Roundup: Abortion No Longer a “Wedge issue” in Western States; “Troubling Ramifications” of Cosmetic Genital Surgery

Emily Douglas

Abortion no longer a "wedge issue" in Western states; "troubling ramifications" of cosmetic genital surgery; Chinese woman allowed to continue her pregnancy; more about the next HHS Secretary.

Abortion Won’t Work
as a "Wedge" Issue in Western States Anymore

Laura K. Chapin, a Democratic strategist and consultant for
the No on 48 campaign in Colorado, says that in
the wake of the resounding defeat of Colorado’s
personhood amendment, California’s parental
notification initiative, and South
Dakota’s abortion ban, we can conclude that voters in
Western states will no longer be tempted by anti-choice ballot initiatives. Writes
, "Ballot initiatives are tempting for abortion opponents because
they at least partially sidestep the complications of the legislative process.
This is especially true in states like California
and Colorado
that have very low thresholds for getting something on the ballot."  But the strategy backfired – the extreme
amendments demonstrated to voters that pro-choicers are the true moderates and
that votes showed that residents of Western states would rather focus on practical
issues that affect their daily lives. 

TIME Examines "Troubling
Ramifications" of Cosmetic Genital Surgery

I don’t want to read about it either, but if you’re
going to, you couldn’t do much better than Laura Fitzpatrick’s "Plastic
Surgery Below the Belt
," in TIME, on the rise in cosmetic genital surgery.  Aside from pointing out that the surgery isn’t
medically indicated and can result in health complications as well as decreased
sexual pleasure ("The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
issued a committee opinion last year warning that women may experience
scarring, chronic pain, obstetric risks or reduced sexual pleasure; a similar
statement was issued in July by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists"), Fitzpatrick quotes sexologist and psychologist
Leonore Tiefer saying: "Promoting a very narrow definition of what women’s
genitals ought to look like – even for those women who don’t want surgery, it
harms them."  Fitzpatrick also
points out that cosmetic genital surgery can have "troubling ramifications"
beyond our own borders.  

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This kind of
cosmetic surgery can interfere with advocates’ ability to fight forced ritual
mutilation in places like Africa, where the
practice is still common, says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of
international women’s rights watchdog Equality Now. Designer vaginas "are
considered reasons for not throwing stones, so to speak, at other
cultures," she says." 

Fitzpatrick concludes
quoting social worker Laura Berman: "The best way to start enjoying your body could be far
simpler than surgery: ‘You may need a new boyfriend.’" 

Chinese Woman Allowed
to Continue Pregnancy

Chinese officials were threatening to force Arigul Tursun, a
six-months-pregnant mother of two, to have an abortion, but she has now been
freed and allowed to continue her pregnancy, reports
ABC News
.  However, she was
apparently only released because, said the local population control committee
chief, "she wasn’t in good enough health to have an abortion."  Some Republican
lawmakers have suggested
that this case proves that US funding should not
be restored to the United Nations’ international family planning agency, UNFPA.
But UNFPA is not engaged in any way in
coercive sterilization or forced abortion, and works with the Chinese
government to promote a voluntary approach to family planning. 

Want to Know More
About the New HHS Secretary?

For the back story on Tom Daschle, listen to the New
York Times’s Peter Baker talking
about the Senator’s background and likely
priorities at HHS.  And Rev.
Debra Haffner responds
to the appointment.

Analysis Human Rights

The Biology of Gender, and When (if Ever) Children Should Be Given Sex Reassignment Surgery

Martha Kempner

The first words uttered after a child is born are often “It's a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” But sometimes doctors don’t know exactly what to say. How does this happen, and what should parents and doctors do?

Last week, parents in South Carolina filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of their 8-year-old adoptive son, known as M.C., who was born with both male and female genitalia and was given sex reassignment surgery as a toddler when he was a ward of the state.

In a recent Rewire article, Jessica Mason Pieklo explored the legal issues in the case. Here, I want to look at the myriad other gender-related issues a case like this raises. There are biological issues (How do some babies come to be born with male and female genitalia?), sociological issues (Is our gender born or made, and is it possible to raise a child, even a very young one, in a gender-neutral way?), and psychological issues (What’s in the best interest of a child in this situation?).

Biological Sex

We don’t know the precise medical condition M.C. has, but there are a number of ways he could have been born with genitalia and reproductive organs that at least appear to be both male and female. At one point, M.C. would have been called a hermaphrodite, though that would likely have been inaccurate as the term technically refers to someone who has both ovaries and testes. Within the past few decades the word intersex was introduced as a way to describe individuals with these conditions. More recently, the term “disorders of sexual development” has been used, but some advocates feel this language only further marginalizes the identities of these individuals.

