Syria’s parliament introduced a series of laws earlier this month meant to improve women’s rights after eight years of war in which Syrian women paid a heavy price, often displaced or left to lead households in the wake of the violence.
Supporters of the amendments to the Personal Status Law say it grants women more privileges and rights, including preconditions preventing their spouses from taking a second wife, the removal of travel restrictions, the right to unilateral divorce and to work.
But critics say it does not go far enough, with some calling for the abolition of polygamy.
Despite the delays in these amendments, which altered 70 articles of the Personal Status Law, legal experts said the measures were significant in redressing some of the difficulties faced by Syrian women who are being oppressed inside and outside their homes while trying to support their families amid war.
The previous unamended Syrian Personal Status Law was one of the most controversial and heavily criticized due to its bias against women by legal experts and women’s rights.
On Feb 5, Syria’s parliament, headed by Speaker Hammouda Sabbagh, voted for a draft bill amending 70 articles of the Personal Status Law that was issued in 1953.
Among the key amendments was granting women the right to place preconditions in marriage contracts prohibiting their husbands from taking a second wife. Minister of Interior Hisham al-Shaar was quoted in the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) as saying: “The husband or the wife can place their own stipulations in the marriage contracts provided that they conform to the Sharia and the law. These preconditions can relate to taking a second wife, [ability to] travel, right to unilateral divorce, work and co-habitation with a second wife.”
The nomenclature of the marriage contracts has also changed, an amendment which may have gone unnoticed by many, with the traditional name of “fornication contract” being dropped and replaced by “marriage contract”, a change meant to reaffirm the role of women as partners and wives rather than sexual objects.
The new legislations also raised the minimum age of marriage from 17 to 18 years for both males and females. One of the articles, however, permits a judge to authorize marriage for girls who are as young as 15.
The new version of the law prohibits the completion of marriage contracts without the explicit consent of the bride. It also grants equal inheritance to grandchildren borne by either a son or a daughter.
The amendments give both spouses the right to seek separation. Under the new law, a wife is now the designated legal guardian of her children if her husband dies.
The law also allows the wife to file for divorce if she is abandoned by her husband and introduces the use of genetic fingerprinting or DNA profiling to determine parentage.
Al-Shaar emphasized that these amendments favor women and their rights within marriage. He said: “These amendments came to address the citizens’ and society’s needs and in response to the changes to society after more than half a century had passed since the law was issued.”
Al-Shaar said that the draft law aims to protect marriages and remove any potential social or financial obstacles, and to “protect motherhood and childhood.”
Imad Nammour, a Syrian MP, said the amendments serve Syrian women who are now entitled to place preconditions for marriage contracts that ensure her right to work and to refuse her husband a second wife.
However, Nabil Saleh, another MP, argued that the law does not go far enough.
“These amendments have been forced under pressure from various UN organizations with the aim of eradicating discrimination against women and protecting childhood,” he said, adding that the law remains a cause for division between Syrians, and still does not abide by international conventions on to women and children.
Saleh called for a prohibition against polygamy and the annulment of “iddah,” a period during which a divorced woman must remain unmarried..
Reactions to the amendments among Syrian social media users were varied. Some saw them as a “flirtatious” gesture by parliament around Valentine’s Day, while others considered them timid and incomplete measures that continue to deprive women of their rights, arguing that the law still permits polygamy and inequality in inheritance.
This series of amendments cannot be viewed in isolation from the daily life of Syrian women during the ongoing war that began in 2011.
With tens of thousands of men dying in the battlefield or conscripted, women have been forced to work outside the home in unprecedented numbers for a conservative society like Syria’s.
An estimated half a million people have been killed in the conflict, 80% of whom are men, according to the Syrian Center for Studies. The figure does not include men who fled conscription or detention.
Veterans of the war are often unable to work due to physical disability and psychological scars. Syrian women who fled the war as refugees have also endured hunger, displacement and extreme conditions in order to keep their children alive, often becoming breadwinners for households that include infants and elderly parents.
The psychological crises endured by Syrian women during the war, didn’t prevent them from working at any price and in any given conditions whether in Syria or abroad. Their struggle in the job market, however, has not been without discrimination or harassment.