Syrian Arab Republic

Syria is ranked 75 out of 86 in the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index.

The country was ranked 59 out of 102 in the 2009 Social Institutions and Gender Index.

Syria is ranked in 119th place in the 2011 Human Development Index (HDI) (out of 187 countries), with a score of 0.632. The Gender Inequality Index value is 0.474 placing the country at 86 out of 146 countries. Syria is ranked in 124th place in the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index, with a value of 0.5896.

Discriminatory Family Code: 

For Muslim women, personal status is governed by Sharia law, which considers women to be legal dependents of their fathers or husbands, and is discriminatory in marriage, divorce and inheritance matters.[14] For Christian and Jewish women, personal status is governed by church and rabbinical law.[15] All matters relating to personal status are decided by the religious courts, and women do not have the option of taking such cases to the civil courts instead.[16] An attempt to introduce a unified personal status code in 2009 failed due to criticisms from women’s rights activists (who saw the new law as retrogressive) and from Christians (who argued that it would remove authority from their respective churches.[17] 

The legal age of marriage in Syria is 17 years for women and 18 years for men, but judges may authorise marriages at younger ages: as low as 13 years for girls and 15 years for boys.[18] Up-to-date figures are not available, but data held by the UN would indicate that in 2001, 10.9% of girls aged 15 to 19 were married, divorced or widowed.[19]  The average age of first marriage for women has increased in recent years, and stood at 21 in 2005.[20] Women cannot marry without the consent of their male guardian, and it is the guardian who signs the marriage contract. [21] Most marriages are arranged, and women may face pressure to agree to a marriage for financial or social reasons.[22] Muslim women do not have the right to marry outside the faith; there are no such restrictions on Muslim men.[23] Adultery is a criminal offence, but penalties for women are twice those for men, and the burden of proof is much lower for women.[24]

Polygamy is allowed under Islamic Sharia law, which allows Muslim men to take up to four wives.[25]  Syrian law gives judges the right to prohibit men from taking second (or subsequent) wives if they deem the man to be incapable of providing adequate financial support, but does not require the consent of the first wife.[26]  According to data from a 2005 survey, 9% of urban men and 16.3% of rural men had more than one wife.[27]

Syrian personal status law also discriminates in the area of parental authority, granting fathers more rights than mothers. Husbands / fathers are deemed to be the head of household, and in the case of Jewish women, wives are obliged to obey their husbands or fathers.[28] In the event of divorce, Muslim women are usually granted custody of sons until they are 13 and daughters until they are 15, and lose custody if they remarry.[29] Under the Catholic personal status law (introduced in 2006), both parents have equal guardianship rights over children during marriage, although if a couple separates, the father is offered custody first, and then the mother.[30] Muslim men can repudiate (divorce unilaterally) their wives, but women do not have the same right.[31] Rather, women seeking a divorce can only obtain one according to a narrow set of criteria (e.g. the husband’s illness or desertion), or can obtain a ‘khula’ divorce if they renounce their dowry.[32]  According to the 2006 JICA report, the divorce rate in Syria remains low (10% in 2004), and divorced women face stigma.[33] Women cannot confer citizenship to children born to non-Syrian fathers.[34] Such children cannot inherit property, or access free healthcare and education.[35]

Sharia law provides for detailed and complex calculations of inheritance shares.[36]  A woman may inherit from her father, mother, husband or children, and under certain conditions, from other family members.[37]  However, her share is generally smaller than a man’s entitlement.[38]  A daughter, for example, inherits half as much as a son.[39] Rules governing Shiite Muslims are different, with inheritance being divided equally between male and female heirs.[40] In rural areas in particular, many women are not aware of their inheritance rights and are easily persuaded to transfer their entitled share to a male relative, in order to keep property within the family.[41] In addition, brothers may refuse to allow sisters their rightful share of the inheritance.[42] In such cases, women are reportedly reluctant to seek help from the courts, in the interests of maintaining good relationships with their natal families.[43] Sharia inheritance law applies to all other religious groups, with the exception of Catholics (following the introduction of a Catholic personal status law in 2006, under which women and men enjoy equal inheritance rights).[44] But non-Muslim women married to Muslim men are not entitled to any inheritance unless they convert.[45]

