Meen Zawjk. Public Domain.At the beginning of 2013, the term ‘muhajir’, or migrants, became widely used in Syria in reference to foreign fighters who had entered the country to join armed Islamist groups.
Studies indicate that their numbers exceed 80,000 immigrants of different
nationalities, mostly from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkistan,
Germany, Britain and France.
Most of the men joined Daesh after its founding in April 2013, while others joined the ranks of rival militant groups such as Al Nusra Front, currently known as Tahrir Al Sham [Liberation of the Levant], and the Islamic Turkistan Party.
After arriving in Syria, the first step a muhajir usually takes is to find a woman to marry before heading to the frontlines; and for several reasons that will be explained in this investigation, Syrian women agree to such marriages.
The local reality
Shagan, who preferred to use a pseudonym for this story, is a university graduate who, unmarried at the age of 28, had suffered many sleepless nights hearing her family complain that she was past the age of marriage and would become an old spinster. Then an Egyptian muhajir from Al Nusra Front proposed to her.
Shagan accepted his offer of marriage for many reasons: her family’s deteriorating finances due to the ongoing war in Syria, the loss of her job – her only source of income – as well as her belief that this was her one chance to prove to her family that she was no longer a spinster.
One week later, in 2016, she found herself married and sharing a bed with a complete stranger that she knew nothing about; not even his real name. He gave himself a Jihadist name: Abi […] the Egyptian – Shagan has preferred to omit this title.
"Being married to a jihadist was extremely difficult as it was, and even more so as he was a muhajir!" she said.
When asked about her husband's characteristics, she said: "He was a mean man, a fanatic and stubbornly opinionated, with no capacity for debate or conversation. Also, he forced me to wear the niqab and abaya, which I had never worn before marriage.”
Shagan wasn’t raised in a religiously conservative family to adapt easily to such extremisms, but she fell victim to the customs and traditions of the society that she lives in, as well as to her ignorance of the true nature of such foreign fighters and their political beliefs.
One of the reasons why she agreed to marry him, she said, was that
she hoped for a comfortable life outside of Syria if he ever decided to return
to his native Egypt.
By the second week of their marriage, their problems had become clearer, and Shagan found her new life bereft of any conversation or understanding. She told her family that she wanted a divorce, but before she could tell her husband, he was killed in a battle against the Syrian regime.
"My marriage to a foreign fighter was the biggest mistake of my life, and his death was my greatest mercy," she said.
It was strange to hear Umm Walid [Walid’s mother], from the southern
countryside of Aleppo, speak to her three-year-old son in classical Arabic when
we met in Idlib, mid-2017. When we asked her why, she explained that his father
her to do so before he’d returned to his home country.
Her husband is of British origin but also holds a Turkish passport. He fought among Tahrir Al Sham’s ranks in Idlib, northern Syria. A few months after marrying Umm Walid, he returned to the UK, leaving her alone and heavily pregnant with a child that would one day struggle to find his father.
Nonetheless, she feels confident that her husband will return to Syria one day or send for her to join him in Britain. However, a few months after our meeting, we were told by close relations that she had left for Raqaa on her husband’s orders.
Meen Zawjk. Public Domain.
In contrast to Umm Walid, Umm Saleh [Saleh’s mother] from rural Idlib, worries about the great risk of her son having no identity and not being listed at the civil register. She recognises that a child’s life in a society such as Syria is dependent on his origin and parentage.
In late 2016, her dire finances and her father’s chronic illness forced her to marry Abi Abdel Aziz, a muhajir from Turkistan fighting with the Turkistan Islamic Party. He was thirty five, while she was barely eighteen.
Using similar terms to Shagan’s, she described as her husband as “miserly, he beat me a lot and he was always suspicious.”
She claims that he harassed her when she refused to take abortion bills as he didn’t want to have children in Syria. She wouldn’t take the pills as she wanted to comply with Islamic sharia law, so he left her and divorced her.
Umm Saleh considers herself to blame for the marriage, and told us that marriage to a foreigner is not favoured in Syrian society, and that she initially wasn’t happy with him before she became persuaded by his “strong faith and closeness to God”, a common factor cited by all the aforementioned women.
Finding wives for muhajirin
According to an exclusive interview with the Syrian Network for Human Rights, foreign jihadists ‘muhajirin’ find their wives via two methods: the first is the traditional approach, whereby the jihadist asks the woman’s family for her hand in marriage. The women are found through different ways, such as, for example, a fighting comrade telling him about a female relative suitable for marriage, or through local people connected to the jihadist.
The second method is to find a wife through the Sharia institutes of the Islamist organisations to which the fighter belongs, where the jihadist announces his intention to marry, and then interested women propose to him, and he selects his pick from the lot; after which he proposes to her family.
As for their motives, the Syrian Network states: “In Idlib we noticed that there are generally no forced marriages, but what usually happens is the migrant fighter takes advantage of the woman’s conditions, such as her being from a poor family; so he pays her dowry to the family to help improve their lives.
If the woman is divorced or widowed, she’s normally considered a financial and social burden on her family, so she is married off. We have also noticed marriages motivated by religious reasons, where the family marries their daughter off to a foreign muhajir in the belief that they will be rewarded by God for such an act.
Some marriages are also arranged for protection: the family is forced to accept the muhajir’s proposal as he has the power and authority to protect the wife and her family, and to give them some power in their community. As for the woman, she accepts such an offer so as not to clash with her family, and so as to have a better financial and social status through her marriage.”
Statistics and civil reactions
Due to the sensitivity of the issue, there are no accurate statistics on the number of marriages between Syrian women and foreign fighters, but research by the Syrian Human Rights Network in Idlib shows that over 836 women were married to jihadist migrants, bearing 93 children.
Meanwhile, figures from the ‘Who
is Your Husband’ campaign show over 1,750 marriages in Idlib, of which over
1,100 bore children. There are more than 1,800 children born of these marriages
in Idlib alone.
This campaign was launched in Idlib and its surrounding areas in mid-January 2018 to raise awareness among women, parents, local decision-makers, religious clerks and men of the law on how such marriages are organised.
According to Assem Zidan, the campaign’s main coordinator, such marriages have the worst impact on the children in terms of their identities and futures.
“Legally, these children are denied their basic civil Syrian rights,
the most important of which are their identity and access to education, in
addition to their being connected to their fathers” unsound legacies.
Zidan also spoke about the wives’ mental, health and family status; especially since a large number of foreign fighters had left their wives either to return to their home countries, to fight elsewhere in their Islamist groups or to be killed in battle. As a result, the wives are usually left without a breadwinner and alone to face several psychological, social and familial challenges.
The Syrian network believes that 52 percent of these marriages ended in different ways; and the figures cited are only for Idlib. However, any attempt to investigate the same matter in Deir Ezzour or Raqaa would be futile as discussing the topic of marriage would be considered crossing the line given tribal notions of honour that prevent such conversations.