off to an older man? Is she any different than that girl in Wadi Khaled who was raped by six men, without even knowing she was being raped? Are these sheikhs any better than those six Syrian soldiers? These are questions Sahar says she can’t answer. But she will continue to slap taxi drivers and slam doors in sheikhs’ faces, wishing that other women like her find the strength to do the same. 

 

“These men are nothing,” she says, pointing her chin at the floor. “Men are weak.”

 

Luna Safwan contributed with reporting and translation. 

 

Ana Maria Luca is on twitter @aml1609.

 

*Sahar is not the interviewee’s real name. It was changed for security reasons. 


Read this article in Arabic

A young Syrian girl earlier in 2013. (AFP photo)

"If he liked the girl, he would offer $10,000, he would marry her for a week, and then she would go back home with $1,000. The rest was given to the so-called Lebanese sheikh, who now owns a building and has several cars."

  • Hebephile

    If anyone in this forum says , they r not attracted to pubersent girls , either he is gay or stupid. Pubersent girls have fine bodies and budding tits , much attractive than old mature women. M talking about girls above age of puberty and legally above age of consent in that particular country. Mature woman come with all baggage , whining and wrinkles too , Young girls r innocent , listening and easily can groom them.

    November 4, 2014

  • Hebephile

    Morover Adult man and pubersent girl marriages are very common in earlier times , but its the feminist movement which started in ninteenth century which brought propaganda against such marrages. Age of consent across the world has been increased , the all good early marriages suddenly became ' evil'. But they are utterly failed to misguide islamic nations and likely booted out. Islam is practical , prmotes chastity and early marriage.

    November 4, 2014

  • Hebephile

    well. I see no problem with a mature man getting married with pubersent girl .

    November 4, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    There are some seriously sick people in this world. I think it would be better to stone these perverts than those poor women "guilty" of adultry.

    November 20, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Yeah, sure...it is never about religion. God forbid that we impugn religions for primitive criminal behavior. Why do you fear calling out religion for crimes committed in its name? Why should religion be immune and kept protected from the discussion. To read you, Jameskeane, attributing this to the "war" makes me believe that the 40 past years of wars, sectarian massacres, ethnic cleansings, killing على الهوية etc. that took place in Lebanon were caused by social problems, and not by the deep hatreds that only the religion fault lines have caused, and continue to cause, in Lebanon. Are you sure there is no role for religion in this? According to Surgit, and from my own readings, it seems that the life of the Prophet and the Hadith do in fact allow this sort of behavior. It might have been acceptable 1,400 years ago, but not today. The problem is that official Islam takes the Koran literally, unlike the other religions which have by and large come to accept the metaphorical content of such books as Bible (which is itself infested with all kinds of abhorrent sexual behaviors) and the New Testament. The Saudis buying up 9-year old Syrian refugee girls are doing this because they are convinced that they are obeying God's Law. I suggest you watch or read "The Yacoubian Building" and learn how Islam is used in Egypt for specifically the same purposes that these Saudi men are seeking. And to AML16091: It is not just Islam, but all the religions that impose these laws. We need a secular state and we need to dump religions into the trash.

    November 18, 2013

  • aml16091

    Actually, you are all wrong. It's not Islam, but the outdated Lebanese law that allows this to happen. Some Christian sects, such as the Evangelical Christians or the Armenian orthodox set the marriage age for females at 14. There are 15 Family Codes in Lebanon and many of them set the marriage age for females under 18.

    November 18, 2013

  • A_J

    This is correct, and an indication that Lebanon is not a State as is normally defined. It is subservient to sectarian interests that more often than not subvert national interests.

    November 19, 2013

  • JamesKeane

    If anyone thinks this is about religion they are seriously deluded... This is about rife social problems that happen in any war, but these stories are now shared more liberally being that there is an appetite for them in Lebanese and international media. This could'v'e been Sri Lanka, Cambodia or Rwanada, but it is Syria and it is on Lebanese streets that Syrians are being trafficked. The Lebanese neither have the will or the powerful government to do anything about this, because as the British say, they "have bigger fish to fry". I suspect these social issues will only continue to grow, regardless of whether NOW Lebanon or Arwa Damon cover them, because the truth is no one really cares, people are more interested in political solutions, this comes secondary. The real nightmare for the girls though is that they are living in a dark conservative pit where honor is more of concern to society and their families than their health or mental well being.