[14] Freedom House (2010) [15] Freedom House (2010) [16] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.462 [17] Freedom House (2010); Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) pp.461, 466 [18] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.466 [19] United Nations Population Division / DESA (2008) [20] JICA (2006) p.7 [21] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.466 [22] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.466 [23] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.465 [24] ECOSOC (2003) p.155; JICA (2006) p.14; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.463 [25] JICA (2006) p.34 [26] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.466 [27] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.466 [28] JICA (2006) p.35; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.462 [29] JICA (2006) p.15; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.467 [30] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.468 [31] JICA (2006) p.34; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.467 [32] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.467 [33] JICA (2006) p.34; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.481 [34] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.462 [35] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.462 [36] UN-HABITAT (2005) p.11 [37] UN-HABITAT (2005) p.11 [38] UN-HABITAT (2005) p.11 [39] UN-HABITAT (2005) p.11 [40] JICA (2006) p.35 [41] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.461 [42] JICA (2006) p.35 [43] JICA (2006) p.35 [44] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010)   p.468, 471 [45] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.470 

Restricted Physical Integrity: 

There is no legislation in place specifically addressing domestic violence in Syria.[46]  Domestic violence has long been a subject of social taboo, but public awareness of the problem appears to have increased in recent years.[47]  Still, women have very limited legal recourse against violence inflicted upon them in their own homes, and many incidents remain unreported as victims are unwilling to seek help outside the family.[48]  When cases are reported, the police may be reluctant to intervene, or will seek to reconcile the couple.[49]  There is some limited support available to victims of domestic violence, provided by women’s organisations.[50]   This includes a number of non-official refuges.[51]

Rape is a criminal offence in Syria, but the law does not recognise the concept of spousal rape.[52]  A rapist can escape imprisonment if he agrees to marry the victim.[53] It is unclear whether the victim’s consent is needed in this case.[54] Women and girls who are victims of sexual violence and who speak out about it or seek help from the police can face abuse and hostility from the police themselves, and face social ostracism and pressure to withdraw allegations.[55] In addition, women and girls who have been raped may then be at risk of violence at the hands of their own family, for having brought ‘shame’ on the family’s honour.[56] Sexual harassment is illegal under the penal code.[57]

So-called honour crimes, whereby a woman is punished or even killed by male family members for having brought “shame” on the family honour, also occur. Under the penal code, perpetrators receive lower penalties for murder and other violent crimes committed against women where defence of family ‘honour’ is cited as a mitigating factor.[58]  Amnesty International reports that in 2009, 13 women and one man were confirmed as victims of ‘honour’ crimes, although the real figure is likely to be much higher, due to underreporting (one NGO quoted by Freedom House suggested the figure could be as high as 200 per year).[59]

To date, there is no legislation in place in Syria criminalising trafficking in persons, although as of 2009, it appeared that draft legislation was under discussion.[60] Rather, women who have been victims of trafficking often face prosecution themselves under anti-prostitution legislation.[61] Syria is a destination and transit country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour.[62]  This includes many Iraqi refugees.[63]  A shelter was opened for victims of trafficking in Damascus in 2008, but beyond that, little support appears to be available.[64] In addition, a large number of women enter the country each year to work as domestic servants. Many find themselves living and working in conditions of virtual slavery.[65]

Female genital mutilation does not appear to be practised in Syria.[66]

Contraception is available free of charge from government-run clinics.[67] According to a 2010 UNFPA report, 58% of women questioned reported using some form of contraception, including so-called ‘traditional’ methods.[68] There appears to be a strong correlation between level of education and use of ‘modern’ contraceptive methods.[69] Abortion is only legal in cases where the pregnant woman’s life is in danger.[70]

[46] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.469 [47] Zoepf (2006) [48] ECOSOC (2003) p.156 [49] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.469 [50] ECOSOC (2003) p.156 [51] ECOSOC (2003) p.156 [52] ECOSOC (2003) p.155; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) pp.469-470 [53] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.470 [54] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.470 [55] See Housing and Land Rights Network / HABITAT INTERNATIONAL COALITION (2004) p.93 [56] Amnesty International (2010) p.315 [57] JICA (2006) p.15 [58] Amnesty International (2010) p.315; ECOSOC (2003) p.155; JICA (2006) p.35 [59] Amnesty International (2010) p.315; Freedom House (2010) [60] CIA (2010); Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.460 [61] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.468 [62] CIA (2010) [63] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.468 [64] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.460 [65] CIA (2010) [66] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.479 [67] JICA (2006) p.10 [68] UNFPA (2010) p.98 (no data source provided) [69] JICA (2006) p.30 [70] UNDP (2007)

