Turkey: Syrian Refugees, Religious and Civil Relations

Marie Melham and Ahmad Haj Hamdo
Syrian Journalists

The laws in Turkey, alongside the Syrian refugee women’s ignorance of what their rights are, has caused them to face many problems. This report highlights the stories of the women caught between the Syrian and Turkish laws.

Ghalia Sherifa, a Syrian refugee, arrived in Turkey in 2014 to escape the Syrian war, at which point she had been married for 18 years and had four children.

After her arrival in Turkey, her and her husband had quarreled quite a bit, so they finally decided to separate.

Ghalia got married in Syria according to Syrian personal status laws, which are based on religious interpretations according to sect and district.

According to those laws, a husband can divorce his wife without her knowledge or consent. Just like marriage, divorce is performed with a cleric, and many clerics acknowledge verbal divorce without formal confirmation.

In Turkey, things are quite different, as family relations are considered subject to civil, and not religious, laws. This reality has plunged Ghalia into a confusing maze, colored by both the very distinct laws alongside her ignorance of her rights.

“In Turkey, I am registered as married, and in case I want to get a divorce, I have to provide evidence for that and amend my situation,” Ghalia explains. “Because the law doesn’t recognize the kind of divorce I’ve gotten, it needs documentation in the courts.”

Ghalia filed a divorce case against her husband, and the court assigned her a lawyer to argue her case almost four years ago, but it has not been official until now. She has not been able to obtain the official divorce confirmation from the court, because her husband considers that the way he got the divorce is legal, and that there is no need to appear before the court.

Unfair Perspective

Issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody in a large percentage of ​Arab states, including Syria, are subject to religious interpretations that have been formulated since the establishment of that state, and are mostly influenced by ancient texts since the time of the Ottoman Empire.

In religious laws, women are often on the feebler side of the relationship. Guardianship, for example, is an approved right, and it is always given to the man, whether he is a father, brother or husband. This requires support of women, and gives them a lack of initiative, and so the younger brother takes charge of his older sister and so on.

Turkey, which has been locked in a fierce debate over secularism and religion since its inception, adopts civil family laws, and therefore does not recognize custody laws according to religion, which usually distinguish in most schools of custody between males and females. In Turkey, they adopt the logic of judgment according to eligibility and financial capacity to support. These are all precious details that Ghalia did not know or occupy, as she lives a life burdened with difficulties, which was the reason she had resorted to Turkey, and now additionally she is dealing with a financial burden to support her children.

All of this put her in a state of confusion, as she demanded an official divorce, in addition to alimony for her four children (according to the logic of Islamic religious rulings), which doesn’t exist in Turkey. What made it all more difficult was the fact that she didn’t obtain any material or aid intended for women who do not have a ‘breadwinner’, because to the court, according to government documents, she was still married. Failure to confirm her divorce prevented her from marrying again, as confirming the divorce in Syria to be approved in Turkey is difficult and complicated, and she cannot bear its expenses.

“There are many women like me, and in many cases the man, who is now free, doesn’t cooperate with the court, out of spite, to prevent his wife from starting her life again with another man,” She explains. “Thus, depriving her of the aid provided by associations and organizations to the women breadwinners.”

Many Syrian women in Turkey suffer because they are ignorant of their rights, particularly because of their marginal and secondary position in which religious personal status laws place them, as these laws are often in the interest of men and place women in a weak and often violated position.

Double Ignorance of Rights and Laws

Many Syrian women in Turkey suffer because they are ignorant of their rights, particularly because of their marginal and secondary position in which religious personal status laws place them, as these laws are often in the interest of men and place women in a weak and often violated position.

This reality has provided a double-sided problem for them in Turkey, as they are often ignorant of their rights and the prejudice they suffer from, facing the dilemma between the Syrian and Turkish laws.

In addition to this, it is difficult to secure civil status documents from Turkey, to complete various transactions such as confirming marriage, divorce, registering children and other important transactions.

It is also difficult or even impossible to obtain documents from Syria, as it is costly to secure any documents, no matter how simple, from Syria.

My children are not registered!

Nour, a young Syrian woman, is still confused, looking for a legal way to register her two children in Turkey. Her children came from an illegal marriage and are not registered with the Turkish authorities. Nour has a double problem; She got married when she was a minor and is also a second wife.

