No to Marital Rape: One Day and an Ongoing Struggle
Published Thursday, November 10, 2011
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are a sensitive topic to talk about. They violate social taboos including much praised cultural values of honour and privacy.
Stories of marital rape and sexual abuse may be particularly difficult to share by abused women. That’s not only because of their own feelings of shame, guilt and anger, but also because women know that, should they say anything, they most likely will not get the support they need, specially in certain social contexts that exist in parts of the Middle East.
Women's advocacy organizations will be hosting an event in Beirut on 15 November to address these concerns. The event is part of the third ODOS (One Day One Struggle- a day dedicated to highlighting sexuality issues in what organizers describe as Muslim societies). The Beirut event will focus on the crime of marital rape to highlight the obstacles faced after the failure to pass a draft law on family violence this year.
The event will include an interactive theater performance, followed by an open discussion and a platform to express views on the subject via dancing, poetry, singing, storytelling or other means.
Efforts to combat sexual abuse via these campaigns is confronted with the legal obstacles that also have to be overcome. The Lebanese Criminal Code and the interpretation of the Lebanese Constitution is in blatant violation of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that Lebanon has ratified in 1997. Lebanese codes fail to respect, protect and fulfil women’s human rights by establishing laws that are clearly discriminatory or remain silent on important women’s issues.
The interpretation of article 14 of the Lebanese Constitution which guarantees the privacy and even sanctity of the private home has led public authorities to be reluctant in intervening in affairs of domestic violence, let alone sexual domestic violence. The authorities fail to adequately protect abused women.
A law criminalising violence against women has yet to be voted on, while the code
applies different penalties to men and women with regards to adultery (articles 478, 488 and 489 of the criminal code): 3 months to 2 years for a woman whereas a man will only be tried for adultery if he has extra-marital sex in the conjugal home or has a long-term extra-marital relationship. Even if he actually were tried, his sentence would only be for a year at most.
The issue of rape within the Lebanese Criminal Code shows another dreadful example of how Lebanon is failing when it comes to gender equality and the respect of women’s human rights.
Articles 503 and 504 of the code allow for marital rape, or rather, do not even consider it as rape (i.e forced sex) while article 522, stipulates that the state will not prosecute a rapist and will nullify his conviction if the rapist marries his victim. Lebanon is thus not only in violation of the CEDAW, but also of the international Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995, which considers marital rape as one of the elements encompassed by the definition of violence against women.
International bodies have repeatedly called on Lebanon to amend its discriminatory laws, with limited success. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has urged Lebanon to change its laws with regards to violence against women and rape:
‘The Committee calls upon the State party to amend, without delay, applicable provisions in the Penal Code to ensure that perpetrators of honour crimes are not exonerated, that marital rape is criminalized and that marriage to the victim does not exempt a sexual offender from punishment’
More recently, in November 2010, many states part of the Working Group on the Universal Peer Review (UPR) within the Human Rights Council urged Lebanon to finally pass the bill on violence against women, taking into account the reports and material submitted before the session by various representatives of Lebanese civil society, such as the Arab NGO Network for Development or the Rassemblement Democratique pour la Femme Libanaise, gathered together under the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations in Lebanon.
In their submissions, civil society organizations explicitly made the recommendations that Lebanon ‘amend Lebanese Penal Code articles that discriminate against women to ensure conformity with CEDAW and international standards and secure gender equality’ giving the article pertaining to marital rape as an example of such discriminatory articles.
These recommended legal reforms are very important in the case of marital rape. The lack of legal recognition prevents society to see marital rape for what it is: a rape, a sexual abuse of a woman’s body that needs to be criminalized.
Many women endure the assaults of their husbands and feel violated by them, but find it hard to put their experiences into words and to seek support, as the mere concept of marital rape doesn’t officially exist.
The law, although a crucial part of the problem, isn’t however the only one to blame. Patriarchal beliefs and values, reinforced by the attitude of religious leaders, hinder the advancement of women’s human rights in general and the criminalization of marital rape in particular.
It is no wonder that the bill on domestic violence is not passing in Lebanon mainly because of the request to criminalize marital rape. If there’s a topic on which all Lebanese religious leaders agree, it is the tremendous need to ‘keep the institution of the Family’, and not ‘question and challenge the authority of the Father.’
The confessional nature of Lebanon’s political and administrative apparatus, with its absence of personal status civil laws and courts, allows religious judges and beliefs to take precedence over women’s rights.
Clerics of all sects will thus generally advise abused women to be patient, and not do anything to upset their husbands. They will also advise them not to refuse the husband sex, which is a wife’s duty.
Refusing to have sex is hence sometimes presented as sinful by religious leaders, making the abused women even more vulnerable and isolated. To maintain the status quo of gender inequality, religious leaders will use all kinds of excuses and so-called religious interpretations. In reality, religions have actually little to do with these stances, and they therefore serve more the cause of patriarchy and the need to keep women in a lower, dependent position than the cause of pure religion.
These beliefs and values have been so integrated by women themselves that many of them consider some violence against women as justifiable, and that refusing to have sex with one’s husband is one of the reasons justifying ill treatment.
MP Elie Keyrouz, of Bcharre, has now proposed a law criminalizing marital rape and cancelling Article 522 of the criminal code. Civil society organisations carry on pushing for the adoption and implementation of the family violence bill, and have started campaigning for the criminalisation of marital rape.
The Lebanese women’s movement has worked and is currently working hard to shift mentalities and laws, so far with growing success. Indeed, article 562 of the criminal code that allowed mitigated sentences for perpetrators of honor crimes had been amended the first time back in 1999 following pressure from feminist organisations, and has now recently been annulled in August 2011.
Honour crimes will then be judged for what they are, crimes, just as marital rape should be judged for what it is, rape.
Paola Salwan Daher is a researcher and member of Nasawiya feminist collective in Lebanon.