Sawsan first met her husband in college. They dated for several months and eventually went their separate ways. Five years later, however, he reentered her life. Sawsan, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, decided to give him a second chance. “He appeared different; he had a good job, he seemed to be doing well.”
Sawsan, who is now 52 years old, explained that the abuse started before they even got engaged. “It always starts out that way. At first it was verbal, then eventually it led to physical [abuse].” Sawsan said that after they got married, the rape started. “I could never say no to him… I’ve lived this way for 25 years, I have no other choice.”
Sawsan is not alone. For many Lebanese women whose husbands force sex upon them, options are limited.
Women are not protected under Lebanese law because marital rape is not a recognized crime in Lebanon, as is the case with many Arab countries. “If I had rights under the law, maybe things would be different,” Sawsan said.
Many people also do not see marital rape as a crime, or indeed even possible, as they consider it a woman’s duty to have sex with her husband whenever he wants. Many women, thus, do not know that they are being victimized when forced to have sex with their partners.
Lebanese NGO KAFA is working to change this. As part of a multi-national campaign to combat domestic violence against women, it launched International Day Against Violence Against Women, which is taking place on November 25. In addition, KAFA is working with parliament on a draft bill that would criminalize all types of domestic abuse, including marital rape. Cases of domestic violence in Lebanon are currently under the jurisdiction of the religious courts.
The draft law was passed by cabinet in 2010 and is currently being debated by a parliamentary sub-committee. KAFA has been working directly with the sub-committee to make sure the law specifically outlaws marital rape. But some staff members of KAFA who spoke to NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity so as not to compromise their work with the cabinet say the sub-committee was forced by religious groups to make amendments to the law, including the removal of the criminalization of marital rape.
Some religious authorities in the country say that criminalizing marital rape will lead to a breakdown of families. Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya MP Imad al-Hout, who is a member of the sub-committee, stressed that his group’s main concern is keeping families united. “This has nothing to do with whether you are Muslim or a Christian. We acknowledge that there is such a thing as marital rape. Every woman should have rights under the law,” he told NOW Lebanon. But Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya thinks that women will flock to divorce court if marital rape is considered illegal. “We would rather the family resort to counseling and other services that we provide before leading to divorce,” Hout said.
“Divorce is not an option for me,” said Sawsan. “I have two daughters, and my husband is the only one who provides for the family. I decided to speak with a sheikh about my situation, hoping that perhaps he could intervene. But in the end he sided with my husband.”
Sub-committee member and Lebanese Forces-aligned MP Shant Chinchinian, who is in favor of adding the martial rape clause to the law and expanding women’s rights, said the law is essential to providing women and children with protection, starting in the home. “Let me be clear: We are firmly against domestic violence because a home should be a safe haven for women and children. Where else will someone have a feeling of peace and comfort?” he told NOW Lebanon.
Sawsan agrees. The abusive environment at home has left her two daughters psychologically scarred, especially her eldest daughter, who witnessed her mother’s abuse and knows about the rape, which still occurs. She has dropped out of college and is clinically depressed, unable to maintain a job.
But victims like Sawsan say that even if the new law passes, it won’t be enough because many women are silent about domestic violence.
Even though Sawsan is pessimistic about her own future, she encourages young women who may be in the same situation to speak out. “If someone is compromising your dignity, then there’s something wrong. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”