When 17-year-old Alia married a 45-year-old Saudi Arabian man, she thought her family’s fortunes were turning.
The Syrian girl, whose name has been changed for protection, had fled from Homs with her mother in 2011. They arrived in Jordan’s Zaatari camp to live among 130,000 other refugees. After one year of camp life, the Saudi marriage proposal sounded too good to be true.
According to Alia’s mother, the women were offered a 4,000 dinar ($5,200 USD) dowry, a promise to legitimize the marriage in Jordanian court, and then a happy life for Alia and her new husband together in Saudi. The man was 25 years her senior, but Alia agreed.
The two underwent a ceremony for barrani marriage, a colloquial term for unofficial, unlicensed weddings that have become rampant among Syrians in Jordan. Without legal documentation or authorization, Alia and her Saudi fiancé entered and consummated their matrimony.
One and a half months later, the man went back to Saudi Arabia. Alia and her mother, whose husband died in Syria, are left in a dilapidated house in Amman’s Jabal al-Hussein neighborhood. They lack aid, support or legal means of tracking the husband down. They have no documentation of the marriage, and have not heard from him since.
Alia is just one among hundreds of refugees who have become victims of barrani marriage in Jordan. Radio al-Balad has released an investigative report examining hundreds of such unauthorized marriages, where refugees resort to an illegal union void of official recognition or protection because they have no access to the usual processes.
The Chief Islamic Judge of Jordan’s Sharia court, officially called the Supreme Judge Department (SJD), ratified 313 of these “barrani” marriages in 2012. But according to chief investigator Etaf Roudan and the Radio al-Balad team, the number of illegal marriages is much larger and growing daily, especially within the Syrian refugee camps.
Over a yearlong investigation supported by the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), Radio al-Balad documented sixteen specific cases of barrani marriages in the absence of official statistics from either Sharia courts or Jordan’s Ministry of the Interior.
130,000 refugees are currently living in Zaatari camp without access to legitimate marriage procedures, Radio al-Balad reports. The consequences of barrani marriage range from underage marriages to arbitrary abandonment to lack of recognition or consequent welfare for barrani-born children.
Civil marriages do not exist in Jordan, where citizens and refugees alike are required to marry via religious law. Most Syrian refugees are Muslim. Their official marriage requires a complex set of papers and procedures decided by the SJD, from documented proof of unmarried status to blood tests to witnesses for guaranteeing legitimacy.
Many Syrians are seeking asylum in Jordan without their official papers. In camps like Zaatari, most refugees lack sufficient means to acquire food and basic living supplies, let alone to arrange for papers to be sent from Syria. Their other option is to apply for a permit to leave the camp (usually forbidden without a Jordanian citizen’s guarantee), get to the Syrian embassy and apply for new papers. This process takes money and time that Syrians cannot afford, especially without guarantee of success.
As a result, refugees are resorting to unofficial marriages, typically performed with a makeshift sheikh from among the tribal leaders within the camps. These marriages are illegal under penalty of a 1000 dinar fine: 200 dinars each for the man, wife, “contract”-maker and two witnesses.
Yassin Algadan, a 70-year-old Syrian, told Radio al-Balad that he had conducted at least ten unlicensed marriages between refugees in 2012 without charge. If anyone ever pressed charges for this, Algadan said, he would pay the fines.
“Syrians are already in bad situations without supporting documents. Legal marriage is very difficult for them,” Algadan said. “This type of marriage prevents the crime of adultery.”
“He meant that this type of marriage is illegal, but not haram,” Roudan says.
According to the SJD, refugees seeking marriage can go to an official called a ma’athun. The ma’athun must hold a degree in Sharia law and take an SJD test, which certifies him to officiate legal marriages.
When Radio al-Balad went to Zaatari camp, however, no ma’athun office was there. SJD authorities told Roudan that there is no single ma’athun in Zaatari, but a series of rotating officials. After investigation, Roudan found one supposed ma’athun who had given up on his role, complaining that it was impractical.
“ He said that refugees have to leave the camp to get their papers, which doesn’t make sense,” Roudan said. “So he wrote some contracts, and then stopped.”
Official records have documented 54 illegal marriages with Syrian refugees in Jordan over the last 3 years. Meanwhile, Zaatari administrator Rafaat al-Hamidi told Radio al-Balad that “not a day goes by” without barrani marriages taking place in the camp. “No one prevents this, even though it’s not allowed,” al-Hamidi said.
Without redress or proper administration from the SJD, Jordan’s Ministry of the Interior and the Syrian Embassy in Amman, barrani marriages will continue to spread and the number of victims like Alia will grow.
For full coverage, see Radio al-Balad’s original report in Arabic.