Monthly Archives: April 2013

Syria’s refugee brides:’My daughter is willing to sacrifice herself for her family’

y:  Foreign Affairs reporter, Published on Fri Mar 22 2013

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AMMAN, JORDAN—Nezar’s face is tight with expectation as she arrives for the meeting. She is a heavy-set mother of 12 and as she arranges herself on the small sofa in Um Majed’s living room she removes her black veil and the pious black gloves that allow her to shake hands with men who are not her relatives.

Um Majed sets down small cups of hot Turkish coffee to ease the tension. Nezar is a Syrian refugee and looking for a husband for her daughter. She lists the girl’s qualities.

“She is tall and pretty,” she tells Um Majed. “She finished the seventh grade.”

“There is one available. He is Saudi,” Um Majed answers.

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  • Um Majed, 28. is a Syrian refugee, who doesn’t want her real name published because of her shame about what she does for a living: procuring young brides,zoom

This is what Nezar wants to hear. Saudis, flush with petrodollars, will pay well. She has high hopes for this Saudi.

So does Um Majed who will earn a $287 fee if the two sides agree to the match.

Um Majed, 28, is also a Syrian refugee, a former housewife from Homs. Um Majed isn’t her actual name but a respectable Arab moniker meaning ‘mother of Majed,’ her young son. She doesn’t want her full name published because of her shame about what she does for a living: procuring brides, some as young as 12, for men as old as 70 from all over the Middle East in exchange for money.

The Star in Syria:

Nezar too was a homemaker in Homs who arrived in Jordan last year. Her husband was a taxi driver but he can no longer work because he has a heart condition. Her son is badly injured.

“He was a fighter with the resistance army and they were removing a roadblock the regime set up on the street when he was hit by a missile,” she explains. “Four others died. He has had three surgeries and needs another one.”

Her daughter Aya is their best hope.

“My daughter is willing to sacrifice herself for her family,” Nezar says. “If the war had not happened I would not marry my daughter to a Saudi. But the Syrians here are poor and have no money.”

Nezar’s daughter is 17. The Saudi groom is 70.

Stories of men fighting and dying to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime have fixated the world but for women the war has different, troubling dimensions. Syrian women and their children make up 75 per cent of the 429,000 refugees in Jordan. The vast majority do not live in the camps set up by the Jordanian authorities. They flood into cities like Amman where they live on the charity of kindly Jordanians and aid organizations.

Many of these women are not equipped to support their families, having been raised to keep the home and hearth while husbands and fathers provided for them. The true cost of how the war is ripping apart the nation is evident in the brutal life choices Syrian women are forced to make to survive.

Grasping for the security of a husband and home, hundreds of girls are being sold into early marriage. These are undoubtedly forced marriages but the truth has several shades of grey: some mothers believe they are protecting their daughters from further hardship and violence, others are desperate to pay the bills. Yet their voices are rarely heard because their lives are lived behind closed doors, their private tragedies not shared with outsiders.

“If you see how Syrians here live you will see why they marry their daughters to whoever will take them,” Um Majed says. “People are poor and they will do anything to pay the rent.”

 

The surplus of desperate Syrian refugees means marriage has become a buyer’s market with some grooms offering as little as $100 cash for a bride.

The legal age of marriage in Jordan is 18 but some religious clerics will marry underage girls for a small fee. This puts the girls at even greater risk for exploitation because some of Um Majed’s clients want a temporary union lasting a few weeks or months after which the girl is returned to her parents.

In other words, it is religiously sanctioned prostitution.

“One of my brides has been married three, four times,” Um Majed says. “She is 15.”

Yet Nezar believes she is saving Aya from a life of hardship. What are her daughter’s prospects in Jordan where she has no right to work? There is little hope of the war ending and returning home. She will soon become a burden on her parents. No, a life in Saudi Arabia with a husband who can provide a home and children, perhaps send money back to Jordan, is the answer.

She admits the marriage market is hazardous. Most of the potential grooms offer a few dollars to leer at her daughter.

“You are already selling your daughter, you might as well sell her to someone decent,” she says.

Nezar cuts the meeting short. Aya is having belly-dancing lessons to increase her appeal to the elderly groom.

“I will take 3,000 dinars ($4,300) from him,” she tells Um Majed. “If he was younger I would accept 2,000 dinars.”

*

In the old days, the neighbourhood busybody, a matronly figure, was the matchmaker. She would appraise the unmarried girls on her street on behalf of the grooms’ families. At the Turkish bath, the would-be bride was paraded like a prizewinning filly: her mane tugged to check she wasn’t wearing a wig, a walnut cracked between her molars to make sure her teeth were real. In a society where women, especially unmarried girls, do not mingle with men not related to them, or even venture outside the home at risk of being labelled sexually loose, many families relied on matchmakers to find the right bride for their sons.

