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.