Life fleeing from the war in Syria and living in exile in Turkey takes a toll on the marital ties of refugees. While divorces are on rise, many women are stepping up their fight for greater independence.
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Most Syrian women at refugee camps in southeast Turkey refuse to meet strangers and acquaintances in the absence of their male guardians. But Aibtisam is an exception. She walks into her container room in a black abaya, a long loose-fitting cloak, and mumbles in Arabic to her brother, who steps out and shuts the door. Aibtisam needs some privacy to speak about her recent past.
"I feel guilty," Aibtisam, who preferred not give her surname because of the sensitivity of the topic, tells TRT World in late January. "I feel my husband died because of me."
A 21-year-old from Aleppo, Aibtisam crossed the Syrian border and arrived in Nizip camp in November 2016. Her parents and in-laws had escaped the war four years ago, but she chose to stay in Syria with her husband, Mohiuddin Al Khatib, until their marriage began to fall apart.
Before the war, Khatib, a soft-spoken lanky man of thirty, was deeply committed to his family. He worked long hours polishing wooden furniture in a community market, and addressed everyone with respect. But all that changed after he picked up gun and joined the revolution in 2014. As a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group that's been fighting against the Assad regime for over five years, he patrolled the de-facto border of east Aleppo to protect rebel-held territory.
"The moment he joined the FSA something got into his head," Aibtisam says. "He became abusive."
Khatib's life as a fighter led him, for the first time, to bring violence into the couple's home. He would apologise after beating her and promise that he wouldn't do it again. But the abuse continued for two years, Aibtisam says.
Outside her home, Assad's fighter jets randomly pounded the city, and inside, Khatib made her feel miserable. She finally left him behind in the fall of 2016 and joined her parents in Turkey. Khatib divorced her. But soon after, he died in a land mine explosion in Aleppo.
Resisting hasty marriage
To fight her trauma, Aibtisam has resumed high school classes in the camp. Six years ago, when she was 15, she had abandoned her education, obeying her parents' decision to marry Khatib instead.
Aibtisam wants time to heal her emotional distress. It's getting hard, though, with her parents pushing her to marry again and move on. In the last six months, she saw several women getting married in the camp, only to divorce a few months later. She is avoiding what she describes as "falling into that trap." After school, she counsels underage girls to stay clear from marriage.
"It's wrong to marry under pressure," she says. "It doesn't work. It wouldn't work especially for a person like me. I can't even sleep. It's hard to forget my ex-husband."
Turkey has over three million Syrian refugees, surpassing Pakistan as the country which hosts the largest refugee population in the world. About 30 percent of the influx is housed in 22 government-run refugee camps across the country.
The Nizip camp sits on the banks of the Euphrates River in Turkey's Gaziantep province, 48 kilometres from the Syrian border. It hosts 14,597 refugees from various towns of Syria. Sixty percent of them live in tarpaulin tents. The rest are housed in containers. The war has not only uprooted them from their homes, but has also disrupted their entire social fabric. The spate of unions and separations are happening fast, and they are most often happening for one single reason — survival.
A one-man jury
Mustafa Ahmed Rai has authorised 50 divorces in the Nizip camp in the last three years. Rai, 51, fled Damascus, his hometown, and sought refuge in Nizip four years ago. Back home, he taught Arabic and Islamic theology at a government-run school. Soon after his arrival, people sought his help in fixing their marital problems because of his religious training. Rai soon noticed that divorces were just as common among couples who married before the war and those who married in refugee camps.
"The pre-war marriages suffer for various reasons, mainly because of joblessness, men forcing their women to work outside, men struggling with war trauma and who end up beating their wives," Rai tells TRT World. "And people who marry in refugee camps tend to split up for cultural reasons."
Muri Yunso has divorced two women in the last three years. A 46-year-old principal at a refugee school in Oncupinar district, Yunso recently married for the third time. He arrived in Turkey in the summer of 2011 along with his first wife and three children. Back home, he was a school teacher in Idlib, a town in northwestern Syria, and did carpentry in his spare time.
His first marriage frayed because he supports the revolution.
"My in-laws are Assad supporters, and so is my wife," Yunso says. "Her father asked her to return to Syria and live with them [in the regime-controlled area]."
His wife moved back to Idlib in the fall of 2011, leaving him with their three children — the youngest a two-year-old boy. Yunso divorced her.
A year later, he married a 30-year-old divorcee. "The woman is from the same camp," Yunso says, "She helped my mother run over her daily errands. My mother set us up for marriage."
The pairing only lasted for four months. Yunso says she was "too controlling" and didn't treat his children from his ex-wife well enough.
Aware of social issues such as domestic violence within the refugee community, the Turkish government has set up women's welfare commissions in every camp that are led by refugee women. Wafa, 50, refused to give her surname to protect her privacy. She heads one such commission in the container section of the Nizip camp.
"For the first time, Syrian women have started to come forward and file for divorces," she says, referring to Turkey's more liberal legal framework for divorce proceedings. "They feel marital laws in Turkey are balanced."
Syrian divorce laws are skewed in favour of men. To register a divorce in Syrian courts, a woman has to prove either that her husband is abusive, or that he has failed in his marital duties.
When women in the Nizip camp nominated Wafa as their choice to become head of the commission, she says her husband wanted her to turn the position down.
"It was just that old fashioned thinking. He wanted me to stay indoors, but I told him if he won't let me do this, I will leave him," she says.
Wafa is an undergrad in English literature. She couldn't pursue her master's degree, as her parents married her off and her husband refused to support her education. After not working for three decades, she managed to convince her husband to let her teach English to high school kids in the camp.
Once a week, she goes door to door to meet parents in the camp. She encourages them to let their daughters study in refugee schools, and warns them that child marriage in Turkey is a crime.
Nuptials for space
In the early years of the war, when many refugees thought they could return home, marriages in the camps were rare. The turning point occurred around the summer of 2013, says Rai, the community leader in Nizip, as the war seemed endless and displacement became increasingly perpetual.
Rai says some of the marriages are happening simply because people are crammed for space in the camps. The Turkish government provides a new container to each newly married couple. Since many Syrian families are large, parents marry their sons and daughters off so that couples can qualify for a separate container.
Rai says that he knew of many cases where a husband divorces his wife after getting a new container from the Turkish government. The man would marry another woman in the camp, he says. Or, the wife would refuse to share her container with her in-laws, and as a result, her husband would walk away from the marriage.
"You know that proverb: everything is fair in love and war," Rai says. "Something like that is happening here. There is little love, but there is a lot of war."