Son Bias: 

Under-five mortality rates are higher for boys than for girls, according to UNFPA.[71] Gender-disaggregated data are not available for childhood malnutrition or immunisation rates, but for the latter, overall immunisation is very high (98-99%).[72] Gross primary and secondary school enrolment rates are slightly higher for boys than for girls (secondary: boys - 65%; girls 61%), according to UNICEF.[73] According to the 2005 JICA report, parents are legally compelled to send their children to school (which is free), and if daughters do not attend school, their parents can face punishment.[74] However, in some rural areas, girls’ attendance rates remain low, partly as a result of parental prejudice against girls’ education, but also as a result of security concerns, when parents are reluctant to allow their daughters to travel long distances to attend school.[75] 

The male/female sex ratio for the total population in 2012 is 1.03.[76]  Analysis of sex ratio data across age groups provides substantial evidence of missing women in Syria.

[71] UNFPA (2010) p.104 [72] UNICEF (2007) pp.108, 112 [73] UNICEF (2007) p.120. Higher figures are provided in UNFPA (2010) p.98: 75% for boys, 73% for girls. [74] JICA (2006) pp.11, 24 [75] JICA (2006) p.11 [76] Central Intelligence Agency (2012)

Restricted Resources and Entitlements: 

There are no legal restrictions on women’s access to land or access to property other than land.[77]  Overall though, women’s land ownership remains very low: in 2006, JICA reported that just 5.3% of agricultural land was owned by women, and that land holdings owned by women were on average smaller than those owned by men.[78]  In addition, women who own property or businesses may hand day-to-day control over the male relatives, as a result of social pressure or because they do not feel confident enough to manage assets themselves.[79]

The law does not appear to make any distinction between men and women’s access to bank loans and credit. As such, women are not required to have the consent of their fathers or husbands in order to apply for or obtain loans, although married women do need their husband’s permission to work, and hence, to enter into economic contracts and activities.[80] It is reportedly very difficult, however, for women in rural areas to obtain credit, as banks tend to require significant collateral.[81] In response to this, the country’s first micro finance scheme was started in 2008.[82] The 2006 JICA report also states that the Syrian government is committed to increasing women’s access to credit, as well as providing other services to support women to start their own businesses.[83]

[77] JICA (2006) p.15 [78] JICA (2006) p.32 [79] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.471 [80] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.470 [81] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.473 [82] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.473 [83] JICA (2006) p.13 

Restricted Civil Liberties: 

Women in Syria face legal and social restrictions on their freedom of movement. Although neither unmarried or married adult women no longer need their husbands’ or fathers’ permission to obtain a passport and travel abroad, husbands have the right to request that the Ministry of Interior block their wife from leaving the country with their children.[84]  Unmarried women are generally not able to live on their own, as this is considered dangerous and improper (although attitudes are beginning to change).[85]  Women in Syria may also face non-gender specific restrictions on freedom of movement, along with male Syrian citizens: the government reportedly maintains a black list of political and social activists who are not permitted to travel outside the country.[86]

Freedom of expression, association and assembly are all heavily restricted in Syria.[87] Private newspapers have been allowed to operate since 2001, and it is reported that these do on occasion discuss gender issues such as domestic violence or honour killings.[88] It is very difficult for civil society groups to operate independently in Syria, including those advocating women’s rights.[89] All must register with – and are under the effective control of – the Ministry of Social Affairs.[90] As a result, there is only one legal women’s rights organisation in existence – the General Union of Syrian Women, affiliated to the ruling Ba’ath party.[91] All others operate clandestinely.[92]

Women have had the same voting rights as men in Syria since 1949, and the same right to stand for election since 1953.[93] There are some prominent female political figures in Syria, including one of the two vice presidents.[94] In addition, women make up 12.4% of members of the People’s Assembly (31 out of 250).[95] But overall, women remain underrepresented in public life, and there are few women in decision-making positions in the judiciary or the executive.[96] According to the 2006 JICA report, there are some NGOs operating in Syria working on behalf of women, mainly working to improve women’s overall legal and economic status, as well as providing practical assistance to victims of domestic violence, and other vulnerable groups.[97] Women’s rights activists were also able to campaign successfully against an attempt to introduce a retrogressive unifed personal status law in 2009.[98] But as discussed above, it is very difficult for women’s rights organisations to operate effectively.[99]