Whatever language we land on, it all starts with sperm and ova (eggs), which are known as gametes. They each carry 23 individual chromosomes that, when they come together, become the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up our unique genetic identity. One of those pairs of chromosomes determines our biological sex. Ova always (or almost always—more on that later) carry one X chromosome, while sperm typically carry either an X or a Y chromosome. When they come together and everything goes according to plan, an embryo with XX chromosomes develops into a female, while one with XY chromosomes develops into a male.

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All fetuses start out with two undifferentiated gonads and certain homologous structures (structures that start out the same) that can become either male or female sex organs. It is up to the chromosomes to start the path toward male or female. Do nothing and the fetus will develop ovaries that begin to make estrogen. The homologous structures will then become a uterus, fallopian tubes, and a vagina internally. Externally they will develop to form the labia minora, labia majora, clitoris, and the vaginal opening.

Add something called TDF (testes determining factor), which is found on the Y chromosome, and the gonads will become testes and start making testosterone. The homologous structures in the fetus will then turn into the internal reproductive system (such as the Cowper’s gland, prostate gland, and seminal vesicles) and the external male genitalia (the penis and scrotum).

Though the majority of babies born will have followed one of these two paths, there are many points along the way where things can diverge.

Chromosomal Anomalies

Though each gamete is supposed to have only one sex chromosome, problems can occur during meiosis (the process of cell separation) that cause them to have more than one or none. This means that an embryo can begin to develop with too many or too few sex chromosomes. For example, Turner Syndrome, XO, develops when either the egg cell or the sperm cell does not have a sex chromosome at all. Individuals who are born with Turner Syndrome have external female genitalia and internal female reproductive organs (ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes), but the ovaries are not functional and do not produce estrogen during development. Klinefelter’s Syndrome, XXY, happens when an egg with two X chromosomes is fertilized by a sperm with a Y chromosome, or an egg with an X chromosome is fertilized by a sperm with both an X and a Y. These individuals will appear male when born, but some abnormalities, including small testes, a female pattern of pubic hair, poor muscle development, and a lack of facial hair, may begin to be noticed as the individual reaches puberty. Other combinations, like XYY or XXX, can cause issues after puberty such as infertility and irregular periods but exhibit no outward symptoms in childhood.

Hormonal Anomalies

While chromosomes set a fetus on the path toward its biological sex, how the fetus develops is also very much controlled by the hormones it is exposed to while in utero (and after birth) and how the body processes these hormones. When the hormones are not produced or the body can’t process them, the fetus develops along a different path.

For example, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) occurs when the body cannot process male sex hormones (known as androgens). When this happens in someone who is genetically male (XY), the testes will develop and produce testosterone, but because the body cannot process this hormone, the fetus will develop along a female path and will appear female when born with external genitalia that appear to be labia. The internal reproductive organs, however, will not have developed completely. The baby will be born with a shortened vagina and will not have a uterus. The baby will also have undescended testes, which will most often be located somewhere in the abdomen.

Another hormonal issue is called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH). It is a disorder of the adrenal glands (there is one adrenal gland located on each of our kidneys) which causes a buildup of androgens in a fetus and infant. If this happens in someone who is genetically male (XY), it can cause sex characteristics to appear too early. Genetic females (XX) with some forms of CAH will usually have normal internal reproductive systems (ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes) but may have an enlarged clitoris at birth. In some instances the clitoris may be so large that it is mistaken for a penis.

DHT deficiency is another common anomaly. Genetic males (XY) with DHT deficiency do not produce enough of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) while in utero. Some babies with this deficiency are born with external genitalia that look female, while others are born with external genitalia that appear male but are unusually small (sometime called a micropenis). Still others will be born with what is called ambiguous genitalia, where it is hard to tell whether they are male or female just by looking.

A Rush to Judgement

The first words uttered after delivery are often “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” But what happens when these conditions make it so doctors don’t know exactly what to say? Such a diagnosis can be difficult for parents, and the path forward unclear.

As with many things in our society, there has historically been a rush to fix that which is not “normal.” In many cases this has meant that parents are told their infant needs to have surgery immediately to make their genitals appear more like an average clitoris or penis. In truth though, it has always been much easier to create labia and a vagina than it has been to create a penis (especially one that functions). Most of the time, therefore, doctors would recommend that parents surgically create female genitalia and begin to raise the infant as a girl regardless of the chromosomal sex or what hormones the infant was exposed to in utero.

