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More legal flexibility needed for Syrian refugees living in Jordan and elsewhere by Dina Zbeidy

Jordan is home to some 700,000 Syrian refugees who are trying to adapt to Jordanian laws and customs, including the legal requirement and social expectation to register a marriage. Dina Zbeidy argues that while the precarious legal and economic status of Syrian refugees in Jordan plays a part in preventing them from registering their marriages, development organizations can play an important role by shifting their focus to addressing structural obstacles Syrian refugees face and by challenging the problematic legal system.

Marriage registration is mandatory in many countries, including Jordan, and its importance is inscribed in various international conventions.[1] The non-registration of a marriage has a number of grave consequences in Jordan specifically, since, here, lineage and nationality pass through the father. Therefore, marriage registration is needed in order for children born in Jordan to receive a legal identity and gain access to various rights and services. Indeed, one of the main concerns among organizations and officials revolve around the fact that non-registration can lead to children lacking a recognized national identity[2].

In Jordan, development organizations and Jordanian officials debate the negative implications of the non-registration of marriages among Syrian refugees. However, they often miss the point and their argumentations diverge from the concerns and daily experiences of Syrians themselves. In 2016, I conducted over ten months of fieldwork as part of my PhD research on marriage practices among Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan and the work of development organizations on the topic. I noticed that Syrian refugees were often concerned with navigating the legal and social obstacles they faced due to their recent displacement. While most of my respondents were aware of the legal obligation to contract a marriage through court, they often did not have the means to do so, and were worried about the negative image Jordanians held towards Syrians because of their different marriage practices.

The fact that some Syrian couples in Jordan do not register their marriages stems from a variety of factors. One factor is the different legal system they were used to in Syria. While according to Syrian law marriages should also be concluded through the court, in practice most Syrians concluded what they term a zawaj sheikh, that is a marriage concluded by a sheikh and fulfills the Islamic requirements of a marriage, but is not officially registered at court. The couple usually registered the marriage at a later stage, often after the birth of their first child.

In addition, many Syrians in Jordan faced difficulties obtaining the necessary legal documents. Especially young Syrian men were reluctant to seek the assistance of the Syrian embassy as they were wanted in their country for military service. Moreover, for the majority of Syrians who struggled financially, the high costs in documentation and transportation formed another obstacle.[3]

While most Syrians were aware of the requirement to register a marriage, the obstacles they faced did not lead them to refrain from getting married. Having lost loved ones due to war, and away from family members dispersed around the region, marriage provided them with one way through which they could build a new life in displacement. Respondents stressed the desire to start their own families and make a home for themselves amidst their precarious conditions. Therefore Syrians have tried to find ways to circumvent the legal obstacles to ensure that they can still get married.

Structural obstacles must be addressed

Syrian refugees thus face a number of challenges when it comes to complying with Jordanian laws on marriage registrations. But what development organizations and Jordanian officials fail to highlight is the problematic legal system itself. Interventions of organizations focus on spreading awareness around the legal requirement of marriage registration through workshops and explaining the consequences of failing to do so. By doing this, they place the responsibility for change on the shoulders of refugees themselves instead of addressing the structural obstacles refugees face, or calling for Jordanian officials to facilitate marriage registration for refugees who lack the means to do so according to the current regulations.

Moreover, harsh laws related to the recognition of newborn infants pending marriage registration status are particularly problematic. Bearing children outside of an official marriage is still a taboo issue on which organizations choose not to publicly campaign, leaving the patriarchal legal system unchallenged. In order to alleviate the burden placed on refugees, it is necessary to place the focus for finding a solution on the Jordanian legal system itself. This can be done both by taking into account the specific obstacles refugees face due to their displacement, and by addressing women’s vulnerable legal status in Jordan when not officially married.

Dina Zbeidy will hold a seminar about the Marriage Registration in Jordan at the ISS on November 26.

[1] See for example Article 3 of the UN General Assembly Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, and Article 16.9 of the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

[2]In my interviews with employees of Jordanian development organizations, the scale and impact of unregistered marriages became apparent. I was told about a case of a Syrian couple living in Jordan who had concluded  a marriage according to Syrian custom. When the wife went to the hospital to deliver her baby, she was asked by hospital staff for her marriage contract. When she was unable to provide them with one, social services took her newborn baby away and the husband was arrested. While the law discusses the status of an ‘illegitimate child’, it does not mention the removal of a child. Nevertheless, this practice seems to be a regular occurrence.

[3] As mentioned by my respondents and according to the Registering Rights Report (2015).

Nimri, Nadeen. 2017, February 28. To Give Birth to a Child outside of Wedlock in Jordan. Raseef22 (Arabic).
Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). 2015, October 15. Registering Rights: Syrian Refugees and the Documentation of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Jordan. Cambridge: IHRC, Harvard Law School
Part of the arguments and ethnographic data in this piece were discussed and published in the following article:
Zbeidy, Dina. 2018. “Marriage Registration among Palestinians and Syrians in Jordan: Debating Identity, Society, and Displacement.” Sociology of Islam6(3), 359-380.

Image Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development on Flickr. The image was cropped.

dina-zbeidy.jpgAbout the author:

Dina Zbeidy is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her PhD research focuses on marriage practices and discourses among civil society and refugee communities in Jordan. She has over eight years of professional experience in non-profit work in Palestine and the Netherlands. She currently teaches social sciences and conducts research on topics related to law and justice at the Leiden University of Applied Sciences.