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No country for women

In a government defined by paralysis and fierce ideological rifts, it is a bleak and baffling absurdity to witness officials from across the political spectrum agree on this of all things: that when a married woman is forced to submit to sexual acts, whether out of fear or physical coercion, it should not be called rape.

A parliamentary committee stripped the draft law on domestic violence of its original essence after it removed in December a clause that would have criminalized marital rape. Committee member MP Imad Hout explained, “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse.”

The only thing more ludicrous than the effrontery of this statement is the rampant hypocrisy evident in the speeches of various politicians touting the country as a bastion for freedom and democracy in the region while failing to ensure its women are protected from domestic violence. A state that fails to criminalize any form of rape is, by all accounts, a failed democracy.

Feminist organizations and activists have organized a demonstration today to demand the domestic violence law, now on its way to the Lebanese general assembly, be passed as it was initially written. These groups have a monumental task ahead: to counteract the efforts of religious institutions, which have throughout the process asserted heavy influence in diluting the draft law to fit their moral tenets.

Dar al-Fatwa went so far as to defend the sanctity of religion and tradition at the expense of rape victims. Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim authority said in June that criminalizing spousal rape would “have a negative impact on Muslim children… who will see their mother threatening their father with prison, in defiance of patriarchal authority, which will in turn undermine the moral authority” of fathers. This statement would appear to ignore one of the basic premises of religion: compassion and understanding for the value of every human life.

The supposed success of Lebanon’s religious co-existence is rendered obsolete by the country’s utter failure to address human rights, injustice and legally-enforced prejudice in what amounts to a constant tug-of-war between diverse value systems. The chronic, fundamental problem here is that religious codes govern personal status.  Lebanon recognizes 18 official sects, each with its own courts, laws and traditions. This translates into 18 different stances on issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

But there is a common thread: women are expected to subordinate their behavior to a patriarchal system in which men are deemed responsible for their “protection.” It is a widely-accepted social convention that fosters the perception that women are somehow less deserving of rights than men.

Women (and their bodies) often serve as socio-symbolic sites for inscribing the stability and order of a nation. In Lebanon, they are often portrayed as models for pseudo-sexual liberation among the more conservative countries in the region. And yet, a woman’s worth is often defined by her ability to stay a virgin until marriage.  It is a complex cultural expectation that transforms the personal dimensions of female sexuality into a public affair. So women lead double lives; they undergo reconstructive hymen surgery, resort to illegal abortions or only have anal sex with boyfriends, believing their “honor” remains intact.

And as for married women, many are left to suffer silently at the hands of an abusive husband. The monopolistic male grip on moral say-so has translated into a terrible culture of misogyny throughout the body politic. General Security demonstrated this point, in a perverse abuse of authority, when it prevented activists earlier this month from using the word “rape,” a word representing the very issue they’re protesting against, on billboards to publicize today’s event.

While it’s too early to know what, if any kind, of achievements will be gained from this latest demonstration, the push for a draft law on domestic violence marks the first time the issue is even being discussed by the government. For this, our community of hard-working NGOs and activists should be commended. But there is much work left to be done.

A concerted effort must be launched to reach women and men from all social classes. Further, women’s rights advocates must be willing to confront, head-on, the country’s religious establishments. While activists have begun to engage with social media and individual bloggers to spread the message, there is still room for experimenting with more provocative strategies to strengthen their voices. The campaign must tap into widespread participation so it can transform into a critical mass-based movement.

Any person – regardless of race, gender or religion – who faces oppression deserves support and advocacy. By standing up for the hope and freedom of others, we make our own freedoms more secure. Until we recognize this and strive to challenge the forces that legally allow, among other things, women to be raped by their husbands, Lebanon cannot be hailed as a true democracy. In its current incarnation, this is certainly no country for women.

Angie Nassar is a reporter and blogger at NOW Lebanon. You can find her on Twitter @angienassar.

  • Mark

    @Ibrahim If it was a stranger, finding his DNA is a huge step to convict him of rape... When it's her husband, you have to search for signs of struggle which can be easily FAKED! So you either did not understand my answer, or you're simply rude. Research more about how to fake physical wounds, then let me know how hard it is. Again, abused women have all my sympathy but this law will only harm them more... I've seen abuse from both men and women and I'm sure all of you have too; And this law will give dishonest women free ground over their husbands. Would you women want us men to lobby for laws that could put you, our wives in jail?? is this the road we want to take? A lot of countries have taken this road already and they have a 50% divorce rate and growing.