In Syria, under the 2004 Labour Law, pregnant women are entitled up to 120 days’ paid maternity leave, depending on whether or not they already have other children.[100] Discrimination on the basis of gender in employment is also banned.[101] Married women are only able to work outside the home if they have their husband’s permission to do so, and all women are barred from working at night (except in certain professions, e.g. healthcare) and in professions deemed injurious to their health or morals.[102]  According to JICA, 58% of the female labour force are employed in agriculture, meaning that they receive no regular salary and are not protected by employment legislation or social security benefits.[103] This is also the case for the many women employed in the informal sector.[104]

[84] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.465 [85] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.481 [86] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.465 [87] Amnesty International (2010) p.314; Human Rights Watch (2010); Freedom House (2010); BBC (n.d.) [88] JICA (2006) p.14; Kelly and Breslin (eds.) (2010) p.477 [89] Housing and Land Rights Network / HABITAT INTERNATIONAL COALITION (2004) p.94; Human Rights Watch (2010) [90] JICA (2006) p.22; Kelly and Breslin (eds.) (2010) p.477 [91] Kelly and Breslin (eds.) (2010) pp.464, 477 [92] Kelly and Breslin (eds.) (2010) p. 464 [93] Kelly and Breslin (eds.) (2010) p.459 [94] Freedom House (2010) [95] Inter-Parliamentary Union (n.d.) [96] Freedom House (2010); Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) [97] JICA (2006) pp.20-21 [98] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.461 [99] Kelly and Breslin (eds.) (2010) p.460 [100] JICA (2006) pp.6, 14: 120 days for the first child, 90 days for the second child, 75 days for the third child. [101] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.474 [102] Cotula (2002[2007]) pp.99, 131; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.472 [103] JICA (2006) p.9; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.473 [104] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.474


Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Syria was under French administration from 1918 until independence in 1946.[1] The country is effectively a one-party state that has been under a permanent state of emergency since 1963, and ruled by Bashar al-Assad, who took over from his father as president in 2000.[2]  The security forces have used widespread violence and arrests in response to anti-government protests which have taken place since 2011. At the time of drafting, the violence and crackdowns were escalating and drawing increasing concern from the global community. Syria is classed as a lower-income country by the World Bank.[3]  The economy is based mainly on oil and agriculture; recent years have seen rising unemployment and intense pressure on water supplies as a result of overuse in agriculture.[4] The majority of the population are Sunni Muslim, but there are also other Muslim sects, Druze, and Christian and Jewish minorities.[5] There are also several ethnic minorities, including a Kurdish minority, which reportedly faces discrimination and repression.[6]

Syrian women face strong pressure to conform to prevailing social norms regarding acceptable female behaviour, in order to ensure that the family’s ‘honour’ is upheld.[7] Syrian women have seen their economic opportunities improve in recent years, with greater numbers of women entering the workforce.[8] But they still face various degrees of inequality in the social sphere, as well as potential condemnation if they are visible and active in the public sphere.[9]

The Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic grants equal rights to all its citizens in article 25, regardless of gender, and at article 45 states that women are guaranteed ‘all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effectively in political, social, cultural, and economic life’.[10]  Nonetheless, individual laws contain discriminatory provisions, and no legislation specifically prohibits gender-based discrimination.[11]  Syria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Violence Against Women in 2003, but has not yet ratified the Optional Protocol.[12] Reservations to the Convention were made to Article 9(2), concerning the mother’s right to pass on her nationality to her children; Article 15(4), regarding freedom of movement and choice of domicile; Article 16(1), mandating equal rights and responsibilities during marriage and upon its dissolution with regard to guardianship, kinship, maintenance, and adoption; Article 16(2), regarding the legal effect of the betrothal and marriage of a child; and Article 29(1), regarding arbitration between countries in the event of a dispute.[13]

[1] CIA (2010); Freedom House (2010); BBC (n.d.) [2] CIA (2010); Freedom House (2010); Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) [3] World Bank (n.d.) [4] CIA (2010); JICA (2006) p.31 [5] CIA (2010); Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.465 [6] Human Rights Watch (2010); Freedom House (2010); BBC (n.d.) [7] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.461 [8] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.470 [9] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.479 [10] ECOSOC (2003) p.155; JICA (2006) p.14; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.462 [11] JICA (2006) p.15; Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) p.462 [12] United Nations Treaty Collection (n.d.) [13] Kelly and Breslin (eds.)(2010) pp.463-464


