Customary marriages in Syria have negatively impacted women’s housing, land, and property rights. These types of marriages have increased in recent years as civil courts have suspended their work in many parts of the country. Even in areas where courts remain functional, many people were reluctant to register new marriages out of fear of forced military conscription or detection by security forces.
Customary marriage was the dominant form of marriage in Syria before the establishment of civil status records in 1922 and the government’s adoption of official marriage contracts. A customary marriage is a marriage contract between a man and a woman that is usually carried out by a religious cleric either orally or in writing. Such marriages are practiced not only by Sunni Muslims, but by members of other sects and religions in various forms. An official marriage contract, on the other hand, is only valid when done through a court and requires certain documents specified in the Personal Status Law.
While official marriage may, in theory, preserve the financial rights of the wife, in a customary marriage the wife may be at risk of losing those same rights. Women are usually the ones who suffer the most from not registering marriages in court, as leaving their marriages unregistered could compromise many of their rights, including their HLP rights, especially upon divorce or the death of their husbands.
Registering customary marriages
A woman may formally register her customary marriage in accordance with the Court of Cassation’s Decision No. 685 of 2015, which stated that such a marriage may be registered with the testimony of two witnesses. The witnesses are not required to be the same parties who signed the customary marriage contract so long as they heard about the marriage.
To formally register a customary marriage in the event of the husband’s death, first his death must be recorded in the Civil Registry. Next comes the process of legal inheritance, then filing a legal case to register the marriage. Afterwards, the wife may request to claim her unreceived dowry and inheritance.
Legal rights in customary marriage
However, even when a woman manages to register her customary marriage, it may still be difficult for her to prove the actual amount of her dowry. This process requires two witnesses who know the amount of the dowry and who were present at the time of the marriage contract. If she is unable to prove the amount of her dowry, the court will provide the woman with a substitute payment equal to the amount typically paid for dowries in her local area.
A woman has the right to the dowry in the event of divorce or her husband’s death. This dowry has two parts: the advanced dowry, which the woman may or may not receive immediately, and the deferred dowry, which is paid later. The dowry may come in the form of money, real estate, or another form of benefit.
In customary marriages, the wife may not obtain her unreceived dowry until the marriage is officially registered in court. And if she is unable to prove her marriage, she may lose her right to the dowry in case of divorce or her husband’s death.
The lengthy amount of time needed to settle issues of proving marriage and sorting out inheritance presents an obstacle for women hoping to obtain their rights. This is in addition to the high financial cost of various fees, expenses and attorney payments.