Marriage crises: Syrian migrant women’s perspectives on war and divorce

War and displacement have lasting effects on gender norms within intimate relationships. Research on Syrian migrant women and couples investigates the significant rise in Syrian divorce rates since the war, showing the toll of conflict and resettlement on love, social relations, and marriages.


Ilse van Liempt, Rima Dali, and Esmee van Schuppen

“I feel like if I were in Syria, getting divorced would be harder on me. My ex could take my daughter from me; he could kidnap her and not allow me to see her anymore.” 23 year-old Rania came to the Netherlands through family reunification, but filed for divorce after settling. Her story is part of a wider trend of increased divorce rates within the Syrian diaspora in the Netherlands. She is also one of many who were explicit about their marriages already having been under pressure before migration.

Like others who experienced difficulties in their marriages while still in Syria, Rania found the strength, the legal framework, and the social climate in the Netherlands to pursue the divorce she had wanted. “He is a person [that is] hard to deal with. Till today he is [still] trying to take my daughter from me. So just having the feeling that my daughter will stay with me makes me feel that life is good.”

While Rania’s difficult experience is not isolated, it is only one part of the complex story of Syrian women’s divorce experiences after migration. For those who did not have serious troubles in their marriages before the war and their subsequent migration, the experience reveals different struggles. Maya, a 35-year-old woman explained how her relationship changed considerably once she and her husband had migrated to the Netherlands:

“My husband finds it very difficult here in the Netherlands. In Syria, he worked a lot and now he is at home most of the time… I think men suffer more from migration than women because they cannot find work easily here. Besides, in the Syrian culture men take care of their family in terms of money and here he feels like he cannot live up to these responsibilities.”

Maya explains how she sees the burden of downward social mobility affecting men differently than women. She signals her own and her husband’s growing unhappiness in their relationship after he became unable to fill the role of financial provider within the new, Dutch context. Cultural differences and shifting gender roles appear to be having some lasting transformative effects on everyday experiences of intimate social relations within marriages.

On the surface, these changes might appear to be the simple result of the relative openness of the Dutch societal and legal context regarding rights and gendered social roles. But this is not quite the full picture.

Personally affected by their collective experiences, some women mentioned feeling they could now express what they wanted to without fear. But while this helped them feel they could finally “breathe,” it sometimes also introduced new pressures into their marriages. For example, Mouna requested a divorce after becoming fed up with her husband consistently disallowing her to take Dutch classes because she was the only woman in the class.

On the surface, these changes might appear to be the simple result of the relative openness of the Dutch societal and legal context regarding rights and gendered social roles. But this is not quite the full picture. Inside Syria, the number of people seeking divorce also increased substantially during the war. In a 2016 interview, the head of the Sharia Court[1] in Damascus, Mahmoud Al-Marawi, stated that the court had recorded 7,423 divorces that year. Although both marriage and divorce rates had increased over the last years, the divorce rate reached its peak in 2016 at 27.6% of marriages. 

It remains difficult to know what this number indicates. Most courts – especially the ones in rural areas – stopped working during the war, which increased pressure on the Sharia Court in Damascus. This may have caused the inflated recorded rates in the Damascene Sharia court, but the incidence of divorce seems, nevertheless, to have seen a sustained rise both inside and outside the country.

The choice of sacrificing either proximity to their loved ones, their children’s interests, family safety, or a stable future weighs heavily on couples making the decision to migrate.

In Syria, it is mostly men who file for divorce. And in transit and en route, the numbers of husbands requesting divorces has increased. But recently, Sharia courts have also seen divorce cases filed by wives whose husbands are missing or have been absent for lengthy periods of time. Article 87 of the Personal Status Law in Syria gives a woman the right to unilateral divorce in two cases: when it has been stipulated in the original marriage certificate that she is entitled to do so, and when a husband gives his wife full authorization to execute a divorce.

In the former case, if a woman gets a divorce, her husband cannot force her into marrying him again. In the latter instance, the man can cancel this authorization whenever he likes. Article 14 states that women cannot divorce their husband orally by saying “I divorce you,” which is the man’s right, alone. As Esther van Eijk explains in her 2016 book, Family Law in Syria: Patriarchy, Pluralism and Personal Status Law, to get a divorce, a woman needs to file a case for separation and argue her reasons both to the court and to her social milieu, whereas a man over 18 years of age has the right to separate from his wife without having to give any specific reason.

According to Al-Marawi, the most important reason for divorce in his court during the war was disagreement between partners about whether to migrate or stay in Syria. Typically, this would take the form of husbands deciding to travel abroad while their wives refused to join them. Either that, or the husband would want to stay close to the extended family and/or avoid giving up his career, while the wife preferred migration.

The choice of sacrificing either proximity to their loved ones, their children’s interests, family safety, or a stable future weighs heavily on couples making the decision to migrate. Even deciding who should take the risk to access Europe first can be a burden on marriages. When reunification takes longer than expected – either because of a partner’s procrastination, or due to complications and delays within formal procedures – relationships are forced to endure greater stress.

During the war, Syrian women experienced important shifts in gender norms in their everyday lives. Before the war, women typically worked in the private commercial spheres of the office and the factory rather than the more public spaces of cafes and restaurants. Al-Marawi gives this as another reason for increased divorces; Syrian women found new career opportunities during the war, about which some husbands turned out to be more accepting than others. The need to survive economically pushed gendered norms around work to adapt in various locales. In Latakia and Damascus acceptance of women working in public spaces is now higher than in Aleppo, for example.

During the war, Syrian women experienced important shifts in gender norms in their everyday lives.

Those who decide to divorce in the Netherlands do so in a new bureaucratic landscape. When there is agreement, finalizing the divorce should be relatively straightforward. Otherwise, divorces can become protracted and painful for more than the usual reasons, as personal tensions are compounded by formal requirements. For wives arriving via family unification, for instance, divorce means separating their legal status from their husbands’ and gaining official recognition as an independent case. Moreover, a divorce in the Netherlands does not mean that this divorce is automatically recognized in Syria. In order to have that recognition the couple needs to travel back to Syria.

Living in a new context where divorce is easier to arrange is thus not a sufficient explanation for the complex pressures Syrian couples are having to deal with after personal histories and effects of war survival and resettlement in Europe. Conflict and displacement have transformative impacts on gender norms as well as women’s personal choices and agency in intimate relationships. This complex reality deserves serious consideration if public discussions about cultural differences and women’s emancipation are to avoid slipping into lazy stereotypes about the Muslim “other.”

[1] Marriage in Syria is a religious affair and civil marriage is not permitted. Every religion has its own marriage law which regulates the institution of marriage as well as divorce and child custody. In February 2019, the Syrian government amended the Personal Status Law for Muslims. Among the amendments, the age of marriage for girls and boys was set at the age of 18, whereas it was 17 for girls in the old law (which was in place since 1953). UNICEF estimated that 3 percent of Syrian girls were married by age 15 and 13 per cent by age 18. Marriages are arranged by family.


Ilse van Liempt is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University in the Department of Human Geography. She is research leader of the migration and societal change strategic theme of Utrecht University and publishes widely on migration and processes of inclusion and exclusion. She tweets at @ilsevanliempt.

Rima Dali has a background as a lawyer/researcher in Syria and worked as a research assistant in the research project on Syrians in the Netherlands. 

Esmee van Schuppen just finished her bachelor thesis in Liberal Arts and Science with a major in human geography. Her research focused on Syrian women in the Netherlands. 

This article is based on insights from research the authors conducted for the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau) on Syrians in the Netherlands at Utrecht University and a bachelor thesis on Syrian women in the Netherlands.