    November 18, 2013

  • surjit.kaila.5

    A J. ''..in the same way vein you would condemn all the priests engaged in sex with children in the Church , paedophilia ,rapes ,murders and homicide committed in Western society ...'' Yes, the priests who engage in sex with children in the Church ,when caught are punished and often they leave the Church. and also imprisoned .But in muslims countries the Imams who engage in sex with children are NEVER reprimanded, but once they are caught in the Western world countries they are also dealt according to law. Go to You Tube and type in '' bacha bazi -Afghanistan '' and see what you muslims do to little boys. Also see 3w'sdot rawa dotorg and see how women are treated. There are worst things happening in muslim countries than you let us believe .The reason why these muslims want to marry very young girls is because they want to emulate Mohammad, your profit who at the age of 52 married 6 years old girl Aisha. Not only that he also married his own daughter-in-law Zainab Read Quran Sura 33:37.fpr proof. You are right when you say to HANIBAAL '' You have neither fundamental understanding of Islam nor ....'' Because majority of Westerners are least knowable about evils of Islam and muslim history ,but they are learning now because the information can be got from internet. Islam is NOT a religion but a cult.

    November 18, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Surgit: I suggest you take a crash course in English grammar and spelling; I have never heard of a "profit" that gets married. Also, you seem to imply that I need to learn more about Islam for the purpose of becoming more enlightened about how it, like Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and all religions basically, are more barbaric and backward that I presently know. Thanks, but no thanks. I have better things to do than learn more about less. Religious beliefs and creeds are all residues from our primitive past, require us to believe worthless stories, myths and fallacies that only 5 year old toddlers would believe,, maintain the bulk of humanity in a state of imbecility that is exploited by powerful elites to herd people around like cattle, and have done on the whole more harm than good to humanity. How about, if I may suggest, you stop reading inane stories from the Koran and such sources, and learn more about science, biology, geology, etc. to try and understand where we come from and where we are going.

    November 18, 2013

  • A_J

    Surjit, "...and see what you muslims do to little boys." "You muslims" means what exactly? If a man commits murder or rape or incest in the west or in your country, do you automatically tag the predominant religion as being to blame? Then we should condemn Christianity in the U.S. everyday since, between 2000 and 2010 the annual average homicide rate in the U.S. ranged from 13,500 murders to 16,000 murders; the approx total of homicides in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 is approx 166,000. (...) Does this astounding statistic condemn the U.S. (and Christianity) as a nation of homicidal maniacs? Absolutely not, the actions of criminal and violent individuals are not to be transposed onto a largely innocent population or religion (as you ignorantly did) for them to bear the guilt. Similarly, the crimes of those who murder or violate children for whatever cause and in any region of the world cannot be borne by the general population. These actions/murders must be understood as crimes by individuals who have a perverted view of their existence relative to others and must be brought to justice. Blinded self righteous bias is one thing and informed opinion another...please recalibrate your thought process....it does not hurt to check your hatred at the door too. Thank you for your contribution though. It is very reflective of the individual you are.

    November 19, 2013

  • A_J

    "I have better things to do than learn more about less. Religious beliefs and creeds are all residues from our primitive past, require us to believe worthless stories, myths and fallacies that only 5 year old toddlers would believe..." I will defend your right to practice, live by and believe only what you deem fit for yourself; there is no daylight between us in this regard. "...maintain the bulk of humanity in a state of imbecility that is exploited by powerful elites to herd people around like cattle..." - You are spot on with this assessment

    November 19, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    All of this confirms to me that Islam as the "Law" is the problem, and nothing else. In the West and all over the world, older men lust after young girls, just as these Saudi Sheikhs. But the laws - religious and social - in these countries prohibit them. In the Muslim world - as the Lebanese Sheikh said - 9-year old girls are legal fodder under Islamic Law to be married off to older men. Islam is the problem; no question about it. The worst part of it is that the Lebanese Sheikh says he will marry a 9-year old to some Saudi, as long as he sees the girl to see if she is ready! How can a 9-year old girl be ready? What psychology, what medical certificate and what father's permission make a 9-year old girl suitable for marriage? This is legal prostitution under God's Islamic Law. Simply disgusting.

