BEIRUT, Mar 5 2012 (IPS) – Nour’s husband returned to Lebanon after two years of working abroad a changed person. The man she had loved was distant, cold and uncommunicative. Then, two weeks after his homecoming, he attacked Nour while she slept, raping her with such ferocity that he caused a fissure.
“When he finished I felt something coming out of me,” she says. As she writhed on the floor in agony, her husband looked on in silence. “After an hour he took me to a doctor. The doctor is his friend and refused to examine me. He prescribed me medication for the bleeding, which took three days to stop.”
It took Nour a week to recover but the psychological pain remains. “He killed my spirit, my body and my femininity,” she says quietly.
In an effort to protect women like Nour from abusive partners, a coalition of civil society organisations has spent the last five years drafting a law criminalising mental, physical and sexual abuse. The bill was approved by the Council of Ministers in April 2010 and is expected to be passed by parliament within the coming days. However, campaigners warn that the parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing the law has made so many amendments that they have rendered it useless.
The law, as drafted by the coalition, would have appointed public prosecutors to investigate incidences of violence, established special units within the Lebanese police force to respond to family violence cases, obliged medical personnel to report cases in which they treated women bearing signs of abuse, and empowered women and their children to seek restraining orders against their abusers. For the first time in Lebanese law, it outlined the different types of abuse women face, and designated clear punishments for offenders.
But a committee of eight parliamentarians, only one of whom is a woman, have made a number of radical amendments, removing marital rape, and economic and psychological violence from the bill entirely, and introducing a new article that grants religious bodies priority over civil law to oversee protection.
Leaked committee documents also show that the clause establishing a specialised police force for domestic violence cases was deleted and the bill’s focus on women was watered down to include the elderly, men and children.
In an interview with the Daily Star newspaper in December, committee member Imad Al-Hout hinted at the changes to come by denying the existence of marital rape. “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse,” he was reported as saying.
The amendments have left the law “empty” and its approval would represent a major defeat for women, says Maya al-Ammar of KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, the non-governmental organisation that spearheaded efforts to draft the law. In particular, the removal of marital rape indicated a lack of understanding by the committee about the types of violence experienced by women, says Ammar.
“If they don’t see that rape is rape, then I don’t know how they can study a law related to gender-based violence seriously,” she tells IPS. The coalition has had some dialogue with the committee but its members are reportedly keen to avoid debate until the law passes. Calls to committee members made by IPS went unanswered.
Statistics are difficult to come by in Lebanon, particularly on such a highly stigmatised topic as domestic violence, but a tally of reported death tolls suggests one woman is killed on average each month by a male partner, according to KAFA. Lebanon has a population of four million.
At least one-third of women in Lebanon have experienced some form of gender-based violence, says Dr. Jinan Usta, a family medicine doctor at the American University of Beirut Hospital, and researcher on domestic violence. Considered a private family matter, domestic violence remains shrouded in secrecy, and women face considerable barriers leaving abusive relationships. Women who seek assistance from the police or courts often report being told to return home, meaning few even bother to report abuse.
The amendments made by the committee seem to be aimed at placating Lebanon’s main religious authorities, which have all vigorously opposed the law. As with other issues relating to personal status, Lebanon’s 15 religious courts currently have jurisdiction over cases of domestic violence and are keen to maintain that power.
In June 2011, the country’s top Sunni and Shia bodies rejected the bill as a Western plot to undermine the Arab family. Campaigners, however, find the charge offensive. “Violence is not an Arab tradition,” says Dr. Usta.
Zeina Zaatari, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Global Fund for Women, agrees that religion is being used to cover deep-seated patriarchal attitudes towards women.
“The domestic violence bill presents a form of legal protection for women and children residing in a particular household,” says Zaatari. “I do not see in that any contradiction with Muslim values, unless we are saying that Muslim values support violence against women; or unless we are saying that women are so simple minded and vicious that they would go and appeal to the courts just to spite their husbands. If we value women’s lives, which all faiths should, then we would support a law that protects them.”
The need for a civil law is especially critical as religious courts have demonstrated they are unwilling to assist women facing family violence, says Nadine Mouawad of the grassroots feminist collective Nasawiya, which has been active in lobbying for the adoption of the draft law.
“Across all confessions, the priority of religious courts is to advocate for reconciliation, which often means brushing over the women’s experience of violence. They have been inadequate in offering women shelter, separation rights, financial support, and other important elements of protection.” The amendment to refer cases of domestic violence back to the religious courts therefore “defeats the purpose of the new law,” she says.
Despite the bleak outlook, campaigners have vowed to keep up the pressure on the government in the coming weeks with media campaigns, protests and publicity stunts. If the amended law is approved, says Ammar, it will have “succeeded in silencing the voices of women.”
Nour, meanwhile, had this message for the parliamentary committee: “Where is the family that should be preserved? If the mother is finished, then the whole family is finished and you will simply be the one who contributed to its destruction.”