Arab Muslim woman burka hijab face veil
Arab Muslim woman burka hijab face veilThinkstock

Six months after Maha's husband was killed in Syria's bloody civil war, the mother-of-two took a decision that has become increasingly common -- she became a second wife.

"After my husband died, I was alone with my children and it was very difficult," the 31-year-old told AFP by phone from an area near Damascus that has seen heavy combat between government and rebel forces.

"My cousin suggested we get married, and now I live with his wife and children. It was a difficult decision because his wife was a friend of mine," she said.

With thousands of Syrian men dying on the front lines of the conflict that began in March 2011, and others forced into exile or simply disappearing, the rates of divorce and polygamy in Syria are on the rise.

According to official figures, polygamous relationships accounted for 30 percent of marriages registered in Damascus in 2015, up from just five percent in 2010.

"We have more women than men here. Four friends and I decided to take widowed women as second wives to protect their reputations," explained Mohammed, Maha's new husband.

More than 290,000 people have been killed in Syria and millions have fled their homes to neighboring countries.

For those who have stayed, fighting has torn apart families and put an enormous strain on couples struggling to survive amid poverty, unemployment and violence.

'More women than men'

In Syria, the personal status law for Muslims, which is applied for issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, is derived from religious law.

Other religious groups, like the Christians and Druze, are regulated by their own religious tribunals.

Polygamy pre-dates Islam in the Middle East but was incorporated into the religion. Sunni Muslim men are permitted to take four wives on the condition that they treat them equally.

Nowadays, the practice is fairly uncommon in much of the Muslim world, with many countries placing restrictions on multiple marriages.

In Syria, these include limits on the age difference between spouses and guarantees that the husband can pay for separate homes for each wife.

But the imbalances created by war have prompted religious authorities to be more lax.

"Many men are dead, missing or have gone abroad," said judge Mahmud al-Maarawi, who heads the religious court that oversees personal status issues for Syria's Sunni Muslims.

"So there are more women than men, and the solution from a legal and religious point of view is polygamy," he told AFP.

"The tribunals bypass the restrictions put in place by law to allow a man to take a second wife... It has solved many problems."

For many women, the decision to wed an already married man is born of economic hardship.

"Women who in ordinary circumstances would have refused are now agreeing to marry a man who is already married who can provide for them and give them a sense of protection," said psychologist Leila al-Sherif.

Marrying a tenant

Abu Adnan's second wife was a tenant at his large house in the Old City in Damascus.

"She couldn't pay her rent, so I decided to marry her. It was better than putting her on the street," the 46-year-old said.

"My first wife accepted because we haven't been able to have children. She hopes I'll be able to have a son."

A mother of five, Sabah al-Halabi's "first husband abandoned me and my children after losing his job" early on during the conflict.

To provide for her two unmarried children, Sabah found a husband 24 years her senior who already has one wife.

"I married Mamduh, who is 68, because I wanted a better life for my children," she said, as she waited to register her marriage in Damascus.

The war has also led to an increasing number of divorces, with authorities recording 7,000 cases in 2015, a 25 percent increase from 5,318 in 2010.

"Many couples are forced to live with their families for economic reasons," creating pressure on marriages, said Maarawi.

"There are also disputes between couples when one wants to emigrate and the other is afraid of the journey or being far from their family," he added.

In some cases, husbands have demanded divorces after meeting women overseas, or wives have divorced husbands who have left them behind.

Syrian law allows a wife to divorce if she can prove her husband has been absent for at least a year, but 43-year-old Fawziyeh waited three years before beginning proceedings against her husband.

He left for Sweden as a refugee, where he was meant to complete the paperwork for the family to reunite.

But after waiting three years, living with their three children at her parents' home, she'd had enough.

"I divorced him. The wait was difficult and now I'm free to marry whoever I want."