In the past, many rural Syrian farmers lived with their extended families in large “Arab-style” houses. This was mainly due to the necessities of agricultural life. However, as societies evolved and cities expanded, independence became a need for every family. Mothers and fathers raise their children and work in jobs that are no longer mainly agricultural. Over time, the need for large extended families and communal living in houses declined.
But during the Syrian war, large families were once again pushed together into small houses to save on housing expenses, rent and daily essentials. The return of this form of communal living became a heavy burden on families who were used to independence and were forced to accept it reluctantly.
Afrah, a woman in her 40s, married Salem after a long courtship a few years before the Syrian war. Afrah and Salem rented a small house in the city of Homs, where they were blessed with a daughter. Life wasn’t entirely rosy, interspersed with many problems related to the dissatisfaction of Afrah and Salem’s families with their marriage due to sectarian and regional reasons. Afrah is a Sunni from Homs, while Salem is an Alawite from the Lattakia countryside. Living independently in Homs and working there was helpful in overcoming the pressure of the two families. But their peace didn’t last long.
In 2019, Afrah and her husband left their home after rent became unaffordable and the family moved to the spacious house of Salem’s parents in the Lattakia countryside. However, this decision turned Afrah’s life into a continuous struggle. Problems began with the grandparents intervening in raising the daughters – what they should wear, how they should speak and laugh, who they should talk to and who their friends should be.
Then the issue evolved into direct intervention in Afrah’s life, her clothing, her way of speaking and her daily habits. They even prohibited her from receiving guests in their house because they could not stand her “environment,” and they did not welcome her family’s visits to their home, trying to prevent her from leaving the house to visit her relatives. After a short time, her father-in-law asked her to quit her job. When Afrah refused, the problem escalated until her father-in-law threatened to expel her from the house.
Afrah is now forced to choose between leaving her job or leaving the house. Meanwhile, Salem is stuck between pleasing his elderly father, who opened his house to him and his family, and trying to convince Afrah to comply until the situation improves and they can become independent again. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to live on our own, especially if I leave my job. How can we rent a home with these prices?” said Afrah.
These differences have seeped into the relationship between Afrah and Salem, which Afrah fears might lead to divorce. Then, she would be forced to return with her daughters to her parents’ house, where her brother also lives with his family.
Under Syrian personal status law, the wife has the right to request independent housing if she proves she is being harmed in the in-laws’ house. She can also request a divorce in case her husband does not provide her with housing under specific conditions: suitable for decent living, independent and in a comfortable and respectful environment. However, in today’s Syria, Salem is unable to secure such housing, and Afrah cannot secure an independent home for herself and her daughters.