‘We must set an example’: Enforcing the polygamy ban in Syria’s Kurdish-held north

In April 2014, the legislative council of the Self-Administration—the governing authority of Syria’s de facto autonomous Kurdish-held regions in the north—issued a law banning polygamy in territories under their control.

At the time, reactions to the new legislation were mixed: Some praised it as a step forward for gender equality, while others saw it as out of touch with the battles raging in Syria’s Kurdish-held territories, Syria Direct reported.

The polygamy ban, though on the books, was not enforced until the Women’s Committee of the Self-Administration issued a revised version of the legislation in 2016. The police forces and courts began to enforce the ban in the three cantons controlled by the Self-Administration.  

Syria Direct spoke with one resident of Al-Hasakah city in the far northeast Jazirah canton who says he was jailed for two months on charges of polygamy. The man, who asked not to be identified, was fined SP700,000, or approximately $1,315 and released from prison last month.

 Logo of the Women’s Committee of the Self-Administration. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Committee: Al-Jazeera Canton.

“We must set an example to deter the rest,” Aminah Amar, the president of the Women’s Committee in the Jazirah canton, tells Syria Direct’s Muhammad Abdulsattar Ibrahim.

The Women’s Committee works with the legislative and executive branches of the Self-Administration on legislation and initiatives that relate to women’s issues.

We are trying to preserve women’s rights,” said the Self-Administration official.

Q: Why did the Self-Administration outlaw polygamy? As you see it, does the new legislation oppose Islam and societal norms?

When a man marries more than one wife, it can have a disastrous effect on the family and, in turn, society. We are trying to put a stop to this.

Islam allows for multiple wives in very specific cases such as sterility and illness. The Quranic verse is very clear on this matter. In the same verse that says you can marry more than one woman, it is said ‘you will never be able to be equal.’

[Ed.: The Quran contains two main verses relating to the issue of a man marrying multiple wives, both from the chapter entitled ‘Nisa’ (Women). Amar is referring to Nisa 4:29 which says ‘And you will never be able to be equal in feeling between wives, even if you should strive to do so.’] 

We organized hundreds of lectures [since the original law was passed in 2014] to discuss the positives and negatives of the decision. We put together awareness campaigns in the Jazirah canton, and people are starting to accept the idea.

Q: The stated goal of this legislation is to protect women’s rights. However, couldn’t a man living in territory controlled by the Self- Administration marry another wife and not register it?

This is a critically important issue. Right now, the main difficulty we face is the lack of a civil registry in the Self-Administration. The civil registry is still under the control of the regime. However, before the end of the year, we will create our own registry.

Currently, there are punishments [to deter unregistered marriages]. If a sheikh performs an Islamic marriage while aware that the man already has a wife, he will be fined and imprisoned.

[Ed.: Amar is referring to sheikh marriages, as they are termed, in which a man and a woman are married under Sunni Islamic law. A sheikh drafts a marriage contract and performs the ceremony. Often, the married couple does not register the marriage until a later point, for example, after the birth of their first child.]

The man will also be imprisoned for one to two years, in addition to incurring a fine of about SP500,000 [$940]. If he is a civil employee, then he will be fired immediately.

Q: In which territories is the law in effect? Does the decision to outlaw polygamy impact those who already have more than one wife?

The decision is not retroactive, so it does not apply to previous cases of polygamy. The law is in effect in all cantons, not just Jazirah.

[Ed.: The Self-Administration governs three cantons—Jazirah, Afrin and Kobani in Syria’s north and northeast.]

Q: Could the Self-Administration’s legislation banning polygamy pose a threat to woman’s social standing and well-being?

Yes, unfortunately. But we must set an example to deter the rest. If we discover a [second] marriage after the fact—more than a month later, for example—the wife might be pregnant. In that case, we wait until the woman gives birth in order to ensure that the child receives all the rights and care it is entitled to.

Then, we dissolve the marriage between the man and his second wife. If the woman knew that her husband had another wife, she receives the same punishment [as the husband], in order to deter women from infringing on other women’s rights.

Q: Does the man retain the decision to choose which wife he will divorce?

According to the law, he must divorce the wife that he married most recently. We are trying to preserve women’s rights. If we left the decision to the man, he would certainly divorce his first wife, and we would then be complicit in the oppression of women.

Q: What is the role of the Women’s Council in enforcing these laws?

The Women’s Committee has offices across the canton that work for women’s social well-being and health. We act as intermediaries in cases of marital disputes. For large disputes or divorce proceedings, the Women’s Committee serves as a wife’s defense if the case is turned over to the court.

Our offices have operated in an official capacity since the Self-Administration was created [in March 2016]. 

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Lina Eghzawi

Originally from Daraa, Lina studied Literature at Damascus University. She moved to Jordan in 2012 and completed a degree in interior design.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.