BEIRUT — Lebanese women’s rights organizations and a powerful new film are leading the fight towards the repeal of repressive laws that condone marital rape and allow women to be married in their early teens.
On August 16 of this year, the Lebanese Parliament reached the decision to abolish Penal Code Article 522, more commonly referred to as the “rape law,” which exempted a rapist from punishment if he was married to his victim. Not only did this law allow for marital rape to go unpunished, but it encouraged the practice of forcing single women who had been raped to subsequently marry their attacker.
This law has been the source of hot debate for numerous years around Lebanese women’s rights, where some argue the practice of allowing a rapist to marry his victim allows the woman and her family to retain some semblance of dignity, as honor and virginity are essential to a woman’s eligibility for marriage per Islamic jurisprudence.
Highlighting the further torment that this law engendered for rape victims, various human rights organizations in Lebanon have been protesting the law for numerous years. The ABAAD Institution for Gender Equality played a pivotal role in the repeal of the law through a nation-wide advocacy campaign that was organized in partnership with UN Women Lebanon and funded by the Government of Japan and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
The campaign culminated in 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which included organized public demonstrations, advertisements on outdoor billboards with captions reading, “A white dress doesn’t cover up rape,” and public displays of white dresses hanging from nooses.
Ghida Anani, the founder of ABAAD, called the abolition of the law “the first step to changing the mindsets and traditions” that surround Lebanese women and marriage. While the repeal of Article 522 is hailed as an important victory, many see it as the tip of the iceberg in relation to the need to strengthen legislations to protect women and girls from sexual violence and exploitation in Lebanon. This is hopefully the beginning of spurring a change of social norms such that they adequately respond to sexual violations.
Another issue that activists hope to ameliorate is the practice of arranged marriages between teenaged girls and older men. Marriage laws in Lebanon currently allow girls younger than 15 to marry in certain cases, despite child marriage being an official human rights violation per the U.N.
According to Human Rights Watch, girls who marry at a young age face an increased risk of marital rape, domestic violence and exploitation. Young girls who are forced to marry often become pregnant while still in adolescence, which increases the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. The U.N. Population Fund reports that these complications are a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.
A 2016 study by UNICEF found that 6 percent of Lebanese women now aged 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18, a figure which is even higher for older generations. The practice is slowly dying out among the Lebanese, but it remains a problem in rural communities.
A recent study found that female Syrian refugees are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. There are currently over 1 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, and surveys found that 24 percent of girls aged 15 to 17 were married, while 47 percent of married women aged 20 to 24 had been child brides.
Fortunately, a draft law was submitted to the Lebanese Parliament in March 2017 that would raise the legal age of marriage to 18. Because the new law would apply to “all people present in the Lebanese territory,” Syrian refugees as well as Lebanese citizens would be protected; however, the bill is still pending approval.
Lebanese filmmakers Elissa Ayoub and Khalil Dreyfus Zaarour crafted the film Nour to contribute to the many voices calling for a ban of child marriages in Lebanon. Nour tells the story of a 14-year-old Lebanese girl who is forced to abandon her childhood and future dreams when a middle-aged man asks for her hand, and her struggling single mother agrees. A fictional social commentary, the film’s writers took six months interviewing numerous former child brides in order to depict the devastating costs of the practice.
Nour was released in April 2017, coinciding with the increased efforts of Lebanese women’s rights organizations campaigning against existing legislation relating to gender equality. These campaigns have been shown throughout rural Lebanon to raise awareness of the issue where it is needed most.
The Lebanese government has shown significant strides towards implementing legislation that protects women from exploitation and sexual violence, but it is clear that the nation still has a long way to go. Fortunately, Lebanese women’s rights organizations have proven their dedication to the cause and have a track record of success.