Archive photo a young Syrian refugee woman
© UNHCR
Archive photo a young Syrian refugee woman
Last updated: January 25, 2015

Syrian women fear abuse during marriage – but divorce frightens as much

Banner Icon Meet "Nur", a Syrian refugee who has suffered sexual exploitation at the hands of her Turkish husband. But was it rape, and can she even escape?

The night after their wedding, Eren stood over Nur in a dusky Mediterranean hotel, “You are old enough! Get ready to fuck or I will send you back to the camp!” 

A friend of Eren’s married a Syrian woman last year who he said was pious and subservient. Wanting the same, Eren pursued an arranged marriage with Nur, promising her escape from the Kilis Camp on Turkey’s southern border. After he raped her repeatedly on their honeymoon, Nur fled, taking shelter at her brother’s house. But Nur says the stigma of divorce for Syrian women is unbearable, and so she prepares to reconcile with Eren. 

Having fled the war, Syrian women and girls are vulnerable to exploitation and increasing levels of abuse. Some look to marriage for protection, others are victims of pimps or matchmakers out for profit. Recently, a Turkish man in Gaziantep threw his 22 year-old Syrian bride from a 5th story window. Still, the stigma of divorce is so strong that some women, like Nur, a refugee living in a camp in southern Turkey, would rather risk abuse. 

TAKING SHELTER

It was 5:30am on the 7th day of Ramadan, 2012 when Nur heard the helicopter overhead. The rebels in Aleppo were taking government buildings and shooting any bureaucrat that resisted. Out her window, she saw them for the first time. In civilian clothes, a half dozen of them pointed an anti-aircraft machine gun at the hovering bird. 

Abdul, Nur’s older brother, tried to push her inside so she wouldn’t see the gun.  She broke through his thick arms. DIDIDIDIDIDI, erupted from the barrel, and the buildings shook. Even in military training in school, Abdul had never heard fire like this. He found Nur cowering inside, crying. 

Nur didn’t want to leave the house. She was 26 and no longer receiving suitors when Abdul bought it with savings from working in Saudi Arabia. He gave her a room facing the mosque so she could hear the muezzins’ call to prayer. 

But after the helicopter and the shooting, tanks skirted the city. Nur’s neighbors filed out like worker ants, and she followed. 

While Nur and her parents slept on the floor of a cousin’s dental clinic, Abdul crossed the border and got a toehold teaching English in Gaziantep, Turkey. By March of 2013, he had enough money to send for them, but not to feed them. 

When Nur checked into Kilis Camp she thought she could survive it for a few months until the rebels took Aleppo. The two-room metal container had a toilet and with patience she could cook semolina pudding on the electric stove. The camp was sterile and clean, and she got $41 a month from the Turkish government to buy food. 

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By the summer, when days peaked at over 100°, and with the windows closed for modesty, the container became an oven. The water shortages went on for weeks during the fasting month of Ramadan, and stir crazed residents suspected the authorities were punishing them. Although Abdul long ago told Nur she could stop wearing her long coat, in the camp other women called her a prostitute unless she was covered in black, head to toe. 

Four years into the war, she no longer indulged thoughts of returning to Aleppo. A friend showed her a picture of her house in Aleppo. Bombed and pocked with shrapnel, it reminded her of the moon’s cold surface.

AN ARRANGEMENT

Back in Syria, they used to call her Dr. Nur. That was after Abdul rescued her from the demonic Jinn spirits that tormented her.

Once, she wrote an exam for two hours and then handed in a blank form. She told Abdul that the Jinn visited her, threatening her, forcing her to erase each of her responses, one by one.

Afterwards, Abdul watched her spiral out of reach. She pleaded to someone that he couldn’t see, “Don’t touch me!” She punched the wall and yelled to the spirit, “Show me where you are if you are a man!” Only reading the Koran gave her relief.

"Four years into the war, she no longer indulged thoughts of returning to Aleppo"

After giving up on doctors and sheiks, Abdul tried something radical. He got Nur a job as an assistant in a dental office. Some mornings she ran the clinic in her boss’ absence, and when she took x-rays in her white coat, the patients called her doctor.

But when the war started, Nur stayed home again. Assad’s soldiers were everywhere, harassing girls at checkpoints and kidnapping them.

Abdul, lonely without his family in Gaziantep, talked often to the caretaker of his building. He was a balding, potbellied Turkish man, common but good. His nephew, Eren, wanted a subservient bride, and he said a Syrian woman would be suitable. With this Muslim man, Abdul thought Nur could find a decent life away from war.

