content warning: abuse, rape, suicide
Last April, on Beirut’s seaside promenade, wedding dresses billowed in the wind. The dresses were torn, stained, and wrinkled. Artist and activist Mireille Honein had hung each dress from a noose. Nearby, billboards showed similar gowns—tattered and bloodied, reading, “A white dress does not cover rape.”
Abaad, a women’s advocacy group based in Lebanon, has been using these installations to protest laws across the region that provide a way out of conviction for men accused of rape: perpetrators marrying their victim. Before the repeal of one such code in Lebanon this past August, the law stated that in the event of any “offense against honor,” (which included rape, kidnapping and seduction), the perpetrator evaded all legal consequences if he married the victim. In the case of a divorce ruling in favor of the woman within the first three to five years, he would face punishment.
“If a woman is raped or has sex before marriage, the future is tough,” Fadi Zaghmout, a Jordanian author, told the New York Times. “Few men here have the mentality of marrying a woman who is not a virgin,” she added. Proponents of these laws frame the post-rape marriage as a mode of protecting the victim’s honor against the stigma of sexual relations out of wedlock. Women feel pressure from their families to follow through with these marriages, facing the possibility of losing their communities.
“Lebanese laws are mainly inspired by French law and article 522 is not exception. Article 522 dates back to January 1943, during the last months of the French mandate, just before [Lebanese] independence,” Mardam Bey of Abaad wrote in an email to Middle East Eye. Many oppressive laws found in the Middle East and North Africa, including those forbidding homosexuality, have their roots in European colonialism. Laws like Article 522 became globally accepted as a result of their presence in Article 357 of the French Napoleonic Code of 1810: “In case the seducer shall have married the girl whom he has stolen, he can only be prosecuted, upon the complaint of those persons who, by the Code Napoleon, have the right of requiring such marriage to be declared void; and he can only be condemned when the marriage has been declared void.” The Ottoman Empire adopted a similar law, based on the French code, and the British enforced these laws during its own colonial rule in the region.
These laws have remained in the penal codes of countries across the Middle East and North Africa as they gained independence, fueled by the remnants of colonialist misogyny that suggest that these matrimonies somehow protect the victim, made unmarriageable by her abuser. A poll distributed by Abaad reported that only one percent of the population knew the law existed. This might explain how a law “from the stone age” might remain in place, as Jean Oghassabian, Lebanon’s minister for women’s affairs, told Agence France Presse. 81 percent of those polled agreed the law was unjust to the victim, demonstrating that rape laws do not reflect the attitudes of most people in Lebanon.
In spite of this, women like Basma Mohamed Latifa, who lived in a small town in southern Lebanon, faced Article 522’s harsh consequences. “Women and girls do not have the choice of marrying or not marrying their rapist in most cases,” wrote Wynne from Donor Direct Action to the Independent. Women face the pressures of society or “[they] are kidnapped or forced into it in some way,” he added. According to the New York Times, Latifa agreed to marry her rapist and did not file charges. When she decided to divorce him as a result of continued physical abuse, she revoked his legal liberty. He retaliated by murdering her at age 22. Many proponents of rape laws would consider this an honor crime, reported the New Arab.
Wynne cited Tunisia, which recently introduced 43 articles of legislation that specifically address violence against women and girls, as having made strides for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, just last year, in accordance with Article 227, a man in his 20s legally married his 13-year-old step-sister after he forcibly impregnated her. Tunisia has a law against sex with minors under 18—but, because of the exception, the girl was deemed capable of consenting to sex with her step-brother, as reported by the UK Independent. Following national controversy spurred by the event, the child protection office in the country ended the marriage. Tunisia removed the provisions that allowed men to avoid conviction by marrying their victim in July. Article 277 now lays out harsher convictions for rapists including a 20-year sentence or life in prison if the assault involved a weapon. The amendments also raised the legal age of consent from 13 to 16.