    February 27, 2012

  • Ibrahim Nemer

    @Mark: The DNA will prove the intercourse but not the violence. The violence can be proven on the physical and psychological way... But I assume you have no idea of what you are talking about. To the ones arguing about the harm to children when witnessing "against" their fathers, I wuold like to ask if the harm is not bigger to watch the injustice of their mother beeing raped/beaten by the father? The whole opposition is based in the patriarchal masculine Lebanese society. The idea that the man has the "right" to have his wife any time when he ever likes, is the basis of this attitude. Of course the religious leaders will oppose the bill too! The power of the religious is very based in controlling the private life of their followers. It is time to turn Lebanon into a secular modern country for all its citizen (same rights, same duties!)

    February 26, 2012

  • HIBA

    Unfortunately a big part of this movement is supported by feminists and men-haters... Leila please don't post sexist, and racist comments against arabs or anyone else. And no we are not interested in becoming Lesbians.

    February 23, 2012

  • leila

    I support lesbiansim as an alternative. Men, particularly Arab men, are yucky

    February 23, 2012

  • Mark

    Rape is usually proven by taking out semen from the woman's vagina and though DNA testing, finding out the person behind this crime. But when it's her husband, we know we are going to find it so what else would we look for, signs of struggle? how exactly are you going to prove it? Well you guessed it, it's borderline impossible and easily faked. For those of you who think that most people are kind and honest and will not take advantage of our laws and not necessarily that one, just look around you! whether for monetary, political... or any other reason, the country is built on taking advantage of our laws starting with our beloved politicians. Abused women have my full sympathy, but going to our darak will most definitely put you in more danger... Think about your particular problem deeply and try to solve it differently while protecting yourself and your children. no simplistic general law like that will help a case by case situation.

    February 22, 2012

  • Elsa

    In theory, defending the oppressed is always noble and just... and I was really inspired by this movement at first. But now that I think about it at a deeper level, I don't think that in reality this law will really help most people. Women who are really oppressed should either get a divorce or simply get away from a dangerous husband, going to the police will only fuel his rage so this should not be the first resort and she has to think about it on a case by case situation. at the same time for regular couples out there who had an accident in their lives, I think we should solve the problem and maintain the family by protecting the children and rebuilding the love relationship that brought them together in the first place, instead of fueling the ever increasing war between men and women, and yes there IS an ongoing worlwide war in case u haven't noticed.In the name of protecting the few, don't harm the majority.

    February 22, 2012

  • Elianne

    Hey Anoniem, thanks for the reply. Yes I agree with you and I think 99% of the world would agree with defending abused people whoever they are, and I'm not arguing that at all. I'm just saying that we have live examples of countries where these laws are and have been incorporated for a while, and by comparison rape and abuse and especially pedophilia is at a very high level, not to mention divorce... I'm not sure how these laws are helping women, even if the intentions are good. It's exactly like the war on drugs that only helped putting poor people in jail while keeping the usage rate intact.

    February 22, 2012

  • Finally

    People just love to come up with stuff without thinking it through. So, how exactly will the woman prove she was marital raped? Wouldn't that be easily taken advantage of? If you can come up with a solid proof, then I'm all with that law, otherwise it is just another loophole that will make things worse than they are.

    February 21, 2012

  • Annoniem

    Hi Hiba Sorry, I wasn't trying to interprete Dar al- Fatwa. I just quoted from the story. My point is that women & children must never live in fear of the husband / father. Elianne Divorce is sometimes necessary. We should throw every possible lifeline (the law and all) to abused women & children. As far as I am concerned there isn't enough that is too much to save them. Every city in the world should have special shelters for abused women & children to escape to. I'm sure abused women & children won't be beside themselves with worry if the husband wants a divorce or gets hit by a bus.

    February 20, 2012

  • Elianne

    I really respect the people in this campaign as they have good intentions, however what they expect to accomplish with this law will be far from the reality. I've seen these laws in most western countries where I've lived, and where they encourage children to "rat" out on their parents in schools and family members to do the same, and the fact is that neither rape nor abuse has decreased and I expect it to be worse in Lebanon where the husband will get out with a wasta to hurt his wife. Instead what these laws contribute to is a staggering divorce rate which is common in these very same countries. I would campaign for protection but so much differently!

    February 20, 2012

  • HIBA

    Dear Hiba, your argument is called DENIAL. If you feel a women needs to be inferior so that the father can play a role in his childs life as an example then I SERIOUSLY PITY YOU. If you are happy being inferior to a man and having laws reinforcing that then that is your problem. you be inferior. Just don't try to impose this on the world. What is more harmful to a childs development and can cause SERIOUS MENTAL DAMAGE, is a child witnessing his FATHER BEATING HIS MOTHER. something to think about no? Hiba, try not to live in denial please. You are not inferior, and you don't need to be.

