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Campaign grows in Lebanon to abolish law enabling rapist to marry victim

Lebanese civil society and MPs are demanding the abolition of article 522 which allows a rapist to walk free of charges if he marries his victim
An advertising hoarding featuring the campaign image produced by NGO Abaad calling for the abolition of article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code (MEE/Chloe Domat)

LEBANON - In the streets of Beirut, those who are not discussing the latest developments in Aleppo are talking about rape.

“Can you imagine marrying the man who raped you? Having children with him? It’s like being raped for all your life!” says Lara Mhanna, a young Lebanese who is in favour of cancelling the law.

Next to her, another young Lebanese frowns, disgusted at the thought of it. “It’s already hard enough to discuss rape but if it’s something our society is ready to forgive then it makes it even more of a taboo,” she says.

Colonial heritage

In Lebanon, the minimum punishment for rape is five years in prison. If the victim was under the age of 15 at the time of the offence, the sentence is raised to seven years. However, the penal code offers a very singular way out of trouble: marriage.

'Lebanese justice can no longer accept forced marriages between women and the men who raped them,' - Robert Ghanem MP

Article 522 states the following: “In the event that a legal marriage is concluded between the person who committed [crimes including rape, kidnapping and statutory rape] and the victim, prosecution shall be stopped.”

This law was issued in 1943 during the last months of the French mandate over Lebanon (1920-1944). At the time, the French penal code had a similar clause, which was then repealed in 1994.

Other Middle Eastern countries allow rape charges to be dropped in the event of a wedding including Jordan and Tunisia. In Egypt, Iraq and Morocco, these laws were repealed while in Turkey, the government recently suggested doing the opposite and adding it to its legislation.

A decisive campaign

Lebanese civil society has been demanding the repeal of article 522 for years but things only really started moving a couple of months ago when gender equality NGO Abaad took things in hand.

“Rape is a crime and rapists should go to prison, not get married,” says Saja Michael, one of the Abaad activists.

In November, the NGO organised a massive awareness campaign. It included protests, the #Undress522 hashtag but more importantly, a video. Posted across social media on 29 November, it gathered almost three million views in just a few days. 

In the clip, we see a wounded woman being covered up with medical gauze until the gauze transforms into a wedding dress.

“My goal was definitely to shock. I wanted the public to have goose bumps and to feel the rape,” says Danielle Rizkallah, the director, who admits she was inspired by the controversial 10-minute-long rape scene featuring Monica Bellucci in the French movie Irreversible.

“In the clip, the camera is the aggressor. It rapes the actress. Yet the image remains very aesthetical and you don’t see sex or nudity. That helped us get the approval from the censorship authorities but I think they were also touched by the message. Perhaps it was even a woman who took the decision to let us air the campaign," she adds.

In Lebanon, there are no statistics available to evaluate the number of cases actually judged in virtue of article 522. However the local press regularly reports individual stories like the one of Eva Ghazal. Kidnapped in 2013 at the age of 13, she was raped and married to her abductor’s son.

“Rape is a crime and rapists should go to prison, not get married,” says Saja Michael, one of the Abaad activists opposing article 522 (MEE/Chloe Domat)

Building political support

Abaad’s commitment quickly received the support of local influencers and some politicians. Gathered around deputy Elie Keyrouz, they formed a parliamentary commission last September in order to examine article 522.

'My goal was definitely to shock. I wanted the public to have goose bumps and to feel the rape'

“Do you know what king of society we live in? We all like to believe that Lebanon has an enlightened intellectual approach to societal issues but in reality our country still shows a very traditional way of thinking,” says Keyrouz. “I say it is time to get rid of article 522 because it is a product of outdated thinking. It shouldn’t have been in the Penal Code in the first place.”

The commission met over ten times. MPs were hesitant whether the law should be repealed or amended. Some argued that article 522 should be kept in cases where no crime was committed, for instance, when a willing couple uses it to force their families to accept a union they wouldn’t have accepted otherwise. Other MPs went further and questioned whether rape victims could be partly responsible for what they’d been through.

“In certain cases, we must ask ourselves if women aren’t pushing men to rape them,” said deputy Elie Marouni at a conference in September.

In the end, the commission called for article 522 to be cancelled.

“We are asking for article 522 to be fully repealed. Lebanese justice can no longer accept forced marriages between women and the men who raped them,” said the president of the commission, deputy Robert Ghanem in an interview with Middle East Eye.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised the decision.

Before the project is sent to be voted on in Parliament, the commission also decided to review all the other articles related to sexual crimes.

“On top of article 522 we are also looking at articles 503 to 521. Those define the punishments applicable for crimes such as rape, prostitution or molestation,” says Keyrouz.

According to sources close to the discussions, the MPs are trying to raise the minimum prison time for rape. They are also looking to raise the minimum age for marriage which in Lebanon varies according to different religions.

An end to patriarchal laws

Although Lebanon is often viewed as a liberal country, its law apparatus is in fact very traditional and patriarchal. For example, Lebanese women are still not allowed to pass on their nationality. For a couple of years, civil society movements are pushing for this to change.

'The problem is not with article 522. The Lebanese Penal Code is full of obsolete laws and it needs to be reformed entirely' - Ziad Naamani, Lebanese lawyer

In 2011 Parliament cancelled article 562 which allowed for reduced jail sentences in cases of honour crimes. Honour crimes refer to the killing of a person to preserve the family’s honour.

In 2014, Lebanese deputies also passed a law against domestic violence. This text was a first in the country but is still considered too weak by women’s’ rights NGOs who complain that it only criminalises beating and killing when it should also cover other types of violence such as marital rape.

On the political level, Lebanese women are still far from enjoying equal representation. There are currently only four women in Parliament and one minister. Early December, Prime Minister Saad Hariri created a secretary of state for women’s rights but he put a man in charge.

Repealing article 522 is therefore part of a much wider movement for women’s rights but for some observers lawmaking is not enough.

“Of course rape is a disgrace but this campaign is not pointing at the right place. The problem is not with article 522. The Lebanese Penal Code is full of obsolete laws and it needs to be reformed entirely,” says Ziad Naamani, a Lebanese lawyer.

“In the case of article 522 the real issue is with society. To cancel the crime, the judge requires the consent of the victim and/or her family, so the responsibility falls on them! This is why I think the matter needs to be dealt with on a social level with awareness, protection and therapy so that the victim can be recognised as such,” he adds.

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