This appears to be what happened to M.C. It is also what happened to Cheryl Chase, who later became an advocate for putting off genital surgery until a child is old enough to make their own decisions. Cheryl was born in 1956 with ambiguous genitalia—she had what could have been an enlarged clitoris or a micropenis and something that appeared to be a vaginal opening. At first doctors recommended that she be brought up as boy, so she went home from the hospital with the name Charlie. But her parents were concerned about the appearance of her genitals and consulted another team of experts when she was 18 months old. Based on the fact that she had a fairly normal vagina, these experts recommended surgery to make her external genitals look more female. She underwent a clitoridectomy and was sent home as Cheryl. Her parents never told her what had happened, though she remembers many unexplained surgeries and genital exams during her childhood. She also remembers not fitting in with the other girls: “I was more interested in guns and radios and if I tried to socialize with any kids, it was generally boys, and I would try to best my brother.”

Interestingly, the most famous test case of gender reassignment in children did not involve someone with a disorder of sexual development. Instead, the case involved identical twin boys who were born in 1965 with identifiably male sex organs. At eight months old they underwent circumcision because they were suffering from phismosis (a condition in which the foreskin will not pull back). There was a serious accident and one twin essentially lost his penis. At the time, doctors said they were unable to surgically give the child anything that looked or functioned like a real penis.

The parents turned to Dr. John Money, a pioneer in the field of gender and sex reassignment surgery. Money had a theory that gender is purely a cultural concept that comes from how kids are raised, especially early in their lives. He believed that infants are born as blank slates, and it is not until their parents and society imprint them with gender that they begin to see themselves as either male or female.

Money met with the parents of the infant (then named David) and assured them that if they allowed surgeons to construct external female genitalia and then raised the child as a girl, “she” would be capable of growing into a well-adjusted young woman. Money was particularly interested in this case because as an identical twin David came with a control group. If “she” could be successfully raised as a female while her brother (who had the exact same genetic make-up) was successfully raised as a male, it would go a long way toward proving Money’s blank-slate theory. The parents took Money’s advice, did the surgery, and proceeded to raise David as Brenda. Neither she nor her brother was told the truth about the situation.

For years, Money published papers about how well his gender experiment was going, and his research on the “John/Joan case” became the basis for his book, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl. It also made national news, including a full-page story in Time magazine. But the family tells a different story. The twins’ mother claims that the first time she put a dress on Brenda, the child tried desperately to pull it off. Brenda’s brother tells it this way, as quoted in an article for Healthy Place: “I recognized Brenda as my sister but she never, ever acted the part. She’d get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we used it for was to tie people up, whip people with it.” He went on to say, “When I say there was nothing feminine about Brenda, I mean there was nothing feminine. She walked like a guy. She talked about guy things, didn’t give a crap about cleaning house, getting married, wearing makeup.” And as a teen she refused to go ahead with the surgery that would have created a full vagina.

As soon as Brenda learned the truth, at the urging of a psychologist who saw her as near suicidal, she began once again to live as David. When the real result of the “John/Joan” case became public in the mid-1990s, David was a 31-year-old man and married to a woman. At the time, he said he was happy living as a man but acknowledged that getting there was not easy and that he had contemplated suicide a number of times. Sadly, this happiness did not remain; in 2004 David Reimer took his own life.

Today’s Thinking

Based on cases like Cheryl Chase and “John/Joan,” the prevailing wisdom today suggests that rushing into surgery, which has permanent repercussions, for purely cosmetic reasons is a bad idea. It is important to note that some conditions do require early surgery for functional reasons, such as separating the vagina from the urethra, or safety reasons, such as removing testes located within the abdomen as they can become cancerous. But in most cases the surgeries that these children undergo—like the one that M.C. had—are about appearance.

A recent consensus document written by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society in the United States and the European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology advises parents and physicians to take it slow and not treat the birth as a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention.

Instead, the guidelines suggest that every infant be assigned a gender shortly after birth based on the diagnosis, genital appearance, surgical options, needed for lifelong replacement therapy (such as estrogen shots), potential for fertility, and the views of the family and culture. In our pink and blue society, it is not possible, nor is it advisable, to attempt to raise a child without gender. The idea, however, is that this without surgery this gender assignment can change if it turns out to be inconsistent with how the child feels as he or she grows up. This allows the child (most likely as a teen or an adult) to make the ultimate decisions about gender and genital appearance.

