On the surface, it would seem that passing a law that criminalizes violence perpetrated against women by family members would be straightforward in a diverse, and seemingly progressive country such as Lebanon. But the country’s diversity is one of the main hindrances to bringing it in line with international norms regarding women’s rights.
Stalling by elected officials tasked with ratifying such a law is largely being blamed on sustained pressure from religious officials. The supreme Sunni Muslim authority in Lebanon, Dar El Fatwa, last summer issued a statement in response to a new draft law addressing domestic violence, claiming the proposal was intended to “break up the family similar to Western ways, which are foreign to our society and values.” Dar El Fatwa, as well as leading Shia religious figures in Lebanon, fear that putting the power to prosecute men for spousal abuse into the hands of the government would undermine the authority of Sharia courts in dealing with family matters. And in a country that is constitutionally divided along sectarian lines, such declarations directly affect the political process.
The draft law took some three years to create, using feedback from NGOs, human rights groups, lawyers, judges, doctors and members of the Internal Security Forces. After it was approved in 2010 under the government of then Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the draft was passed on to a parliamentary subcommittee for final approval. Hariri’s government fell in January 2011 and the committee, originally comprised of nine members, dropped to eight after one was named Minister of Public Health in the new cabinet of current PM Najib Mikati.
Zoya Rouhana, director of KAFA, a Lebanese women’s rights NGO that helped draft the law, says outside groups are being kept in the dark and that the ratification process is far from transparent. “We don’t really know what they are doing besides occasionally issuing some unofficial statements.” She adds that KAFA has repeatedly requested meetings with members of the committee but has yet to receive a response.
There are many laws here that discriminate against women and make them further subordinate to men - Zoya Rouhana of KAFA, a Lebanese women’s rights NGO
Rouhana says that through outside sources she has determined that the committee is down to debating “three or four [remaining] issues.” She fears that even if women are given greater legal protection, that the government will in turn give more rights to men, effectively bolstering the status quo. “There are many laws here that discriminate against women and make them further subordinate to men. This is very clear,” she says.
According to the April 2010 draft of the Bill for the Protection of Women Against Family Violence, the term “family violence” is defined as follows:
Family violence includes every act of violence based on gender, committed by one of the family members, the consequences of which cause or may cause harm or suffering to the female, whether physical, psychological, sexual and economical. It also encompasses the threat to commit such acts or to deprive her of freedom, and whether this takes place within or outside the family home.
Nay El Rahi, an activist with Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya, says that the provision criminalizing marital rape is “the soul of the law.” But as it stands, the parliamentary committee tasked with ratifying the law has already removed three key provisions that would criminalize economic and psychological abuse against a spouse, and marital rape.
This Saturday, Nasawiya is staging a march ”against Lebanon’s backwards rape laws” from the Ministry of Interior to the Lebanese parliament in downtown Beirut. For the past few weeks El Rahi and other volunteers have been busy mobilizing support from the group’s Beirut headquarters.
El Rahi adds, ”What we want to make clear is that there is this ongoing propaganda that Lebanon is progressive and Lebanese women are liberated and they can do whatever they want. When people compare Lebanon to the rest of the Middle East they don’t realize that what they see on television is only what the government wants to sell. [The government] uses this image as a tool to attract tourists.”
All forms of violence against women are facilitated by the law – Nay El Rahi, an activist with the Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya
“But in terms of laws that respect the citizenship of women in this country, these do not exist. All forms of violence against women are facilitated by the law. Many times the government and the law are facilitating these crimes,” says El Rahi.
A media campaign launched by KAFA in late December featured television ads naming the parliamentary committee members and asking them not to water down the proposed legislation. According to a recent report in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, the 35-second ads were pulled from television stations within days under political pressure, most notably from Future TV, considered a Hariri family mouthpiece. Repeated attempts by VOA to contact two of the committee’s members, Future Movement MP Samir Jisr and Change and Reform Bloc MP Ghassan Moukheiber, for comment were unsuccessful.
The committee is on course to finish deliberations over the final three articles of the draft law early next week. “We are waiting to see if what they come up with can even be considered a law,” Rouhana says. Both she and El Rahi say they won’t support a law that is significantly diluted and without the provisions criminalizing economic abuse, psychological abuse and marital rape.
As Rouhana puts it, “Rape is rape, regardless of who commits it.”
Jeff is a Beirut-based journalist, where he primarily covers the Levant. He's lived and worked in the Middle East and North Africa, from Iraq to Egypt and the Gulf.