In Syria, despite raising the marriage age to 17 years old, in an amendment that took place in 2019, the legislation was a formality because it still left the clergyman with the discretion to marry whomever he wanted to, even if they were under the age of 17.

In Syria, the incidence of underage marriage has doubled since the start of the war, which is believed to have reached 30%, according to official estimates in 2015. The prevalence of underage marriage and polygamy in traditional Syrian societies face a giant dilemma when arriving to Turkey.

Nour and her family arrived in Turkey as refugees fleeing the Syrian war, and their conditions were difficult, like most newcomers.

Nour’s family consists of her son, her mother, and seven daughters. Like many refugee families, young girls are married off in order to reduce their financial burden, which is something a large proportion of young Syrians face.

Nour, who got married in Turkey to a Turkish citizen, explains: “A woman named Umm Muhammad came to us, working as a mediator for marriage, and after she met me she offered to marry me to someone in Turkey, and when I sat with him, it became clear to me that he was calm and nice, so I decided to marry him as a second wife.”

Nour blames the mediator, Umm Muhammad, who did not tell her that Turkish law prohibits polygamy, and that it does not recognize the second wife in a marriage, in addition to the fact that she was only 16 years old. “Suddenly it becomes clear to me that my marriage was not legal.”

Her children only got a national number, without being registered in the place of their Turkish father, and thus their inheritance was denied.

Nour and her husband obtained personal cards for her child, and completed his inspection treatment and vaccination, and then when her son turned two she was pregnant with another child.

A lawyer told Nour and her husband that the court would not recognize the child from a second marriage, but that he can be registered and given a national number, so that he can be a Turkish citizen in the future.

Nour is also experiencing a double problem. She was married when she was a minor to be a second wife. She did not receive a sufficient education, does not know her rights, and does not see anything wrong with her being married young or being a second wife.

I was Forbidden to see my Children and to register my Marriage

Aisha also got married in Syria in 2005, when she was young, just 14 years old at the time. She gave birth to three children, and after the outbreak of the war in Syria, she moved with her family to Turkey, and there began the disputes with her husband, which ended with separation and undocumented verbal divorce.

“My husband took my children and prevented me from seeing or contacting them,” Aisha tells Daraj. “After the divorce, I moved to live with my parents for two years in the Turkish state of Denizli.”

While living with her family, Aisha received many offers to marry Turks, so she accepted one of them and in 2017 got married to a Turkish person with a “Prani” contract (not officially registered), to be documented later after he completes his divorce from his first wife in the courts. She moved to live with him in Istanbul.

Aisha and her husband tried to confirm the marriage, but they failed, as she is registered with the Turkish authorities as being married to a Syrian man, and her data has not been modified after her divorce.

“I currently live in Istanbul, and my ex-husband is in Gaziantep, and he refuses to help me obtain our divorce paper,” she explains. “My temporary protection card is registered in Gaziantep and has been suspended, so I cannot register my marriage.”

Aisha became pregnant with her Turkish husband and gave birth to a child who is not yet registered. “If the child needs to go to the hospital, I cannot take him to government hospitals because he isn’t registered and does not have any papers.”

With the presence of about 3 million Syrian refugees scattered in different areas and living in difficult situations, it is easy to imagine the tremendous complexities experienced by Syrian women who carry with them a heavy legacy of social and legal discrimination in their home country, to find themselves again confronting confusing laws that are supposed to be better for them in the host country.

“I Got a Kimlik and Couldn’t Fix My Marriage.”

Faten, another young Syrian woman, was forced to separate from her husband after the difficulties she faced in obtaining the temporary protection card “Kimlik”, then her husband refused to confirm the marriage even after her success in obtaining this card.

Faten (40 years old) arrived in Turkey in 2016 and settled in with her sister. There, she met a Turkish man who officially requested her to marry him.

Faten did not possess a temporary protection card, amid complications in extracting it from the states in Turkey in which Syrians are the most present, such as Istanbul and Gaziantep, and she remained there for a year and a half engaged to him, provided that she would marry him as soon as she obtains the card, to officially register the marriage.

