AMMAN: The lower house of Jordan’s Parliament Tuesday scrapped a provision in the kingdom’s penal code that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he married his victim.
Cheers and applause erupted from a packed spectators’ gallery as legislators voted for repeal, following an emotional debate in which some of the lawmakers jumped up and yelled at each other.
The vote was hailed as a major step forward for women in the conservative kingdom.
“This is a victory for the women’s movement and human rights movement in Jordan,” said Salma Nims, the secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women.
Despite the country’s pro-Western political orientation and somewhat cosmopolitan urban elites, many areas of Jordan remain socially conservative, with entrenched notions of “family honor.”
This includes the belief that having a rape victim in the family is shameful, and that such “shame” can be expunged through marriage.
In Tuesday’s debate, some lawmakers had argued that an amended version of Article 308 was needed to protect rape victims against social stigma by giving them the marriage option.
In the end, lawmakers voted in line with the recommendations of the government and a royal committee on legal reforms. Prime Minister Hani Mulki addressed the plenum before the vote, saying the government backs repeal.
The decision must still be approved by Parliament’s appointed upper house, or Senate and by King Abdullah II. After the expected final approval, Jordan would join Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt which have canceled their “marry the rapist” clauses over the years.
The clause remains on the books in several other countries in the Middle East and Latin America, as well as in the Philippines and Tajikistan, HRW said.
The international rights group Human Rights Watch said Lebanon’s Parliament is also considering repealing such a provision.
“Hopefully this will encourage parliamentarians in Lebanon to revoke it without any exceptions,” said aid Souad Abu Dayyeh, Middle East consultant for Equality Now, a global legal advocacy organization.
In Lebanon, rights group Abaad has campaigned against the law with billboards of women in bloodied and torn wedding gowns. The caption reads: “A white dress doesn’t cover up rape.”
In April campaigners hung white wedding dresses from nooses on Beirut’s seafront.
In a statement issued before the vote, the New York-based watchdog said that scrapping Article 308 “would be a positive step to strengthen the rule of law and end impunity for violence against women.”
Dima Barakat, a leading activist, said that those forcing a girl to marry her rapist “are killing this girl a thousand times a day, at least.”
The attacker “took away her dignity, her honor and took away her life,” Barakat said.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, several dozen activists rallied outside the Parliament in Amman, the Jordanian capital, calling for repeal. They held up banners reading “Article 308 is a disgrace to the Jordanian justice system” and “Article 308 does not protect honor, it protects the culprit.”
Nims said before the vote that many of the lawmakers had been undecided, adding that some saw the provision as a form of “protection” for women who can demand marriage rather than suffer further social stigma for having been raped.
The need for such “protection” indicates a fundamental problem in how Jordanian law and society perceive women, said Eva Abu Halaweh, executive manager of Mizan for Law, a human rights group.
“The law still looks at women as bodies, linked with ‘honor,’” Abu Halaweh said.
Earlier this week, Parliament took another step toward legal reform, closing a legal loophole that had given courts the discretion to impose sentences of as little as six months on those who killed female relatives in the name of “family honor.”
Under the new amendment, killing “in a fit of rage” can no longer be considered a mitigating circumstance in such cases.