Raising Fists and Voices: Lebanese Women’s Struggle to End Violence

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 “I don’t believe in a country that turns rapists into suitable husbands”.
Those were the kind of banners you could have seen being held by activists should you have walked on the streets of Beirut on January the 14th during the March to Fight Rape organized by Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya.
On this day, about a thousand demonstrators took to the streets to denounce the highly discriminatory laws that govern the situation of women in Lebanon.
Indeed, Lebanon, a patriarchal country, fails its reputation of liberalism and openness when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality. Indeed, not only are societal beliefs and values with regards to gender deeply entrenched in the majority of the population, but laws 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 public powers inaction when it comes to make Lebanese streets safer for women by lightning municipalities and allowing women to carry pepper spray cans for example. Another shocking example is the commonly held belief that it is a wifely duty to have sex with one’s husband, and that marital rape does not exist. This very harmful belief, which transcends religious and economic divides, leads to women suffering in silence, most of the times their mouth shut by society and laws.
Discriminatory laws within the Lebanese judicial realm are not a rare occurrence, and this discrimination happens at all stages of a woman’s life, even within the most private parts of her life.
Indeed, 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 doesn’t fall under the “rape” label, and said husband is seen as a Man, capital M, taking what is considered by society to be rightfully his, instead of the rapist he is for all intents and purposes. Even if a man is convicted of rape, he will not serve his sentence and all prosecution will be halted against him if he marries his victim, as per article 522 of the same (shameful) Lebanese Criminal Code. Besides, there is no Violence Against Women law specifically targeting perpetrators of gender based violence, hence several different offences such as verbal and psychological abuse and harassment go unpunished and unrecognized.
This set of laws is being upheld and supported by the Lebanese sectarian’s system that puts all civil powers in the hands of religious authorities who, too satisfied with the amount of power and control they are being granted over people’s lives and women’s mental health and body, are not willing to relinquish said power by allowing the government to pass a civil Bill on Violence Against Women. The Bill, which has been prepared by a collective of 41 civil society organizations, including women’s rights activists, lawyers and civil society organizations, has been approved by a Council of Ministers in April 2010 but is currently at a standstill, waiting to be passed and adopted by the Parliament. The reason behind this freeze of the Gender Equality process in Lebanon is to be found in the outcry that the law caused within religious authorities who consider that religious texts protect women from violence and abuse and should govern people’s relationships and that no other law is needed, especially not a civil law that would supersede their power. The criminalization of marital rape contained in the law particularly irked religious authorities who help maintain the sacrosanct patriarchal authority in the household, keeping women in a lesser position, maintaining the belief that having sex with one’s husband is a duty and not the result of a mutual desire.
To bypass these obstacles, some MPs (Keyrouz and Geagea) have tried putting forward a motion to pass a law solely criminalizing marital rape and cancelling article 522 of the criminal code. While all efforts aimed at gender equality are to be saluted, it is paramount that we pay attention to maintain a holistic take on our actions and not to start picking apart a law that is much needed in it entirety and integrity.
Faced with this bleak picture, activists have decided that it was time to upscale mobilization and have deployed themselves all over Lebanon, through radio ads, stenciling and posters, newspapers articles in Arabic, English and French, TV interviews, distribution of flyers and a quite effective social media campaign leading to the big demonstration that took place on January the 14th.
This demonstration was special in many ways: first and foremost, in terms of numbers. It had been a while since Beirut had seen so many people from so many different walks of life unite under the banner of Human Rights and Justice: the crowd was over a thousand people, and very diverse in terms of gender, age groups, class backgrounds and political and religious affiliations. This diversity was a good show to public powers that women rights are a subject of concern to many Lebanese citizens frustrated by the lack of commitment from a government that already deprives them from many social rights. This diversity and the never-ending energy of the organizers and leaders of the demonstration enabled to create a very positive energy that carried the wave of people from Sanayeh in Hamra to Riad El Solh in front of the Grand Serail, next to the Parliament.
Besides, this demonstration carried and embodied many messages: demonstrators not only want to change laws, they want to change mentalities by breaking social taboos, prejudices and mental barriers preventing women from fully enjoying their rights. This aim was exemplified by several demonstrators from Nasawiya breaking not only once but twice the police and security barriers set up around the Parliament building, in a bid of reclaiming the streets of their own city.
The message is clear: streets might no be safe for women, society might think a woman has no place on the streets anyway and should stay at home, our bodies and choices might be controlled by external powers and values, yet we are on the streets, asking public powers to act to fill in their duties, the duties they have towards us as citizens, and we are breaking the logic of oppression by breaking your useless roadblocks.
The demonstration was not a march for marching’s sake: follow up activities are currently being discussed and pressure will be continuously applied on public powers, calling on international law and Conventions Lebanon has signed and ratified to reinforce our claims. To those who argue that our demands are an import of the West, and reject them on this basis, I shall just answer this: we did not wait for any Eastern or Western power to teach us what dignity and justice are, they come with the human condition and we intend to keeping up our fight until we are granted what is ours, our rights.
Many articles have been written on the subject of violence and rape in Lebanon, to know more, please check this link, containing the majority of materials produces:
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