After a year and a half, Faten and her husband lost hope in waiting, so they got married under an undocumented legal contract, provided that they confirmed it as soon as the temporary protection card was issued. This is a choice that is given often in refugee societies that consider religious engagement to precede civil engagement, which places many women and girls in a position where they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

“He promised me to fix the marriage as soon as I got the card, and I thought that he would keep his promise, but he didn’t,” Faten says.

After four months of marriage, Faten finally managed to officially get the card. “I asked him to confirm the marriage in the courts, but he procrastinated for about a year and a half,” She adds. “The matter developed into a disagreement between us, which made me leave because he had broken his promise and did not abide by what we agreed upon.”

Faten was forced to give her partner half of the gold she owned in exchange for them to get a divorce.

Failure to confirm marriage in Turkey means that the husband does not bear any legal responsibility, whether it was towards his wife or towards his children, as an unrecognized marriage makes it difficult to register these children, in addition to not obtaining alimony in the event of separation.

Unresolvable Problems

With regard to the marriage and divorce of Syrian women in Turkey, Turkish law applies to them, as they are present on Turkish territory, according to Syrian lawyer Husam Al-Sarhan explains from the Free Syrian Lawyers Association.

“In Turkey, the law prohibits polygamy, meaning if a woman divorces from her husband, she cannot marry again until after modifying her data and transferring herself from married to divorced on her temporary protection card,” Sarhan explains.

Sarhan clarifies some of the more complex cases, when a Syrian woman arrives in Turkey, and her husband is either dead, detained, missing, or verbally divorced in Syria, and in this case, she is married according to the documents she has, but she must amend her data in a complicated and costly process.

The journey to obtaining the official separation decision begins by returning to Syria, to appoint a lawyer and file a separation suit in the regime-held areas. Secondly, the woman obtains the official separation decision, then confirm it in the civil affairs departments, and then extracts a civil registration certificate certified by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that officially states that her marital status is divorced.

The next step for extracting the record is to go to it for approval at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul after booking an appointment that costs hundreds of dollars, after which it is translated into Turkish and certified by the governor of Istanbul. Only in this case is it possible to rely on the document for use in Turkey and to amend the woman’s data, but this method requires a lot of time and effort, in addition to the high cost that is unaffordable by many, according to Sarhan.

Al-Sarhan continues: “In the event that any woman has a marriage that is not documented under some circumstance, then her husband can leave her without any obligation, and the woman will not be able to obtain any of her rights or the rights of her children.”

With regard to the marriage of minors that is widespread among Syrians in Turkey, Sarhan stressed that this marriage leads to punishment of the wife, the husband, the guardian of the wife and the person who contracted the marriage, explaining that if the pregnancy occurs and is detected in the hospital, the child will not be registered, because the law considers the mother unmarried and unable to have children.

Legal Awareness

Heba Ezz El-Din, Executive Director of the “Justice and Empowerment Organization” (a Syrian organization working to achieve gender equality), says: “The issue of the failure of Syrian refugee women in Turkey to access legal and civil documents is one of the most difficult obstacles.”

Ezz al-Din explained the most prominent cases in which women need documents, is when it comes to divorce documents, as Syrian women in Turkey cannot confirm marriage in Turkish courts if they are previously married without proving the divorce through the divorce decision or extracting a record from Syria. Ezz al-Din explains that this matter is impossible for them, because it requires lawyers or brokers and the payment is a high amount that may reach $300. In these cases, Syrian women register their marriage with a legal contract that is not documented and is not recognized before the Turkish government.

Ezz al-Din stressed that most Syrian women are completely ignorant of Turkish laws. “The difference in laws has a terrifying effect on women, especially since the law in Turkey is civil, so that the marriage of minors is not permitted and the guardian and husband are punished with imprisonment that may reach 8 years for child sexual exploitation. In such cases, the best solution is to educate the Syrian community in Turkey of the seriousness of this issue.”

In the same context, the prohibition of polygamy in Turkey has made many Syrian women secretly marry Turkish men, depriving them of many of their rights.

There are no exact figures or information on the extent of the problem, but with the presence of about 3 million Syrian refugees scattered in different areas and living in difficult situations, it is easy to imagine the tremendous complexities experienced by Syrian women who carry with them a heavy legacy of social and legal discrimination in their home country, to find themselves again confronting confusing laws that are supposed to be better for them in the host country.

  • The investigation was supported by the National Endowment for Democracy NED.

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