Mona, 17, from the Syrian province of al-Qunaitra, was forced into marriage when she was only 15. The man who her father forced her to marry was infertile, thirteen years older than her, and had three previous failed marriages. She knew none of this before she married him. Mona recounted to STJ:
“My father said that marriage is to protect women, but he forced me into that marriage for nothing else but to take my dowry. My father did not tell me the truth about my ex-husband’s social and personal status before marriage. My marriage lasted only six months, during which I suffered physical and psychological violence from my husband, who then expelled me from his home after forcibly taking the money and the gold I had. Moreover, my ex-husband refused to divorce me unless I gave up all my legal rights before the court.”
The absence of legal protection for victims — especially women — coupled with a fear of social stigmatization that stops battered wives from filing complaints against their husbands means that stories like Mona’s are occurring throughout Syria. Syrian law considers crimes of domestic abuse as equivalent to those of “hitting and harming” stipulated for in Article 540 et seq. of the Syrian Penal Code. Furthermore, Article 305 of the Syrian Personal Status Law allows a husband to, under certain conditions, “slightly beat his wife”and states that in the absence of codified laws that sufficiently address a particular matter of personal status of Muslims, based on Article 305 of the Syrian Personal Status Law, generally, the rules of Hanafi jurisprudence (fiqh) apply.
In turn, the Syrian Penal Code has been criticized for its inclusion of what Islamic jurists have termed “honor killings”, under the section of “Crimes Against Morality and Public Morals”. Prior to its amendment in 2009 and 2011, Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code waived the punishment for a man tried with the murder of a female family member in a case provoked by “illegitimate sex acts”, granting the killer a complete “exemption of penalty” as the excuse was considered pardonable. Although this “mitigating circumstances excuse” for honor killings persisted in the article’s later amendment, it was later adjusted to include a minimum sentence of two years, then five years. On 17 March 2020, President Bashar al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 2, abolishing Article 548 of the Penal Code, and with it the legal differentiation between “honor killings” and other murders.
The ongoing Syrian conflict continues to profoundly affect the lives of women, bolstering repressive practices such as “child marriage”. The Syrian Constitution of 2012 makes no mention of “child marriage”, but states in Article 20: “The state shall protect and encourage marriage and shall work on removing material and social obstacles that hinder it. The state shall also protect maternity and childhood, take care of young children and youth and provide the suitable conditions for the development of their talents.”
Pervasive injustice follows Syrian women throughout their lives. Cultural norms and repressive religious discourse contribute to their violation and discrimination by enshrining male guardianship, which reinforces the power and control men have over women’s lives and choices, at times fueling violence. At the same time, misogynistic legal, political, and social systems cement men’s control over employment opportunities and thus economic resources, limiting emancipatory potential and egalitarian standing.
Male authority in the cases and communities discussed in this report stems from cultural, societal, and religious conventions which shape systems that turn a blind eye to, or worse, permit violence against women. A woman may not only be the victim of her violent husband, but also suffer at the hands of her father, brother, and other male relatives, including those in the extended family like grandfathers, uncles, and brothers-in-law. Violence against women is often also perpetuated by other women, who support men’s authority and condone its abuses. In many of these cases, violence occurs within the domestic space; however, discriminatory laws and institutions frequently protect the perpetrators and disenfranchise the victims when that violence enters the public sphere in police stations, courts, and government offices. As a result, Syrian women experiencing violence at home are left with few laws and institutions to turn to while searching for accountability or reprieve.
This report is dedicated to highlighting instances of violence against women which are often left undiscussed in the Syrian context, as well as exploring the legal barriers victims of violence confront when they attempt to seek justice.
This paper draws on the testimonies of 20 Syrian women who disclosed their experience of male-inflicted violence at the hands of their husbands or male relatives to field researchers with Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) between October 2020 and February 2021. While some attempted to seek justice through Syrian courts, others did not for fear of societal stigmatization and familial blame.
STJ also spoke to both male and female activists campaigning against violence against women present in the areas where the incidents this paper explores occurred. Their identities have been concealed for their safety. This paper does not include the testimonies of the relatives of the victims, or from the perpetrators themselves, especially in those cases of “honor killings”, because these individuals refused to speak to STJ.
By closely studying the Syrian laws applicable in the 20 cases discussed in this report, and comparing them to the norms of international law, STJ’s legal team identified several legal loopholes benefitting the perpetrators of violence against women. This report will describe these loopholes, and while doing so, share the experiences of several Syrian women who have confronted violence, and often, injustice within Syrian courts. By defining these loopholes, we hope to begin the conversation of how to close them because, so long as these legal outlets remain, and the culture of impunity persists, women in Syria will continue to confront escalating violence.
Difficulties and Obstacles
Among the challenges STJ researchers faced while compiling this paper were the overall security conditions in the country, as well as the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the biggest challenge faced by our team of researchers was convincing female victims to use legal means to punish the perpetrators and free themselves from violence. This originates in a fear of society and retaliation from their relatives, as well as a deep mistrust of the effectiveness of using legal means. For some women, seeking redress through the courts would be not only ineffective but harmful, resulting in increased risk of violence from perpetrators for speaking against them.
Forms of Violence Against Women
Domestic violence against women in Syrian society takes many diverse forms, the most prominent of which is that inflicted by husband against wife. Paternal violence against children, especially girls, and a brother’s violence against his sisters are also widespread. In the varied cases we discuss below, Syrian laws enshrine and uphold male superiority, failing to hold perpetrators of violence accountable.
Violence against women sometimes takes the form of a crime called an “honor killing”. While “honor killings” are often commonly understood as crimes which are committed against a woman caught having an affair, they frequently occur during other scenarios, including a woman’s legal marriage to a man without having first sought the consent of her family, marrying a person of a different religion or sect, or beginning a relationship with a man.
The very name “honor killings” implies a justificatory explanation for the violent and unjust act, offering a sympathetic reasoning for the crime and constituting the first step towards impunity. The phenomenon of “honor killings” is unique in that society sides with the killer, and at times even encourages him.
Marriage Without Familial Consent
In early 2021, Esther and her husband were killed by her relative, simply for having married without the prior consent of her family. Esther had been married three years, and was pregnant, at the time of her murder.
Esther was from the city of Afrin, in the north of the Aleppo Governorate. In 2018, Esther married Khaled, 35, as his second wife, without the knowledge of her family. She moved to live with Khaled in the village of Kurin, located in the Arihah district in southern Idlib. An activist working in the area where Esther and Khaled were murdered told STJ:
“On the evening of 12 January 2021, a relative of Esther – believed to be her brother – broke into her home and shot her and her husband with a pistol. They died instantly in front of Khaled’s first wife, who was living in the same house. After the killer escaped, the first wife informed her husband’s family of the crime.”
The activist also confirmed that Esther and her husband are survived by their two-year-old daughter, and that the fetus in Esther’s womb died in the incident.
A similar crime was committed in the province of al-Qunaitra, where a young woman was arrested, then murdered upon her release after she fled home to marry a man she fell in love with. The victim’s friend told STJ:
“My friend was arrested at a checkpoint of the Syrian Army in Damascus suburb in 2014 while on her way to marry the man that she loves, fleeing her family’s home after they rejected their marriage. The reason for her arrest or the charges against her were unknown. My friend was held for two years, before she was released in 2016.”
After her release, she went to a local dignitary in the area, who spoke to her family to allow her return home. Her family promised not to hurt her; however, days later, she was murdered. Her friend spoke with one of STJ’s field researchers afterwards:
“Her brothers and father strangled her to death while she slept. The girl’s family accused the man she loved of the crime. Despite the police’s investigations into the crime, the perpetrators are still at large.”
