Sundays usually mean brisk business for Turkish hairdressers. In Reyhanli on the Syrian border, a small shop is bustling with excited future brides and their relatives waiting to be styled for weddings and engagement parties.
The owner, Hatice Utku, is perming the hair of a sombre woman. Unlike the other customers, she is not accompanied by family members. “A Syrian bride,” Utku explains, sounding slightly disgruntled. “We are getting a lot of those now.”
One of her colleagues chips in: “They are stealing our husbands.”
It is three days since Aminah (27), from Idlib in Syria, first met her 43-year-old Turkish husband-to-be through a matchmaker. “He divorced his first wife and wanted to marry again,” Aminah says timidly. “He has a house and a job in Ankara. My family in Syria has nothing left. He will provide for me.”
Her fiancé, a businessperson from Ankara, paid about 3 000 Turkish lira (R15 000) for the introduction to his bride, plus 5 000TL for expenses. The couple communicate through a translator. “He will learn Arabic,” Aminah says. “I am happy, I guess. I don’t know.”
Only way out
Aminah is one of an increasing number of Syrian refugees who opt to marry Turkish men. Women’s rights groups are worried. “A lot of women agree to these marriages out of desperation. All they think about is how to feed their family. These arrangements might seem like the only way out, and men exploit this,” says one activist from Gaziantep.
“At the same time, local women feel helpless and anxious about their families breaking apart. Women on both sides of the border become victims this way.”
In Kilis, a town where Syrian refugees outnumber local people, a 43-year-old Syrian woman says aid workers from a faith-based charity pressured her to marry off her daughter to a Turkish government official, arguing that the man was charitable, had “donated many biscuits” and that “she should be grateful for such a good offer”.
Dr Mohamed Assaf, who works at a medical centre in Kilis, says almost 4 000 Syrian women have married Turkish men in the town since he arrived in 2012.
Dr Reemah Nana, a gynaecologist at the clinic, says patients with Turkish husbands sometimes complain about domestic violence, but in general, marriages are happy.
Women and children
Turkish authorities put the number of Syrian refugees in the country at nearly a million, a figure projected to rise by the end of the year to 1.4-million. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, women and children constitute 75% of refugees in Turkey, with under-18s accounting for 50%.
Human rights groups have repeatedly pointed out that women refugees from Syria are especially vulnerable, and that many face rape, sexual abuse and harassment.
Like many Syrian refugees, Aminah entered Turkey illegally and without a valid passport, making it impossible to register her marriage. The ceremony will be a religious one, performed by an imam, thus leaving her without any rights in the event of a separation or her spouse’s death.
Kemal Dilsiz, a matchmaker in a village close to the Syrian border, says: “None of these weddings is official, since none of the women has a passport.”
The Syrian women that Dilsiz “introduces” to his Turkish customers usually come across the Orontes River, on floats, at 100TL a ride. “I married off around 60 Syrian girls,” he says. “Men from all over Turkey call me, looking for a wife from Syria. They say Syrian women are more loyal, that they don’t talk back.”
Paid matchmaking, illegal in Turkey, is a thriving business in the provinces bordering Syria. “Human trafficking and all the problems associated with it – abuse, rape and exploitation – have increased since 2012,” says the women’s rights activist.
“We hear of more and more cases of ‘temporary marriages’, basically sex work, but women are afraid to talk about this openly. It is worrying that the idea of temporary marriages is now being normalised in Turkey. It puts the veneer of respectability and religious approval on sexual abuse and exploitation.”
Dilsiz introduces women to any man who can pay: “It costs 4 000TL for me to arrange a meeting. Then there are the men on the Syrian side, the wedding, the car – all in all it would cost you around 10 000TL to get married to a Syrian girl.”
Outside a nongovernmental organisation in Kilis, several women wait for the daily distribution of nappies and food, discussing wedding plans for their daughters. Hanan (45) says her 23-year-old daughter will become the second wife of a 35-year-old Turk.
“He promised to put the house and his car in her name. She will be better off that way.”
Turkish human rights groups warn that polygamy, outlawed in Turkey almost a century ago but still practised in conservative rural areas in southeastern Anatolia, is on the rise. Second, third, or even fourth wives – called kuma in Turkish – lack legal protection and are especially vulnerable to abuse.
Fatma (28) from Aleppo province married her Turkish husband three months ago. She is his second wife. “His first wife is ill and does not want to have any more children,” she says. Fatma is pregnant with her husband’s seventh child. “I am happy. His first wife is nice to me,” she says. “She is glad that I am here to help her. We share all the housework.”
Resentment is growing. Women in border towns and cities accuse Syrian women of luring away their husbands, saying their spouses routinely threaten them with taking a Syrian wife.
At the Reyhanli hairdresser, local women express their anger. “Syrian women have broken up many families here,” says Kadriye (36).
“Our husbands have become real beasts since the Syrians came. The men now make all kinds of excuses to bring in a second wife. They threaten us because of the smallest things: the food, the housekeeping, anything. Some take wives the age of their daughters.”
Utku nods. “Domestic violence has increased, too. Women put up with anything nowadays, just to hang on to their husbands. “
The women’s rights activist said: “Local women are anxious. The constant fear of losing their husbands puts a lot of pressure on them. Domestic violence, threats, psychological pressure and abuse from their spouses have increased. We notice a rise in mental illness, especially depression, but the topic is not being addressed by the authorities.”
She says her organisation tries to assist Turkish and Syrian women: “We do house visits. We try to convince them to put the blame where it belongs. In order to counter this male opportunism, women from both sides of the border need to stick together.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014
Some names have been changed.