Um Majed raises a cynical eyebrow at this innocent archetype as she strikes a match and lights a cigarette. She became a matchmaker when she approached a local Islamist charity for food and the manager asked if she “knew any pretty girls.”

“I have 10 families looking for grooms,” she says. “Their girls are between 12 and 21. The grooms are always in their 40s, 50s, or 70s. They want beautiful girls, the younger the better.”

She pauses and takes a drag of the cigarette.

“The Saudis usually ask for 12-year-olds.”

 

As she sees it, life has become about exploiting or being exploited.

“I have to feed my children,” she says.

“What does freedom mean?” she asks. “We were living with pride and in our own country. I asked my husband this question. He said that they are Alawites and we fight them. But the Saudis are Sunni like us and they harass Syrian girls. Is this religion? Is this freedom?”

Her husband owned a car wash in Homs. Last year, he was hit by a stray bullet and after Um Majed nursed him back to health he joined a militia fighting with the Free Syrian Army.

“I now wish the bullet pierced his heart,” she says bitterly. “He abandoned me to fight and left me with the burden of supporting the family.”

Syrian brides have always been sought after, especially by Gulf Arab men. There is an expression which roughly translates as ‘he who does not marry a Damascene will never know a night of peace.’

The stereotype of the houriya, Levantine beauties with pale faces, speaking the melodious Syrian Arabic dialect and purveyors of a famous cuisine holds great appeal. A Syrian hostess’s reputation can rest on the balance between the olive oil and lemon juice in her tabbouleh salad.

In the Middle East, the groom or his family are expected to provide maher, roughly translated as dowry. If he is a good catch he will approach the girl’s family with a fully furnished flat, perhaps a car, and bank statement proving his savings.

Zayed Hamad who runs Kitab al Sunna, a Sunni Islamist charity that helps women refugees and receives funding from Saudi Arabia, says he receives 100 phone calls, emails and even text messages a month from grooms all over the Middle East looking for wives. Some are looking for a bargain.

“Some believe if they marry a Syrian girl it is cheaper,” he says. “I get approached by the brothers but I say it is not my responsibility to find them brides.”

He says it is a good thing as these girls will have more secure futures.

*

Eman is a typical Damascene beauty with her pale skin and hazel eyes. At 29, she is considered an older bride and has two daughters from her ex-husband whom she divorced because she caught him in bed with his sister-in-law.

Eman is tired of the war and its slogans.

“I curse the people who call for freedom,” she says. “But Bashar invited the devil to Syria.”

She fled to Amman with her girls late last year. All refugees are meant to stay in the Zaatari camp, a dusty, sometimes violent shanty town on the north border. The main drag is nicknamed the Champs Elysees and sells everything from shoes to shawarmas. Women dig small holes in the ground near their tents to avoid trips in the dark to the public toilets because they are afraid.

Eman refuses to live there. “It’s horrible,” she says. Instead, she rents a small apartment in Amman with her children, sister and mother for 150 dinars a month.

But life in the capital without the protection of a husband or father is hard. When Eman first arrived she would go to charities and mosques for food and mattresses where her soft Syrian accent immediately attracted attention.

“Wherever I go I get proposals,” she says with more weariness than pride. “They ask, can I smell your perfume for 20 dinars? ($28) Can you lift your veil for 35 dinars ($50)? I’d rather die of hunger than do something wrong.”

Just yesterday she heard about a rich man giving away cash at the local mosque so she went to investigate.

“He was giving $100 and gave money to all the others and told me to wait,” Eman says. “When everyone was done he asked me to call him in the morning at his hotel. I said I’d come with my mother. He said come alone. He would give double the money. I told him he was ridiculous.”

She works from home, shelling peanuts for a factory and earning 2.5 dinars ($3.50) for every 10 kilograms of nuts she peels. Eman wants to marry soon so she doesn’t have to expose herself to unwanted attention.

“I want a real husband and a real marriage, someone like Muhandin,” she says, and giggles. He is a Turkish actor in a popular soap opera.

Um Majed, though, has no time for romantic dreams.

A new client, a Jordanian man aged 29 wants a young bride from the Zaatari camp. He will give Um Majed fake documents and they will pose as charity workers to gain access to the families and size up their daughters.

“Some families accept 50 dinars (72) to let the groom look at their girls,” she says. She has done this ruse several times.

Um Majed will get her cut for brokering the arrangement. But she insists it will be a food package, not cash.

 

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/03/22/young_brides_displaced_by_syria_conflict_sought_by_older_grooms.html

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Islamists urge Ensour to retract statement on CEDAW reservations

by Rana Husseini |             Nov 11, 2012             |             22:52                   

 
 

AMMAN — The Islamic Action Front (IAF) has called on Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour to apologise and retract statements he made last week on reconsidering Jordan’s reservations on an international convention related to women’s rights.

