By Emma Gatten
BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Lebanese government to adopt a draft law condemning violence against women, after the country’s two highest Muslim bodies rejected the bill.
“All Lebanese women, like women everywhere in the world, have a right to be protected from abuse and violence, regardless of their religious affiliation,” said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women’s rights researcher at HRW in a statement released late Monday.
The bill, drafted by women’s rights groups, is currently in the parliamentary committee stage, where it has been since April 2010, awaiting approval from the Cabinet. If passed, the legislation would create specific sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence, assign a public prosecutor in each governorate to investigate reports of domestic violence, and allow women and children to seek a restraining order within 48 hours.
A study released by women’s rights group KAFA (Enough Violence and Discrimination) on June 21 showed that domestic violence accounts for around half of all cases of physical abuse in Lebanon. There is currently no specific legislation that targets domestic violence.
In late June, Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni body, said the bill was “Western” and a threat to the family, and argued that it stripped women of rights provided to them by the Islamic courts. The Higher Shiite Council has also said it supports Dar al-Fatwa’s position.
HRW criticized the statement from Dar al-Fatwa, in particular its citing of article 9 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom from state interference for religious institutions.
“Unfortunately, religious communities have improperly, and too often, used this constitutional provision to resist improvements to the status of Lebanese women,” Khalife said. “Instead of trying to discredit the protections this bill would provide to women as ‘Western,’ the clerics should welcome them.”
Speaking to The Daily Star Thursday, Zoya Rouhana, director of KAFA, agreed that article 9 had been used as a smokescreen.
“Had the law been a threat to article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution, all the heads of the religious sects would have opposed it.”
Nadine Moawad, of feminist collective Nasawiya, welcomed HRW’s statement Thursday, but said she had reservations about how the censure, coming from an international organization, might be received.
“The attack against the law is that the law is foreign, and not Lebanese, and has support from international organizations like the U.N.,” she said. “So I don’t know if a statement from HRW is going to fuel more of their objections.”
In a June 28 statement, the activists and organizations who drafted the bill rejected the notion that the bill was a foreign product.
“It’s 1,000 percent a Lebanese law,” Moawad said Thursday. “It was written by Lebanese lawyers and activists, who for many years had been working with battered women, and the bill came out of these experiences.”
“Violence is not a cultural thing. Everywhere in human relationships you have violence and everywhere you should have protection.”
She added that much of the opposition to the bill was down to religious bodies’ fear of losing authority, rather than opposition to protections for women. “I think most of their concerns is losing power,” she said. “This law would be a groundbreaking step, women would be able to seek protection from the civil courts, outside of religion. It would be an important step toward a secular system.”
The new Cabinet’s policy statement, which received a vote of confidence from Parliament Thursday afternoon, contains one clause regarding the position of women. Clause 40 states that the government is “committed to eliminating all kinds of discrimination against women through necessary decrees.” However, women’s rights groups have expressed concerns over the commitment of the new prime minister to women’s rights, particularly given his appointment of an all-male Cabinet.
However, Moawad said there were still hopes that the bill would be passed.
“Whether or not people disagree it still has a lot of public support, both from people who are religious and those who are not,” she said.