By Anna Slemrod
BEIRUT: Rape is an underreported crime. Victims are afraid – of their attackers, of stigma, of being subjected to sometimes humiliating medical exams – to the extent that they often don’t report attacks.
And when women are raped by their husbands, inside their own homes, they are perhaps even less likely to tell someone. This makes accurate rape statistics, and even more so accurate marital rape statistics, hard to come by.
Even if the exact numbers aren’t known, some husbands do force their wives into sex. Maya Ammar of the nongovernmental organization KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation), says KAFA’s Beirut center alone sees some 300 cases of marital rape a year.
But a section of an anti-domestic violence law that would criminalize marital rape has been removed by the parliamentary subcommittee that is currently studying and amending it. This has caused a stir among the activist groups who drafted the law – KAFA is running an ad campaign that targets the subcommittee’s eight lawmakers – and brought the issue of marital rape into the local spotlight.
Rima Abinader, a social worker at KAFA, has counseled many women who have been raped by their husbands. She says that wives are often slow to reveal they have been raped, because “they’ve been raised to think of this issue as a taboo. They can’t even talk to their families about it.”
The social worker says that marital rape tends to be part of a wider, complicated web of abuse. This may include economic, physical and emotional violence, any of which might prompt a woman to seek help. It is only once a victim develops a trusting relationship with a counselor, Abinader adds, that details begin to emerge.
Abinader recounts graphic details from victims of marital rape. One woman’s husband forced her to have anal sex; another’s raped her while she was on her period. “Women start talking in minute detail about everything,” Abinader says, “because they need to talk. Especially about this issue.”
It is because marital rape, by definition, takes place between spouses, that Ammar thinks some people are uncomfortable with the concept. “You perceive sexual intercourse ... between a woman and a man as very normal, and something that comes as a package with marriage.” But this, Ammar argues, doesn’t mean rape can’t happen within matrimony.
“I think rape is rape. Whenever someone has sex with you without your consent, it is called rape. Be it your husband, your friend or [an] anonymous [person].”
Beirut MP Imad Hout, a member of the subcommittee that is studying the draft law, disagrees. “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse,” he told The Daily Star.
He confirms that the term “marital rape” has been removed from the draft law that Parliament passed in 2010, but says in the new draft “we just changed its name. Using violence to force a woman to have sex will still be punished by the law.”
In addition to criminalizing marital rape, the original draft law creates specific sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence and allows women and children to quickly seek restraining orders. The country’s highest Sunni and Shiite religious bodies have both come out against the law. In Lebanon, neither marital rape nor domestic violence is criminalized by legislation.
Another subcommittee member, Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber, told The Daily Star that he was “extremely concerned” about the amendment to eliminate the criminalization of marital rape, but that a majority of the eight members wanted it removed.
The MPs have also removed the aspect of the law that specifically addresses violence against women.
One of KAFA’s recently launched ads features photographs of the eight subcommittee members, with the phrase “the law is a reflection of you: do not distort the law.”
Another image reads “MPs: marital rape is also a crime.”
Hout says that unnamed groups are “promoting” the idea that “MPs who are studying the law approve of using violence in sexual relations, and that is not true.”
At least on one point, Hout and KAFA’s Ammar agree – the importance of naming. Hout says there’s nothing called rape between a husband and wife, and that’s why the law has been amended. And Ammar says that “even if it is provocative,” the existence of marital rape “is just a reality, and we should name it the way it is.”
It’s possible that few women would take advantage of the law, she continues, given the already low reporting rates for rape and the difficulty of proving it. “But at least the state has the duty to acknowledge that women are subjected to these kinds of crimes ... and [impose] a penalty for everyone who commits it. That’s the least they could do.”
For those seeking help, Abinader says recovery is tough but possible. She says that it involves “social workers and psychotherapists to face the situation.”
But getting help takes picking up a phone, at the very least. And, as Ammar says: “It’s hard to call.”