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