Ensour had said that the Kingdom is committed to the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“We believe the reservation Jordan has on one article of the treaty does not distract from our respect for the convention. However, we will revise the issue of these reservations, hopefully soon,” the premier said in an address at a human rights conference last week.

Ensour’s address was delivered at the opening of the 11th Conference of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

“What you [Ensour] said is unacceptable to us and we reject it and demand that you withdraw your statements or apologise because what you said contradicts our traditions, religion and true Jordanian values,” said the IAF statement, which was released on Saturday.“It also threatens Jordanian families and social security,” the statement added.

The IAF, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed that Ensour was under pressure by other governments and international organisations whose values and traditions “do not comply with our traditions, culture, morals or beliefs”.

“If the premier commits to what he pledged, then we will practise our legal and constitutional right to oppose any conventions and agreements that contradict our religion and higher national interests,” the IAF said.

In July 1992, the Kingdom signed CEDAW, which was ratified and published in the Official Gazette in August 2007 with three reservations related to the citizenship, housing and women’s mobility clauses in the Personal Status Law.

In February 2009, the government decided to lift its reservations on paragraph four of Article 15 of the convention, which gives women freedom of mobility and choice of residence without the consent of their husbands or other male family members, a move which was approved by a Royal Decree.

In April 2009, the IAF called on the government to withdraw from CEDAW, alleging that the convention will undermine family values and lead to a wide range of social problems in the country.

“Families in Jordan face the threat of total collapse under CEDAW,” the IAF warned.

According to Islamists, the clause contradicts the teachings of Islam, under which authority over women’s mobility is in the hands of their husbands if they are married, and their brothers or fathers if they are single.”The agreement is not consistent with our religion and traditions and it will change our national identity,” the Islamists said, adding that CEDAW adopts the views of liberals who do not represent Arab Muslim communities.

Other Islamists such as Marwan Faouri, who was president of the Moderation Assembly for Thought and Culture, had said several years ago that CEDAW was a form of “cultural globalisation”, and “a type of control practised by the UN on member countries”.

Faouri is currently a member of the Islamic Centrist Party’s political bureau.

 

http://jordantimes.com/islamists-urge-ensour-to-retract-statement-on-cedaw-reservations

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Identity and the Jordanian Elections

Posted By Laurie A. Brand , Fayez Hammad   Thursday, January 17, 2013 – 1:50 PM

The period of Arab uprisings that began in winter 2010 to 2011 has brought myriad changes to the region. However, one perennial constant is the willingness of official and semi-official elements in Jordan to manipulate identity issues in order to stymie meaningful reform. Indeed, given the past history of the Jordanian government, the most recent developments could be viewed as simply boring, were they not so deeply cynical and destructive.

The newest chapter in this ongoing saga of who is a Jordanian — native East Bankers, certainly; Jordanians of Palestinian origin, not so much or perhaps not at all — has come in response to the upcoming parliamentary elections. With only a few exceptions, most notably in 1956 and 1989, elections in Jordan have been highly controlled affairs, in which the outcomes have been largely cooked beforehand, either through changes in the electoral law (as in 1993), or through outright fraud (most notably, but certainly not exclusively, in 1997 and 2007). On occasion, when it is argued that “regional conditions” are problematic, elections have been postponed, as in the early 2000s, and in many cases some of the most significant opposition forces, most recently the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided to boycott rather than play the palace’s or security forces’ game. 

King Abdullah’s response to the domestic impact of the winds of discontent sweeping the region has been to call for several key “reforms.” The most important among them has been amending the constitution and revising the electoral law — all in the context of the usual palace response to domestic unhappiness: the dismissal of four prime ministers in less than two years. Among the 2011 constitutional amendments, the most potentially significant for the holding of elections was the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee the process of registration and voting, chaired by the respected former Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib. However, the electoral law itself, for which there had been great hopes of significant change, was modified only at the margins. The primary opposition demand had been the return to a multiple-vote system in place in 1989, which allowed electors to vote not only for a tribal or clan candidate, but also for other candidates who might represent a more political or ideological choice. Instead, the one-person, one-vote system, which was first implemented in 1993 to reduce the representation in parliament of Islamists, was amended only to the extent that now 27 seats are set aside for national lists, while the total number of parliamentary seats was increased from 120 to 150.

This designation of national list seats, along with the increase in the number of seats in several urban districts, was a kind of consolation prize for Jordanians of Palestinian origin (JPs). This is because they are heavily concentrated in these districts, they are seen as the primary constituency for more ideological parties (especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front), and because the current configuration of electoral districts and the seats allotted to them significantly underrepresents JPs in parliament. This underrepresentation is but one aspect of JP second class citizenship, and there have been increasing calls, indeed unparalleled ones, since the beginning of what the king likes to call the “Jordanian spring” to redress this citizenship deficit.