Morocco addressed its own similar law, Article 475, only after the death of 16-year-old Amina Filali, according to HuffPost. Filali had been raped on the streets of Larache, and her family urged her to comply with the suggestion of marriage with her assailant following the attack. Her rapist continued to abuse her, driving her to commit suicide. A Facebook page called “We are all Amina Filali” aided in raising awareness and the official amendment of the law in January. Activists across the country pressured the government to repeal the law that, as Fouzia Assouli, President of the Democratic League for Women’s rights, told the BBC, “is an embarrassment to Morocco’s international image of modernity and democracy.”
Jordan repealed its similar law, Article 308, in April. The Ministry of Justice reported 159 rapists who used this law to their advantage. Tunisia and Egypt have repealed their similar laws in the past decade. This indicates an increased focus on women’s rights in the Middle East, wrote Wynne. “It’s the first step to changing the mindset and traditions,” said Ghida Anani, founder and director of Abaad. “For us it’s the start. Now the awareness and behavioral campaign will start to make women aware that it’s no longer an option: [rapists] cannot escape punishment.”
In spite of recent repeals and amendments, conversation around the issue has not ceased. “We hope [the repeals] continue but as we often see you cannot take anything for granted and backtracking can and does also occur,” Wynne wrote. Last November in Turkey, people organized massive protests against introducing a “marry your rapist” law. “It is about giving normality to young women who have been married underage due to cultural norms,” a female member of Turkey’s parliament who supported the bill told the BBC. While the bill did not pass, the fact that Turkey had this conversation so recently shows the extent to which a longstanding history of sexist legislation, with its roots in colonialism, persists in the Middle East and North Africa.
In many countries, including Kuwait, Libya, and Syria, similar laws remain. France, the country primarily responsible for introducing this legislation to the Middle East and North Africa, maintained its own similar law until 1994. Italy’s Article 544 encouraged marriage in cases of sexual violence to release the man from penalty and restore the woman’s honor. Franca Viola famously refused to marry her abuser in the 1960s, evoking national debate. It was not until 1981 that Italy finally repealed the law.
In 2017, laws developed by colonialist men in the 1940s, from the French in Lebanon to the British in Palestine, still decide the future of women and girls in the Middle East. Rape itself often deals emotional repercussions and trauma—and across the Middle East and North Africa, this trauma has legal repercussions for the daily lives of victims.
Due to political and religious influences, women in the Middle East and North Africa remain vulnerable to the type of abuse enabled by rape laws. “You can have the most beautiful laws, but if you don’t change the culture, then nothing will change,” Khadija Moalla, a Tunisian human rights lawyer, told the New York Times. Abaad continues to make efforts to continue to change attitudes about sex and gender across Lebanon, through initiatives that range from peer counseling, to safe spaces for women, to events that raise awareness about gender issues, including child marriage. Other organization, like the United Nations and the Human Rights Watch, have called for action across the region.
In spite of changes in legislation, women often do not have access to sex education, or even opportunities to talk about sex, according to the New York Times. In Lebanon, for example, sex education was briefly introduced to school curriculums but, due to concern on the part of religious groups, was removed in 1995. “The youth in Lebanon are growing up in a society where religion and taboo dominate, and where their family will dismiss discussions about sex, or sex education, or even feelings,” Ayman Assi, president of Marsa, a sexual health clinic in Lebanon, told the Daily Star. “Even if you go to the doctor you can’t talk about your sexual life unless you are married.”
“We have to continue the fight,” Wynne wrote. He suggests that in order to take action, advocates need to focus on getting funds to women’s advocacy groups in the Middle East. Today, rape victims in Lebanon and throughout the region may not face a lifetime of abuse—however, stigmatization and shame around sex remains. Addressing the global attitudes that enabled this legislature requires more than a parliamentary vote.
MARLY TOLEDANO B’20 encourages you to visit the advocacy website of Abaad at http://www.abaadmena.org/.