By Emma Gatten
BEIRUT: Women’s rights groups have this week celebrated the approval of several legal amendments by parliamentary committees that would bring the country closer to legal gender equality if passed by the legislature.
Meeting Monday, the Justice and Administration Committee voted to repeal the so-called “honor killing law,” under which a lesser sentence may be handed out if a defendant is said to be acting “in a state of anger.” The committee also voted to apply the laws on adultery equally to men and women. Under the current legislation a man can be tried for adultery only if committed in the marital home, unlike women.
Meeting late last week, the Budget Committee endorsed amendments on social security tax and inheritance tax to remove differentiation between men and women. Legal changes increasing pay during maternity leave were also voted for.
Under current legislation a married man is allowed LL2.5 million for his wife and LL500,000 for each of his children of his income untaxed. Women receive a similar allowance while unmarried, but once married are taxed on all of their income. Last week the committee voted to equalize this law, allowing women the same amount of untaxed income.
The committee also voted to increase maternity pay to 100 percent of the mother’s salary for 10 weeks, from the current two-thirds of pay.
Rita Chemaly, a political and social activist who works for gender equality, said the decisions were important “even if some steps are coming late.”
Chemaly has been part of a multi-NGO campaign advocating the changes since 2009. The decisions will bring Lebanon closer to their commitments on the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, ratified by the country in 1996, she says.
The changes must now wait until a Parliament is convened before they can be passed, making it impossible to know when they might come into force. However, Chemaly believes that they will face little opposition and will be passed “as soon as they open Parliament.”
Faten Abou Chacra, a project coordinator at KAFA, which works to end violence against women, said the current “honor killing” legislation is an embarrassment to Lebanese women.
“It’s humiliating for me, as a woman, to have something in my country’s penal code that says it’s OK if these things happen to you, that these things can happen to you.” She said KAFA has frequently encountered women suffering from violence, the perpetrators of which are able to hide behind these laws.
Chemaly described the potential changes to the penal code as being “revolutionary.” If the changes were to come into force, she said, it would mean “women and men are equal in the house and facing the law, and will face the same punishment.” This, she said, “will change gender relations in the country.”
The reason for the sudden burst of legislative activity is not clear. Nadine Moawad of feminist collective Nasawiya, speculated that it may be a result of a recent push by civil society. She too believed the changes were likely to come into force once Parliament convened. “Some of these laws are pretty overdue,” she said. “Especially those on honor crimes, and equality in the labor law. They’re pretty basic.”
In an unsurprising but nonetheless disappointing turn, discussions Wednesday by the Parliamentary Committee on Women and Children on the nationality law, under which women are not able to pass on citizenship to their children or husbands, made no developments. However, the decision seems unlikely to deter groups fighting for change. Writing on her blog prior to the meeting Chemaly urged: “dear MPs, note that the civil society is watching.”