Another “honor killing” occurred in rural southern Daraa, where a 23-year-old woman was killed by her husband’s relatives. The perpetrators justified their crime by saying that the victim took advantage of her husband’s absence – having taken refuge in Europe – to have an affair with another man in 2019.
A friend of the victim talked to STJ about the incident in January 2021, saying:
“The victim’s mother-in-law saw a man jumping on the roof of the victim’s home at night. The mother called her son and told him what she saw. Immediately, she went with relatives to the victim’s home to find her sleeping with her children. The victim was imprisoned in her house for a week before being found murdered.”
The friend confirmed that the victim’s family holds her husband’s family responsible for the murder, but they have no evidence. The police have not investigated the incident and blamed her death on natural causes.
The cases discussed above are not the only honor killings to occur in Syria. STJ has documented dozens of honor killings in multiple reports during the last few years of the Syrian conflict. Like the cases included in this report, few of the “honor killings” we have investigated resulted in the jailing or punishment of the perpetrators.
“Honor” Killings and the Law
The term “honor killing” to describe the murder of a woman or girl by male family members does not appear in Syrian law. Instead, the law terms such killings “crimes against morality and public morals”. Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code (before its amendment in 2009 and 2011), waived punishment for a man found to have killed a female family member in a case provoked by “illegitimate sex acts”. In such cases, the killer benefited from a complete “exemption of penalty”, as the excuse was considered pardonable. While the article that replaced this still allows for mitigated punishment for “honor killings”, it also requires a sentence of at least five years.
Notably, the distinction between the entitlements afforded to men and not women are explicit in Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code and similar articles, because the articles do not note that women would be provided with same exemption of penalty if they walk in on their husband engaging in illegitimate sex acts and, in fact, they have not been provided with the same exemption of penalty in real cases. One notable example is the case of a woman who killed her husband after she walked in while he was engaged in an illegitimate sex act and was then charged with the crime of intentional murder.
On 17 March 2020, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 2, which abolished Article 548 of the Penal Code, making it so that legally “honor killings” are handled like any other crime. However, the law left the decision on such crimes to the discretion of the judges and courts, with Article 192 of the Syrian Penal Code providing for a reduction of sentences if the judge finds that the motive was “honorable”.
Furthermore, Article 242 of the Syrian Penal Code allows the judge to reduce the punishment for both men and women in cases of murders committed in the event of anger or motivated by an illegal act provoked by the victim.
Originally issued by Qadri Basha, an Egyptian jurist of Turkish origin, in a book entitled “Legal Provisions in the Personal Status”. Basha contributed to the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh).
 For more info, please see: “On the Syrian Personal Status Law”, Syrian Women for Democracy, 25 March 2020, http://cswdsy.org/%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%AE%D8%B5%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84/ (last accessed: 20 November 2021).
 For more info, please see: “General Penal Laws”, the Syrian Parliament website, http://www.parliament.gov.sy/arabic/index.php?node=57151& (last accessed: 20 November 2021).
 “Ten ‘Honor Killings’ in al-Hasakah and As Suwayda Since Early 2019”, STJ, 19 August 2019, https://stj-sy.org/en/ten-honor-killings-in-al-hasakah-and-as-suwayda-since-early-2019/ (last accessed: 08 November 2021);
“Syria: Girl, Two Women Murdered in Alleged “Honor Killing”, STJ, 13 July 2019, https://stj-sy.org/en/syria-girl-two-women-murdered-in-alleged-honor-killing/ (last accessed: 20 November 2021);
“Figures Show a Rise in Homicides Against Women in Idlib and Hama”, STJ, 5 January 2020, https://stj-sy.org/en/figures-show-a-rise-in-homicides-against-women-in-idlib-and-hama/ (last accessed: 20 November 2021).
 For more info, please see: “General Penal Laws”, the Syrian Parliament, http://www.parliament.gov.sy/arabic/index.php?node=57151& (last accessed: 20 November 2021).