DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A young Syrian woman hides a secret from all but her family and closest friends, knowing that within days she will have to share it with the man she hopes to wed.
Late last year the 32-year-old woman was seized by security forces in the heart of Damascus and held for several weeks after trying to deliver supplies to civilians trapped in rebel-held areas of the Syrian capital.
Now free, she is hoping to put the ordeal behind her and get married, and has started meeting potential suitors.
But Syria’s three-year-old conflict intrudes in all walks of life. The young woman and her mother, fearing that news of her arrest might put those suitors off, do not know how to break the news to a future husband.
“We have to tell him about my detention before or during the next visit. It’s the right thing to do,” says the woman, who asked to be identified only as Mai, to protect her identity.
Her mother agrees, but fears that the stigma of detention might affect her daughter’s prospects.
“I just feel awkward about it,” says the mother. “My daughter was in detention. That isn’t a statement I ever thought would come out of my mouth.”
It is not just the perennial fear of all Syrians that, once they come to the attention of the ubiquitous security forces, they - and anyone close to them - could be a marked person.
Activists and international rights groups have documented systematic abuse inside Syrian detention centers, with particular humiliation aimed at female detainees who are often forced to strip to their undergarments during interrogation sessions, at times enduring physical and sexual violence.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 10 Syrian women last year who had been detained - eight of them said they were abused or tortured while they were held.
Although men also suffer abuse in detention, the experience carries additional shame for women, particularly because of the taboo of sexual abuse by male interrogators.
“Isn’t he going to wonder if Mai had been, you know, God forbid, assaulted? Or forced to strip nude or something?” said Mai’s sister, referring to the most promising suitor.
Mai, a small, delicate looking woman, who sits upright and maintains intense eye contact as she speaks, says she was neither sexually nor physically assaulted.
Speaking in the living room of the modest east Damascus home where she meets her suitors, she says she endured “just a couple of interrogation sessions, and they used harsh words before they sent me back to the cell and seemed to forget about me”.
But anxious friends and family are unconvinced and, as her sister says, are waiting for Mai “to open up and tell us all that has happened to her”.
“When she first returned to us, I made an excuse to peek in on her in the shower, but she had no marks on her body. She seemed healthy,” she said. “She’s been in good spirits. We’re so grateful, but I still wonder if she’s suffering in silence.”
Nineteen-year-old Batoul has her own set of war-related challenges to overcome before choosing one of the numerous suiters knocking on her door.
A year ago she fled fighting in Aleppo without her parents and siblings and came to Damascus to live with her grandmother.
Intelligent and attractive, Batoul hails from a middle class family that would normally have carefully vetted all marriage prospects. Now displaced and cut off from her Aleppo community, Batoul has attracted opportunist suitors.
“I think they see a young woman with broken wings, given that she’s displaced and away from her family, and they think they can exploit her situation,” Batoul’s grandmother lamented.
She says she has turned away many suitors after discovering they lied or misled her, behavior that would have been difficult to pull off in Aleppo’s pre-war community.
But in Damascus, there was the one who failed to mention he is divorced with a child, and another who lied about his age, shaving off five years to make himself more suitable.
One suitor promised Batoul “money and houses in return for a secret marriage” - in other words, an illicit affair.
A few suitors passed muster, only to end up offering Batoul “an insultingly low” dowry. “We know times are hard on everyone, and Batoul will never get the dowry she would have in the good days before the war,” said her grandmother.
“But I get the sense that people offer an even lower dowry still because they think she’s desperate because she’s displaced and they want to exploit that. That’s what upsets me,” she said in her one bedroom apartment in the Rukneddine district of Damascus.
In Islamic tradition, the groom pays a dowry to the bride. In Syria, the dowry comes in jewelry and cash, which the bride often uses to buy a new wardrobe and a wedding gown.
The groom is responsible for providing housing and all household related expenses like furniture and appliances, which these days amount to a hefty sum.
For Mohanad, 25, the fact that his bride’s family accepted his modest dowry offer is a blessing.
“We offered 100,000 pounds ($800), and I know if it weren’t for the war, they’d expect no less than five times as much,” said Mohanad, who works in a computer hardware dealership that has seen business plummet due to the war.
“Her father told me he sympathized because he knows how bad things are. I‘m barely able to prepare my apartment for the bride. A made-in-China washing machine will cost me 60,000 SP - like a three months’ salary.”
Yet Mohanad knows he is among the lucky young men in Syria today. Unlike so many who have fled Syria to avoid their mandatory military service, he is exempt because he is an only son, and by law he can not be compelled to serve.
Also, he inherited a modest apartment that he can move into with his bride, unlike many Syrians whose homes and assets have been destroyed in the war.
As for Mai, she is gearing up to reveal her secret to her suitor. “It will be a test for him,” she says. “If he walks away because of my former detention, then he’s weak and probably a government loyalist. If he sticks with me, then he’s all right.”
Her mother is not so sure. “I just want her married already. I want her to stay out of trouble.”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan