The Bonds of Marriage between Syria and Iraq

“My husband beats me every day, forces me to have sex with people in hotels and houses, and then brings me back home to do the same thing,” says Nada, a Syrian woman living in Iraq. “I have reached the point of suicide.”

A 35-year-old mother and widow, Nada had been searching for a new partner for over five years when she was approached by a member of an Iraqi militia stationed in Syria. Desperate for stability and lured by promises of a life of luxury in Iraq, Nada accepted his proposal. She did not know that she would become one of dozens of Syrian women to fall victim to Iraqi marriage exploitation in the past year alone.

With so many Syrian men having fled the country or having been killed in the ongoing conflict, women looking for a husband have few options, pushing them to consider marriage with non-Syrians. At the same time, more than 15,000 Iraqi militia fighters are active in Syria, originally sent to protect the regime against the Arab Uprisings in 2011. Syrian dowries are a tenth of those in Iraq, making marriage with Syrian women a convenient and cost-effective option for Iraqis. Targeting those most likely to accept an unconventional marriage offer, militia fighters specifically seek out vulnerable divorced and widowed women.

But once trapped in marriage in Iraq, many Syrian women have no recourse to protection from abuse and mistreatment. For Nada, marriage meant being forced to leave her son behind in Syria once her Iraqi husband’s deployment period ended. Now, she is trafficked as a prostitute in Karbala by the same husband who had promised her safety. 

In a war-torn nation that faces pervasive gender-based discrimination and economic insecurity, Syrian women like Nada see marriage as their only option. Until these women can find alternate paths for survival, the chain of exploitation and sexual slavery that stretches from Syria to Iraq will remain unbroken. 

Josh Phillips

Josh Phillips

Intern, Middle East Program