That kind of reform, however, is an outcome that certain segments of the Transjordanian population find intolerable. Indeed, it was apparently members of the so-called old guard and other “traditional powers” that were responsible in 2011 for pressuring the National Dialogue committee, which was looking into possible changes in the electoral law, to ignore calls for allowing Jordanian expatriates (the majority of whom are JPs) to vote from abroad. More dangerous, however, have been increasing calls from the more extreme voices in these sectors for actually disenfranchising JPs altogether. Some calls have come from ultra-nationalist retired military officers; others have come from Transjordanians who otherwise fancy themselves “leftists.” (Only in Jordan could those who call for discriminating against fellow citizens, indeed, for depriving them of their already second-class citizenship status, be considered leftists simply because they criticize neoliberal economic policies.) 

Historically, the justification for concern about full integration of JPs into Jordan derived from the fear that the Israeli government would use such a development to claim that Jordan was in fact the Palestinian state, and that therefore there was no need for a “second Palestinian state” in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, in 1989, it was rumored that Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat had urged JPs not to participate in the elections, precisely for this reason. Over time, the concern that Israel would stymie a peace settlement on the grounds that a Palestinian state already existed in Jordan (known as the alternative homeland,al-watan al-badil), has been transmogrified into an expectation among some Transjordanians that Jordan will become largely free of Palestinians in the context of a two-state solution. Zionist policies and threats over the years have played a major role in heightening Jordanian sensitivities regarding the alternative homeland (al-watan al-badil) scenario. Yet, it is also the case that the al-watan al-badil threat is trotted out virtually any time one political faction or another seeks to discredit a particular political or economic proposal. The threat has been used most recently implicitly to call into question the legitimacy of JP political rights, and has, thereby played a major role in the relative absence of Palestinians (except as part of the Muslim Brotherhood) from opposition demonstrations.

The elections scheduled for January 23 have been billed by the palace as a centerpiece in the king’s reform process which is received so warmly during his appearances on the Daily Show and in interviews with the western press and diplomats, (although Abdullah also regularly stresses in such settings that Jordan and Jordanians are not yet ready for full democracy). He and other officials have repeatedly insisted that the January 2013 elections will be free and fair as a way of reinforcing his commitment to real reform and securing domestic legitimation for his approach through a respectable turnout. The first step toward ultimately claiming success required securing sufficient registration numbers, and when potential voters did not initially flock to register — in part because the Muslim Brotherhood had announced its intention to boycott the elections, but also, likely, because of past experience with fraud and the futility of the exercise — repeated exhortations were made, many arms were likely twisted, and ultimately, the deadline was extended and the vote postponed by two months.

It was certainly a sign of the regime’s desperation that, during the process of trying to legitimize the vote through respectable voter inscription, the state turned to JPs, the sector which it has often otherwise found expendable; the sector which has seen arbitrary passport withdrawals continue, despite claims of royal opposition to the practice. In need of support, government officials targeted the JP refugee camps, urging the camp leadership to mobilize the residents to register. Ultimately the national registration numbers reached 2.3 million, well beyond the government’s 2 million goal.

Now, with only days remaining before the vote, the palace and the government are keen to ensure a robust turnout, and to do so they need JP support. To that end Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour recently met with a delegation of mukhtars and other notables from the refugee camps who issued a statement urging camp residents to participate in the upcoming vote. That expression of citizenship was welcomed by, indeed, certainly solicited by the government. Yet only a few days earlier, Nsour had referred to refugee camps residents as Palestinians, not Jordanians. Those statements were no doubt intended to resonate well with the Transjordanian sector of the population eager for the ultimate evacuation of these JP camp residents from “their” country.

The elections on January 23 offer insights into a variety of critical issues facing the kingdom, the most important of which is what they portend for the development of real citizenship, regardless of social class, gender, religion, or communal origin. A betting (wo)man would be well advised to place her or his money on an outcome of little to no serious change, in no small measure because the actions of the palace speak louder than its words. The election law virtually guarantees that the same set of forces that have participated in the regime’s strategy of minimal or cosmetic reform will once again be elected. Indeed, the palace’s policy seems aimed today, as it has been in most previous elections, at avoiding uncertainty of outcome. Yet uncertainty is a central part of any true democratic process.

The continued instrumentalization of JPs (and of Transjordanians, but that is a story for another day) is just one manifestation of the lack of serious commitment to reform, a form of debilitating legal-political corruption deliberately aimed at undermining the possibilities for real national unity to address the daunting political and economic challenges ahead. Sadly, proclamations of commitment to reform notwithstanding, there is little reason to think that the decades-old strategy of promoting national disunity as a pillar of regime maintenance will be revisited or revised any time soon.

http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/01/17/identity_and_the_jordanian_elections

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