Great Read: The ranks of Syrian widows grow as rebels are killed off
Ahlam sits hunched over, as if about to fold in on herself, talking about her courtship with her husband.
At first she was hesitant to accept his proposal because he was a rebel fighter. But as they talked and spent time together, she grew fond of him and they were married last summer. For the next eight months, he divided his time between home with his new bride and the battlefront in Syria’s civil war.
Each time he went to the front lines, Ahlam, 23, would call frequently to make sure he was OK. One day in March, her mind was with him all day and she couldn’t focus on anything she was doing. She called him every hour. Finally, he answered.
“I told him, ‘Take care of yourself,’” she said. “He said, ‘Forgive me if something happens.’”
Shortly after they spoke, he was killed in combat.
“I was afraid he would die, and then look what happened,” she said quietly. “I would tell him not to go — that there is work to be done in the village. He would say, ‘I can’t; there is work at the front lines.’”
Now Ahlam vows not to remarry until the fighting ends for fear of being widowed again. She is like other young widows, many with pregnant bellies, who bitterly shrug off the suggestion of remarriage with a bleak, “I’ve learned my luck.”
“I don’t want the same thing to happen to me,” said Ahlam, whose two younger brothers are also rebel fighters. “I foresee that they’re all going to get killed. I don’t think many of them will return.”
Human rights groups estimate that widows number in the tens of thousands, and that thousands more whose husbands have disappeared are waiting for bad news.
At a time when the vicious civil warfare has destroyed so much in Syria — homes and schools, families and communities — there is a reticence to rebuild anything, including marriages, for fear it will be lost again.
The refusal to remarry collides with cultural norms in a country where marriage and motherhood dominate women’s lives and where girls as young as 12 begin receiving suitors.
It can also lead to financial strain at a time of soaring poverty. Support of a widowed woman, if she doesn’t have her own means, reverts to parents or male relatives, one reason some families pressure their daughters to remarry.
“If she doesn’t have kids, it’s not a bad thing for her to get remarried and reestablish her life,” Anadan resident Khadija Laila said as she carefully prepared the day’s dinner accompanied by her two daughters-in-law, one recently married to her son, a rebel spokesman. “If she doesn’t have kids, she doesn’t have anything to amuse herself with. What else is she going to do?”
Some widows, after resisting pressure to get married for some time, have finally agreed. As the war becomes more entrenched and any resolution appears further off, these women calculate that waiting for an end to hostilities could mean entirely missing their chance to remarry.
A refusal to immediately remarry could be a sign of women’s growing independence here as wartime conditions challenge social mores and gradually loosen the tightly woven social fabric. Rather than give in to familial pressure and rush into another marriage, these women are making their own choices.
Syrian society is changing greatly during this crisis, Ahlam said, because of the unprecedented number of widows. Suddenly her mother, Um Amaar, as if not hearing Ahlam’s words, asked a stranger about potential suitors for her daughter. “Do you know anyone?”
Ahlam looked at her mother but didn’t say anything.
Ahlam, whose first marriage at 19 ended in divorce, wore a borrowed wedding dress for her second marriage. It was a subdued celebration and her mother took only a few photos on her cellphone.
But she was happy with her husband, who was nine years her senior.
“It’s harder,” she said simply of losing a husband she loved.
These days, Ahlam spends most of her time in her parents’ wind-swept living room. A full china cabinet stands near windows broken by government airstrikes. Pushed up against one wall is the black metal frame of a bed, and along its base and headboard a small array of domestic items: batteries, detergent, toilet cleaner, candies, costume jewelry, a lemon squeezer.
It is a makeshift convenience store for the neighborhood. For Ahlam, who is in the four-month Islamic mourning period for women, which mandates that she not adorn herself with jewelry and makeup or go out except when necessary, it serves as a way to keep busy.
On days when aerial bombardments are light, women and children stream through the living room to socialize and pick through the sparse household offerings. But it is not much of a diversion. Visitors regularly ask, “Would you consider a third time?”
The refusal to remarry has little to do with a lack of suitors.
Some sheiks have called on rebel fighters to marry widowed mothers. One imam in this town on the outskirts of Aleppo offered fighters money for each child they help raise. But for the women, these are often the very men they don’t want to marry because of the risk of being widowed again.
Cases of polygamy are also on the rise as married men propose to widows, believing the women have few other options than to become a second wife.
In place of idle talk come tragic stories of doomed marriages, sometimes shared as cautionary tales.
One of Laila’s daughters-in-law, Fatima Karj, told of a woman widowed three times in less than two years. The women slowly shook their heads.
“I assume she would give up hope,” Laila said. “I mean, we despair from her situation.”
Wedad Abdulqadir’s husband was killed the day after their second anniversary. The young couple had spent their anniversary together but didn’t celebrate because of the war and because they didn’t have any money.
“The next morning he woke up and said farewell and then he didn’t return,” said Abdulqadir, her hands tightly clasped in her lap.
They had wed during the early months of the uprising when the protests were still peaceful. As fighting took hold, her husband would volunteer in the field hospitals or help document the fatalities.
A month before his death, he joined the rebels as a fighter.
Shortly after the funeral, Abdulqadir, who has a round, pretty face, immediately began getting marriage proposals, which she refused.
“I can’t live with anyone else,” she said.
On her cellphone, a gift from her late husband, she keeps his photo. Underneath it is written, “The hero.”
“We were happy. He never hit me; some other husbands hit their wives,” said Abdulqadir, 18, who was pregnant when her husband was killed but miscarried 10 days later.
“I prayed a lot that [the baby] would live, something left from my husband.”
Now she spends her days at the town’s only women’s clinic, training to be a nurse. Indications of happier times at the decrepit traditional Arabic home surround her: a dried-up pond where children once swam, a rusty sofa swing that now strains under the weight of four women.
Abdulqadir left school after the seventh grade but has taken up religious studies at a mosque in addition to volunteering at the clinic, which has nurses and midwives but no doctor.
Before the Syrian conflict, her father would allow her to go out only to visit relatives or friends. Now he is encouraging her to work so she can care for herself.
“A lot of women have been given the chance to work because of these circumstances,” said Nisreen Risiq, who also volunteers at the clinic but dreams of becoming an opposition media activist, a less socially acceptable job for a woman, especially in a small town like Anadan.
“I took my four kids and traveled to [the central city of] Homs and back,” said another volunteer, Dareen Birini, pregnant with her fifth child. “Before this, my husband wouldn’t let me take a 10-minute bus ride. The circumstances force you to change.”
Abdulqadir’s parents continue to encourage her to remarry but won’t force her. Instead, the pressure comes from relatives and neighbors.
Those who came to offer condolences began broaching the subject while she was still pregnant, just days after losing her husband.
“They say, ‘You’re young — you have to get remarried,’” Abdulqadir said.
“Does it bother you when people say this?” her friend Iman Laila asked.
“A lot,” she said. “It is still a fresh wound.”
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