by Alia Turki Al-Rabeo
Every morning I start my day with the sight of our block’s cutest child Nour rushing to catch a bus to school. This nine-year-old wakes up at dawn as his school is an hour’s drive from home.
Nour speaks Arabic better than I do and in a Syrian accent. He loves Syrian food and sings Syrian national songs. Yet he cannot enroll in any government school. Sawsan, his mother, must renew his residency every year because according to the Syrian Nationality Law she cannot pass on her nationality to her husband or child. Nour inherited this discrimination because Sawsan chose an Iranian to be her husband and his father.
"Nour has neither visited Iran nor speaks the Persian language,” Sawsan tells me with a grim face. “He is deprived of basic rights of a citizen because his father is a foreigner.” Besides being ineligible for admission to a government school, she explains that her son cannot travel outside Syria and also cannot buy property here. Identity-less “Syrian” children are deprived of free education, jobs, and the right to own property or travel abroad.
Nour and many other children like him pay a heavy price every day for their mothers’ “blunder” of marrying non-Syrians. While there are no fresh and accurate statistics available, the Syrian Women League, a reputable human rights organization, estimates that more than 100,000 women are married to foreign husbands, mostly from Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq.
In 2003 the Syrian Women League started lobbying to grant nationality to children born inside and outside Syria. The league has proposed an amendment to a clause of the nationality law seeking citizenship rights for those born to either a Syrian father or a Syrian mother, inside or outside the country.
Currently only a Syrian man can give nationality for his non-Syrian wife and their children so that they can enjoy the rights of Syrian citizens.
“The existing nationality law is not only contrary to the Syrian constitution, which declares men and women as equal citizens, but is also in violation of international conventions ratified by Syria, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” says Kinda Shammat, a Damascus-based lawyer and activist.
The government finds marriages between Syrian women and non-Syrians to be a threat to national sovereignty and national security because women are emotional and “can be tricked so easily by men from enemy countries.” Damascus fears that the granting of full rights to foreign husbands would sharply increase such trends, especially temporary marriages with men from the Arabian Gulf.
Damascus also argues that granting citizenship to a large number of Palestinians residing in Syria and married to Syrian women would be a violation of the resolutions of a number of Arab summits. Arab leaders agree that nationality should not be given to Palestinians as they might lose their right of return to Palestine.
Human rights activists argue that if this is true then why is a Palestinian wife granted nationality when she marries a Syrian husband?
As Mohammad Habash, Islamic thinker and Syrian Member of Parliament, stated in an interview with Syria-news last year, "The nationality law would not have a negative impact on Palestinians because they are treated well in Syria in terms of employment and education.”
Habash admits that the real worry is an increase in marriages between Syrians and Iraqi refugees. The premise is that if every woman gives her Iraqi husband citizenship that would cause serious economic and social strains on the government.
It may be true that granting citizenship to Iraqi men would stress the country’s already choked economic and education systems, but then the same should hold true for the Iraqi wives of Syrians.
Last March, Syrian activists including the Syrian Women League and the Islamic Studies Center forwarded a new proposal suggesting that the Syrian nationality should be granted to children of foreign fathers after a 10-year residency in the country. So far the suggestion remains unheeded.
According to the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A), the Syrian nationality law is rooted in the Ottoman times when mixed marriages with European women were being encouraged to improve political and economic ties. Lately many Arab countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia have started granting nationality to women marrying foreigners. Syria, however, refuses to review the controversial legislation despite changing times.
The media offers little help when it portrays marriages of Syrian women with men from the Arabian Gulf as purely based on the males’ financial status. The situation becomes dire when such marriages fail and the child remains devoid of Syrian nationality. Syrian wives find themselves locked in marriages even if they want a divorce.
Syria’s unjust legislation not only deprives women their due status in society but also reflects their poor prospects for work. A 2008 survey by Syria’s central statistical agency shows that only around 14 percent of working age women – defined as those between ages 15 and 65 – had jobs in 2007.
Ironically, Syria shows mercy on illegitimate children by giving them the nationality forbidden to its daughters’ legitimate children. I hope our government is not encouraging such mothers to declare their loved ones as illegitimate children.
In his perception, Nour may be living a full life in Syria. His mom will worry until he leaves for the United States one day to be an engineer like his father. “Nour and his father will not be able to inherit a thing if I die someday,” says a Sawsan, wondering if the government understands her insecurities.
Nour’s Iranian father wonders why Syria wants the best brains to serve other nations.