    November 16, 2013

  • A_J

    @Hanibaal-Atheos, in the same vein you would then condemn all the priests engaged in sex with children in the Church, pedophilia, rapes, murders and homicides committed in Western society and the many pastors who have been shamed and caught stealing Church money or involved in prostitution as being an intrinsic part of Christianity and thus that Christianity itself is the problem? Correct? The fallacy and illogical nature of your argument is evident and your bias perhaps too overt. You have neither a fundamental understanding of Islam nor even a basic comprehension of its principles to venture forth "an educated opinion" on the matter. Your comment would have carried more weight and been more compelling if you had strictly addressed human behavior as opposed to blaming an easier target such as Islam; as I did Christianity above. Although I, unlike you, understand that there is not a single religion in the world that permits any such atrocities, be they murders, rapes, etc. These are a reflection of the shortcomings of every society and have less to do with the religion of the locality. Man has never and will never be the measure by which religion is judged. Religion, however, is the measure by which humanity is gauged and judged. An individual's crimes and behavior are just that, their behavior. It is only the uninformed, biased, or uneducated person who offers such correlations without attempting to hold an individual accountable for their personal behavior. I do hope you see the fundamental error in your judgement and perhaps be less bigoted when attempting to address an issue you may not have knowledge of.

    November 17, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I do condemn all religions under whose cloak many many untold atrocities have been, and continue to be, committed. The point I am making is that only Islam officially sanctions marrying off younger girls (as young as 9), as this Sheikh clearly stated in the piece by Luca. This is not a practice of some societies or some men: This is the official position of official Islam. The fact that some more enlightened Muslim societies have long forgone these practices does not exonerate official Islam from the guilt of maintaining these practices alive simply because they were accepted during the time of prophet Mohammed or because the Koran or the Hadith speaks neutrally or favorably on them. Notwithstanding the loathing I have for all religions, including Christianity, I have no knowledge of any official stance by any religion others than Islam that allows such a practices, including marrying younger girls, polygamy, the زواج المتعة or temporary "marriage of pleasure", and such other officially sanctioned practices of Islam whose only objective was to provide for certain proclivities that men had in antiquity that are no longer compatible with our values today. These practices perpetuate the treatment of women as men's property and chattel. No one needs a PhD in Islamic Studies to understand these simple facts, and to rise as you do in a blind defense of Islam's official practices by brandishing as their equivalent the equally barbaric, but definitely not official, pedophilia by Catholic priests smacks of vulgar and pedestrian argumentation and not of the implied scholarly knowledge of Islam that you claim to have.

    November 17, 2013

  • surjit.kaila.5

    HANIBAAL I suggest you learn more about Islam and muslim history , (...)

    November 18, 2013

  • A_J

    Again, you fail to comprehend the fundamental point of my text; that of your approach to the topic and how you chose to perceive the matter. I absolutely did not defend Islam or any other religion - See, "Your comment would have carried more weight and been more compelling if you had strictly addressed human behavior as opposed to blaming an easier target such as Islam..." and, "Although I, unlike you, understand that there is not a single religion in the world that permits any such atrocities, be they murders, rapes, etc. These are a reflection of the shortcomings of every society and have less to do with the religion of the locality." There is no way to misunderstand my comment as one "defending Islam" as you claim, when in fact it is apparent that my criticism is of your approach and thought process. As to your point of "...only Islam officially sanctions marrying off younger girls (as young as 9)..." this is a favorite of anti-Islam activists and you are absolutely wrong on the matter; had you done some research or spoken to a Muslim to gain clarification you would have been informed of the following: That Mohammad did not marry Aisha for any purpose other than to educate her and for her to be a "repository" of his teachings, sayings and interpretations - she is the primary source of explaining the behavior and teachings of the Prophet whenever there was a question regarding such. The most important and prominent scholars of Islam after the Prophet passed away studied under Aisha, a prominent scholar herself (good heavens, a woman teaching a man in Islam...such blasphemy). At the age of 9 (Aisha), there was a formal declaration of intent made and agreed to between the Prophet and her parents, as such no one could come and ask for her hand in marriage. This meant she was betrothed to the Prophet. Upon the age of 13, Aisha was married to the Prophet and began living with him and it was not until she turned 16 that the marriage was consummated. But then again

    November 19, 2013

  • A_J

    But then again, you would also have known that during Christ's time, the age of marriage was 12 for girls and 13 for boys (see, McGarvey, J.W. Lands of the Bible. Nashville: Gospel Advocate), and that the betrothal period then was between 10 moths to a year, whereas the betrothal time for Aisha was 4 years. (see, Jackson, Wayne. Background Bible Study. Montgomery: Apologetics Press, 1986) Here is something for you to consider as well; "Anciently in biblical times, girls often married at or shortly following puberty, and boys usually married sometime between puberty and their latter teen years. Given the emphasis on family anciently, children often were born to a marriage consequently within the year following marriage." (...) I have a direct and very matter of fact approach to engaging in debate, I hope you take nothing personal and understand that it is important for anyone who seeks to comment on an issue be informed as to the veracity of the statements he/she is making.

    November 19, 2013