Geopolitics

Syria's Marriage Brokers: Matchmakers Of Love Or Wartime Traffickers?

In rural Idlib, marriage offices are fixing people up, but some say they're exploiting the lonely during wartime by selling desperate women to overseas men.

In Damascus
In Damascus
Younes Ahmad

IDLIB — In opposition-held areas of Syria, matchmaking offices specializing in marriage are becoming a popular alternative to wartime dating.

“Our work is governed by supply and demand,” says Khaled, an imam and the founder of the al-Aman marriage service in the northwestern Syria town of Idlib. “Young men and women seeking marriage register here, providing their age, required dowry amount, place of residence, religious sect and social status: single, widowed or divorced.”

Then Khaled and his staff identify a man or woman they think would be a good fit and introduce the two. If things go well, “We register the marriage at the sharia councils affiliated with local councils founded by the rebels.”

One Idlib imam says that marriages arranged this way are in accordance with Muslim law, assuming they fulfill a few conditions: that there is a proposal, consent to the proposal, the payment of a dowry, the presence of witnesses and a public announcement.

Despite meeting religious guidelines, Khaled says business was slow at first in a conservative rural society where marriage has long been governed by traditional parental matchmaking, including between cousins. “It took us a long time to convince people to resort to using these offices,” he says.

The foreign factor

There’s also been backlash from the locals. Musaab al-Sayyed, a 41-year-old lawyer, says Khaled and other matchmakers are exploiting the sacred institution of marriage for wartime financial gain.

“These people are merchants who trade in religion and in the dignity and honor of people,” adds Jamal, a 54-year-old resident. “I would never allow one of my sons or daughters to be married through these offices, even if that could mean that they go their entire lives without getting married.”

Khaled opened his doors nine months ago. Since then, he has arranged 23 marriages. He says the majority of these cases involved widowed and divorced women to men who have come from outside Syria, notably from Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He charges 2,000 Syrian pounds ($133) per person per match.

The perceived selling of Syrian women to foreign men is the major reason Khaled and his colleagues are seeing a backlash.

“These are overseas brokers who sell Syrian women to wealthy Arabs outside Syria,” says Mahmoud Suleiman, 36, an employee at a private-sector company in Idlib. “These bargains involve large sums of money.”

He says that local media outlets have reported about an organized network that runs and controls marriages of female Syrian refugees to people in many neighboring countries in return for commissions or fees — “under the pretext of shielding and protecting the Syrian girls,” Suleiman says.

But some support matchmaking as a valid substitute for traditional dating. Mahmoud, a 61-year-old army retiree, now works in a marriage office in nearby Binnish, in rural Idlib. “Our services prevent the outbreak of sin and adultery in society,” he says, adding that the matchmakers play a pivotal role in encouraging young people preoccupied by the war to get married — especially now that the number of marriages has declined due to the sheer number of men killed in battle.

Mohammad, 49, is a former employee of the Idlib Electricity Company and met his wife through a marriage office eight months ago.

“I studied the files of dozens of girls before selecting one,” he says. “Had the office not been there, my options would have been limited. The office also provided facilitation in registering the marriage at the sharia courts.”

His bride is a 32-year-old war widow. The two now live at his home in the Khan Sheikhoun area. “Everything is going well for us,” he says.

Hameed, 32, a taxi driver from rural al-Hamdyeh has been unable to find a suitable bride, so he contacted a matchmaking service four months ago and is still looking for the perfect wife.

“The majority of registered females are widows or divorced,” he says, “and I'm looking for a virgin. I'm beginning to despair of finding what I want, and I think I will soon return to traditions practiced in my village and marry one of my cousins.”

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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