But some say women are being tricked into entering temporary unions.
By Alia Turki Al-Rabeo
Abu Jamal sees himself to be a modern day matchmaker – for profit.
Abu Jamal, 40, who declined to give his real name, operates an unlicensed business which facilitates marriages between young Syrian women and much older men who travel from the Gulf states in search of foreign brides.
He said that the first marriage he helped to arrange was between Samira, a 22-year-old woman from the Damascus countryside, and a Saudi Arabian man almost 50 years her senior.
Samira’s parents came to him with a picture of their daughter and asked him to find her a wealthy husband, he said.
“[Then] a young man from Saudi Arabia came to me and said he wanted to find a fourth wife for his 73-year-old father,” said Abu Jamal.
“For 200 US dollars, I agreed to look for a girl who would suit him. The son liked Samira’s picture, and a week later, he and his father had filled out all of the necessary paperwork and performed a marriage ceremony so they could take the new bride home with them immediately.”
Marriage-brokering services are becoming increasing popular both for men from the Gulf as well as for low-income Syrian women, who hope that paying someone to find them a spouse will lift them out of a life of poverty, according to Abu Jamal.
Last year, the Saudi Arabian interior ministry announced that it had issued more than 6,600 permits for Saudis seeking to marry foreign women. The ministry pointed out that most of the applications for marriage licenses were from men seeking to wed Syrian women.
The procedure is straightforward, said Abu Jamal.
“The groom comes to my office in Damascus and we sit with the family of the girl he has picked out from my pictures,” he explained.
He added that during the meeting, the bride’s family will ask the groom about his religious beliefs and observe his manners and demeanour.
“Then an attorney, who is a Sharia law studies graduate, signs the contract. The next day, we register the contract in court and send it to the embassy of the groom’s country of origin to be processed.”
Arranging marriages can be a lucrative line of work.
Faris Suleiman al-Miqdad, who has a reputation as one of Syria’s leading matchmakers, said that every year, he marries about 50 Syrian women to Gulf men, mainly Saudis. He takes a commission from the groom of about 1,500 to 5,000 Saudi riyals or about 300 to 1,300 US dollars.
Al-Miqdad, from the Dara province in southern Syria, said he receives calls from Gulf men and notes down their description and qualifications. He then provides them with the details of some young women, although without showing them pictures, in order to “protect the honour of these girls”.
“I will typically pick ten homes for a potential groom to visit in different provinces,” he said, adding that he tends to find marriageable women in rural rather than urban areas, including the countryside around Dara, Damascus, Homs, Hamat, and Aleppo.
Al-Miqdad said his motivation was “to eliminate irreligious practices such as adultery and spinsterhood”.
In Syria, there is stigma attached to women who stay single.
Roughly 25 per cent of Syrian women are unmarried, according to the national statistical agency.
Wisal, a 29-year-old dentist in Damascus, said she married a Saudi doctor whom she met through a matchmaker to avoid this stigma.
“I am past the normal marrying age in my country,” she said.
She said matchmaking offices provided a valuable service for women.
“I think they make things easier for girls in Syria. They discourage them from having irreligious relationships,” said Wisal.
Like Abu Jamal, Ahmed al-Barqawi, a philosophy and sociology professor at Damascus university, said poverty was another factor motivating families who agree to find foreign grooms for their daughters.
“With our economy the way it is now, I think many young women are looking for a way to leave the country and find financial security elsewhere.
“Marrying a Gulf man and moving to his country is an easy way to make this happen,” he said.
However, he also pointed out that marriages brokered by matchmakers are not always meant to last.
Al-Barqawi explained that some were only temporary arrangements, in which the bride received a sum of money in return for spending time with the man.
In Syria, it is relatively easy to get a divorce.
“The phenomenon [of temporary marriages] often reaches a peak during the summer months, when men from Gulf states travel to Syria on holidays,” said Al-Barqawi.
While many consider these short-term marriage arrangements to be immoral and contrary to the precepts of Islam, the matchmakers who facilitate them argue that having a sexual relationship outside marriage is far worse.
Meanwhile, others warn that Syrian brides are sometimes duped into thinking that they are entering into a permanent marriage when the man has other intentions.
Damascus-based analyst Dr Mohamed Hussein pointed to the experience of 19-year-old Wafa, who grew up in the Damascus countryside and experienced firsthand the downsides of a brief marriage.
“Her Saudi ex-husband married her for two months during his summer vacation in Syria through a matchmaking office,” said Hussein. “He then divorced her, leaving her pregnant and with very few options.”
Hussein called for regulations to be introduced to protect Syrian women.
“There should be a law banning Syrian women from marrying Gulf men without specific preconditions,” he said.
Damascus-based attorney Kinda al-Shammat said that match-making services were not held liable for arranging such marriages, because they can usually produce a marriage certificate to show that the procedure was legal.
He said that there would be too much opposition to any initiative to introduce licensing procedures – both from the authorities, and from matchmaking services themselves.
“The government doesn’t want to officially condone matchmaking [by establishing licensing procedures] because of these cases of short-term marriages, which would be akin to state-sponsored prostitution,” he said.
“And matchmakers don’t want to be licensed for the same reason – a fear they could be held legally responsible for such arrangements.”
Yet Al-Shammat said that something should be done to prevent women being exploited in such arrangements.
“There needs to be a campaign to raise awareness in schools, universities, public places and poor neighborhoods to warn against the dangers of this kind of marriage,” he said.
“Otherwise, women will be tricked into entering relations with men under the pretext of marriage, while these so-called matchmakers… cash in.”