Raising fists and voices

Lebanese women's struggle to end violence

Nasawiya end rape protestPatrick Abi Salloum, at the January 14 demonstration

“I don’t believe in a country where rapists are seen as suitable husbands”

That was one of the banners you would have seen held up by activists should you have walked on the streets of Beirut on January 14 when the Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya organised the march to Fight Rape.

On this day, several hundred demonstrators took to the streets to denounce the highly discriminatory laws that govern women in Lebanon. The patriarchal country fails its reputation of liberalism and openness when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality. Not only are gendered societal beliefs and values deeply entrenched in the majority of the population, but laws also condone these beliefs and perpetuate them.

For example, the societal belief that a woman who dresses in a particular way and walks by herself at night is “asking to be raped” is somewhat confirmed by the inaction of public powers in making the streets safer by increasing lightning and allowing women to carry pepper spray cans. There is also the commonly held belief that marital rape does not exist: it is a wife’s duty to have sex with her husband. This is an idea that transcends religious and economic divides and leads women to suffering in silence, finding their mouths shut by society and laws.

Discriminatory laws within the Lebanese judicial realm are not a rare occurrence, and this inequity happens at all stages of a woman’s life, even within the most private parts. They infiltrate all fields of law: with regards to economic rights, social security regimes apply a double standard as women are never considered the head of household, which makes coverage difficult for families. In terms of civil laws, Lebanon still does not grant women citizens the right to pass their nationality on to their husbands and children, making women in effect second class citizens. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are taboo subjects that are being governed by patriarchal values and religious rules.

Rape, as defined by articles 503 and 504 of the Lebanese criminal code, is a forced sexual intercourse perpetrated by a man on a woman who is not his wife. Ergo, being forced by your husband to have sex does not fall under the “rape” label. Rather, the husband who rapes is seen as a Man, with a capital M, taking only what is considered to be rightfully his.

And even when a man gets convicted of rape, there is a way for him to escape punishment. As per article 522 of the same Lebanese Criminal Code, in case he marries the victim, he will not serve his sentence and all prosecution will be halted against him. Besides, there is no violence against women law specifically targeting perpetrators of gender based violence. So, several different offences such as verbal and psychological abuse, and harassment go unpunished and unrecognised.

This set of laws is upheld and supported by the Lebanese sectarian system that puts all civil powers in the hands of religious authorities. Too satisfied with the power and control they are being granted over people’s lives and women’s mental health and bodies, upholders of this system are not willing to relinquish said power by allowing the government to pass a civil bill on violence against women.

There is a bill, prepared by a collective of 41 civil society organisations, women’s rights activists and lawyers, which was approved by a the Council of Ministers in April 2010, but it is currently at a standstill, waiting to be passed and adopted by parliament. The reason behind this freeze is the outcry that the law caused with religious authorities, who claim that religious texts are enough to protect women from violence and abuse. They refuse to have a civil law superseding their power. Indeed, the criminalisation of marital rape particularly irk religious authorities who help maintain the sacrosanct patriarchy in the household: keeping women in a lesser position, maintaining the belief that having sex is a duty, not the result of a mutual desire.

To bypass these obstacles, there are MPs who have tried to put forward a motion to pass a law that would solely criminalise marital rape and cancel article 522 of the criminal code. While all efforts aimed at gender equality are to be saluted, it is paramount that we maintain a holistic take and not start picking apart a law that is much needed in its entirety. Besides, to make matters worse, a recent article published in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, highlighted the sad fact that many MPs in charge of drafting the new anti-violence law were said to have sexually harassed women who work with them. How can we expect a proper push for a law that would outlaw its makers?

By Nadim Kamel taken at the January 14 demonstration

Faced with this bleak picture, activists decided that it was time to upscale mobilisation. Leading up to the January march, they deployed themselves all over Lebanon, spreading the message through radio ads, flyers, stencils and posters, newspapers articles in Arabic, English and French, TV interviews, and a quite effective social media campaign. This mobilisation was also relayed by ongoing campaigns such as the campaign against sexual harassment The Adventures of Salwa. Before the march, activists toured Beirut in a bus, disseminating information about sexual harassment in Lebanon and demonstrating to passers-by what it feels like to be harassed on the streets of your own city — by doing the same thing to them — which sparked up a lot of debates.

The demonstration was special in many ways, first and foremost in terms of numbers. It has been a while since Beirut saw so many people from different walks of life unite under the banner of human rights and justice: the crowd was very diverse in terms of gender, age groups and backgrounds. This diversity shows public powers that women’s rights are a subject of concern to many Lebanese citizens who are frustrated by the lack of commitment from a government that already deprives them many social rights. With never-ending energy, the organisers carried the wave of people from Sanayeh in Hamra to Riad El Solh in front of the Grand Serail, next to the parliament.

The march carried many messages: demonstrators not only want to change laws, they want to change mentalities by breaking the social taboos, prejudices and mental barriers that preventing women from fully enjoying their rights. This aim was exemplified by several demonstrators from Nasawiya who broke, not only once but twice, the security barriers set up around the parliament building, in a bid to reclaim the streets of their own city.

The demonstration was not a march for the sake of marching. Follow-up activities are currently being discussed and pressure will continuously be put on public powers. To those who argue that our demands are imported from the West and reject them on that basis, the answer is simple: We do not wait for any Eastern or Western power to teach us what dignity and justice is. They come with the human condition and we intend to keep up our fight until we are granted what is ours. Our rights.

Initially published on Paola’s blog Cafe Thawra.

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