While this approach clearly makes the most sense, the waiting game must be very difficult for parents who will likely have many concerns about whether their child will accept him/herself and how he/she will be treated by others if they look different (think potty training in preschool or high school locker rooms). In M.C.’s case, the guardians may also have worried that the child would not be adoptable without a clear gender and “normal” genitalia.

M.C. is very lucky that he found parents who are strong advocates for his right to be who he wants to be. Hopefully their efforts can help young people and parents who are facing these issues make these difficult decisions as painlessly as possible.

Analysis Human Rights

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: Syrian Refugees and “Marriages of Convenience”

Ruth Michaelson

An estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since March 2011. Temporary solutions to what may be a long-term problem include how to integrate those fleeing across the border to Jordan. In this environment, “marriages of convenience,” or even forced marriages, can thrive, essentially undetected. 

This article is the second in a two-part series commissioned by Rewire. You can find the first here.

An estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. The Jordanian authorities have made much of how they’ve welcomed refugees, but even after they granted the United Nations permission to build 200 refugee camps along their northern border, housing up to one million people, the focus is still very much on temporary solutions to what may be a long-term problem.

Refugee services include short-term housing, inexpensive rentals, “holding centers,” and, since August 1, the first tent camp at Zaatari. Countries as dissimilar as Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia have dispatched medical teams to the border to provide on-site care. Save the Children has launched projects at Zaatari for young people. These efforts are essential, amid what the Jordanian government has just recently begun to call a humanitarian crisis.

Women tend to bear the brunt of the more slow-burn problems surrounding conflict, and the setup in Jordan is ripe for this to continue. So-called “refugee issues” are not just those related to camps, or to short-term care. Jordanian and Syrian societies are close-knit socially, and much of the focus until very recently has been on how to integrate those fleeing across the border into Syrian society, and into homes and pre-existing structures. In this environment, “marriages of convenience,” or even forced marriages, can thrive, essentially undetected. Many question whether—under the circumstances—these marriages are even a problem at all.

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Talk is Cheap

Visitors to Amman speak of a recent phenomenon: get into any taxi, chat with the driver, and he will tell you that “cheap wives” are to be found in the refugee camps near the Syrian border. “Cheap” refers to the dowry given to the brides’ families, as well as to the women’s expectations. Jordan is a comparatively poor, aid-dependent nation. Around 14.2 percent live below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. Nevertheless, cultural norms dictate that most Syrian women will have lower expectations for their standard of living, having come from an even poorer country.

“There are all kinds of social conceptions of Syrian women as the most obedient, the most caring of their husbands out of all Middle Eastern women,” says Khadija, an activist from the northern Jordanian town of Irbid, close to the Syrian border.

“There are all kinds of jokes now within Jordanian society that the women should watch out, as with all these Syrian women in the country, the men will always choose a Syrian woman over a Jordanian woman.”

Add to this that Syrian women are normally paler, a valuable asset in a region in which skin-bleaching products replace tanning products. There is a growing sense that female Syrian refugees, while socially elevated, are now increasingly perceived as vulnerable, due to the conditions under which many refugees are living.

The State of Things

Until the opening of the Zaatari tent camp, refugees were being housed in so-called “transfer” facilities, usually rehabilitated private property that had formerly served as parts of the university campus, or even private gardens. The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), an umbrella group tasked with the coordination of all aid and refugee services in the Kingdom, has said that all refugees currently living in transfer facilities will be transferred to Zaatari, which can house up to 120,000 people.

Until now, refugees were held in facilities that were labeled as temporary until a Jordanian citizen could act as a “guarantor,” who would care for the refugee financially and legally. But the situation has reportedly been far from temporary for many. In early May, during a visit to Jordan by this reporter for Rewire, Mohammed Kilani of the JHCO estimated that the Beshabshe tower block, designed to house 700 people “is holding at least 2000.” Aid worker Hisham Dirani of Muhajeroon Ahrar reported that there was “no plumbing, no sewage, and no ventilation.” One former resident said, “I met people in there who’d been there for six months… It was like living in hell.” The expectation that, as Kilani put it, “a Jordanian family will open their homes to these people” after a short stay did not always prove true for those who did not have Jordanian relatives or a guarantor to bail them out.

Guardian Angels

Into this troubling situation comes the guardianship system, instituted primarily to allow refugees with friends or family who are Jordanian citizens to come to the transit facilities and to vouch for the continued well-being of the refugees, once they leave the camp. Given the years of intermarriage and long-standing familial and social connections between the two neighboring countries, there is undoubtedly a logic to this system.

