The Syrian parliament this month quietly passed new measures restricting polygamy, banning child marriage, and updating inheritance and custody rights. The amendments to Syria’s 1953 civil law have struck a nerve in a conservative Muslim society that has seen its traditional social structures debilitated by eight years of war.

Attempts at meddling with Syria’s personal status laws were first made by the French mandate authorities in the 1930s, the stated goals being to “secularize” and “modernize” Syrian society. The French had proposed giving citizens of the Muslim-majority country the right to choose their own religion from age 18 and also the right to choose their own sect within the major religions of Islam and Christianity. Those conversions would have been allowed for individuals as well as families acting collectively by notifying the state, rather than their mosques or churches. The French proposal also gave Muslim women the right to marry non-Muslim men, in clear violation of Islamic law.

The French proposal was automatically drowned out by massive street demonstrations, engineered by mosque preachers and religious scholars.

The new laws are not half as controversial, but “revolutionary” in the context of the Arab world nonetheless, Damascus-based lawyer Ahmad Mansour told Asia Times. Mansour questioned the timing of the legislation, however, saying that more pressing social issues, exacerbated during the war, should be addressed – namely child labor, drug use, homelessness, and domestic abuse.

Second wife, second home

The new law also gives Syrian women the right to insert a clause in their marriage contracts that prohibit their husbands from practicing polygamy. Should they accept a second, third, or fourth marriage, first wives can now impose the condition that they do not have to live in the same house as the other wives, making it obligatory for husbands to occupy more than one home – an impossibility for most men due to the dire economic conditions in the country.

Women can now obtain an automatic divorce, with full financial compensation, from husbands who promise to take on one only wife and later renege. In the past, a woman who objected to a second wife could also file for divorce, but only after relinquishing all financial rights.

According to the Syrian Ministry of Justice, 40% of court marriages in 2018 were for second wives – a staggering number for a country at war. The state tried battling the trend by forcing men to prove financial capability before taking on a second wife – income of no less than $1,000 per month. This ought to have sufficed in a society where the average wage is $100 for the public sector and anywhere between $200 and $300 for the private sector. Nevertheless, people found ways to get around the law, whether through local connections, bribes, or lack of enforcement.

The new law also allows women to keep their jobs after marriage. While women have increasingly become breadwinners during the war, people in some conservative circles still frown on the idea of females working outside the home, believing that they should stay home with the children.

Critics contend that imposing conditions on polygamy is illegal, given that it is specifically allowed under Islamic law. The Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives, after all, and his followers were entitled to similar rights, especially in times of war if they were marrying widows of men who died in battle.

Modern Syria is also in a time of war. More conservative communities view the taking of a second wife as a duty to society, namely to women in the extended family who are left with few options during wartime as suitors are in short supply. Over the course of the eight-year conflict, thousands of men have died on the front lines, fled for new lives in Europe, or faced detention and kidnapping.

Marriage, custody, inheritance

The number of juvenile marriages skyrocketed during Syria’s civil war, from 7% in 2010 to 30% in 2015, according to the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research. In a bid to address this phenomenon, the new law sets the marriage age at 18 for both men and women.

A woman must appear before a religious court in person and give her consent for her marriage to be legally registered. Previously, under Muslim religious law, girls as young as 12 and 13 could be forced into wedlock if a religious court decreed that they were “mentally and physically” ready for married life.

Another critical issue is inheritance – the new law scraps previous legislation that only allowed males to inherit property and money from their grandparents, after the passing of their fathers and mothers. The move comes after Tunisia passed a law in November giving women equal inheritance rights.

The amendments also impact custody laws, allowing the sons of a divorced couple to spend a longer period with the mother, while also giving the father more rights in the custody order. Previously, a divorcée had custody of her sons until age 13 and daughters until age 15. Now, the sons will also stay with the mother until age 15.

Under the old law, if the mother died or was incapacitated, custody would remain on her side of the family, with the children entrusted to their maternal grandmother or great-grandmother. Under the new amendments, the children will automatically be placed in their father’s care.

The amendments also say that lineage can now be traced through DNA tests, something that has always been banned by Muslim jurists who bashed the practice as un-Islamic. Proving a bloodline was previously achieved only through “tangible evidence” and “verbal claim.”

Why now?

The authorities passed the amendments with the “utmost secrecy and swiftness” because they knew that conservatives were bound to object, according to Mansour.

One reason behind the legislation is the need to address crippling social problems arising from the conflict, including child marriages and the inability to prove bloodline.

Another reason, no doubt, is the Syrian government’s desire to come across as progressive – committed to female empowerment, minority rights, children’s rights, and modernity.

At constitutional talks set to start under the auspices of the United Nations, attempts will be made to delete the clause in the Syrian charter stating that Islam is the religion of the president.