    February 20, 2012

  • Joyce

    are you serious!!!!!!! there is no reason at all to defend such comments, women have the right to be protected, have you any idea about the number of women being raped by their own husbands. intercourse is not a DUTY, nor is it a way to deal with a situation its an act of LOVE that you accept or reject sometimes even with the wife/husband!!! are u seriously using the child sanity argument?!?!?!? can u imagine the impact of an abusive husband on the children? is that the society we are seriously working for? a VIOLENT society?!?!?!?!? who said that every husband accused or rape will be sentenced? their will be investigation the same way it would be with any case or rape, proof should be presented! Rape is rape whoever is committing it. wake up

    February 20, 2012

  • HIBA

    Dear Anoniem, you misinterpreted what Dar al-Fatwa meant. it's not authority over his wife, it's patriarcal authority which is really important for a child to have... Children are really impressed by their fathers at a young age, and to have a weak image of him can create psychological problems, similar to lack of affection from his mother etc. They simply don't want to put a weapon that can strictly be used against husbands, knowing that husbands are not trying to put their wives in jail either, and we all know that women can hurt too, maybe in different ways.

    February 20, 2012

  • friendly advice

    yes my dear, some men do force their women to engage in intercourse without her consent, cause some men don't understand that no means no and that makes it a "RAPE", moreover it happens in the west as it happens in the east, race and religion has nothing to do with it, it's just an excuse, what I'm saying is : isn't it about time that we behave like humans instead of animal behavior? and Isn't it the role of the government to make sure that all its citizens are treated with "respect equally"!

    February 20, 2012

  • `saadeldine almekari

    TO JMZ don't you think this is generalized from the tabloid to the demonstration.lets be honnest with our self.when a woman threat her husband with rape case what would the impact be on their children's first.what will happen to the marriage what about the husband if its false accusation .please think of those issue.as you know in Lebanese society the problems escalate when other people stick their nose into any smell of trouble in order to take side. its the woman duty to prevent such thing and treat the situation in the manner of knowing intercourse is the bond of their marriage also the release of pressure in any situation that occurs before hand.am not defending or accusing anybody but through my life experience I've known people in that kind of situation were FALSE accusation took place.even if the truth came to light you cant turn back the clock.

    February 19, 2012

  • Annoniem

    Dar al-Fatwa criminalizing spousal rape would “have a negative impact on Muslim children… who will see their mother threatening their father with prison, in defiance of patriarchal authority" But a father bullying or abusing his wife has a positive effect on children ...as long as it reinforces his authority? Note 'his authority'. A father has authority over his wife...is she not an adult? Since when does an authoritarian husband or father create a happy family.

    February 19, 2012

  • Noor Voorwalt

    I seriously wonder what men here (religious or otherwise) are afraid of, when they would be unable to "control and / or dominate". If you have such a desire for control or power over women, this can only mean that you have a low self esteem, and that you are afraid for ......... Yes for what???

    February 19, 2012

  • Mark

    Anna correction, even before the middle ages: al jahiliya and during the roman empire even before that, sexuality was more open than it is today... and it's the very reason why religion was embraced in the first place... People were tired with the lack of values and discipline, and soon we will be all over again and history will repeat itself. About the laws being passed, well I think that's it is absurd to treat a husband with rape on the same level that you treat a street worker with HIV raping a married woman with 3 children. Not to mention that you will open the door for law abuse as it's impossible to prove rape when it's her husband (...)

    February 18, 2012

  • JMZ

    Saad, this is not too far. First, your "generalization" is a fallacy. One cannot generalize in a case like this. In this case, the minority (if that's what it is) is marital rape; and thus, we must illegalize it. We must protect if not even the One case this should happen. If this happens at all is a crime, and my friend, this happens more than you would like to admit. This is a step forward for marriage, and for Lebanon. Protect all of God's children, "No means No."

    February 18, 2012

  • `saadeldine almekari

    now that's gone too far to accuse Lebanese people are forcing their wife's to have intercourse its not acceptable but could you make research first in order to find the percentage and the reason behind this kind of accusations before even try to ask the government to make or implement rape law. as we all know the rape is CRIME but for you to go that far in my opinion you only trying to make A NAME FOR YOURSELF NOTHING ELESE ????in general LEBANESE people are well behave and kind also they warship their woman treat them with love and respect .i don't know were you're looking and what kind of people you dealing with

    February 18, 2012

  • Alexb

    For women to have equal rights in Muslim dominated areas you will have to change the tenants of Islam. Will that happen? Didn't think so.

    February 18, 2012

  • Anna

    Angie! I just love your article! A woman' s value is not in the kitchen or her virginity! We are first human beings like men and we are their equals! If a man wants to marry a virgin let him ask himself is he going into this marriage as a virgin.......of course not! Accordingly he doesn't have the right to ask her to be a virgin!!!! By the way what is a virgin? Are we soooooooo stupid to put a woman's worth only in her virginity!!!! Grow up we live in the 21 st century and not in the middle ages!

    February 18, 2012