Lebanon’s Law to Protect Women: Redefining Domestic Violence
Over the past few years, the proposed Lebanese Law to Protect Women from Domestic Violence (PWDV) has become a major bone of contention between secular feminists and conservatives. Opposition to the law, with its latest version amended to include protection of other family members, is especially strong among communities of Lebanon’s Muslim sects. The latter perceive the law as a fundamental threat to the family, a contravention of Sharia principles, and an impending danger to the prerogatives of religious courts. Similar fears were expressed about the consequences of the measures applied under the law for the protection of children at risk.
The original PWDV draft law was proposed by the Lebanese NGO, KAFA (Enough), as a means to protect women in particular. However, it underwent several amendments as it moved through government legislative channels. Amending the proposal was a means to address the concerns of opponents and soften their stance. Significant amendments by the special parliamentary sub-committee, for example, took place right after several Islamic associations intensified their pressure against passing such a law.
Under the guise of upholding the principle of equality regarding the protection of all family members -not just women- against acts of violence, the sub-committee willfully altered the law in such a way as to redefine these acts. Punitive provisions aimed at acts most characteristic of males’ traditional authoritarianism, such as marital rape or female forced marriage, were taken out of the draft. Acts unrelated in principle to violence, such as adultery and prostitution, were included as acts of violence.
Worse perhaps, and for the first time in Lebanon, the draft of a civil law was amended to explicitly state the husband’s right to intercourse, and thus implied the wife’s obligation to fulfill that right. The law has therefore been geared away from condemning the typical domineering conduct of men, and instead veered towards condemning women’s conduct. This includes behavior usually invoked by a man to justify abusing his wife, such as the latter’s aversion to him.
Formal Equality as a Means of Subverting the Draft’s Definition of Violence
The first instance of subverting the intention of the law is encountered in the law’s very title. The original version referred by the Cabinet was titled “The Law to Protect Women from Family Violence”. The title now reads “The Bill for the Protection of Women and Family Members Against Domestic Violence”. The sub-committee justified this amendment by stating that the government’s draft does not treat all family members equally. Furthermore, the sub-committee argued that the draft disregarded the fact that men as well can be victims of violence, which constituted a positive discrimination for women.
Such discrimination, according to the sub-committee, exposed the draft law to constitutional appeal and annulment, as it contradicted Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution enshrining equality of all Lebanese in terms of their rights and obligations. The sub-committee thus rejected any positive discrimination in favor of women. By doing so, it exhibited a total disregard for the centuries of injustice and usurpation inflicted on women and the cultural baggage associated with it, as well as a disregard for the large discrepancy between the legal status and the social condition of each gender.
The sub-committee did not invoke the principle of equality in passing, but rather repeatedly. It is as if committee members were trying to frame their amendments as purely technical but necessary ones, bereft of ideological bias or partisanship, and instead predicated on ensuring the draft law is not constitutionally challenged. In reality though, it seems that the sub-committee is seeking to meet the demands of conservative forces while convincing secular feminists that the amendments are necessary to safeguard the draft law.
The sub-committee’s argument of upholding equality appears to be a mere smokescreen. Not only did the committee reject the articles criminalizing acts of intimidation or violence (which men often resort to in controlling and suppressing women’s freedoms). The committee also added several articles undermining women’s rights and lay the grounds to violating them. The objection to any form of positive discrimination in favor of women seemed to go hand in hand, as I show below, with having no qualms with introducing articles that opened a wide door for discrimination against women.
Refusing to Punish Male Domineering Behavior
Upon closer examination of the law as amended by the parliamentary sub-committee, the latter seems to exhibit a veritable aversion to any provision that would lead to limiting or repressing male authoritarianism.
No act is considered violent by the committee unless the law explicitly states so. In other words, no violence is deemed violent without a legal text deeming it as such. The original proposed law submitted by the executive branch of government defined domestic violence as “any violent act (…) inflicting harm or suffering (…)”, without stipulating that such an act had to be deemed violent by law. But the sub-committee limited the definition of violence to acts considered criminal by law.
This in turn limits the law’s applicability to the two levels of penal and protective law. Women who consider their freedom abused will not be able to demand protection from the judiciary if the reported abuse is not explicitly criminalized by law. The sub-committee has therefore restricted the scope of jurisprudence that the courts will be able to operate under. In this instance, the sub-committee might be trying to avoid the “mistakes” of past experience. Juvenile courts’ judges had expanded the concept of children at risk to include cases where the child’s mental health was in danger. Sharia courts had seen such an interpretation as an encroachment on religious law and hence on their own area of jurisdiction and power.
In the same vein, and in a manner no less serious or eye-opening, legislators refused to penalize some of the gravest acts inflicted on women by domineering men within domestic relationships.
Top among such acts was the removal of the provision criminalizing marital rape. The committee justified its action by arguing that the initial (executive government’s) draft spoke of rape as an act committed against a wife through violence and intimidation. However, according to the committee, rape is defined as an unlawful and unjust acquisition. The committee thus “corrected” the initial draft’s mistake of not distinguishing between two different acts, namely, “the act between a couple united by a marital bond which implies sexual rights to both spouses”, and “the act undertaken by a man with a woman other than his wife and without any right to sexual intercourse”.
