By Rebecca Murray
On a Damascus street.
Iman Wannouss was just 21 years old when she was married off to a close relative. For the next two decades she gave up her work and raised three children in a loveless and violent marriage.
"He beat me for no reason, just when he got stressed, and sometimes in front of the children," she says. Even when she landed in a hospital emergency room after he cut her face with a vase, she refused to tell the doctor what happened.
"It would make things much worse - they would take him to prison and then he would make more trouble. I was frightened of my husband. Also, it’s a kind of shame."
Wannouss finally filed for divorce in a Muslim court upon the urging of her children, but according to the law she had to relinquish all her rights and belongings. "Syrian society looks at divorce in a very negative way," she says. "Women get blamed all the time."
Her story is devastatingly common among women in Syria, governed by discriminatory laws and rules fundamental to family honour.
In 2002 Syria signed the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) with reservations.
These reservations include the Personal Status Law that administers family matters. First established in 1953 and rooted in Islamic law (Shari’a), the Personal Status Law encompasses issues from birth to death, and allows Muslim, Druze and Christian sects space to implement their own religious regulations for marriage, divorce and custody.
The rules vary according to religion; some enable 13-year-old girls to marry and men to take up to four wives, with the ability to divorce easily. For certain wives divorce is impossible, while for the majority divorce is exceedingly difficult and looked down upon. Inheritance and child custody matters favour men across sectarian lines.
"While women’s active participation in political decision-making positions in public life is being promoted, and equal access to education and health have greatly improved, the Personal Status Laws and the Penal Code prevent women from enjoying equal rights to men," the Euromed Gender Equality Programme reported from Syria this year.
Women’s rights organizations, activists and the governmental Syria Commission for Family Affairs successfully blocked a more conservative draft of the Personal Status Law in 2009. But the current law remains, and while the state is harsh on trafficking and prostitution, articles in the penal code assure near impunity for those who commit violence against women.
For instance, while rape or sexual assault on a victim under 12 can carry a conviction up to 21 years, if a man rapes an adult woman he can be absolved of the crime if the woman, often feeling shamed or pressured, agrees to marry him.
"Men can be exempted from punishment if they kill or hurt their spouse, sister, or any of their female ascendants, whom they unexpectedly discover committing adultery or out-of-wed sexual relations with another person, as well as in a doubtful situation with another person," says the Euromed report. "This provision leaves room for interpretation and is at the onset of widespread abuse."
In July 2009, days before the conservative revised draft of the Personal Status Law was shelved, President Bashar al-Assad increased the sentence for honour crimes under Article 548 to two years. However, activists say this does not go far enough, and recommend the abolition of related articles that can lessen or waive convictions.
Yahya Al-Aous is the editor of Al-Thara e-magazine, published by progressive printing house Etana Press. He says tracing honour killings is difficult because many of these are not registered as honour crimes, or made public. Al-Aous says he has monitored 52 so far, but they could run into the hundreds annually.
Al-Thara is run out of a basement in a crowded Damascus suburb and fills a critical gap offering a network of contacts for often desperate women seeking expert legal, religious and social counseling, or protection in shelters.
"Women are writing us emails telling their stories and asking us for help," Al- Aous tells IPS. "For example, I have a problem with my husband, I have a problem with the court, I can’t get a divorce, I have a problem with my father…"
Al Aous says Al-Thara needs to focus on a variety of fronts: "There is no law for domestic violence, nothing. Honour crimes carry a light sentence. The marriage age for girls needs to be raised. Women need to get equal inheritance… all these issues are intertwined."
"We are working step by step," says Sawsan Zakzak from the Syrian Women League, who along with activists and NGOs plays a crucial role lobbying the government to revise gender laws. "We are asking to have civil law for all Syrians. People could have the choice between religious law and civil law, but the official law should be civil."