Za’atari, Jordan – Fatima sits in a beauty salon getting her hair and make-up done by young female refugees. Their pink, white and blue dresses with lots of little fake diamonds are shining in the afternoon sun.
The young stylists are giggling while lightening 15-year-old Fatima’s skin with white powder, making her eyes look even darker than they already are, while others are brushing her long brown hair. Her face shows no signs of happiness or sadness, although today is an important day for Fatima. Today she is getting married to her distant cousin, an 18-year-old boy.
Za’atari is the second largest refugee camp in the world, and houses at least 120,000 Syrians. Weddings take place every day here. Young men roam down the main street, colloquially known here as the “Champs Elysées,” eating, working, picking up groceries and looking for potential brides. Although the name of the street may refer to one of the most romantic places on earth, the men here are barely allowed to talk to girls, let alone flirt with them.
So when a young man in Za’atari does find a potential candidate, he ask questions of her. From what family in Syria is she? Is she a good girl? After that, he may visit her family to propose.
Mariam, Fatima’s grandmother, tells a similar story in her trailer. When another of her granddaughters, Zeina, was walking back from school, the sister of a 22-year-old refugee wondered if she would be available to marry her brother. After a long talk, Mariam and her daughter made their final decision.
“Zeina’s father is not here, so she doesn’t have male protection,” said Mariam. “Especially at night, Za’atari can be dangerous for young girls. I heard some horrible rumours about girls getting raped or kidnapped. So, when we found out that this young man had a college certificate and good potential to support and protect her in the future, we decided to say yes.”
It wasn’t the first proposal Zeina got. In the previous couple of months, four young men had come to visit their trailer. Mariam, the mother of nine children, and grandmother of 65 grandchildren, talks about it in a proud and strong voice.
“Our girls are most likely to get married at the age of 14 or 15,” she told Al Jazeera. “This is not a new trend for refugees, as some organisations say.”
She added: “If we asked Zeina for permission? Well, she said it was up to us to decide what’s best for her. Besides, in our custom it is not necessary that the girl says yes. She knows this is the best thing we can do: making sure that somebody is taking care and protecting her.”
When Mariam got married, she was also 14 years old.
Twenty-five marriage proposals
Yet another of Mariam’s grandchildren has received more than 25 proposals since arriving in the camp just over a year ago. The girl’s mother, however, rejected them all, wanting her daughter to finish her education. When asked if her 15-year-old daughter is very beautiful, she smiles tenderly.
“Yes, but that’s what every mother thinks of her child,” she says. Just like the rest of her female family members, her face is covered by a black niqab. Her daughter wears one too.
An early marriage is a common experience for Syrian girls from Daraa province, an area many of the refugees here fled from. Most of the girls in that province get married under the age of 18, according to UN Women. Around 51 percent of the girls from Daraa in Za’atari, and 13 percent of the boys, were married before the age of 18 – most before their arrival in Jordan.
While there is no conclusive evidence that Syrian refugees are marrying early at a higher rate in Jordan than in Syria, a UN Women study notes that the sense of economic and physical insecurity which, among other factors, drives early marriage is amplified in displacement. Some Syrian families marry their daughters off earlier than before to provide personal and financial safety for her.
The Jordanian court does not allow people under the age of 18 to get married, but a wedding in Za’atari doesn’t require permission from the Jordanian government. As the rules stand, marriage contracts are prepared by mosque imams and sheikhs.
Sheikh Hussin admits that the oldest girl he married in the last couple of months was 18 years old, and the youngest just 14. Since he came to Za’atari, ten months ago, he has married thirty couples. According to him, the “standards” for men to marry a girl have lowered.
“Poor refugees cannot pay the dowry anymore and there isn’t much paperwork,” he says. “This increases the [number of] weddings that are taking place. The decision can be made faster than usual, without a lot of preparation. And young couples can get their own trailer after they get married too.”
The sheikh never asks the girls if they really wanted to get married, or if they said yes because they felt pressured by family members. He says the biggest problem in this camp isn’t an early marriage, but a marriage between Syrian girls and unknown men from outside the camp.
“A few months ago a widow with three children married a man from Saudi Arabia,” he said. “After two months of living in Amman, he forced her to bring the children back to her mother in Za’atari. She refused and came back to the camp, where people started gossiping about her constantly. She couldn’t take the severe pressure anymore, left, and committed suicide.”
Women who work as marriage fixers for Jordanian or Saudi men often show up in the camp, asking people if they know any girls who want to get married. Human rights organisations report that some of these girls end up in prostitution or so called “pleasure marriages,” whereby a man divorces the women shortly after consummating the marriage.
‘Almost for free’
A Jordanian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had been advised to go to Za’atari if he wanted to get married fast:
“I told them I was looking for a wife. ‘Go to the refugee camp,’ they said, ‘because Syrian women are almost for free.”
According to people living in the refugee camp, these cases are declining, as permission is now required to enter Za’atari. Jordanian military guards check passports at the entrance, while, inside the streets are watched over by local “street guards,” mostly men distributing a share of the aid provided by international and domestic organisations.
Although most of the Syrian brides here are under the age of 18 when they say yes to their future husband, older women also get married in the camp. Merwa, a 36-year-old, met her 53-year-old husband, Mohammed, seven months ago, when she was walking down the Za’atari streets. She didn’t allow him to kiss her until he asked her to marry him.
With a twinkle in his eye, Mohammed looks at his wife, who wears colourful clothes. “When I saw her for the first time, I was madly in love, so we decided to get married right after I asked her. Unfortunately we didn’t have a wedding party to celebrate. Merwa was a little bit sad because of that. She wanted to have a nice wedding party.”
Both of them have been married before. In fact, Mohammed is still married to his first wife, whom he met in Syria – but Merwa doesn’t consider this a problem, as Muslim men are allowed to marry four wives.
Two days ago, he was so inspired by his renewed happiness that he decided to help his 42-year-old Jordanian friend find a bride. But when he contacted the parents of a 25-year-old Syrian woman living in the camp, they refused immediately.
“But I’m still looking,” he grins. “He is a good catch.”
The next day, there are no customers at the bridal shop on Za’atari’s Champs Elysées. The make-up artist says the girl who was supposed to get married today cancelled her appointment just a few hours ago.
“The wedding got postponed a few weeks, but I expect the next bride tomorrow,” she concluded.