At the engagement, Eren said he didn’t want Nur to work. He would pay for a year of Turkish lessons after the wedding. Until then, they could make due with the little Turkish she knew. In June, when Nur announced that she was engaged on Facebook, her friends wished the beautiful bride a thousand congratulations and the grace of Allah.

A BRIDE'S RIGHT

Nur didn’t want dancing at the wedding with so many friends dead in Aleppo. She sat next to Eren, holding hands under the table while picking at her kebab. Nur told him she was afraid of consecrating the marriage. She knew nothing about sex. When women gathered back in Syria to talk, she always excused herself, embarrassed. Eren promised he could wait, even ten days if needed.

The dowry wasn’t much to pay for Eren’s well-off family, just 30 grams of gold in bangles worth $1200. Abdul wanted his father to ask for ten times that much. When Eren’s father said, “I will treat her like my third daughter,” it cinched the deal.

That night, while Eren was in the shower, Nur padded through the rooms of the 15th floor apartment, taking video on her phone of the view, the stainless steel inset kitchen appliances, and the white furniture trimmed with gold.

Eren found her in the bedroom and demanded, “Take off your clothes,” and then again, louder, when she started shaking. He didn’t touch her, except to rip off each of the fake nails that she wore. He mounted her and penetrated her. He looked for the blood of her hymen on his prick, and checked her hands to make sure she didn’t deny him by fingering herself. Then he thrust into her mouth.

Nur’s mother, Muna, got married when she was fifteen, having never met her husband or seen her future home. After a few years, she was unhappy and wanted a divorce but she was uneducated, orphaned, and a mother in a country with no enforced alimony system.

A few weeks before the wedding, Muna sat in Abdul’s apartment and reflected on a woman’s rights in marriage. According to Muna, Islam says the man makes decisions in the home, but a woman has a right to discuss matters. Divorce was the only other right Muna could name. Years ago, her friends told her that her husband would change. Now Muna still wants a divorce, and says, “After six children and 35 years, nothing has changed. If I had taken a decision then, I would have been 18 years old.”

The day after Nur’s wedding, Eren wanted sex again, but Nur was sore. Livid, he left her alone in their hotel room for eight hours without money, food or water. She had never stayed in a hotel and didn’t know how to get electricity in the room without the key. That night, he returned. “You are old enough. You shouldn’t be sore,” he told her. After cussing at her, and telling her he’d send her back to her container in Kilis Camp for good, she submitted.

"She knew nothing about sex"

For eight days, Nur tried to please him by day. By night she asked herself if her husband was raping her.

When I saw Nur, she had fled to Abdul’s apartment, needing space to make sense of her jumbled, disappointed new life. I passed Eren’s uncle in his caretaker’s booth, his stomach resting on his thighs as he sat smoothing his comb over. He had told Abdul that he heard of Eren’s abuses and pitied Nur. 

Comfortable in her brother’s apartment, Nur wore red slacks and a fitted sweater. When she got up to make coffee, I saw that if we walked together, I’d have to look up at her a foot. She showed me a picture of her husband just before they married. At 31, Eren has the easy frame of a football player, and light eyes under blonde hair.

While I wrote, Nur talked hurriedly, expelling the abuses onto my notebook, but when it was done, she asked, “Should I stay with him?”

NO BETTER HOPE

In Syria, divorce is a frightening prospect for women. Although citizens have equal rights in civil law, family law and divorce falls within the realm of sharia. Men, but not women, can unilaterally divorce with only a verbal decree. If a woman divorces through court proceedings, she rarely gets alimony, and she loses custody of young children if she remarries.

In Turkey, divorce falls under civil law thanks to Ataturk-era reforms after World War I. The separating parties have equal rights, except for a stipulation that women cannot remarry for 300 days after divorce without permission from the court.

But Nur has not looked into family law in Turkey. Her concern is a social one. Each Facebook message she receives erases the hope of hiding her shame.

Back in Syria, women buy plastic hymens on the black market, afraid of being sent back to their families, or worse, if there’s no blood on the wedding night. Without her virginity, Nur fears she has little chance of remarrying. Even Abdul says, “Muna would never let me marry a divorced woman.”

Three weeks later, Nur decided the stigma would be unbearable, and that she would try again. She said it was half her fault for texting her friends too often, which made Eren mad. Abdul, full of hatred for Eren, with one arm around Nur, dialed Eren’s parents to arrange a reconciliation meeting.  

*As told by Abdul, Nur, and Muna. Some names changed to protect identities.

Xanthe Ackerman
Dr. Xanthe Ackerman is a writer based in Istanbul and a senior fellow at the Syria Research & Evaluation Organization. Formerly, as the associate director of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, she wrote about education in the Middle East and in Africa. She is the founder of Advancing Girls' Education in Africa, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace.
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