For as long as the Syrian war has raged, there have been stories throughout the Middle East about Syrian refugee women being in demand for marriage — sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Egypt is no exception.
It is hard to judge whether marriage between Syrian women and Egyptian men is in fact a phenomenon on the rise since 2011 or an exaggerated situation. But there is no shortage of stories.
Umm Ammar, who is in her 30s, became a widow when her husband died in an accident. As a now "single" refugee, she is one of many Syrian women sought out by Egyptian men who consider them the perfect partners — often for reasons far from flattering, such as low dowries. This phenomenon has sparked controversy in Egyptian and Syrian circles.
“This is harassment, rather than a marriage proposal," she told Al-Monitor about a recent run-in with an Egyptian man. “What can I say? An old man whose teeth have almost fallen out asked me to give him my number. He said he wanted a Syrian bride because his first wife was not feeling well.”
She added that she faces such incidents daily. She had wanted to take up a job, but now she avoids leaving the house unless it is absolutely necessary.
Men use different methods to find Syrian women. Tareq al-Sheikh, who got hooked on one of the largest Facebook groups for Syrians living in Egypt, told Al-Monitor many men think such sites are a good way to reach Syrian women. (Al-Monitor chose not to identify the site, to avoid adding to the harassment.)
“The issue is delicate for all Syrians," he said, because of rumors that, through marriage brokers, marrying a Syrian woman would cost an Egyptian only 500 Egyptian pounds ($27) as a dowry. "Syrian women feel offended, and Syrian men are angry."
Lamia Lotfi, who heads the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) program at the New Woman Foundation in Cairo, discussed the source of the rumors.
“We always claim to be a nice country that doesn’t house [refugee] camps. But, in fact, Syrians did not have a place to live when they arrived. There were some mosques in 6th of October City and in Upper Egypt that would marry women [in exchange for men paying dowries of] 1,000 Egyptian pounds [$55] and [provide] an apartment,” Lotfi told Al-Monitor.
Although these mosques’ actions stopped, according to Lotfi, brokers remain.
Another approach some men use is to play on women's supposed vulnerability. Some people still use the word "sitter," a term that means protecting weak women, when talking about marriage to a Syrian woman. While threatening conditions do exist in refugee camps in many countries, many Syrians are offended by the idea that Syrian women would need to be sheltered or have their integrity guarded.
“Nothing angers me more than a man who thinks Syrian women need him to protect their reputation," Ammar said.
Some Egyptians seek to marry Syrian women regardless of their age, ideologies and religion. An Egyptian man who is part of the Syrian Facebook group mentioned by Ammar told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I am 55. I own an apartment and a car. I am separated from my Egyptian wife and would like to have a civil marriage with a Syrian woman.”
Hala Mohammed, a Syrian girl in her 20s living in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “I thought that marriage was a form of exploitation because of the way some men approach us. They show bad intentions with their words and the way they look at us. Some men seem outright [disrespectfully] flirtatious before proposing.”
She added, “Still, I met some respectable men. I don’t think the marriage [idea] is wrong.”
Refugees in general are easily exploited because of their dire financial situations, but some Syrian refugees in Egypt are relatively well-off. Political researcher Mohammed al-Arabi told Al-Monitor, “Syrian refugees in Egypt enjoy a good economic situation," which is why men do not often try that approach.
He said that marrying Syrian women “may have gained momentum in some circles where Egyptian couples do not trust each other, which makes Syrian women strong competitors for their Egyptian counterparts.”
Lotfi noted how insulting the comparisons can be, saying, “This is not a matter of choice for a Syrian or an Egyptian woman, or a pretty woman or another woman. This seems like a deal, as though women are comparable goods.”
She noted, “Egyptian and Syrian women are not that different,” but Syrian women in Egypt may have developed traits due to their new living conditions and the fact that they are foreigners. In general, she said, “Syrian women are more educated than Egyptian women. They are more aware of their rights. Syrians marry according to their own terms in their country. But they are now refugees in Egypt, and they can be deported at any minute. Therefore, they become submissive.”
On the legal level, Firas Haj Yahya, the human rights director at the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “Some husbands delude their Syrian wives into thinking that they can deport them from Egypt if they ask for their rights in case of separation.”
He added, “These threats are fabricated and have no legal grounds or justification.” A Syrian woman who gets married on Egyptian soil under Egyptian law subsequently enjoys the rights stipulated in said law.
Egyptian men’s marriages to Syrian women have sparked concern and criticism among some Syrians in Egypt. But not all feel the same. Rafa Fayez, a Syrian living in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “For three years, I was engaged to an Egyptian man. Each time I would meet Syrians and mention it, they would show sadness and ask me why I did that. The reaction scared me. But after marriage … we lived happily.”
Marwa Hachem, the assistant media director at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Al-Monitor the organization does not have accurate figures about the number of marriages between Syrian women and Egyptian men. She said, “It is up to women who are registered at the UNHCR to update their data with their social status.”
According to the latest data, published Oct. 31, Syrian women account for 49.3% of the total 115,204 Syrian refugees in Egypt who are registered with the UNHCR. Estimates of unregistered refugees vary significantly, but the Cairo Post reported there were 350,000 in 2015.