According to the committee’s logic then, marriage gives the husband the right to rape as he would be redeeming his lawful right of marital intercourse, and no violence would be technically committed unless it falls under committing one of the assault crimes defined by the Penal Code. The committee only penalized the act of threatening a spouse with the aim of “claiming his/her marital right to intercourse or because of the same” but eliminated the criminalization of threatening women with the aim of controlling them or their freedom, or forcing them to marry.
The committee did not stop at justifying its refusal to penalize marital rape by invoking the marital rights to intercourse that are consecrated, according to the committee, in religious legislations and “civil laws” (the latter term is mentioned in the amendment’s statement of reasons). The committee went all the way to enshrine “marital rights to intercourse” for the first time ever in an explicit text of civil law (Clause 7(a) of Article 3 of the amended draft).
In the event this draft is ratified, the “civil” Lebanese legislator would be consecrating the right to intercourse (rape) as one of the marital rights before even legalizing civil marriage. Is [the legislator] telling civil marriage advocates in Lebanon that acknowledging such a right is a prerequisite for legalizing civil marriage?
Arguably, the worst part about the consecration of the marital right to intercourse is how gratuitously it has been enshrined without any gains towards protecting women. Linking prosecution to an actual infliction of harm as defined by the Penal Code renders this article superfluous.
In fact, this amendment will cause a full reversal of roles. Not only does the amendment fail to consider marital rape an act of violence, it might actually lead to deeming the infliction of harm by a wife on her husband while fighting off his attempt to rape her an act of violence itself. Disappointing consequences would be in store for us. A husband who rapes his wife might rush to initiate legal action against her by relying on a law that was initially established to protect her from him.
Women’s Deviations From Traditional Conduct Is Violence Towards Men
The full picture of how damaging the committee’s new daft is to the fight for women’s rights can be gleaned from examining amendments other than the one dealing with marital rape. After categorically refusing to criminalize the most hideous acts of male domineering, the committee sought to criminalize acts by women seen as a deviation from traditionally-accepted female conduct such as prudery.
The committee, for example, inserted provisions to the penal code dealing with adultery among the list of crimes that fall under marital violence, thereby allowing the aggrieved husband to seek protective measures under the law. The committee did not clarify the reason behind this addition, but simply mentioned in its statement of reasons the establishment of equal treatment acts of adultery by men and women.
Under the new draft, the penalty of adultery is now set to a maximum two-year imprisonment for both genders, after being limited to one year for males. The committee also added the act of publicly taking on a lover by either of the spouses to the list of violence-related crimes. Once again, the equality here is purely formal, and adultery will remain a crime primarily attributed to women. When a man has the right, at any given time, to divorce and to polygamy –as stipulated by several personal status laws– and when he concomitantly enjoys the financial upper hand, it is probable that the eventuality of him being prosecuted for adultery will remain in the realm of theory. Here again, the committee seemed to be using gender equality to impose solutions prejudicing the welfare of women.
It is now clear, as stated previously, that with the introduction of all the above-mentioned articles, the definition of violence has ceased to strictly address the violent conduct generally associated with men. It has been expanded to encompass the conduct deviating from traditional public morals, such as adultery, disobedience and the lack of prudery, all of which are generally attributed to women.
The concept of violence has thus been tightly linked to the system of morals governing society. Regardless of the reason behind it, expanding the definition of violence will facilitate the invocation of traditional and religious-based justification of male acts of violence towards women. Such violent acts are especially perpetrated by men when a woman rejects her husband or deviates from expected norms of behavior.
The justification of violence will hereby be facilitated (a justified act to redeem a right). Responsibility for violent acts will be extenuated as a justified, or at least understandable, reaction to the violence exerted on the husband by his wife who deviated from norms of prudery. The same logic is invoked in Saudi Arabia’s Law on Protection from Abuse (which was billed as a law for the protection of women, yet did not mention women once). According to the Saudi law, abuse includes the ill-treatment resulting from one person’s dereliction of his/her duty to fulfill the basic needs of another.
We can therefore say that the Lebanese amended draft law did not only eliminate any positive discrimination towards women by extending its protection net equally among all those who are subject to violence. It actually went to the lengths of distorting the definition of violence by switching the focus from violent acts generally committed by men, to alleged violence committed by women and invoked by men to justify their subsequent reaction to it.
On an even more serious level, the draft is additionally seeking to entrench stereotypical behaviour of women with the aim of subduing them to the dictates of obedience and the customary codes of “prudent” conduct, and the consequent voluntary relegation of freedom and self-dignity.
The re-criminalization of prostitution was another indication of how the definition of violence was made to conform to publicly reinforced stereotypical behavior. The draft acknowledges that soliciting prostitution or forcing someone to prostitute is an act of violence. It then states that victims of such violence shall incur the same punishment as that of the perpetrators, with no distinction between inflicting violence and falling victim to it.
In view of all the above, changing the law’s title was not simply an attempt to strip the law of its symbolism. It was an indication of the intent to distort the law not only in letter, but equally in spirit.
KAFA releases the draft law
April 6, 2010
Cabinet amends and ratifies draft law
April 28, 2011
Formation of a special parliamentary sub-committee to review draft law
July 31, 2012
Sub-committee presents an amended draft law
July 22, 2013
Parliamentary joint committees ratify the sub-committee’s amended draft
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.