LEBANON

Lebanese women demand "overdue" law against domestic violence

 Hundreds of protesters marched across Beirut Sunday to reach the residence of the Lebanese parliament’s speaker, where dozens of women broke out into a dance routine. Their message: hurry up and get parliament to pass laws to protect women from domestic violence.

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Protesters dancing in front of parliament speaker Nabih Berri's residence. Photo courtesy of KAFA.

 

Hundreds of protesters marched across Beirut on Sunday to reach the residence of the Lebanese parliament’s speaker, where dozens of women broke out into a dance routine. Their message: hurry up and get parliament to pass laws to protect women from domestic violence.

 

The protesters targeted parliament speaker Nabih Berri because he was the one who, back in 2009, pushed for a law against domestic abuse. A draft law has been languishing in parliament for months. A parliamentary subcommittee had spent over a year fine-tuning it, and changed the text from protecting women specifically to protecting the whole family. The subcommittee also removed a key clause legislating against marital rape.

 

Frustated by the slow pace of change, women’s defence groups, led by Beirut-based KAFA, are seeking to make the proposed law a campaign issue, just a few months before the country’s general elections, slated for June. They have sent members of parliament as well as the Lebanese media letters from abused women with whom they work, explaining why they need laws to protect them.

 

Here is an excerpt from one of these anonymous letters:

 

[My husband] hit me after finding one of my hairs in the tub, after I had taken a bath. He grabbed my hand and started hitting me on the head […] My one-and-a-half-year-old daughter started crying and tried to help me. She wanted to save me from him. Since then, I’m always ready. In the evenings, I don’t dare change out of my day clothes because I always want to be ready to leave home when he starts getting really angry, which is sometimes due to alcohol, sometimes not. When that happens I flee the house and sleep in my car, by the side of a road, so that my daughter won’t have to witness this violence again.

 

Here’s an excerpt from another letter:

 

I went against society’s expectations by choosing to marry someone who is neither of my nationality of or my faith. The first days of our life together were the happiest of my life. I loved him very much, and he was good to me. I was happy with him, even if our living conditions were not very comfortable.

 

However, with time, he started to change. I put up with a lot. He didn’t only yell at me, he hit me, too. This was a huge shock to me. I asked myself, “Why is he doing this to me? What did I do? Do I deserve this? Is it my fault ? »

 

I gradually lost all my self-confidence. All I thought about was how to avoid making him angry. I said “yes” to everything to avoid getting beaten. I tried to kill myself several times. […] Each time, he grabbed the knife out of my hands and made fun of me, calling me a coward and crazy.

 

Protesters during Sunday's march. Photo by Bilal Salameh. 

"Women’s issues are at the very bottom of the list of what parliament cares about"

Maya Ammar is a member of KAFA, the organisation that coordinated Sunday’s march.

 

There was a good turnout – the march included not just activists but also representatives of nearly all the political parties in Lebanon, save for Hezbollah and Amal. We hope this means that they will push for the parliament speaker to call a session to vote on this law, though we have not heard word of this yet.

 

The march’s slogan was “Women’s lives are more important than your seats”, because parliament has been exceptionally called into session to discuss an electoral law [which would modify the way seats are attributed during the upcoming elections. Lebanon’s parliament has had difficulty meeting recently as the March 14 coalition has been boycotting most sessions.] We have been waiting for a law to protect women for four years now, and we want it to go through before the next elections. This is long overdue.

 

Unfortunately, right now, it seems women’s issues are at the very bottom of the list of what MPs care about. Case in point: only one of them [out of 128] has responded to the letters written by victims of domestic violence that we forwarded to all MPs.

 

“When a woman calls the police because her husband is beating her, they just make the perpetrator sign a pledge that he won’t do it again”

 

Besides criminalising all forms of domestic violence – physical, sexual, economic – the proposed law would create a specialised unit within Lebanese security forces to deal with such violence. Such laws and practical training are badly needed. Right now, when a woman calls the police because her husband is beating her, if the police are nice, they will make the perpetrator sign a pledge that he won’t do it again, and that’s it. If he does it again, they will make him sign another pledge, and so on. Beating others is criminalised in the penal code, of course, but the police rarely apply the law when it comes to violence within the home. Women are still today considered subordinates to the men in their household.

 

Another problem is that conflicts between husbands and wives, like divorce, custody battles, and domestic violence, are generally dealt with by religious courts here in Lebanon. [The system of religious courts uses laws that often date back to the Ottoman era, and which generally favour men]. When a religious court hears from a woman that she is being beaten, it will generally ask her to be patient. Filing for divorce can take years, and is often achieved only once the woman has abandoned most of her rights, chief among them her right to financial support. To be finally addressed, domestic violence must be punished by the state, under the laws that govern us all.

 

Photo by Bilal Salameh.