There is, however, also potential for abuse.

Jordan boasts a long history of accepting refugees from all over the Middle East, but it is questionable to what extent Jordanians are “opening their homes” to refugees in camps with whom they have no family ties. The camps, either temporary or longer-term, are based primarily in Jordan’s northern region. The desperately-poor surrounding areas experience water shortages and electricity outages. “These are close-knit communities,” a Jordanian colleague said. “You wouldn’t just invite strangers to live in your house; you need some kind of social link to make that possible.” 

It’s possible that those acting as guardians for refugees are doing so because it is culturally expected of them. And a marriage between the two families provides a “convenient” way of making this socially acceptable as well. It’s also possible that men are entering the camps looking to find wives, and in so doing are bringing the women, and possibly their families, into their homes.

Former residents of Beshabshe spoke frequently of witnessing men being allowed into the block in order to, effectively, cruise for wives. Statistics on the scale of the problem are impossible to obtain. It’s also impossible to contact anyone who has had personal experience with the issue. “You hear stories everywhere of how Syrian women have a price now,” said “O,” a female anti-regime activist, who lived in the Ramtha center when she first arrived.

I heard of one man marrying six different girls in this situation, and I even met a family who were ready to sell their daughters. With all the misery I saw in that center, I could predict the kind of future that these girls would face. I don’t want to judge their motivations, but at the same time, these men are opportunists. It’s sick.

Kilani viewed the issue purely in terms of aid. “But is it really such a problem?” he argued. “If a man marries a woman, he is obliged to care for her family.” That the women involved are being denied a role in choosing whom they marry did not appear to concern him. Indeed, such marriages can be beneficial to many charities and aid groups dealing with the Syrian refugees, because their limited funding can stretch only to short-term care. Off-loading a few women from the system means more resources to go around. Furthermore, many, if not all, of the organizations have some kind of religious affiliation, be they Muslim or Christian, making them less likely to criticize something that plays into a conservative social structure.

Aid organizations have condemned the guardianship system’s potential for exploitation, in terms of both marriage and work. Many international organizations that have visited the camps, including the Beshabshe transfer facility, were concerned about the lack of follow-through after refugees had been signed out of the facility. Unfortunately, none were willing to comment on the guardianship issue, given the shift of focus to the housing of refugees in Zaatari. That initiative brings its own set of new problems. Eva Abu Halaweh of the Jordanian human rights law group, Mizan, said:

While foreign women who marry Jordanian men are entitled to equal rights before the law, any marriage formed through this kind of relationship is going to have a built-in power imbalance, which could bring further problems.

The families of Syrian girls, married as young as ages 13 or 14, are increasingly concerned for their safety. Khaled Ghanem of the Islamic Society Centre told the U.N. news service, IRIN, “In Maraq, we have come across around 50 cases of early marriages since the day we started helping out Syrians. Most of them are married to Syrians, especially cousins.”

According to Jordanian marriage laws, age 18 is the legal marriage age, but religious leaders can grant “informal” marriages to younger people. The marriages can be certified when the parties turn age 18. IRIN quoted a mother, who arranged marriages for her daughters, ages 15 and 14. “As a single mother,” she said, “I cannot support them. I cannot feed them. I wanted to make sure they are okay, so I asked around if people know of good Syrian men they could marry.” Such arrangements involving Jordanians do not seem such a remote possibility.  

The policy toward refugees is changing with the move to Zaatari, but this does not mean the end of issues surrounding “marriages of convenience.” Zaatari is operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Its policy of “encampment” means that refugees are unable to leave the camp. There is also debate as to whether the guardianship system has been suspended or ended altogether. But with refugees now confined to a tent camp on an unforgiving dust plain in the middle of the desert, some are keen to escape by any means possible. Also, Zaatari is guarded by the Jordanian police, who have been responsible for guarding the transfer facilities, such as Beshabshe. Given that they were apparently allowing men into the camps before, there is no guarantee that they won’t continue to do so while policing Zaatari. With confusion over whether or not the guardianship system has ended, and with the camp filling up, and resources being stretched, there is potential for further exploitation.

Better the Devil You Know

This issue cannot be examined without looking at the “convenience” aspect, because this is not purely an issue of brute force and one-sided exploitation. For the women, girls, or families involved, socio-economic factors drive their consent to, or encouragement of, such arrangements.