Amnesty International (2010) Amnesty International Report 2009, State of the World’s Human Rights, London: Amnesty International. (accessed 8 November 2010)

BBC (n.d.) ‘Syria country profile’, (accessed 10 March 2011)

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (2010) World Factbook: Syria, online edition, (accessed 10 March 2011)

Central Intelligence Agency (2012) The World Factbook: Sex Ratio, available at (accessed 15 March 2012)

Cotula, L. for the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) Legal Office (2002 [2007]), Gender and Law: Women’s Rights in Agriculture, FAO Legislative Study No. 76, 2002 (revised 2007), Rome. Available at (accessed 3 March 2011)

Freedom House (2010) Freedom in the World Country Reports: Syria, online edition, (accessed 10 March 2011)

Housing and Land Rights Network / HABITAT INTERNATIONAL COALITION, UNITED NATIONS Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004) ‘Women’s right to adequate housing and land. Middle East/North Africa’, Proceedings of the Alexandria consultation, Cairo, the Alexandria consultations. Available at (accessed 10 February 2011)

Human Rights Watch (2010) World Report2010: Syria, New York: Human Rights Watch. (accessed 10 March 2011)

International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), (n.d.), country profile: Syrian Arabic Republic, (accessed 10 March 2011)

Inter-Parliamentary Union (n.d.) ‘SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC: Majlis Al-Chaab (People's Assembly)’, (accessed 10 March 2011)

Japan International Cooperation Agency (2006) ‘Gender Profile of the Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, JICA

Kelly, Sanja and Breslin, Julia, (eds.) (2010) Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, New York, NY: Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield (chapter on Syria – no author name provided)

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2007)’World abortion policies’, data downloaded from (accessed 21 October 2010).

United Nations Development Programme (2011) Human Development Report 2011, available at (accessed 29 February 2012)

UNDP (2010) Human Development Report 2010: Syrian Arab Republic, online edition, (accessed 10 March 2011)

United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (2003) ‘INTEGRATION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN AND THE GENDER PERSPECTIVE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2002/52 Addendum 1 International, regional and national developments in the area of violence against women 1994-2003’, E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1, ECOSOC, New York

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2010) State of the World’s Population 2010. From conflict and crisis to renewal: generations of change, UNFPA, New York

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) (2005) ‘Islam, land & property research series’, Paper 6: Islamic inheritance laws and systems, Nairobi, Kenya. Available at (accessed 10 February 2011)

UNICEF (2007) State of the World’s Children: the Double Dividend of Gender Equality, New York: UNICEF

United Nations Population Division / DESA (2008) World Marriage Data. Available to download at (accessed 11 October 2010).

United Nations Treaty Collection (UNTC) (n.d): Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, countries ratified. 

-          CEDAW: (accessed 10 March 2011)

-          Optional Protocol: (accessed 10 March 2011)

World Bank (n.d.) Data: Syrian Arab Republic, (accessed 10 March 2011)

World Economic Forum (2010) ‘The Global Gender Gap Index 2010 rankings’, (accessed 22 November 2010)

World Economic Forum (2011) The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, available at (accessed 2 March 2012)

Zoepf, C. (2006), Syria’s First Study of Violence Against Women Breaks Taboo, New York Times, New York, NY.

Discrim. Fam. Code Rank 2012: 
Discrim. Fam. Code Value 2012: 
Legal Age of Marriage: 
Early Marriage: 
Parental Authority: 
Rest. Phys. Integrity Rank 2012: 
Rest. Phys. Integrity Value 2012: 
Violence Against Women (laws): 
Female Genital Mutilation: 
Reproductive Integrity: 
Prevalance Of Domestic Violence: 
Son Bias Rank 2012: 
Son Bias Value 2012: 
Missing Women: 
Fertility Preferences: 
Rest. Resources & Ent. Rank 2012: 
Rest. Resources & Ent. Value 2012: 
Access To Land: 
Access To Property Other Than Land: 
Access To Bank Loans And Credit: 
Rest. Civil Liberties Rank 2012: 
Rest. Civil Liberties Value 2012: 
Access To Public Space: 
Political Participation: 
Political Quotas: