“I don’t understand how all this cruelty and injustice accumulated in the hearts of my brothers. We were raised in the same household, and yet they prevented me from getting an education, married me off without my consent, and took my share of the inheritance after it was officially registered in my name in court,” says Nihayat. She adds that her brothers never considered the possibility of her divorce and how she would live the rest of her life if she were alone, with none of her inheritance as a fall-back plan.
The issue facing Nihayat and other Kurdish women dates back to 1958, when Law No. 161, known as the “Agrarian Reform Law,” was enacted during the period of unity between Syria and Egypt. The law aimed to combat land ownership inequality by redistributing agricultural land ownership to the state and landowners, resulting in a reduction in land ownership for individuals, and a change in the land ownership landscape in the region. Unfortunately, the law did not take into account family authority and religious customs in the inheritance system.
Under the law, land ownership was distributed to children born in or before 1957, while those born after that date did not receive any agricultural land. The law also resulted in the confiscation of large spaces of owned land by the government, which were later called “the farms of the government.”
“We are seven sisters and twelve brothers, born to four wives of my father, two of whom did not have any land registered in their names. Each of us daughters owns at least 100 dunams of land, which is enough to support our children’s education in universities. Our brothers constantly approached us, asking for us to give up our shares, but due to their neglect and focus on harvest seasons alone, we refused. It was considered shameful and disgraceful to request a share, whether from the seasonal income or from the land,” says Nihayat.
She ends her conversation by recounting an incident where she playfully suggested to her eldest brother that her children might demand her share, and he reacted angrily and didn’t speak to her for three years. “My brothers resorted to dumbing the issue down and trying to confuse me, each claiming that the other had taken my share. This is how my sisters and I lost our rights to our inheritance. My brothers gave me 100,000 Syrian pounds (equivalent to 10 US dollars) as my share of the income from the 150 dunams of agricultural land over two decades, but I did not take that money. I told them, ‘May God forgive you. I forgive you. I am my cousin’s wife, and the agricultural land will not leave the family, but we have no rights.’”
The deprivation even extends to vegetables.
Nihayat’s story is just one of the many tragic stories of Kurdish women in Syria. Another of these stories is that of Feryal Al-Hussein, 55 years old, who hails from the densely Arab-populated neighborhood of Tay. She tells of how her father instructed that she and her sister should not have any rights to the land or the shops. “He claimed that, because our husbands were not part of our tribe, it was not permissible for them nor our kids to own any agricultural land or deal with the family’s assets.”
Feryal mentions a situation where her brothers showed no sympathy, but rather greed, in a time of dire familial support. “When my mother underwent surgery, my brothers said a few silly things about why their sisters’ husbands did not contribute any money towards the surgery, meanwhile my brothers did not contribute any money to help with the expenses, despite having taken control of all the family’s wealth. Their wives were also not caring for my mother one bit. I don’t know where my courage came from when I confronted them and said, ‘Service and work are our duty [as daughters], but inheritance is apparently not our right.’”
Feryal was surprised when her mother sided with her brothers and did not support her or her sister’s claims to their rightful inheritance. “Doesn’t she have a heart? She deprived her own daughter of her rights, and in turn, my brothers deprived us of our shares. They divided the inheritance among themselves without informing us.”
“Greed-driven hunger today, crocodile tears tomorrow,” is a statement 44-year old Shaimaa Ahmed, a schoolteacher in the countryside of Al-Malikiyah, used to sum up her situation. “After my father repeatedly emphasized the importance of taking care of us to my brothers, I never expected that chance would lead me to such an awful situation.”
She says that one day, she and her husband went to buy vegetables and fruits for their home. On the street, she ran into her older brother Samir, 76 years old, who was in charge of the family’s agricultural land. Despite her husband’s insistence that they should leave and relax at home, her brother’s anxiety and insistence raised suspicions.
Shaimaa and her husband arrived at the supermarket and began selecting vegetables. At the weighing machine, they encountered the vendor, who expressed surprise and mockery, saying, “Are you really here to buy vegetables? Your brother has been selling vegetables from your land to us all season. I bought these watermelons and okra from him less than half an hour ago.” Shaimaa, with great distress, adds, “I helped my brothers in planting vegetable seeds, removing weeds, and my eldest son worked as a laborer with his uncle, while my brothers’ wives slept until noon. When the ownership was transferred, it was distributed among the sons, and the daughters were deprived of it. My older brother sells vegetables near my house without the slightest respect or dignity that would prompt him to at least give some of the produce to my children.”
The inheritance crisis and its unraveling of family relations
Kurdish and Arab women do not have the luxury of deciding what they want, nor do they have the right to demand their share of inheritance. Heba Noor, a specialist in family conflict issues, says:”Girls’ defense of their rights and their demands are often weak, accompanied by tears and pleas, while the response from fathers and brothers is harsh and violent. Violence begets more violence, and families face disintegration, with children harboring resentment towards their cousins, emotions filled with hatred and a desire for revenge. It’s strange that they deprive their sisters of inheritance rights while instructing their daughters to receive their shares. Inheritance issues play a role in family disintegration and the estrangement between children and cousins, and between daughters and fathers and brothers.”
This applies to Kulstan, a 29-year-old physical education teacher in Qamishli schools. She says, “My children and my brothers’ children are at odds. My siblings never visit our house. Last year, my eldest son had a terrible car accident and stayed in intensive care for ten days, then was transferred to Damascus and had three surgeries. To this day, none of my siblings have bothered to inquire about my son’s health. It’s all because I demanded my share of my father’s inheritance, including apartments and shops that he left behind due to his sudden death.”
“My brothers registered properties in the names of their daughters, and some of them instructed their sons to provide a fixed annual share in foreign currency for their sisters,” describing her siblings as hypocrites and deceivers who deny their sisters’ rights and grant them to their daughters.
Forty-two-year-old Saadiya cut ties with her parents ten years ago due to being deprived of her inheritance. She recalls their last meeting at the family home in Hasakah, saying, “I screamed at my father, mother, and siblings at the top of my lungs, asking them, ‘What should I do? My son is disabled, my husband is a manual laborer, and my siblings are very wealthy, yet they won’t
give me anything.’ I asked for their help twice, and on the third time, they demanded that I repay the amount within a year. I couldn’t control myself, so I left the house, telling them ‘never to visit my grave or recite the Fatiha for my soul. Who knows, maybe you’ll charge a fee for reciting the Fatiha.'”
She adds, “I can’t understand the concept of being deprived of an inheritance just because I’m a woman. I’m puzzled by my father; how did he forget my and my sister’s services for him while he was bedridden, while my younger siblings, who married outside the family, did not even get their wives to serve him? In the end, my brothers and their wives were given the land. I won’t carry feelings of resentment and hatred towards my father, but rather love, respect, and prayers for a long life. But I won’t forget my children’s poverty and their vulnerability in the face of their grandfather’s and uncles’ actions.”
The dominance of traditions over the law
We visited the office of a lawyer specialized in dispute resolution and property distribution, who requested that we not disclose his name due to the sensitivity of the matter and his numerous clients and inheritance cases. He emphasized that Syrian law categorizes inheritance cases into two types: “The first type involves the distribution of inheritance according to Islamic Sharia, covering both movable and immovable assets. In this case, the wife receives a share, and the rest is divided equally among male heirs, where they receive twice as much as a female heir’s shares. The second type pertains to agricultural properties, referred to as ‘Amiriya’ properties, which are distributed according to a statutory law. This law allocates equal shares to the heirs and reserves one-fourth of the land for the husband or wife in case of the owner’s death.”
Regarding the distribution of assets and inheritance in case of the owner’s death, the lawyer told Daraj that it “is common for the mother and sister to relinquish their ownership and shares to their brothers or their brothers’ children, following the prevailing customs in our society.” He added, “Usually, a piece of gold, a sum of money, or specific promises are given in return for their renunciation of their shares.” The lawyer concluded his statement by saying, “The region has not witnessed contentious lawsuits filed by women against their brothers or their brothers’ children, demanding their share of agricultural land ownership. In such cases, social customs dictate providing financial compensation instead of ownership, especially if the woman is married outside the family.”
The authority of Islamic Sharia
Muaaz Ahmed, an Imam at a mosque in Al-Hasakah, defends Islamic Sharia, refuting claims of its bias towards men at the expense of women, saying, “It is true that Sharia recommends a larger share for males compared to females, but men are required to provide for the women under their care and offer donations or similar forms of support in return.” However, there is another aspect where women receive more than men, as explained by the Imam, saying, “In the event of a husband’s death when his wife, children, mother, and father are still alive, the estate is typically divided by the number of heirs.” He further explained a different Sharia-based scenario, saying, “If a man with two daughters passes away, leaving his mother alive, the mother receives two shares, while each daughter gets three shares. In the case of the death of a wife who owns assets, and whose parents are still alive, each parent receives two shares, and four shares are granted to the son.”
Gender discrimination without restraint
These testimonies and opinions reveal that discrimination and deprivation of inheritance are targeting women solely because they are women. The religious institution does not stand up for them, and their own families force them to give up what is righteously theirs in exchange for gold or specified amounts. As the lawyer mentioned earlier, family dispute cases between brothers and sisters are not common, but rather merely existing, exposing the family’s control over the distribution of wealth and land, which extends beyond inheritance rights to even the daily use of the land itself. Landownership and its relationship with men as the main beneficiaries date back to a feudal history that laws have not been able to fully address due to the overpowering influence of family and religion. Matters have reached the point, as witnessed in the testimonies, of families preferring to “get rid” of their daughters or sisters instead of acknowledging their rightful ownership.