“I lived with my in-laws for 35 years. At the beginning it was like going to the gallows!” recalls Lydia Babayan, 57, an Iraqi-born Armenian Catholic. “My mother-in-law was very aggressive and my father-in-law was very strict. But my husband’s sister was good to me, she never said a bad word to me.”

Lydia attributed her father-in-law’s strictness to his Armenian heritage. But across the Middle East, women of all creeds and nationalities find themselves in a system where the power balance within couples and families tilts inevitably towards men. Among Muslim and Christian communities alike, when a woman marries it is custom for her to move into her husband’s family home, where the woman of the house is not the new bride but her mother-in-law. She may also be a minor. In some households, she may not even be her husband’s only wife, although polygamy is not practised among the Middle East’s Christian communities. When it comes to having children, a son may be seen as a greater blessing than a daughter, and a husband might even divorce the wife who does not bear him sons.

Suha, whose husband left shortly before IS expelled Christians from her town, was not allowed to accept an offer of asylum and resettle with her children without her husband’s consent while she was still married

Disrupting traditions

The conflicts that have pushed millions of Syrians and Iraqis to flee their homes have upended the social structures that strengthened women’s position. Living as refugees removes supports such as family and friends, or income or savings that provide financial independence. In addition, Islamic State (IS)’s revival of the practice of selling women and girls as sex slaves not only encouraged their supporters to treat women as ‘chattels’, objects to be possessed, it also intimidated those who abhorred their ideology into not letting their wives go out alone, out of concern for their safety.

Some changes forced by the conflict have the potential to empower women: if their husbands have died or are still in Syria, they may have the opportunity to make decisions for their families for the first time. Others, whose husbands are with them in Lebanon, have taken the role as breadwinner for pragmatic reasons – “the Interior Security Forces check men’s papers, not women’s”, says Jihane Isseid, emergency safe housing programme manager at the Lebanese women’s charity Abaad. Syrian refugees are only allowed to work in a small number of sectors of Lebanon’s crowded labour market; Iraqi refugees have even less access to it. As for Lydia, even if she had been minded to play the matriarch to her son’s bride, or her daughters’ marriages, war has scattered three of her four children to Europe and the US, shattering the potential for – using her language – another “gallows” structure.

However, while making women the breadwinner may give them more control than they may have had before, such a role reversal, at the expense of their husbands, can increase frustrations and resentments that get played out within the family unit. The issue of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) has been particularly highlighted by the Syrian crisis, says Ms Isseid.

Abaad’s Roula Masri says working with religious leaders in Lebanon is key to changing attitudes towards women

 Asylum delayed

Even if a woman obtains a divorce, it carries a stigma. And each religious community in Lebanon has different laws governing issues such as divorce, custody and inheritance. Suha, an Iraqi Chaldean woman whose husband left her to return to the family of his dead first wife, said that providing for her four daughters by herself made her very anxious. “I feel like I’m the father and the mother of my kids at the same time – it’s a big responsibility,” she said. She, the girls and her mother fled Tel Skuf in the Nineveh Plains in 2014 when IS seized control of the area, and applied for asylum in the West once they arrived in Beirut. Because she would not be allowed to resettle with her children without her husband’s consent while still married, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, suggested she file for divorce and custody of the girls, and paid for a lawyer. A spokeswoman for UNHCR told World Watch Monitor: “When considering the resettlement of children with only one parent (mother or father) and where the parent not travelling with the children refuses to give consent for the travel of the children with the other parent, UNHCR exerts all efforts to engage the competent national authorities to make a legal determination of custody.”

But Suha’s offer of asylum, from Canada, came through before she had obtained the divorce, so she had to refuse it. Earlier this year UNHCR suggested she apply to the UK, and she is still awaiting news. Meanwhile her brother, who has been resettled in Australia, rang her six months ago to say he had seen her ex-husband in Sydney.

Clergy and culture change

The NGO Abaad recognises that faith leaders occupy a position of trust and respect and have an important role to play in defining acceptable behaviour, especially amid turbulence that disrupts traditional ways of relating. “Religious leaders are one of the main socialisation institutions,” says Roula El-Masri, Abaad’s programme director.

The charity, which is not affiliated to any religious organisation, has begun bringing faith leaders together to urge them to address GBV within their own constituencies. At a roundtable in 2013, “they agreed that violence against women is haram (forbidden) – Christians are way more progressive than Muslims on this,” Ms Masri added. One factor in this is education – Christians in Lebanon tend to be among the more educated classes, and a woman is less likely to be abused if she has a job that pays her well.

Abaad believes gender issues affect all the communities in Lebanon, including the refugee populations, in different ways. “Some Iraqi Christians are more conservative than Iraqi Muslims,” Ms Isseid adds. “It’s related to the persecution they faced during Saddam Hussein’s regime, before and after, which made Christians more attached to their traditional roots,” although she stresses that his regime, with its extensive network of informants, broke down trust between all communities and even within families.

Nonetheless in 2014 when Lebanese campaigners considered lobbying for marital rape to be outlawed, “all the religious communities, including women’s groups, were against its outlawing,” Ms Masri said. “The consensus was against marital rape in principle, but they didn’t like the name, because the wife is [viewed as] the husband’s anyway.” One reason for reluctance to reform is that it transfers power away from the particular community and hands it to the state.

The roundtables Abaad holds are in their fifth year and the charity is now preparing for a 16-day campaign to call for increased sentences for violence against women. In August, Abaad hailed as a “triumph” – after lengthy campaigning with other women’s rights groups – the abolition of a loophole in Lebanon’s penal code that exempted a rapist from prosecution if he then married his victim. And Abaad cites as another victory the liberalisation of the Druze community’s family laws in September, which will give women and children greater rights.

Suha meanwhile awaits for news of her application for asylum in the UK. “There is no future for my daughters here in Lebanon, or in Tel Skuf,” she says. “People are not good to us. Women will have more rights in the UK.” The significant but gradual reforms being ushered in by organisations such as Abaad are not coming soon enough for her.