One factor is a desire to propel oneself or one’s daughter out of the situation in which the refugees are being forced to live. It’s a shockingly obvious choice: live in a refugee camp in potentially awful conditions, or enjoy comparative freedom in Jordan. Because there is frequent intermarriage between the two countries, the latter may seem like the most sensible option. Girls are also more likely to be seen as burdens. Finding someone else to care for them lightens the already heavy load on families, who are struggling to support themselves in cheap accommodations, or trying to make meager rations feed a family in a refugee camp.

Another factor is fear of the unknown. The future of Syria hangs in the balance, and, sadly, the conflict now engulfing its main cities could rage on for years. The situation for those who left is as unstable as for those who stayed. The draw of a new, more secure life in Jordan is strong in a time of crisis. “Women being traded always happens with war,” O said.

But still, I worry about these girls. I know that this is a kind of survival strategy, but I wish instead that having survived the Assad regime would have made them stronger in a different way—to be able to escape not just the regime but to a place where they are not harmed like this.

The third, and most worrying factor, is the fear of rape, which is pushing families to marry off their daughters. Being raped can result in social isolation that will ruin the woman’s future chances of marriage, and thus of social and financial security. During a recent visit to Zaatari, I talked to a refugee from Baba Amr in Homs, who told me, “You need to know, everyone needs to know: they are raping women. Hezbollah, the Iranians, they are in Syria and they are raping women.”

Another interviewee from Dara’a said, “Regime forces go into the houses, round up the men to kill them, then they rape the women.” Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, recently wrote in The Atlantic Magazine about a project her group conducted to map the incidences of rape in Syria found 117 reports thus far. Eighty percent of the victims were female, and the majority of those surveyed said the attacks came from pro-regime forces. Rape as a weapon of war has, unfortunately, become standard practice, despite the fact that the presence of foreign elements in Syria is still open to debate. But whatever the identity of the perpetrators or the actual stats, the fear of rape is real and widespread among the refugees. One of the many abominations committed in the fog of war, rape is just as frightening as shelling. This might explain the link to Hezbollah or Iran—whether true or otherwise—in the minds of some of the refugees.

A Syrian woman who married a Jordanian from Mafraq almost 20 years ago said, “In one of the mosques you find Syrian men who saying that they will marry their daughters for free, provided that the man is suitably religious, to ensure their safety.” By marrying, or by ensuring that their daughters are married, even if that means staying in Jordan, women are preserving their social status and security for years to come. They are also fleeing a form of violence that they cannot report, one which may remain a weapon in an increasingly sectarian conflict long after Assad falls. A “marriage of convenience” to escape the possibility of rape may be confining in some ways, but the fathers are consenting to their daughters’ marriages to preserve their dignity. Some are even arranging their marriages, which is common in more conservative societies such as those in Syria and Jordan. This smacks of allowing legal rape in place of illegal rape.

Silence Is a Virtue

Syrian men do not believe that the “marriage of convenience” is a problem that should be publicly discussed. Intensely patriotic Syrians who have left often spend their days discussing their hopes for a better Syria without Assad. For them, the idea of Syrian women marrying foreigners seems to hint at a kind of lost national pride. They sense that something is being stolen from them. “I’ve been clear with my daughters; they are not allowed to marry a Jordanian man while we’re here,” said the father of a family of eight living in Mafraq. A number of men had come to propose. “One was the owner, who is 56, of this building who saw one of the girls and liked her, but we said no,” the father said. “The other was a man who sent one of his female relatives to come and suggest the idea, but we said no again.”

Some are unwilling to recognize the problem of “marriages of convenience.” Pushed to comment on the issue, Kilani said, “Syrians have been marrying Jordanians for many years. Surely there are at most 20 to 25 cases if this is true?” He is right in one sense; hard evidence is extremely difficult to obtain, due to the social taboos, which fuel the entire issue. But anecdotal evidence is growing exponentially. Women who have been inside Beshabshe or one of the other camps have spoken of it. And “cheap brides” jokes are now so commonplace in northern Jordan that they’re almost passé.

Shining a light on this issue requires a careful balance of cultural sensitivity and criticism. The first response to raising the problem is often a gentle shrug and a reference to tradition. This problem may be rooted in long-standing traditions governing marriage, and that factor should not be dismissed. There is no wish here to rush in and point the finger in a way that is at best intolerant, and at worst racist. There is also a concern when writing about this issue that it feeds into every prejudice surrounding how women are treated in the Middle East. That is not the intention. However, that should not be a barrier for a necessary discussion. This is not an issue of “forced marriage,” but rather an examination of the cultural forces that can bind women to oppressive social structures, here and around the world.


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