Angie Zambarakji writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Analysis: Lebanon debates laws protecting women from domestic violence
by Angie Zambarakji
Domestic violence cases in Lebanon are currently dealt with by religious courts
‘My first wife didn’t obey me so I had to hit her repeatedly. I disfigured her; I broke her nose and cut off all her hair. Then I repudiated her. My second wife, she was also rebellious and disobedient so I broke her leg. She made me so angry, I wanted to kill her. But I married again on Saturday, my third wife, and I believe this time I made the right choice’, said Fares proudly of his three marriages. ‘It is my right to beat my wife if she doesn’t carry out all her duties towards me and my family.’
Three other men of various Middle Eastern nationalities were arguing heartily that, like Fares, they had the right to batter their wives if reasoning with them failed.
‘He would hit me with everything he could lay his hands on; his belt, his shoes, a table…’
Samah, a talk show guest
The use of violence against women in the Arab world was discussed last week in the talk show Red Line Not to Cross, which aired on a national Lebanese TV channel.
The debate on violence against women has come under scrutiny ever since human rights campaigners tried to pass a law in the Lebanese parliament protecting women from domestic violence.
The bill – which would criminalise physical, mental, and sexual abuse, marital rape, and so-called honour crimes – was approved by the former Council of Ministers on April 6, 2010, and referred to a special parliamentary committee. It has remained there since May 2010, mainly because both Dar al-Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, and the Higher Shia Islamic Council, vehemently opposed the draft bill on the grounds that Islamic sharia law protects the role and status of women and includes provisions governing legal issues related to the Muslim family.
The Law to Protect Women from Family Violence proposes establishing specialised domestic violence units within the Lebanese police and specifying the punishments for offenders, including fines and prison terms. The bill also allows a woman and her children to seek a restraining order against an alleged abuser – which is currently impossible under the Lebanese laws.
In a 2002 study of 1,418 Lebanese women, 35% reported experiencing domestic violence and 22% had family members who had been exposed to domestic violence. Among the women exposed to violence, verbal abuse or insult was most common (88%) followed by physical violence (66%); 57% reported their experiences to family, friends or authorities, whereas the remainder kept silent.
It is not just an issue for Lebanon. A Unicef report shows that in Egypt, 35% of women reported being beaten by their husbands at some point in their marriage, and 32% of women in Israel reported at least one case of physical abuse by their partners.
Samah, another guest on the talk show, described how her husband had beaten her for years: ‘He would hit me with everything he could lay his hands on; his belt, his shoes, a table… he would hit me if he was upset or angry or if he didn’t like my cooking, he would hit me for any and every reason. I would run away from him, run to the neighbours, to the people on the street, to the nearest police station… First I didn’t know how to defend myself… then one day I pulled a knife on him to protect myself.’
In most cases of marital violence, women in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries resort to the religious courts to address their complaints. But these courts deal with violence in the families by urging guidance, counselling, and other measures meant to preserve the family, rather than to protect the women. They typically solve personal status matters such as divorce, custody, and inheritance but are not mandated by law to protect women from violence.
In cases of divorce or separation, the religious courts may consider an act of violence as evidence supporting a case for divorce, but these courts are not mandated by the state to prosecute criminal cases and punish the abusers.
Jamal Al-Shaar, a sharia judge in Beirut, was also present during the show. He is part of Dar al-Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, which rejects the draft bill. He objected to the bill’s definition of a family, arguing it would lead to ‘confusion in Lebanon’s legal system’ and to the introduction of new crimes such as marital rape. He also argued the draft bill threatens to destroy the social construct of the Middle-Eastern family and is incompatible with the norms and values of Lebanese society.
Dar-al Fatwa and the other religious bodies opposing the draft bill appear concerned this new law could diminish the father’s authority in the family and men’s authority in society more generally.
Violence against women is by no means confined to the Middle East, but the discrimination against women, the fact that many men feel they have the right to beat their wives, the culture of religious interference in private life and the attitude of female submission, are particularly problematic in this part of the world. Only a few countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Jordan and Israel, have comprehensive laws on family violence.
It is hoped that Lebanon will adopt this new law and in so doing set a standard for neighbouring countries to follow.